April 15, 2011
The truth people more willingly believe is that Ayiti needs you to engage, deeply, with love (not just your checkbook). But it's mutual--we need each other because our way of life is off-kilter in a way Haitian culture can help us put right.
How do I share with you, those I love, the many layers of the truckload of onions--bit by bit, as they are revealed to me--in a way that brings out the flavor of the place you need to understand, without making you flee from the truck in tears?
I'm searching a new balance in this, so be warned, and keep in touch about how I'm doing.
January 1, 2011
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.
November 7, 2010
The drums make the night--when they are good, you feel them in the pit of your stomach.
An old, respected, grey-haired musician with long dreds under his hat drums as a famous, mysterious graffiti artist in a skeleton costume and mask paints, in moments before our eyes, the scene of a woman's face--half beautiful and half skeleton, a voudou dancer in Gede's purple, and a male drummer with hollowed out eyes and pronounced cheekbones. The drums sound like they are coming from inside us. We all breathe deeply, quietly, not wanting to disturb the moment. Awe.
In Liberia, while my hair was growing out from being shaved, I went back and forth between having friends hack at it on the front steps, and going to a hair salon aptly-named "Where Else?" Where Else was run by a Thai family that made its money following multi-ethnic aid workers and their multi-ethnic hair to emergencies around the world. When Timor Leste got too calm to have clientele and Darfur got too dangerous, they came to Liberia.
In Haiti, there are always the missionaries, and Haitian hair comes in a diverse spectrum, so I get the hunch it's easier here than it would be, for example, for an African American to find a place to get their hair cut in most of rural Iowa.
But then there's the Jacmel phenomenon. It's too close to Port au Prince--2 hours--and people seem loath to start businesses selling things people could get done just 2 hours away.
-Want masking tape? Go to Port au Prince.
-A dentist? Port au Prince.
-Dairy products that require refrigeration (shouldn't the ones that don't scare us all)? Port au Prince.
I could go on.
According to the first three people I ask, white lady haircuts are on the Port au Prince list. But, this afternoon as I head back from the market with Dieunie (lugging our bag full of dry beans, Haitian rice, balls of chocolate to be boiled with cinnamon and sugar for hot cocoa, fresh greens and some fresh made peanut butter) I decide my buy-local kick should include haircuts. There is a hair salon right next door to my new apartment. Can't get much more local than that, right?
The place is tiny, and three punked-out, spikey-haired fashionista sisters in their late teens/ early 20's, along with the oldest woman's 3-year-old, sit and chat and watch bad French TV until I come in. They're happy to have the business. They swear they can cut my hair. I'm dubious, but willing to give it a shot to bond with my neighbors.
I play with the 3 year old while her mom lugs in a big bucket of cold water with which to wash my hair. They grill me about my relationship status and we start to banter about jealousy, fidelity and love. When I lean back to get my hair scrubbed, I start noticing the pictures of Catholic saints strategically placed: one behind a hat near the ceiling by the door, one low on the wall behind a chair next to a cup of water, and one out in the open for all to see.
For centuries of slavery and missionary zeal, Voudou--the original, unifying religion for most African-descended people on the island--has been repressed and misunderstood. Most Americans still equate it with sticking pins in a doll to cause pain to someone.
Not that Voudou has never been misused to cause pain--it definitely has--but considering centuries of forced conversion and slavery by people claiming to be Catholic, one wonders what religion hasn't been misused by some of its followers.
The result of a long history of suppression is double meaning of Catholic imagery, to fold in African spirits. The spirits in Voudou are not God--Voudou practitioners believe in one God--but, like saints, the spirits are sometimes seen as easier for people to relate our daily experiences to. (We're not so different--when American Catholics lose something, I understand sometimes they pray to St. Anthony.)
So, in my little neighborhood salon, we see St. Peter, the Virgin Mary, and St. Jacques. Or, we see Papa Legba, the master of the crossroads and the entry point to the spririt world, Ezilie, the spirit of love, and Ogou, the spirit of strength, healing, and battle. I don't know my new neighbors well enough to know which set of beliefs they hold, and it's not something you ask about openly or expect an open answer to.
