Sunday, September 16, 2012


I went out in Petionville last night.

A friend of a room-mate of an associate of a colleague was having a birthday dinner at a restaurant, so I went for the drinks afterwards. The place was nice - rustic, but not in a kitschy, trying-to-be-rustic way. There were high ceilings, spiral staircases, and countertops covered in wax from candles that had melted ages before being rustic was fashionable. A band was performing a rhythm and blues set, and the dinner tables had been moved to allow the patrons to dance. There was a substantial crowd, fifty or so. Mostly expatriates. 

Eventually the party, along with new acquaintances that had been absorbed into the group, decided to move on to another part of town, requiring the calling of drivers to go from A to B, as security restrictions curtail walking after dark. 

At bar B, everyone has a few more drinks and is thus all the more merry. However, there is a subtle vibe slowly revealing itself that, as most of those present are earning a western wage in a developing country, there is no real limit to what can be bought, and from this, what can be drank, or what behaviour is above board. The proprietors and staff are not keen to quell the revelry; business is business. Don't get me wrong now. There weren't UN staff snorting cocaine from prostitutes' navels - it was more a vibe of aristocracy, which I can detect, like a fish detects when it's on land. After an hour or so, many began to depart from B in the direction of C or D or elsewhere, but I decided to call a car to head home. 

As I waited outside, I was slightly taken aback by the juxtaposition of the various elements of the scene before me: a group of people who, innocently enough, had started out on at dinner six hours ago and were now stumbling out onto the road, looking for friends and lovers and after-parties, as though they were in Dublin or New York or Ayia Napa; a cordon of UN Military Police  at either end of the street for reasons unknown but at a guess to ensure the safety of the internationals present, with blue lights flashing, and the standard issue rifles held casually by their sides; and a few Haitians, some informally performing the role of parking attendants, opening car doors and looking for tips, others merely sitting on a wall or a curb, watching the night unfold. 

It wasn't jaw-dropping, but it was certainly uncomfortable. It was almost as though some of the expats (and I should stress, some, not all) were of the opinion that because of the nature of their work, or the reputation of the various organisations by which they were employed, or on some other grounds, that this gave them the right to fly in the face of the accepted social and cultural norms of their present surroundings, and to act as they would in their place of origin, or on their holidays, or in a colony in the 1800s. I felt embarrassed.

Maybe I'm naive. I'm relatively new to the game, and I've only been here four weeks, so who am I to judge?

The passage through which I've come into this line of work has consistently tried to impress some form of ethical conscience onto my somewhat-malleable mind when it comes to the job. 

It started out as 'charity' work. 

I would opine that charity is never selfless. I have always gained more, both at home and abroad, than those who I have allegedly been helping, whether I've been aware of it at the time or not. Regardless of whether you were gaining or losing, there was always the idea that if you are 'doing your best' to assist others, constantly keeping their best interests at heart, then whatever your actual ability, the moral drive would push the physically manifested effort in a positive direction. At the same time, as this is the main force behind the work, any notion that diverges from this vector of selfless moral intention should be avoided if possible, as it detracts from the net benefit of the work. 

However, not everyone is Jesus. In fact, very few people are Jesus. I'd go so far as to say that less than 1% of human beings that have ever lived ever have been Jesus.

So separate to the work, you have your life. In which you look out for number one (and depending your situation and method of birth control, number two, number three, number four, and so on). And so, unless you live the holistic lifestyle of a Buddhist monk, you try to separate the vector L and the vector W to a certain degree. One selfish, one selfless-ish. As part of this life, I myself (and I daresay most of my peers) often feel the need to do things, many of them involving swearing at television screens, alcohol, the pursuit of romantic interests, laughing at somebody else's expense, and many other activities, most of which Buddhist monks aren't renowned for. Activities that might be seen as detrimental to the 'work', if they were as one embodied.

But when the two vectors of life and work are transposed to a tiny island nation in the Caribbean, there's very little room for them to avoid crossing each other.

