Voices of Haiti (part I of III)

My pen ran out of ink as I was writing this.  How many have bled dry between my fingertips?

As I prepare to continue northward, Dana calls me to talk about an organization that builds homes in Haiti.  She is going to be volunteering with them.  The flight is $187 round trip.  http://www.travel.state.gov tells me that “the Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to Haiti and strongly urges avoiding all but essential travel.”  I learn a bit more about Un Techo para mi País: “a non-profit organization that strives to improve the quality of life of impoverished families across Latin America through the construction of transitional housing and the implementation of social inclusion programs.”  If I want to go, all I have to do is buy the ticket.

Day 1

It was in this way that I found myself on a sweaty airplane dropping towards Haiti.  I hadn’t been out of the States in over a year, and leaving again came as a fond remembrance.  Stepping out of the airport into the smog of the city, waiting six hours for our ride to come, being harangued by taxi drivers, beggars, and aggressive salesmen.  The sun baked down as we rode through Port-au-Prince stuffed into the back of a pickup truck, piled on top of backpacks and clinging to each other trying not to be thrown out.  I was crammed in between Dana and Nadia, Alejandro (the US outreach director), and a handful of other volunteers from across the US and Latin America.  All of us had come together with a common purpose.  We were in Haiti to build houses, but we were also there to witness the situation first hand rather than continuing to rely solely on apocalyptic media reports.  We had all heard the stories of the violence, the destruction, the crime, the poverty.  I wanted to see what was really happening.

streets of Port-au-Prince (photo courtesy of Dana Rylee)

Port-au-Prince had that familiar run-down yet inwardly vibrant look typical of so many cities in developing countries around the world.  Crumbling walls, dogs dodging the motorcycles to pick through trash, trucks belching black smoke, Digicel and Coca Cola advertisements slapped on the sides of buildings, women balancing baskets on their heads, children playing barefoot in the dust, giggling and leaping out of the way of traffic.  We drove out past Croix-des-Bouquet and on into Onaville, our build site.  Onaville: a desolate expanse of rocky desert at the base of a mountain.  Previously uninhabited because of the harsh terrain and the lack of water, after the earthquake Onaville had become a massive IDP camp, and the windswept plain was speckled with hundreds of makeshift tents.  The Haitian government refuses to recognize Onaville as a legitimate settlement, so the three thousand Haitians living in tents the size of a walk-in closet are on their own.  As these families continue to lack water, electricity, and other basic resources, NGOs are actually barred from entering and providing aid, due to the ongoing territorial dispute (the government is only one of half a dozen parties who claim ownership of the land).  This is where Un Techo works.  “The government refuses to help these people because they can’t get the paperwork straight,” one of the in-country directors explained to me.  “When they get the politics sorted out, then fine, we’ll leave.  They can move our houses; they are temporary.  But until then, we are going to respond to this humanitarian crisis.”

We hopped out of the pickup truck and walked through a courtyard up to a dilapidated, half-constructed cinder block building, trailed by a handful of giggling children.  This was the abandoned orphanage: our home for the next week.  A few Haitians sat at a small table playing cards, using broken cinder blocks as stools.  One of them nodded to me as we walked past.  “Ye, rastamon.”  The orphanage was sectioned off into small rooms, most of which were already stuffed with tents amidst the piles of rubble.  There would be about a dozen of us foreign volunteers, a handful of in-country staff, and 350 Haitian volunteers.

the abandoned orphanage (photo courtesy of Dana Rylee)

Dana, Nadia and I found a space in a back corner and pitched our tent on a sheet of plywood that would rest between us and the gravely floor.  After stuffing our bags into the tent, we stepped back out into the courtyard to fill our bottles from the jugs of purified water that Un Techo brings in.  A few women were already heating charcoals to begin cooking dinner.

tents (photo courtesy of Dana Rylee)

Thankful that the heat of the day was finally over, we left the orphanage and walked up the hill to observe a few of the constructions.  The ground was covered in rocks and thorny scrub, and we weaved past tents until we reached the first build site.  Alejandro pointed out that each construction goes at a different rate.  Two houses were going up next to each other; one team was still struggling to dig foundation holes in the rocky earth.  On the other house, the walls were already being nailed into place.  Instructions were shouted in Creole.  The sun began to graze the mountains, the clouds pink and orange, and the walls went up as the sun went down.

Dinner was some bread, scrambled eggs, ketchup and mayonnaise.  I was ready to sleep immediately after eating.  In the tent beneath a thin sheet; it was impossible to get comfortable lying on the plywood crammed beside Dana and Nadia.  The Haitians in our camp had no concept of quiet.  They burst in and out of the room endlessly, shouting and laughing and blasting Rihanna and Justin Bieber from radios.  I couldn’t understand where the energy came from.  This lasted indefinitely, until at some point, I slept.

Day 2

In the morning, stiff and exhausted, we gulped down more eggs and split up into building teams.  Dana, Nadia, and I joined forces with a Haitian team, and together we returned to the house we had visited yesterday.  All the walls were up and nailed into place, which meant that today we would construct the roof.

It was still early, but the sun already blazed down.  I sat on the roof across from Nadia, straddling crossbeams and hammering wood into place.  Our team director shouted to us in Creole, pointing and gesturing and occasionally climbing up to join us and demonstrate how to align a beam or repair a misplaced nail.  Each Un Techo house was a simple structure: a 6×3 meter wooden space complete with windows and a door, a plywood floor, and a corrugated tin roof.  The whole thing was set upon wooden posts in order to raise the floor a couple feet above the ground.  These houses were not huge, but they would provide much needed space for the families that had been forced to stuff ten into a tiny tent.  We quickly fell into a routine as sweat poured from our bodies.  Wooden beams were passed up to Nadia and I, we lined up the wood and took measurements, Nadia sawed off the excess wood as she remained perched on the roof, and we finally nailed the beam into place.  A handful of ten year old kids flocked around the construction site, pulling out bent nails and passing us tools.