After the haircut, we sit for awhile and chat while the 3-year-old dances around and half-watches the Chipmunks, dubbed over in French. I mention my need for Haitian cooking lessons, and it turns out the hairstylist also has a diploma in culinary arts. Cooking lessons start soon.
I don't yet look punked out or fashionista enough to be part of the club--but the haircut is a definite improvement. And I have four new great people to sit with, who can teach me about my new street and all its stories.
Today smells like lemons.
It looks like a grey-white, rock-filled road and a turquoise door,
a balcony and
a ghost slave ship sailing past the pastel cemetery.
It feels like a deep breath, a cool stream of water through my toes,
and an occasional cold stare.
It sounds like a blues song on a street corner
that ends with a smile on the lips of the trumpet player.
* * * * *
What we have to learn from Haitians, part 1:
(just a small inkling of the truth)
Courage: You try losing your family in an earthquake, reconstructing your collapsed house with a small hammer and a dollar a day to eat with, too, and still finding time to make sure your fingernails are painted before you change your clothes and go to church.
Dignity: I had a dream the other night, sleeping on a straw mat on the floor at a friend’s place, of running with a maroon, scrambling in bare feet over rough rocks, being chased, but running still with dignity. Maroons are well known in Haitian history, escaped slaves that lived in the mountains. They called each other to meetings by blowing the low moan of a conch shell, and eventually defeated Napoleon’s army to establish freedom, decades before the U.S. abolished slavery. Maroons refused to live without dignity, to be forced into anything less than what they were. To those still in chains, they were a reminder of dignity and freedom. Slaves heard the call of the conch shell and knew that freedom was not only possible, but imminent. In a hundred ways, the spirit of that refusal to lose dignity is present in life today, every day, in Haitian communities. People can tell when you are giving less respect than they are worth. They can smell the difference between charity and engagement. They refuse to accept less than we have to offer.
Community: When you are hungry, you go to your neighbor and they feed you. When you have an extra plate, you send it for them. When you have a problem, you yell and everyone in your neighborhood comes running. They may give you crap advice, but they’ll be there. They’ll be back tomorrow, too, to check on you.
To be continued, because there is more . . .
August 23, 2010
-The food not being ready in the morning means I am late for work . . .
-Being late for work means I take my walk late to the bus stop, which means the market is in full swing by the time I pass through . . .
-The light is different this time of morning, and the ocean sun glints fully off the silver hoop earrings of a market woman as I pass, sitting in her bright flowered dress surrounded by breadfruit, soap and bananas . . .
-I am taken aback at the beauty of that moment—it makes me remember how blessed I am to be here, to be alive, in a place that can so fully help me understand spirit and community and to remember the world isn’t here for me to control.
And when I am not in control, sometimes—just sometimes—something better happens.
I meet someone I wouldn’t have. I avoid an accident I might have had. I see something beautiful.
At other times, not being able to control life means the artist doesn’t show up for the meeting and the community members lose faith in us—one more organization that broke its promise.
Sometimes it means there are fish bones and a couple of ants in my egg sandwich . . .
But the second ant makes me drop my sandwich in disgust, which makes me look up, and see the hummingbird on the big pink flowering bush next to the newly painted white wall of the office compound.
Again, there is the spirit and I remember why I’m here.
I’ve started to feel sorry for my old self, back before Africa and Haiti, when I got angry when things didn’t go my way—when the light was red or the meeting didn’t start on time. Haitians don’t really get angry about those things that I can see—they believe something will happen when they see it happen. No one ever says “tomorrow” without saying “si Dye vle”—if God wishes. In the worldview of most Haitians, only this moment is sure—the present is the most important—anything that happens after that is a bit out of our hands.
When I don’t set up an expectation around things going my way, it’s easier to laugh things off, to sit back, and to meet that person I wouldn’t have met before.
I remember to be alive now.
What plan that I had could be more important than that?
May 27, 2010
As I was looking for change, I asked the little girl about school--questions she dodged with her eyes, making me feel like the purchase wasn't a good idea--like maybe she doesn't go to school, and maybe there is a similar child labor problem here. I didn't have any change anyway, and thanked her and said "another day". I walked on, but a man by the side of the road saw me and said--"you don't have money? Let me buy some for you. They are a gift."