At this stage I should click refresh and explain where my standing is now on the morality-driven aspect of 'charity' work. Firstly, the language has changed - I'll call it 'development' now; 'charity' has so many connotations, whereas 'development' is colder, and, crucially, measurable. (For the sticklers, I'm going to put humanitarianism under the umbrella of development). Another alteration to my not-so-staunchly held position includes the belief that while good intentions are fantastic, they don't always produce the best results, and thus professionalism is key. This has more or less been the status quo in the UN and NGOs for quite some time, but hey, I'm a bit slow. And so professionalism is the new driver behind the work, rather than ‘doing your best’. All that said, one thing that hasn't changed is that sense of the role of ethical responsibility. While good intentions won’t finish a job, without them, professionalism is almost futile. The sense is that any action that shows moral disregard for the work at hand should be avoided. There’s no point in trying to fill the bucket if you’re drilling holes in the bottom for the craic.

And so how is it that getting langered in Petionville is akin to some superfluous DIY? For me, it’s the issue of respect. 

The reason for the large expat presence here is either the devastation caused by the earthquake, or the extreme poverty that existed before it. It might be too great a leap to say that the money being spent by expats in bars and restaurants is essentially money donated by governments and members of the public to the aid agencies, especially given what I’ve just said about the need for professionals in development, but I could forgive any Haitian onlookers for making that argument. Understandably, people have to live, eat, drink, let off steam. Expats also need to integrate somewhat with their hosts, to prevent an ivory tower being built. But there are entrepreneurs in Petionville who are assisting in the construction of this ivory tower, nurturing a new bourgeois society, and probably facilitated by an existing one. 

I don't have any grand solution. There's a kind of Catch-22 scenario whereby if the expats were to try to integrate at any bar or restaurant in the city, they are at an increased risk - the city isn't yet safe. And yet creating a dichotomy of expat and local societies increases the chance of animosity between the two. As it is, a compromise would probably be the best option: integration where appropriate, and separation with respect. Always respect. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

City Boy Now (part 1 of some)

New organisation.
New project.
New town.

New ramblings of a Irish boy moving back and forth between a cubic comfort zone and its elliptical orbit.

There are plenty of people in the greater metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince who could more accurately communicate the day-to-day nuances and idiosyncrasies of the city, but sure I'll give it a bash, with the expectation that if you've not been here, you'll verify the information you deem overly-subjective using some other platform, and if you have been or are here, you can berate me in person. I will also, more than likely, compare it to Dublin on more than one occasion, something a significantly smaller proportion of people would have the means to do.

I arrived on Monday afternoon, just as the working week was getting into its stride. A driver had been sent to collect me from the airport, and he was standing at the exit of the terminal, holding an envelope displaying my last name first and my first name last, raising his eyebrows at every white male who passed him by. His NGO credentials had no doubt given him an advantage in getting to the head of the dense crowd that was leaning and tip-toeing to identify the faces coming out of the airport building.

We took off out of the airport car park and into the melee of dust and vehicles. The areas surrounding Toussaint Louverture International Airport appear to be a hub of the construction industry in the city. Large warehouses, with freight trucks and cement mixers in the car parks outside, line the road back towards Petionville, until they are eventually replaced, further south, by UN logistics compounds, and the strikingly new facade of the US embassy. At some stage, the driver pointed out the residence of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Haitian president who returned from exile in South Africa only last year, following a coup d'etat in 2004. The bars of the large white gates to the estate were narrowly spaced, and so did not allow anyone to peer through to the property beyond. However, as we drove by, I got the feeling that on the bustling street outside, I was the only one trying to do so, such was the normality of the situation to others.

We reached the office, where I was introduced to some members of the staff, and given some briefings on security. I was then driven the kilometer back to the expatriate residences, a large gated building containing a number of apartments. The majority of NGOs here house their expatriate workers in the areas on the hills around Petionville, to the south of the city, presumably for security reasons. The elevation, not to mention the superior build quality and appearance of the buildings, give the area a slight air of middle-class, which I find slightly uncomfortable, possibly due to a perceived fragility of this air, but more likely, out of guilt.

