Pa Tire. (Don’t Shoot.)

On Saturday mornings, you can usually find me at Plaza Playtime – a weekly organized playtime for local children that includes activities such as coloring, jump rope, chalk drawing, and singing and dancing. Despite the stress and chaos that comes along with hosting as many as 40 kids, it’s the highlight of my week. Over the last few months, I’ve gotten to know many of the “regulars,” including the troublemakers. One of those so-called troublemakers is Johnny.

Whenever the children would sit down at a table to either draw or color, Johnny would take a crayon and draw a line through the pictures of the youngest children while saying, “Li pa bon.” It’s not good. This would immediately result in tears, followed by me shouting at Johnny “Pa fè sa ankò. Si ou fè sa ankò, map mete w deyò.” Don’t do that again. If you do it again, I’ll put you out. Of course, he’d do it again, and of course, I’d escort him off the premises (after having to chase him down first). Every time this occurred (about three weeks in a row), I thought about having Johnny “banned” from Plaza Playtime out of sheer annoyance. But something about his actions told me that perhaps he was acting out because he needed attention.

One Saturday, when Johnny was misbehaving yet again, I asked him to leave. As usual, prior to asking him to leave, I gave him a couple of chances to redeem himself. But he continued to misbehave, so I asked him to go. This time I didn’t feel like chasing him around, so I just stood in one spot and asked him to leave. Over and over again. Just as I was about to ask a local volunteer to escort him off the premises (just to make sure he understood and couldn’t feign ignorance because my Creole isn’t that good), Johnny raised a sling shot in my direction and began to make threatening motions with it. A few of the other kids saw this, and they immediately ran in his direction and said, “Ou fou? Pa tire Christa.” Are you crazy? Don’t shoot Christa. In a matter of seconds, nearly all the children at Plaza Playtime were running after Johnny, chasing him off the premises.

A couple of days later, I saw Johnny walking along Rue Belval. When I said good morning to him, he walked past me and didn’t say anything. This happened several times. Then one Saturday, Johnny returned to Plaza Playtime, and of course he misbehaved again. This time, there was an incident over a toy gun. I finally decided to get to the bottom of things, and asked Johnny a little bit about his home life. He told me that his mother died and he lives with his father. He doesn’t go to school because his father doesn’t work, so he can’t afford the tuition, uniform and books. He then asked if I could pay for him to go to school because he’d like to go. Given my financial situation, I had to tell him no. He lowered his head and said okay.

After that brief conversation with Johnny, I hoped that maybe we could move forward in a positive direction. But still, whenever I would see him on the streets of Leogane, he wouldn’t speak to me. Then finally one Saturday, he returned to Plaza Playtime. I was genuinely happy to see him, and told him that. He smiled and said that he was happy to see me too. I put my arm around his shoulder and asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to play with a yo-yo. So I gave him one and he just stood near me and played with it.

I didn’t have any problems out of Johnny that day. Not one. And I haven’t since then. I’m not sure what exactly caused the change in his behavior. I’d like to think that I had something to do with it, but it doesn’t really matter if I did or not. I’m just glad that he seems to have turned a corner. Now, I just need to get him into school.

Zanmi m. Sè m. (My friend. My Sister.)

Given everything that has happened, it’s kinda silly to think of it now, but when I first learned that I’d have to share a room with someone at IFEWA, the fraudulent NGO started by Ethan Dabi, I shuddered at the thought. I haven’t had to share my personal space with someone since my sophomore year of college. And even then, I only had a roommate for one semester. So the night before my new roommate was to arrive in Leogane, I prayed (yes, I prayed) that God would send me someone with whom I could at least be cordial. I had no idea that the person He would send me would become such an integral and important part of my life.

Jessica and I have lived what seems like a lifetime in Haiti, although it’s only been just over four months. We have been through a lot together – much more than just the IFEWA debacle. (If only I could tell half of the things Jessica and I have been through in Haiti. But I won’t. I’ll save the juicy tidbits for either our tell-all book or our appearance on Oprah, whichever happens first.) We’ve grown individually, and our friendship has grown.

Unfortunately, our time together in Haiti will come to an end tomorrow as Jessica is leaving and returning to the United States. To say that I’m emotional about her departure is an understatement. She thinks I’m being dramatic when I say “Map mouri”, I’m going to die, but I’m not. I could not have survived in Haiti this long without Jessica, and I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to move forward each day here without her. She’s been my shoulder to cry on. She’s been my cheerleader. She’s been my sounding board. She’s been my personal advisor. She’s been my confidant. The experiences we’ve shared have bonded us for life.