Random kindness of a stranger happens every day here. I am learning to receive in Haiti.
Outsiders come to Haiti right now with the best intentions to give. People have been moved by the crisis here. People have been moved by crises here for many decades. Our compassion is a gift--but I am realizing compassion isn't only about giving.
My friend Djaloki is an expert in helping me and others find ways to interact with Haitians in a way that maximizes dignity. My first week here, he said: "2.2 billion dollars for Haiti, and it is stuck in our throats. We are choking on your 2.2 billion dollars--and this is not the first time. All we want to do is give you something. Let us!"
I'm learning to receive here--it's never been easy for me. My host sister spent 3 hours in the sun washing my clothes as a surprise for me. My host mom got the tin roof fixed where it was dripping on the bed (the bed she bought me while she continues to sleep on a mat on the floor). She was horrified that I was momentarily uncomfortable. She cooks for me, gives me the best of everything. The neighbors are patient as I stumble with my words and fail to understand them on the 3rd attempt.
Generosity doesn't begin to describe.
People ask me for things every day, too--but I have seen the looks on their faces when they receive the handouts of toothbrushes or "2 little old scratchy blankets" after standing in impossible lines, handed to them by beaming and well-meaning outsiders. There is a mask there, even if it's smiling. And I have seen people's faces when I say I don't have tents, I can't pay for their medical visit. When I say it in Creole, here is the strange thing--they actually light up at the 'no'.
I do want to give--but I am learning that charity is not the best option, even in an emergency. Engagement is. Equitable exchange.
Still not sure what that means for a 9 year old peanut seller, but I am trying. And for now, selfish as it may sound, I am receiving the most amazing gifts every day, and it is beautiful. I invite anyone who wants to explore compassion with Haiti to come visit me. Nope--I don't invite you, I challenge you. Engage.
May 17, 2010
Hot is aggressive, dominant, loud, active. The sounds of traffic and construction, the buzz of people trying their best to rebuild, the thousand heavy thoughts stuck to every crushed cement block--these make the place hot.
I spend the week with friends driving me around the hills and traffic-stopped roads, to women's organizations now operating out of tents or temporary buildings or alternate locations. I go there to humbly introduce myself and hear about their work. I listen all week, mostly to things not said. The unspoken and the energy of things are what are often most important to people here.
There is so much energy in Port au Prince, it fills you and heats you up, too.
The energy of the women's organization leaders is skeptical--the kind of heavy skepticism that people sometimes put in front of hope, to protect themselves from disappointment.
The energy of the priest is peaceful and kind, as he sits with grey-black hair and kind smile in a plain room full of spirits. Sometimes he just looks at me and laughs, not saying anything.
The energy of the party above Port au Prince, in a house full of artists and musicians, is alive--at least while the drums are playing and the songs begin.
The priest gives the best advice, in the end: "Do not separate yourself. LIVE. To understand people and function at a higher level of compassion, you have to sweat. Don't be afraid to make mistakes--you have to sweat! Jesus did this--you come from a culture that knows that. Buddha also did this. You must sweat! You will make mistakes, but none so serious that they will take you off the path of what you are supposed to do. Sweat! Do you hear me? Sweat!"
Not separating myself is uncomfortable. It means people laugh at my Kreyol because I am not only speaking to friendly people. It means people reject me sometimes. It means they tell me painful stories about the neighbor they don't know how to help--the one who lost his wife, his 3 kids, his house--the one who doesn't know how to go on. It means I have to open myself up and trust boys every so often; after all, there are some cute ones. It means I have to engage, especially when I want to be alone.
That--say all the various denominations of holy people I know here--that is what I am meant to learn here. I needed a hot place to learn how to sweat. And then I can do what I came here for.
Dear friends: Please send cold water and a fan when you are able.
May 11, 2010
The waves mix with the wind sounds through mango tree leaves, mangoes at eye level now. To my left, the energy changes. Broken red door and stairway to the abandoned office, crumbled wall opening the view of the UN compound, soldiers overly armed, with vehicles outnumbering people behind a high fence.
