Nap Danse…Nap Mouri (We’re Dancing…We’re Dying)

After being in Leogane for almost 15 weeks, I finally decided it was time to take a break. So on a Saturday afternoon, I piled into the bed of a pick-up truck with Jessica and seven other people, and headed south to Jacmel. In order to get to Jacmel, you must drive through the mountains, with many hairpin turns and steep drops down the mountain side. The trip can take 1.5 hours or more, depending on traffic and road conditions (e.g. mud slides). Given that I have a tendency to get car sick, I wasn’t really looking forward to the trip. But the drive to Jacmel turned out to be more breathtaking than nauseating.

Once we arrived in Jacmel, we drove a bit outside the city limits until we reached Hotel Cyvadier, located directly on the Caribbean Sea. Over the next four days and three nights, I enjoyed delicious food (including ice cream), hot showers, flushing toilets, sleeping on a real mattress (versus a half-inflated air mattress), a bank with electronic credit card machines, a tour of Trinity House (a home for boys), and artwork from Kolektif Atis Jakmèl. On Tuesday morning, I thought of staying an extra night in Jacmel, but realized I was only delaying the inevitable. So I packed up, hopped on a moto with Jessica, and we headed to the bus station in search of transportation back to Leogane.

The bus station in Jacmel was a little chaotic, but we managed to find a bus to Port-au-Prince, and instructed the driver to drop us off in Leogane. We paid 15 Haitian dollars each (less than US$2), and boarded the bus. The bus we got on was a Blue Bird school bus with no air conditioning. It was packed! Three people sat on each seat, and people sat on benches in the aisle. People even sat on the steps leading inside the bus. I ended up sitting on a bench in the aisle, sandwiched between an older woman in her 50s and a young woman in her early 20s. Jessica was two rows behind me. Given the number of people that were crammed onto the bus, it was quite hot and smelly.

Right as the bus started to inch out of the station and on the road toward Leogane, I felt incredibly claustrophobic and began to panic. I wanted to get off the bus – and I almost did – but after a couple of deep breaths (and a quick prayer) I managed to calm myself down.

Before we even made it a mile from the bus station, the bus started making a jerking motion every time the driver tried to accelerate. This continued on for the next few miles, causing the young woman to my right to lift her head and shout, “Uh oh. Nap danse. Nou pa peye pou danse konsa.” We’re dancing. We didn’t pay to dance like this. I chuckled to myself at her reference to the bus’ jerking motion, which caused the passengers to jerk along with it, as dancing. Because it kinda was like we were dancing.

Once the bus warmed up and we were on our way, the driver started speeding through the mountains and around the curves. I looked back at Jessica a few times like “what have we gotten ourselves into.”

As the drive continued, I became increasingly nervous and scared; so much so that I began thinking of ways to either get the driver to slow down or just get off the bus altogether and find another way back to Leogane. Jessica tried to rationalize that all bus drivers in Haiti drive with such reckless abandon, to which I responded, “No, he looks crazy. I can see it in his eyes.” But just to be sure I wasn’t overreacting, I asked the older woman next to me if she thought the driver was going too fast, and she said yes. I received further confirmation that I wasn’t overreacting a few moments later when Jessica tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around, I saw the man next to her pull out his bottle of rum and take a swig. Apparently, others saw it too, because the bus erupted in laughter. It was hilarious. I immediately regretted leaving a half bottle of Rhum Barbancourt at the hotel, and thought about asking the man if I could have a nip of his rum to help calm my nerves too.

Soon after that, the driver’s phone rang. And he ANSWERED IT!!! And he STARTED TALKING!!! Here we are speeding through the mountain, narrowly avoiding falling off the side of it and running down children walking home from school, and this fool wants to talk on the phone?!?!? In the words of Whitney Houston, “Ah hell to the naw.” I yelled out in Creole, “Sir please. You can’t talk on the phone. Slow down. You are driving too fast.” Other people started yelling too. Then the driver got into an argument with one of the passengers about him talking on the phone. So instead of focusing on the road and looking ahead, he began looking at the man while he argued with him, which only made things worse. The older lady next to me started singing church hymns. The man next to Jessica crossed himself. Someone cried out, “Nap mouri.” We’re dying. And someone else kept saying “Oh Jesus” over and over again. As if that wasn’t enough, people started vomiting – presumably due to motion sickness because the driver was going so fast. At that point, the whole situation became so incredibly ridiculous, yet funny, that I started to feel like I was in one of those poorly scripted Black movies like Kingdom Come or something.

When we finally arrived in Leogane, I was relieved. I couldn’t get off of that bus fast enough. Any sense of calm and relaxation I felt when I was in Jacmel had disappeared. I’m all for adventure and immersing myself in the culture, but that experience was a little too much for me. The next time I go to Jacmel, I’ll go via private car and driver. I never want to set foot on another Blue Bird school bus again. Ever.