The apartment building has a balcony, that is positioned such that it allows one to view one-hundred and eighty degrees, taking in an amazing view of the sprawl down the hill below and beyond the bay to the west, and the mountains to the north and east. However, the rising hills behind, to the south, are blocked from view by the building itself, giving one a polarised vision, of all that is lower, and none that is higher. You can see those on a similar level either side of course, but no further up.

Some boys were playing football on the flat roof of a building across from the balcony this evening. In Petionville, a flat surface is a commodity, it seems, and the traffic winding its way around the myriad of cliff-side streets seems to be permanently lifting its collective hand-brake. Small steps. Up the hill. One car length at a time. Then brake. Two lengths if you're lucky. Or the slalom downhill, one foot hovering over the brake at all times, gauging the weight of the passengers against gravity, all the while craning to see around corners, to see where the next line of traffic ends.

There was lighting last night, and again tonight. I tried in vain to film some. Always the wrong direction at the wrong time. Despite the severity of the storms and the rain, (and my admittedly small sample size of two days), they seem to be quite predictable in terms of timing. Five o'clock, dark clouds begin to gather overhead. Six o'clock, the first patter of rain. Six-thirty, darkness with flashes of fork lightning. Eight o'clock, calm, with occasional blasts of pounding kompa music, or a man with a megaphone.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Not to blow my own trumpet, but my Haitian Creole has improved drastically in the last month. After the initial push start that required the use of a dictionary or an interpreter, it’s finally kicking into second, and gradually third gear. And about time, too. Whatever about being a blan in Haiti, not being able to communicate is the biggest factor in feeling isolated within a community.

One of the bridges that I’ve found myself using to facilitate the flow of my newfound conversational skills with strangers is the universal language of sport, specifically football. Whilst delving into the depths of debate about the economic, cultural and political differences between Haiti and Ireland is an interesting conversation, and one which I do still find time for, the still limited vocabulary I possess for such a tête-à-tête can often leave both my new acquaintance and I frustrated. Hence, after the habitual niceties concerning my nationality and the nature of my visit to Haiti, the topic of conversation often turns to naming a fantasy XI.

In its simplest form, football permeates all levels of society. Walking through the streets of Gros Morne, you can see kids covering inflated condoms with woollen string to make a football. And a remarkably spherical football at that. Understandably these footballs don’t last that long, but it works. Anybody who has worked in the camps run by UCDVO will well know that one of the biggest kicks (sorry) that the kids get out of the days is having a leather football to play with. And for that month, few kids will ask for a dolla on the street: ‘Ba mwen ballon’ (‘Give me a football’) becomes the request. Even in the school classrooms, both boys and girls seem to have two varieties of copybooks, those with an image of Lionel Messi on the cover, and those without.

It is not exclusively with the younger generation that football has a such a broad appeal here. With few other sports widely pursued, football dominates most radio broadcasts and newspaper columns outside of political affairs. In fact, other than traditional music, which plays a large part in Haitian culture, football is the main national past time.

In Gros Morne, very few houses have electricity, and of those that do, it is run off a large generator in town, usually from dusk until 10.30pm. Hence, very few houses have televisions. There are a number of large halls about the town, however, that show matches from the Spanish Premiera Division on Saturdays, and Champions League fixtures during the week. To call these places bars would be a push: very few people can afford to buy alcohol, but nobody's going to confiscate your beer at the door if you want to bring one in. For about €0.50, locals can enjoy 90 minutes of coverage broadcast from the Dominican Republic, played on a surprisingly large television, dubbed with raspy local radio commentary blaring on large speakers, all powered by a small generator. I doubt the atmosphere in these places could be equalled, short of physically being at the game, especially when Barcelona or Real Madrid are playing. In the local hall I have been frequenting for the latter stages of this season’s Champions League, owned by a proprietor named Eric, there are murals of Brazilian flags, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos decorating the walls. Even when I have been too busy to go and watch a game, the roar of the crowds can be heard all over town.

