Haiti Part I (19 January 2011)

Heat and Dust

This was the title of a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala book set in India and I have been thinking about it a lot these days…not the story but the title, which, for better or worse, describes how I have experienced Haiti so far.   The heat was something I expected, although arriving from Norway where temperatures were considerably lower (about 50° C lower), it was still a challenge for my poor, now 50-year old body to handle.  But the dust was not something I counted on and there is plenty of it.  Only Haiti’s main roads are paved—the rest are potholes with some flat road-like surfaces in-between.  Such roads are neither conducive to walking nor driving and, given that there is little difference in the time it takes to do one or the other, walking is what I usually do.  But, while walking instead of driving significantly diminishes the bumpiness factor index (BFI), this is more than compensated for by the significant increase in the dustiness factor index (DFI), which manifests itself between my toes, in the pores of my face, in my clothes and in and on every other surface with which I come in contact in Haiti.  Now you may think this is a bad thing but it certainly makes the cold-water showers in our house not just bearable but actually enjoyable as I trade my dusty crevices for refreshing cleanliness…until the next time I go walking.

Base Camp

My first stop in Haiti was the Red Cross base camp in Port-au-Prince, a tented home for Red Cross delegates working in Port-au-Prince and a stopover for those of us going to duty stations in other parts of the country.  For newcomers to Haiti, the 8 a.m. security briefing for Red Cross staff is compulsory and makes an overnight stopover unavoidable.

Base camp is, well, a camp and not like the ones you may remember from childhood with nature games, campfires and s’mores.  This camp is full of adults who aren’t playing games at all.  Rather, they are long- and short-term delegates who have come to Haiti, many from their national Red Cross societies, to work for the Red Cross in Haiti.  At dinner the first night I sat with a doctor from India, a fleet manager from Dubai, a logistics expert from Côte d’Ivoire and an Australian HR manager.

Most delegates sleep in small, individual tents (called cabins) within larger tents.  Despite having up to 10 cabins per tent, there was a respect for privacy and quiet, especially at the “lights out” time of 21.00.

Base Camp, Port-au-Prince

Base Camp, Port-au-Prince


Bathroom facilities were quite adequate, with a number of cold-water showers and one coveted hot-water shower for each gender.  The toilets were clean with a noticeable absence of odour, a small miracle of sanitation engineering for the number of people using them.  The difficult living and working conditions were somewhat mitigated by a small and “rustic” gym with a few machines where people sweat from physical effort rather than from simply being standing, lying or sitting down.  I was told that there is even a sauna provided by the Finnish Red Cross (who else?) for whom sweating naturally seems not to be as attractive as sweating in a small, contained space in the midst of the Caribbean.

Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff…and don’t even think about sweating the little stuff

Our living conditions are luxurious compared with the average Haitian.  I share a house with 3 other delegates — Sarah from Kenya, Torunn from Norway and Lenka from Slovakia — and we each have our own room, slow and unreliable wireless internet and bathrooms with running water  (of the cold type) and good toilets.

My Bedroom, Petit Goâve

My Bedroom, Petit Goâve

I have begun to think of my bathroom shower as a metaphor for Haiti (and many other developing countries).  Upon taking my second shower since arriving in Petit Goâve, the wall near the showerhead sprung a leak, which would not have been so bad had it not been that the spray of water shot directly into my eyes.  I put in a “work order” for a technician from the office to repair the small hole.  The technicians are hard working and conscientious and Bertrand was dispatched to my bathroom later that day.  He repaired the hole with some black silicone gel and asked me not to use the shower until the next day.  The next morning, my relief that the original hole had been repaired was dimmed by the fact that there were now 4 new leaks.  Bertrand was, once again, dispatched to my bathroom where more silicone gel was applied and I was again told to wait before using.   Day 3 brought with it a new set of leaks and I realised that I had made a typical newcomer’s mistake:  that of not knowing that one small problem will lead to discovery of a host of bigger problems the small one was almost certainly hiding.  I think this is somewhat of a metaphor for Haiti and I, for one, will refrain from trying to repair even small holes here.

Daily life is challenging, since there is not much to do except work, eat and sleep.  Red Cross delegates are subject to a curfew from 18.00 to 05.00, which means that, even if there were something to do in Petit Goâve, we could not do it.  The security services at Base Camp in Port-au-Prince keep us apprised of any warnings, with frequent travel restrictions within and to/from Port-au-Prince.  Things are calmer in Petit Goâve than in other parts of the country but we nevertheless respect all security warnings issued from Port-au-Prince.

The office is a busy place with 12 expatriate delegates and a slew of national staff that support and facilitate our working lives here.  They are translators, technicians, drivers and guards, many of whom have come from Port-au-Prince, leaving behind their families.  Most of them held quite different jobs before the earthquake: a chemistry teacher is one of our drivers (his school was destroyed in the earthquake while he was at home with his wife who had complained that he was not spending enough time with her), another was a driving instructor in Port-au-Prince (he lost his one-year old daughter in the earthquake) and another from Petit Goâve lost his entire family.  It is humbling to work in an office where people carry on them the scars of tragedies we have only read about in the papers or seen on TV.

Everything Old is Coming Back Again

Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka Baby Doc, has returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile, though the irony of being exiled from Haiti to Paris with about a zillion dollars does not escape me.  No one really knows why he returned or how he managed to leave France without the French authorities knowing about it (although having lived in France for 11 years, I have some ideas involving French cultural traditions such as wine with lunch and the philosophy of “je m’en foutisme[1]).

I have discussed the Duvalier developments with a few Haitian colleagues, all of whom have different interpretations of his return: some believe that violence and poverty are so bad in the country that they couldn’t get any worse with a former President-for-Life in charge; some believe that the current President, René Préval has brought back Duvalier to move attention away from the recent heavily disputed elections; and others believe that this is simply the beginning of a reunified Haiti and that the return of another former President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide from exile in South Africa will follow.

We learned yesterday that President Aristide tried to renew his Haitian passport to return to Haiti but that the application was denied.  I bet he wishes the Haitian authorities drank more wine at lunch…

[1] Roughly translated into “I don’t care-ness”

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