I still haven't understood if the school's director died here or in his home.
A salamander wiggles along the broken wooden window;
a goat along the beach forages and bleats;
the men sit around, slapping down dominoes.
I sit apart, just for today, letting the spirit of what this place used to be touch me, hoping it can help me to better enter the energy now.
April 20, 2010
The walk is an adventure I am very ready for, after a weekend full of being at home, chatting in a language I barely understand about household chores I am still inept at doing in the Haitian way.
On the road: many friendly faces, hot pink houses, impossibly green fruit trees growing out of white rocks seeming to be dry as bone.
A few old women along the route gaze at me like I am stone until I greet them in Kreyol and they melt into smiles.
The kids are cheeky and full of life.
Men are not as easy for me, in any country. It's just a function of personality and perception, maybe. We pass a group of men with loud music. One of them stands up, chanting to the beat, "blan kraze peyi nou"--whites collapse/destroy our country.
Uncomfortable, but generally true.
The other men who overhear him don't greet me back fully when I greet them. Very odd in rural Haiti not to greet someone back.
We continue on, my friends chatting away and teasing my little 3 year old friend as we go.
The white stone is stunning, the little waterfalls, the ease of things.
Later, coming home again, we approach the place where the men were gathered, though the music has stopped.
Friends who know Ayiti (Haiti) had told me, but it amazes me how true it is: hundreds of years of power imbalance related to skin color and country of origin can indeed be momentarily dissipated if you are willing to publicly humiliate yourself.
As we approached the group of men with the music, my friend Dieunie balanced a large bag of dried beans and plantains we were carrying on her head, to carry it more easily in the Haitian way.
"Let me try," I said.
"You're going to try?" Dieunie asked, laughing.
We walked along slowly as the bag slipped off my head a dozen times and all the men laughed themselves silly at the "blan" and my amusing inability to perform normal Haitian tasks.
The negative energy from before disappeared. I might be a fool, but now I'm their fool--in 1,000 ways, a 1,000 times a day. Opening my arms to let in the laughter, getting a little bit bigger every time. One day I may be big enough to truly call this home.
April 15, 2010
She knows what leaves are good for what illness, how to make my little two year old friend laugh, and what you can't eat together if you don't want to get sick. No mangos with roasted corn on the same day, for example.
She's also got magic. There's something going on there under the surface, and--at night when the stars are out sometimes and we're sitting on the porch with the banana leaves swaying--I think I might catch a glimpse.
Soon I have to go to her with a notebook and drill her about when it is appropriate to eat fruit--because the soursop, the mangos, the papaya are amazing, but every time I'm sitting down to eat one she says, slightly exasperated at my dense nature and amused--"No! Not now! That one is for later. It will give you gas!"
The fruits are falling of the trees--please auntie, just one mango?
This morning she was helping my Creole tutor explain the meaning of colors to me. Red is for joy, blue for sincerity, yellow for betrayal, purple for the dead.
Even small children here know this. Here I am, a small child again, happy to have someone who knows about life to help me figure it all out.
When I first entered the camp a couple of weeks ago, I came looking for potential support people for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. I asked a lot of questions about who was listened to and respected in the community—who were the people women fled to when they needed help? I talked to the women who were named by others as those people who could help.
I got more and more discouraged, because one by one, the first 8 I talked to didn’t want to be involved. They said: yes, women are beaten here all the time, and raped. We hear them screaming and there is no one to help them. Sometimes they come to us, but we don’t want them to. If we don’t know them, we turn them away. It’s too dangerous to get involved because their husband might be one of the “vagabonds”. Little by little, we found women who were not afraid and wanted to help. They had incredible spirits and guts and life to contribute.
They mostly didn’t know each other, but we invited them to training. We held several days of reflective training on peer counseling and basic community network building related to violence against women. Yesterday was the last day of formal training, so today I went back to check out how they were thinking about things now and what they had learned. They did role plays to show how good they’ve become at listening and non-directive options giving.