Today saw the commencement of the National League in Haiti. Owing to the Haitian Football Federation’s lack of a website, I am unable to confirm how many tiers the league has, but depending on your source, it varies between two and three, of about 12 teams each. And these are just the professional leagues. It took me by surprise at first that in a country with over 60% unemployment, there are people being paid to play football. And yet, it seems to make sense. Attending a game today, Racine de Gros Morne versus Vision de Hinche, both of the Haitian division 2, I spoke to the ‘Secretary General and Bus Driver’ of the visiting club. I asked him if the club receives money from the ministry for sport. He said that no, all the money for paying the players comes from local businesses, mainly small shops in the town of Hinche in the Central Plateau. Wages for the players start at about €50 per month, and increase depending on performances. He said that paying a football team is investing money into the community; it is something everyone can enjoy. The team had travelled for 6 hours in a small bus, arriving in Gros Morne two hours before the match, and leaving shortly afterward, would not arrive back in Hinche until 1.30am that night.

The match started with a goal for Vision in the first minute. I expected a whitewash. Things calmed down considerably, until the 25th minute, when Racine won a penalty, which hit the crossbar. Play went down the other end of the field, where Vision’s centre forward hit the dirt, and was awarded a penalty, which also hit the woodwork. The roaring crowd of about 3,000 spectators kept back only by a fence made of twigs and twine could barely keep themselves off the field. Play was seriously hindered by the light shower about an hour before the match – although there was some grass on the pitch, it was mostly confined to one corner. Passing along the ground was a game of roulette, and in the second half, with Vision now leading 2-0, their winger floated a non-threatening ball into the Racine box. The goalkeeper came forward to catch the incoming ball, slipped in the ankle-deep mud, managed to let the ball slide under the entire length of his body, straight to the feet of an unsuspecting striker, who promptly booted the ball into the back of the net, to the commiseration of the home crowd.

Despite the somewhat farcical highlights, the standard of play was quite good, the physical fitness of the players countered only by the physically unfit conditions they played in. One of the personal highlights was the integration I felt at the event. Even though myself and Becca, one of the American volunteers, were the only two white people present out of 3,000, normally a situation that would result in being followed by consistent cries of ‘blan, blan’, at this match, we were just the same as anyone else, there to watch the match. People who struck up conversations with me, bypassed any niceties, and went straight to the subject of the game at hand.

Come to think of it, even when I am going through the aforementioned formalities, explaining that I’m not an American, and then explaining that I’m not from Holland but Ireland (‘Oland’ and ‘Iland’ respectively in Creole) most people still look perplexed. ‘Ireland. It’s an island beside England. In Europe.’ I explain. ‘Aaaaaah!’ comes the response. ‘You’ve heard of it?’ I ask. They generally respond with an explanation involving what I have come to realise Ireland is fast becoming famous worldwide for. Riverdance? Bono? Guiness? No. In fact, Ireland has gained renown, not for an act of one of its own citizens, but an act of a French footballer. Or rather, his hand.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I have never really given much thought as to why the former site of the World Trade Centre in New York had been dubbed 'Ground Zero' following the attacks in 2001. Apparently it's a term relating to an explosion, referring to the point of detonation. I suppose I did make a mental connection between the 'ground' being levelled to zero meters above sea level. Or something to that effect. 

In Port-au-Prince, I suppose the application of the former definition to the earthquake last year would refer to somewhere around the Leogane area, south-east of the city, the epicentre of the quake. The second definition doesn't really apply here, as while so many buildings crumbled completely, others suffered only superficial damage. Structurally, the worst are the buildings which half-collapsed, requiring the demolition of the remaining structure. The irregular horizon of the buildings of the capital reflects the varying levels of severity with which the earthquake affected each resident of the city. Some escaped relatively unscathed, but they do not have to look far amongst those closest to them to see absolute devastation.

 I visited the city for the first considerable portion of time last weekend. The nuns up here were having a national nun conference in our house, and so my bed was needed in order to cater for said nun influx. Conveniently, a swap of beds with the nuns in Port-au-Prince was arrangeable, so all parties, nun and non-nun, were happy. 