Goudou Goudou (Earthquake)

On Friday, November 12, while I was eating lunch I heard a slight rumble, then saw the ground move. Someone yelled “earthquake,” and everyone eating, sitting or standing under concrete ran to the courtyard. By the time we reached the courtyard, the 4.4 tremor had ended, and everyone slowly returned to what they were doing just seconds prior. As I sat back down to finish my lunch, I observed the panic stricken faces of the locals who work with us, and heard them excitedly discussing the “goudou goudou” in Creole.

Less than an hour later, I saw Mikerlange, one of the girls whose school tuition I paid for the year. She was on her way home from school and stopped by to see me. As soon as our eyes met, she asked me if I felt the “goudou goudou.” I said yes, and asked her if she was scared. She replied that some of the students screamed, but she wasn’t afraid since her classes are not currently held under concrete. Similar to many schools throughout Leogane, Mikerlange’s school was completely damaged during the January earthquake. She was at school when it happened, and was trapped underneath the rubble. She saw the blood and dead bodies of her classmates around her. If you were to ask her how she was able to be freed from the rubble with only minor damage to her arms, she would simply tell you in French, “Grâce à Dieu.” By God’s grace.

That evening, Jessica and I sat and talked with Belande, our former chef and the woman we help sell juice every Tuesday and Saturday evening. I asked Belande if she felt the “goudou goudou.” Her eyes widened, and she said yes and commented on how strong it felt. As Jessica noted in the blog she wrote Belande Fè Ji, Belande chooses to sleep with her two children in a small, tin-roofed shack in the back of her house because she’s too afraid to sleep under concrete.

Given the devastation and destruction caused by the earthquake in January, just 10 months ago, it is perfectly reasonable and understandable for Haitians to still feel a sense of panic and fear every time the ground underneath them moves. And with so much focus on the physical re-building of homes and businesses throughout Haiti, it can be easy to forget about the psychological trauma the earthquake caused.

Although I wasn’t in Haiti when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake occurred, I have experienced several aftershocks and quakes since I first visited in March. None of those were as strong as the one in January, yet even I find myself planning an escape route when entering roofed structures or briefly pausing out of fear when I hear the rumble of a truck. I have ripped through mosquito nets in the middle of night upon hearing someone shout “quake.” I have seen people jump from the top of bunk beds to run to the courtyard. And I have seen people nearly trample others to get to an open-air space. So I can’t even begin to imagine what Haitians who lived through that devastating day feel with just the slightest movement of the earth.

Loraj Pral Gwondi

In the days leading up to Hurricane Tomas, the NGO at which Christa and I live and work began intense preparations for the impending storm.  We began securing all loose materials, disassembling tents, packing emergency bags, and storing hurricane supplies for a possible hibernation.  Every meeting was a storm update.  First it was a tropical storm, then a tropical depression, then a category one hurricane.  First it was heading directly toward Leogane, then it moved farther and farther west toward Les Cayes, then into the sea and over Guatanamo Bay.  The reality is, much like the daily weather forecasts we watch on local syndicates in the States, there was very little accuracy in these predictions and significant room for error.

Local volunteers and employees were informed that, should the hurricane require some form of lock-down, they would be welcome to join.  However, discussion of the possible effects of Tomas inevitably led to panic among locals privy to our conversation.

Regardless of the storm’s magnitude, Leogane was slated to flood…it always has.  Leogane’s residents understand their position on a flood plane, as well as the potential danger and damage that accompany their geography.  Yet, with the international community preparing for the worst, the seeming likelihood of its possibility increased for the local population.  Not only was there potential infrastructural damage, but what about the spread of disease?  What about cholera?  And while the international community was equipped with the resources for preparation, most Leoganese were not.

Christa and I prepared a list of supplies and a memory matching game to play with children so that they understand the materials necessary to confront the aftermath of a hurricane.  Non-perishable foods, potable water, batteries, flashlight, whistle, first aid kit and medicine.  I decided to impart this information to one of my brothers (you all remember Benji?).  I said to him, “Benji, ou bezwen prepare pou loraj ke pral gwondi [Benji, you have to prepare for the storm that’s coming]. I recounted the list of supplies that could easily prepare someone for an impending storm.  He listened intently.  When I finished, he said frankly, “Jessi, pa gen kob pou tout sa yo [Jessi, we don’t have the money for all of that].

I was ashamed by my own questioning.  Benji’s mother and father struggle to acquire sufficient funds to feed their children on a daily basis, and I was asking them to gather hurricane supplies.  I quickly told him that I would happily help him and his family acquire food items after the storm and told him to move all valuables to a high place.  We changed the subject soon after.

My next conversation was with Belande.  Belande’s resources are slightly less finite than those of other community members, and I felt it realistic to have a conversation with her about preparedness.