Creole is a beautiful language.  An exquisite blend of French and African influences, the Haitians spoke loudly and confidently; it almost sounded as if they were constantly reciting poetry.  Here and there I caught snippets that I seemed to almost understand, which made the language feel strangely familiar even while it was totally unintelligible to me.  We were all scattered throughout Onaville at different build sites.  Teams consisted of mostly Haitians and a couple US volunteers.  There were two Haitian Americans from DC who spoke Creole, and another two or three volunteers with some French, but that was about it.  Mostly, we communicated with hand gestures and elaborate pantomiming.  A few of the Haitians had a smattering of English, and several spoke passable Spanish, so at any given time, three or four languages were flying through the air as conversations were translated from English to Spanish to Creole, from Creole to French to Spanish.

The sun hung high overhead, and an old woman watched us as we worked.  I hopped down from the house to seek shade, but there was none.  The woman offered me water, and I accepted gratefully.  “Kreyòl?”  She asked me.

I shook my head.  “English?”

She smiled.  “Français?”

“Français, no…español?”

“Español, sí!”

This house was being built for her, she explained to me in Spanish as she carved me out a chunk of ice from a massive block.  We introduced ourselves; she articulated a long name, but told me I could call her Rosemary.  She was definitely one of the elders of the camp, though it was impossible to guess her age.  She spoke slowly and carefully, and wrinkles creased her face every time she smiled.  She used to live in Port-au-Prince, she told me, but she fled to this wasteland after she lost her house and her brother in the earthquake.  “Thinking about all I have lost breaks my heart,” she said with a sad smile.  “But I trust in God.”  After she fed us lunch, she took me inside her tent to show me around.  The space was tiny; there was a small cot, a few stools, and not much else.  There was no floor; everything rested directly on the dust.  The tarps that covered these messes of poverty were imprinted with the words “USAID: FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.”

Onaville tent (photo courtesy of Dana Rylee)

The heat remained intense as we worked through the day.  My arms were scorched by the sun and caked with dirt and sweat.  I was quickly realizing the futility of our presence here.  The Haitians danced across the roof beams, tossing materials into place, while I tried to stand upright without fainting in the heat.  They didn’t need our help.  350 of them, a dozen of us.  What with the language barrier and our lack of construction experience, we probably only slowed them down, if anything.  Alejandro did address this the night before.  Though we would be part of the construction teams, he explained, we were not really here to help build.  We were here to experience the reality that many Haitians live with every day; we were here to share the dreams for change.  Our true work would begin once we returned home.

Sunset, the most glorious time of day.  The air finally cooled, and I was back up on the roof hammering in crossbeams again, letting my hair loose to fly in the cool gusts.  I gazed out across the rocky plain that tumbled into the base of the mountain that climbed into the painted sky, and the wind on my face was like heaven.  I leaned back to balance on a roof beam and tucked my arms behind my head, looking upwards to watch the colors chase each other through the clouds.

Darkness, dinner, we shined our headlamps through the courtyard to find a place to sit while we ate.  People sat on the rocky concrete edge of the orphanage or on the stairs, wherever they could find a spot among the piles of rubble and gravel and trash.  When our stomachs were full we washed our dishes in the communal bucket of suds.  At the end of this long, sun-blazed day of work, now that the stars were beginning to emerge into the blackness, there was only one thing that made sense to do next, which was to crawl into our tent.  But the Haitians had a different idea: now it was time for the music to begin.

Their drum circle put the ones we used to have in Miami to shame.  They only had two actual drums; everything else was just random objects that were turned into drums and beaten with sticks, forks, rocks, or whatever else was on hand.  Their energy was astounding.  A dozen bodies quivered with the beat, jumping up and down, heads thrown towards the center simultaneously and then burst upwards into the air.  A dozen voices chanting in Creole, then singing, then rapping, then silence but for the tribal rhythm still beaten out and the stomping of feet as they hopped with the drums.  A low murmer of chanting, then one voice cried out in a rapid string of Creole.  Heads bobbed; chanting, then another burst of poetry.  Suddenly the beat slowed and transitioned seamlessly into a totally different rhythm, and these powerful voices tossed back and forth a slow and haunting call and response.  One voice emerged, and then dozens copied the syllables in rhythmic unison.  When I finally retreated to bed, their voices still echoed into the night sky.

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5 Responses to Voices of Haiti (part I of III)

  1. Charlie says:

    you had the pleasure of realizing the same discovery that I did from my various Alternative Spring Breaks – that the work you’re actually doing isn’t the point. It’s funny, because the UMAB program is advertised with the questions “Do you want to create social change?” It gets participants to believe that they will create social change during their trips. But in reality, the point of the trip is to change the participant.

  2. Karen says:

    Wow Dave…..what an amazing trip and how beautifully you detailed it!!! Hopefully you will continue to detail the trip….and I’m hoping you’ll make it back to California soon.
    Safe journey…. Karen

  3. Kathi says:

    You never cease to amaze me. One can only imagine what a tremendous adventure Haiti must have been….please do continue to week’s end.
    I often think back to that fateful day in September…..and am grateful for the continued friendship. Stay safe and keep in touch. See you in NV….. :-))
    Kathi

  4. We’ve already discussed this – how right charlie is and how well he said it – and now I have another idea. We’ll talk when you’re in Boston, but it’s a good one 🙂

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