January 1, 2011

November 30, 2010--Port au Prince and Jacmel--bigger than elections and cholera

Who the peacekeepers are

It seems pretty clear at this stage that the UN peacekeeping battalion started the Cholera epidemic in Haiti. It was an accident, of course, but it angers people that they won’t admit openly to it and try to rectify what they can. Some were angry already, seeing the peacekeeping mission as an occupying force of foreigners that soak up a lot of needed resources, keep them from fair elections, and block their constitutional right to “public clamor” when they don’t get what they deserve; many others see them as a force that, all too often, sexually exploits and abuses Haitian women. Other people believe they are needed, to keep peace and from gangs from taking over.

Now, we seem to be in an unhealthy spiral of anger at peacekeepers, which causes unrest which helps people justify further peacekeeper presence.

And the rest of us?

Well, we’re trying to figure out how to help the people we know to buy bleach to drop into their drinking water and teaching each other what we know about cholera. There is a local expert coming to talk to our training group tomorrow, and everyone gently reminds each other to wash our hands often. A room full of people are volunteering 4 days of their time to talk about positive and negative uses of power, violence against women, and HIV. They decide they want to use their power to talk about cholera too.

My boss and friend was feeling the weight of it all today. She is speaking at a conference in Puerto Rico about children’s rights and child slavery. She says it is so beautiful there. She says she keeps wondering why Haiti can’t be like that—it is so close. There is too much heaviness to bear some days. I reminded her of history, of context—all of which she knows. I told her of a few miracles I saw today—everyday heroes that don’t make the headlines. She responded by telling me about more small miracles Haiti has brought to her, over her lifetime here.

Small miracles are everywhere—and neither young men with guns nor old ones with neckties have any right to steal the headlines from those people who perform them, every day, right here. Not hearing about the miracles simply makes Haitians doubt themselves more, and Americans take one step further away from understanding all that we have to learn from Haitians, toward a time when our understanding of the other side of the coin will make us both more free and full.

One person, several votes

Leading up to the elections, there were a couple of debates—I hear that was unusual. We had a meeting for work with some local journalists, and had all these great plans to plant them with questions for when the candidates came to Jacmel to talk about issues. The journalists just laughed. The candidates don’t come to talk about issues or let people ask them questions, they said. “They come to distribute t-shirts with their faces on them and make a lot of noise.”

Indeed, this morning, I heard a beautiful song in the style of old Haitian folk music. My amateur translation:

“Pretty t-shirts, pretty t-shirts, pretty t-shirts

It is this that keeps our country from moving forward

There is only one problem, always repeating

If you don’t have connections, you stay in misery”

The election was a disaster, to say the least. On the roof at sunset, election day, with one of my favorite neighbors, we discussed politics and food. We could see the black smoke rising from the burning tires in the road, near the protests the other side of town. A peaceful protest that felt more like Carnival time ran by, probably 200 strong, dance-running and chanting “get him out of here!”—that is, whomever wins, just get the current guy out. Not everyone was so upbeat . . .the radio says they broke into the election office and tore up ballots. So many voters were turned away because the poll was closed or didn’t have their name listed. One can imagine, in cities that were nearly flattened by the quake, some stellar planning would be needed to ensure people knew where to go now to vote, and to be sure only living people were still on the voter rolls. Stellar planning didn’t happen. 12 of 19 presidential candidates asked to annul the elections, before any votes were counted. The process is unfair.

None of this is funny, and yet people find a way. I first noticed it in Africa, this ability to laugh or be funny in the middle of a horrible situation. Haitians have it nailed. I hear people laughing about polling places that were closed, with all votes already collected, by 6am election day, with everyone who turned up after that turned away. “Amazing how excited people were to vote this year! They all got up at 3am to be done by sunrise!”

I also hear some of the protests in Port au Prince and their chants—“Jude Celestin (president’s son in law) paid me to vote for him, but I voted for Micky anyway”. Sweet Micky, a musician turned politician famous for dropping his baggy pants below his bum and dancing in the crowd after an election speech, has a pretty strong following among a certain crowd. It’s not as silly as it all sounds—none of the traditional politicians has worked out very well; they want change. I’ve heard two men say the same about Madam Manigat, the female candidate with arguably the best credentials and most in-depth analysis about things. One of my public transport motorcycle drivers recently shrugged and said “well, men seem to have done a terrible job at being president—why not give her a try?”

I know Haitians deserve good leadership, fair elections. I also know that maybe our measuring stick is off—maybe it will not be Haiti’s legacy to have that in 2010.

Maybe Haiti’s magic comes in things we don’t know how to measure, but that bring more happiness than any politician ever has. Maybe that secret is at the heart of what it takes to go through what people have been through this year, and still make jokes about it all with their neighbors.