Yet, in attempting to share knowledge with Belande, I confronted an entirely different problem.  Belande owns a one-story house in Leogane, a house that withstood the January 12th earthquake and its aftershocks and was deemed structurally sound in an assessment conducted by an engineer, but in which she refuses to sleep with her family because it is made with cement.  She will never sleep under cement again.  Instead, she sleeps cramped among her three children in a tin-roofed shack in her backyard just in case another earthquake hits.

I spoke with her regarding moving into her cement structure during the storm.  Her temporary structure is not elevated, and both homes sit behind an irrigation ditch that would definitely flood.  She, of course, refused.  “Mwen pa ka rete anba beton [I can’t sleep under cement],” she reminded me.  She assured me she would find a friend or relative with whom to stay for the safety of her children, but whoever it was would not be living in a cement structure.

Luckily, the storm that began Thursday evening was no hurricane, but the flooding came regardless.  Belande’s house and those of her neighbors became an island.  The streets, rivers.  Buildings—including Hospital St. Croix, which only recently reopened after the earthquake—filled with mud.  Yet, during the whole ordeal, Leogane’s residents walked the streets in boots and galoshes, drinking their coffee, chatting amongst family and friends; marchands continued selling egg sandwiches and sodas, and life went on.

After the storm on Saturday morning, we continued with Plaza Playtime, a weekly timeslot in which volunteers organize activities with children from local neighborhoods and camps.  We were unsure whether children would attend given the rains, but let’s be honest, children love to play regardless of the condition.

Because the ground was so wet, we dissuaded most of the boys from playing their usual game of soccer and instead brought out a brand new map that we purchased all the way in Port-au-Prince (finding a map in Leogane is a near impossibility).

Our mini-lesson began with two boys looking and pointing at different places on the map, but by lesson’s end there were ten.  We sat together, looking for Haiti, the United States, countries in Europe, Africa and Asia.  Together, we attempted to identify what languages people spoke in each place and why they spoke them.  When I pointed to Haiti, I asked each boy if they knew what sea surrounded their small island.  They said no.  I informed them that there were many islands in the Caribbean Sea that shared a similar history and geography as that of Haiti.  They were shocked.  I told them hurricanes and storms like the one they had just experienced hit other places nearby like St. Lucia and St. Vincent, and hit them harder than they had Haiti.  They had had no idea.

While they bombarded me with questions about these new facts, I thought to myself: children must understand that they are not alone in the world, that they are not exclusive victims to tragedy and hardship.  These boys must learn—perhaps, from me, perhaps from someone who follows, perhaps, from life itself—that hurricanes and earthquakes and disasters of all kinds hit Haiti, but they don’t exclusively hit Haiti; that the world over deals with disaster, and that some of us are better prepared than others because some of us are more privileged than others, whether that privilege manifests itself in monetary wealth, access to information, or location.  Some of us have adequate time and means for preparedness, whereas some of us do not.  And while in an ideal world, we would all be well equipped to handle natural and man-made disasters, some of us must work harder than others.

Strength, Courage and Wisdom

Strength, Courage and Wisdom

As Jessica and I sat in the American Consular Services waiting room at the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, I kept repeating, “I can’t believe this is happening. This is unreal.” Just an hour earlier, we arrived at the Brazilian Embassy to retrieve our passports, only to discover that Ethan Dabi had picked them up without our knowledge or consent a few hours prior. In other words, he stole our passports. It was the culmination of weeks of frustration and speculation about the legitimacy of the organization for which we had been working. We finally had concrete, undeniable proof that IFEWA was a fraudulent non-governmental organization, set-up by Ethan Dabi to embezzle money from donors, and steal from local and international staff.

Since that day, barely over a month ago, I have been on an emotional roller coaster, full of highs and lows, twists and turns. Most days, as I walk the streets of Leogane and go about my daily routine, I feel confident in my decision to stay here and follow through with what I believe is my purpose in life. There are other days, however, when the uncertainty of my future in Haiti overwhelms me, and I contemplate returning home to the States. On one of those days, I found myself on American Airlines’ website searching for one-way flights from Port-au-Prince to St. Louis. Just as I was about to purchase a ticket, India.Arie’s voice filtered through my headphones:

“It’s time to step out on faith. I gotta show my face. It’s been elusive for so             long, freedom is mine today. Gotta step out on faith. It’s time to show my               face. Procrastination had me down, but look what I have found. I found                 strength, courage and wisdom, and it’s been inside of me all along…”

The lyrics hit me like a ton of bricks. They were just the words I needed to here to prevent me from making a decision I’d surely regret.

Undoubtedly, staying in Haiti after what I’ve been through has been a test of faith for me. And sometimes, truthfully, my faith wanes. But that song reminded me that having faith means freedom for me – the freedom to do what makes me happy without worry or fear. If that doesn’t take strength, courage and wisdom, then I don’t know what does. Obviously, I just needed to be reminded that those qualities are still very much inside of me, and they have been for quite some time now. Should I lose sight of that again, instead of logging on to the American Airlines website, I’ll listen to India.Arie’s “Strength, Courage and Wisdom” to get me back on track.