There’s so much more that I want to say, but I can’t…I feel a waterworks show coming on. So I’ll just say this: I love you Jessica. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being my sister.

Didi ap Jwe ak Dife (Didi is Playing with Fire)

Every morning, I bypass the coffee served on base to go out to the street to buy sugar cane infused, Haitian coffee. (The coffee is so good it deserves a blog post of its own – stay tuned.) One morning, I saw two boys huddled together in a corner. As I approached them, they started to whisper and hide whatever it was they were doing. Given my inquisitive nature (that’s a polite way of saying I’m nosey), I walked over to see what was going on. I saw a lighter in one of the boys’ hands, so I asked why he had a lighter. The boys’ friend, in an attempt to absolve himself of any culpability, told me that Didi was playing with fire. I told Didi not to play with fire because it was dangerous, and tried to confiscate the lighter. The friend said the lighter was his grandmother’s, and that he would get in trouble if he didn’t give it back to her. So I agreed to let him keep it, but told Didi that if I catch him playing with fire again, I’d tell his parents.

With my piping hot cup of coffee in my hands, I started to make my way back to base. I saw the boys still huddled in the corner. When I walked over, I saw a small fire. Didi’s friend told me that he told Didi not to start the fire, but he did it anyway. I reminded him that I said I’d tell his parents if I saw him playing with fire again and asked if he thought I was lying. He smirked and said yes. So I asked where Didi lived. His friend was more than happy to lead the way.

Coffee still in hand, I followed behind Didi’s friend, as he led me through an alleyway, down a dirt path into a woody area and across a creek to Didi’s house. At one point during the walk, Didi pushed his friend into the bushes to prevent him from showing me where he lived. That convinced me that I was doing the right thing by going to talk to his mother.

When we reached Didi’s house, his friend, who apparently lives next door, ran over to his grandmother, gave her the lighter and told her that Didi was playing with fire. I went over to Didi’s mom, who was sitting in a chair washing clothes, and told her that I saw her son playing with fire and asked him not to because it could be dangerous. I also told her about him pushing the other boy into the bushes. She thanked me for telling her, and told Didi to sit down. I’m not sure what happened after that, if she reprimanded him or not, but I felt like I had done my part.

When I finally made it back to base, my once piping hot cup of coffee was lukewarm. As I sat and drank it,  I relayed the story to Jessica, and began to wonder out loud if I would have done the same thing in the United States. Probably not. Not because I don’t care about children in the States, but because the attitude of their parents is often quite different. In Leogane, random people are allowed to spank your child if they see them misbehaving. Children get spanked in school. If a child steals, they are essentially shamed, as the whole community reprimands him or her. I could just imagine the reaction of some moms if I showed up to their home unannounced to tell them that their precious little angel was misbehaving. I don’t exactly think I’d be welcomed. But perhaps I’m wrong.

Since that day, I’ve seen Didi several times. At first, he refused to acknowledge me. He’d either put his head down and keep walking when he saw me approaching, or he’d simply ignore me when I greeted him. But lately, he’s been waving and smiling at me again.

Papa’m Bat Mwen (My Father Beats Me)

The day before Hurricane Tomas was scheduled to make landfall in Haiti, I received a visit from three of my girls. They told me they were scared because of the hurricane. I tried to reassure them that everything  would be okay, and also informed them that (at the time) the hurricane had been downgraded to a Tropical Storm. As soon as our discussion about the hurricane ended, out of the blue, one of them said, “Papa’m bat mwen.” My father beats me. Her revelation took me by surprise. When I asked her why, she explained that sometimes if she’s not at home when he shows up, he slaps her. From previous conversations, I got the impression that her father did not live with her, but I asked just to be sure. Not only does he not live with her, but he has about nine other children with six women other than her mom. Given the fact that I pay her school tuition, I know that her father does little to nothing to support her financially. Even if he did, that wouldn’t be an excuse for him to beat her, but it just added to my extreme dislike toward a man I’ve never even met.

I asked her what her mother does when her father hits her, and she said nothing because if she does anything, he’ll hit her too. I could feel the blood start to boil in my veins. Given my own family’s history with domestic violence, it’s a very emotionally-charged issue for me – one that I rarely discuss because I find that I cannot discuss it rationally. I couldn’t find the words in Creole, so I began to voice my anger in English. The girls just stood silently and stared at me. After my rant, I took a deep breath and tried to express myself in Creole so they could understand. When I said that men should not hit women, the girls responded that it’s okay in Haiti because it happens all the time, and that I shouldn’t be angry about it. As a way of proving their point, the other two girls then revealed that their fathers beat them too, and sometimes their mothers as well.