As one of the American volunteers, Christie, was flying back to the states at the time also, myself and three of the other volunteers travelled down to the house in PAP with her, hoping to wish her goodbye at the airport, and to go on to the nuns’ house in the city. About an hour north of the capital however, we came to a roadblock. As it happened to be on a particularly straight stretch of road, we were able to see that the line of vehicles waiting to pass went on for at least a kilometer. Word got back to Tidenn, our driver, that there were electrical works going on ahead. As the story went, they had been going on for more than 5 hours without letting anything pass either way. The only options were to wait, or to turn around and backtrack the 2 hours we had already come. As we were also bringing a hydrocephalic baby and her mother to a specialist in the city, the latter was off the table. However, as Christie had to be at the airport to catch a flight, she disembarked, hailed two of the motorcycle-taxis that had been buzzing up and down the line of cars, loaded her baggage onto one and herself onto the other, and took off on a nearby dirt track in the general direction of the airport.

After an hour or so of waiting, the vehicles up ahead began to advance. As we came nearer the point of the blockade, it became apparent that no such electrical works had been under way. UN Police were posted on both sides of the road, some of them directing the traffic, whilst others chased back crowds of people from the temporary housing speckled around the sparse landscape either side of us. The people had been throwing stones at the UN police, according to one spectator that Tidenn had spoken to. There were a few people being handcuffed and put into the back of UN trucks. As we drove on, up a side street I saw a group of twenty or thirty people lined across the street in standoff formation, facing a smaller group of UN soldiers a hundred meters or so away. Tidenn’s interpretation was that the people were angry at the presence of the UN, for despite the world body’s apparent humanitarian efforts, the people were still living in tents in the hills.

Despite the delay, we reached the hospital in Port-au-Prince by early afternoon and saw that the hydrocephalic baby and her mother were taken into care. Inside the hospital compound, I was taken aback by the number of white people, few of whom I have seen in the past few months. Encountering another white person here is strange. It’s like bumping into someone you kind of know, but not really, and there’s that awkward moment when you don’t know if you should say hello or not. Of course it’s completely ignorant to assume that this white person comes from an English speaking country, so I’ve taken to just saying ‘bonjou’ or ‘bonswa’ in Kreyol, and then doing a little awkward wave and nod, and trying not to trip over my flip-flops while co-ordinating all of this. Does the job.  

We then drove on through the myriad of streets and finally reached the house where we would be staying. The streets of Port-au-Prince are kind of organised in a grid format. Kind of. It starts off well in the downtown area, all the streets at right angles, relatively easy to negotiate, but as you move further out, it seems as though corners gradually become extinct, and the roads wind deceptively up into the hills of Petionville.

With little organised for the afternoon, myself and Mitch, one of the American volunteers, tracked the source of some nearby enthusiastic chanting, to find what can only, however unlikely, be described as a state-of-the-art outdoor basketball arena, complete with electronic scoring board, American-style bleacher seating, and a buzzer to signal the end of play. The source of funding for such an amenity was blatantly apparent, mind, with the iconic red and white ‘Digicel’ logo printed on every available surface. The Digicel Foundation, the charitable arm of Denis O’Brien’s Caribbean cellular network, has funded countless social projects in Haiti, including funding the salaries of 9 staff in the Bigue Community School here in Gros Morne for the past 3 years. The basketball game was the semi-final of a secondary schools championship, and as most live sport does in Haiti, it had drawn quite a large crowd, and as most crowds do in Haiti, they created quite an atmosphere through drumming and chanting.

That evening we decided to visit the Oloffson hotel in the south of the city. The hotel has gained a certain level of fame since the 1960s when Graham Greene published his novel The Comedians, in which the protagonist owns a hotel based upon the Oloffson. The building itself is unlike many others in Haiti, with large white and green wooden turrets. Although we were only stopping by the open-front hotel bar for a drink, we were encouraged by the staff to have a look around. I was only too keen to take in the swimming pool and the irregularly-arranged suites, each named after a person of significance that has previously stayed in the room. The John Barrymore suite, overlooking the hotel forecourt features prominently in Greene’s novel, but aside from this and the Jean Claude Van Damme Suite (last door on the left) there were few that particularly caught my attention. The atmosphere in the hotel was relaxed, with no more than 25 people, all of whom I presumed to be NGO workers, in the bar. The price of the drinks however, was a snap back to reality. A shack on the side of the road in Gros Morne this was not.