Then we started to chat. They started to sing a song they’d learned from other women in training, and we got up to dance. People’s capacity for spontaneous joy in places that don’t make it seem possible is astounding to me. Other women looked and laughed and came out of their tents to see what the joy was about. Then the women wanted to show us their homes, and we marched through the part of the camp that so many had considered to be too dangerous to help survivors in.
Big, tough guys stood among children and families, looking on as these 10 incredible women marched through their neighborhood like they finally owned the place. We met the families of the participants, and we danced together. And here is the miracle that keeps me going: seeing the joy of those women who are unafraid to be joyful, other women started smiling.
THAT is what I get to do for a living. How lucky am I?
I arrive in Cham Mas, the displaced camp outside of the collapsed presidential palace my first day in Port au Prince. I weave through the rows of families, many sitting outside their tents to escape the heat, only to find more heat. I am led by one of the Coordinators of KOFAVIV, a group that has long worked in neighborhoods around the area, as survivors of sexual violence who want to help other survivors. After hearing so many stories in another camp about fear of getting involved with survivors of violence against women because of possible retribution from perpetrators, I am impressed when they tell me all they do to support survivors. I ask what inspires them to keep doing their work, even when there is no money and it is sometimes dangerous.
One of the women says: "If our ancestors had been too afraid to stand up against slavery, we would be in a very different position now. But they were not afraid to stand up, and we are benefiting from that today. So we as women decided to put ourselves together and stand up, too, so that maybe someday our daughters and granddaughters will not have to be afraid."
We have to leave the meeting quickly, because Clinton and Bush want to visit the camp--the traffic is overwhelming and a protest is brewing. But after some tricky, backward driving by a brilliant man, we're out of traffic in no time.
Everyone grows up sometime, incorporating a new, chosen family into the tapestry of the family (and friends) they came from. One week with a family here--and I am home.
Sitting around a table with family tonight and celebrating my Grandma's 90th year of gracing this planet was irreplaceable.
Beloved monk from Japan, quoted somewhat imprecisely:
"May peace prevail on earth. I cannot give what I don't have. Maybe a person is in front of me and what they really need is a piece of chocolate cake. But I cannot give them chocolate cake if I don't have any. No matter how much they need it or how much I want to give it, I cannot give what I don't have. We are here so peace may prevail on earth . . .
"I meditate because it is like we are all in the desert. Everyone is thirsty but I am thirsty too. There is a spring, with a trickle of water only, but I know if I keep digging enough, I will get more water. I know that--maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday--I will reach a huge reservoir of water that has no end. So every day I get a small spring of happy, and I dig, dig, dig, thinking--ohh! Maybe today I can find more happy! Oh! More happy! Dig, dig, dig--make more happy!"
I found out a day later,
sitting at a wooden table in the winter corner of the temple library,
having just copied down my lineage,
trying to memorize by lamplight.
I can think of no more fitting memorial.
"All we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next." -J.D.S.
This morning after meditation at an art gallery, we went to visit a man about my age in the hospital, dying of cancer. Mike.
His family was taking him off life support today. He is, as they say, survived by his parents, wife and 1 1/2 year old baby. Sensei of the Plains was awesome. She held his hand and did a guided meditation with him. Though he can't talk, he calmed down visibly when she said that he could welcome all the fear and anxiety he has, just sit with it, and welcome it as a sign of love and caring for his family, friends and life. Through welcoming it and sitting with it, he could find peace.
His big, Midwestern-feeling dad sat on the other side of him and held his other hand and cried. Sensei filled a space she knew they needed. It was beautiful.
The rest of the afternoon, I sat with my own anxiety about Haiti--about not knowing or doing enough--wishing I was more, that I was better able to help. Zen and the art of going to Haiti, to home. On CNN they say the U.S. is legislating ways to make adopting Haitian children easier.
A mixed bag, that--but here it is, a step on my path.
May I do it well, sitting with the anxiety and fear as well as a brave man I barely had the pleasure to meet.
To send peace, I must be peace.
Running down hills and gullies in Pennsylvania,
with springs, rusts and browns, and pine
behind a Zen priest of the plains and her very happy dog.
Yesterday, Sensei of the Plains said:
"I am Haiti. Would I starve my finger? Of course not--it doesn't even make sense."