I hear stories all too often in Haiti of men abusing women physically, sexually and mentally. And as with the girls, it’s usually stated as if it’s simply a fact of life. Se lavi. I wanted the girls to understand that just because violence against women happens often in Haiti, it’s not right and should not be accepted as such. I encouraged them to stand strong against men, and even suggested that all the various mothers and children ban together and tell their fathers that they will no longer tolerate their abusive behavior. I could tell by the look on their faces that probably would not happen. But I’m not giving up.

Epi, Kolera?

Today is day three of lockdown on our base, and for most NGOs in Lèogâne.  And while it is my belief that the protests, tire burnings, and violence that ensued after election results were released late Tuesday evening are justified, the past days’ events reveal an ever-present human weakness that impairs good work done in Haiti and worldwide: we are easily distracted.

Yesterday, amidst news of blockades near our local bus stop, rocks thrown at passersby, and motos commandeered to secure more propane for tire burnings as gas stations have been closed, the rapid spread of cholera was nearly overlooked.

Yet, in only three days, eight cases of cholera have been documented in our small vicinity, over forty in Lèogâne itself.  Traditionally, we host a radio program for the local community to inform them about the epidemic, but it was recommended we refrain last night, as the community is consumed by election results.

Cholera, itself, was a  distraction for most organizations participating in infrastructural developments  after the earthquake.  Why think of long-term solutions when cholera is at our doorstep?

And so, I’m continually struck by the question: why is it impossible to implement multi-pronged approaches to development?

I understand that our efforts at present are at a standstill because of security concerns.  Yet, my hope is that when both the local and expatriate communities emerge from lockdown, we create a multi-faceted strategy to recovery and rehabilitation in Haiti.

By the way…did I mention, Sarah Palin’s coming to Haiti this weekend?

Twa Sè Yo e Yon Frè (Three Sisters and a Brother)

When I first came to Haiti in March, I worked on removing rubble from an earthquake shattered home just a short walk from where I reside in Belval Plaza. While working on the site, I met three adorable girls. I immediately knew they were sisters because they share the same facial features and the same sandy brown hair with blonde highlights (which is likely due to malnutrition). Only recently, however, did I learn their names: Chevlo, Maman and Darline.

Out of the three girls, I most often see the youngest sister, Chevlo. I usually see her at the artisan well across the street filling up containers of water. But no matter where I see her, as soon as she notices me, she giggles and either runs or skips over to me. I greet her with a hug and a kiss, and usually ask her where her sisters and brother are, and if she attended school that day. She usually asks me if I’m coming to her house that Saturday to pick her up for Plaza Playtime – a weekly organized playtime for local children that includes activities such as coloring, jump rope, chalk drawing, and singing and dancing. Actually, what she says in her little six year-old voice is, “Vin chache m nan kay mwen a 7 è samdi, tande.” Come to my house at 7:00 on Saturday to pick me up, hear me.

At a recent Plaza Playtime, I was able to spend a lot of time with the girls since there weren’t that many kids there. We colored, jumped rope and played games. Chevlo, Maman and Darline fought over who got to either sit next to me or hold my hand. As I was playing a game of hide and seek with Maman, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Darline raise her hand to someone. I went over to find out what was going on, and learned that one of the boys standing nearby had hit her. While I was reprimanding him, I could hear Chevlo in the background telling their brother, Patrick, that someone had hit Darline. Next thing I knew, Patrick was in the boy’s face asking him if he was crazy and why he hit his sister. Patrick is a very mild-mannered 13 year-old, so that was the first time I’d seen him angry. But given that he was protecting his sister, I wasn’t surprised by his behavior. Afraid that Patrick was going beat the crap out of the boy, I asked him (the other boy) to leave. As the boy walked away, Patrick turned to Darline and asked if she was okay. She said yes, and we resumed our playtime activities.

When Plaza Playtime was over, I walked them home. As we walked, skipped and held hands, we sang, attracting attention from adults and kids alike. When we reached their house, the girls stood on the porch and waved goodbye. As I walked away from their tattered home situated on a winding dirt path, I said a prayer for them; that they would always watch out for and protect one another like they did that day. As long as they do that, I honestly believe they will live a life far richer than any amount of money could ever provide.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ti Moun Yo (The Children)

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about living in Haiti is the children. Their smiles, laughter and fun-loving spirits always bring me joy and brighten up even the most difficult of days. For that reason, I try to interact with as many children as I can, whether it’s through formalized volunteer activities or simply engaging in conversations with random children I see on the streets of Leogane. Given the number of children with whom I’ve interacted, I have a lot of heartwarming and heartbreaking stories to share. So starting this week, once a week I’ll share a story about some of the children I’ve met in Haiti. Stay tuned…