The following day we had arranged to meet a Haitian friend, George, a resident of Port-au-Prince, who we had met previously through another volunteer. George is about 25 years of age, of wirey build, and drives a kamyon, a covered pick-up truck, around the city for a living. He was only too happy to show us around the Delmas area of the city, and bring us to the houses of the members his family, who I gathered were slightly wealthier than the average family in the capital. The neighbourhoods too, although slightly disorganised in their arrangement and without many paved roads, did boast many large concrete-built houses. But even still, none of these houses were more than a hundred meters from a tent, seemingly an inescapable element of the capital.

On the night before our return to Gros Morne, we attended a party with Darren Gill, a former UCDVO volunteer currently working in Port-au-Prince, at the British Red Cross’s compound. These parties seem to run on a sort of circuit basis about the different NGO’s compounds, and generally it’s the same group of NGO staff (deservedly) letting off steam at the weekend. The surrealism of the situation, a party in a city in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, is strange, but is something everyone tries to put, at least for a few hours, to the back of their minds.

This is something that seemed to be a running theme through my short stay. Life goes on. As we waited on board the bus the next morning to make the journey back to Gros Morne, merchants boarded the bus, carrying and announcing their wares: food and drinks, but also shoes, sunglasses, phone credit. People still live in the capital for the sake of a livelihood, which they cannot neglect for more than a day, to dwell on the effects of the earthquake. Many lives were lost, regrettably, but for those still living, their city must be rebuilt, but they must also feed, clothe and educate their children. They must try to carve a life out of the stubborn rubble.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


This morning was what is known as Food for the Poor delivery morning ‘round these parts. Food for the Poor are a charity who, amongst other things, distribute food to those in need. The nuns I’m living with act as a distribution centre on behalf of FFTP, and receive, every two months, two truckloads of rice, beans, and other items for allocation to families in Gros Morne. The ‘other items’ included in the shipment vary wildly. They are generally a hosh-posh of surplus stock from the US. In February, there were 1,550 pairs of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes in the trucks. There are still a good portion of these left here in the house, albeit mostly size 13. You’d be hard pushed to find many Haitians with size 13 feet. Included in the shipment this morning were several cases of an acne medication. Whilst there are significantly more Haitians suffering from acne than Haitians with size 13 feet, the medication seems a relatively trivial item. I’m sure there’s a reason it has been sent here, but I would be inclined to believe it has more to do with a tax deduction than dermatological concern. However despite the perceived irrelevance of these surplus items, I have no second-guesses that the food distributed satisfies a genuine need.

Distribution can be tricky at best. The idea is to get the food to the portion of people who need it most. Despite the relative poverty of most people in Haiti, many families live comfortably, steady employment meaning they can afford beyond the basics of food, clothing and accommodation, and have the means to purchase mobile phones, a television or sometimes even a vehicle. The nuns have a database of families that they assist continuously, to whom food is distributed periodically, as well as clothing or other goods as they are received from FFTP. However, often people from outside this register come in search of assistance, and this occurs more frequently when items of higher value are distributed. As a case in point, once the word got out that there were Nike Air Jordans being handed out, there were lines of people knocking at the door. This presented a difficult task. It had to be ensured that those most in need received first. Despite the large quantity, there needed to be a structure to the distribution, to ensure that those most in need were catered for. This was made even more difficult by relative strangers calling to the house throughout the day, requesting shoes. Many of these people were turned away. This brings us to the point of one of the more difficult issues of working in a developing country. You will, on a continuous basis, be asked for things.

The reasons for this, as quickly becomes apparent, are not always as simple as a person with nothing begging for help from anyone who can help them. From my experience, very few Haitians are what you would term in Dublin ‘professional beggars’, for the simple reason that there is less money present. You will rarely see a Haitian stop another Haitian on the street to ask them for anything. Even still, there are people, even in Gros Morne, a small rural town, who have money. Only today, I saw a brand new Mazda pickup parked at the side of the street. People do walk around well dressed. And I don’t just mean shirt and slacks well, I mean fashionably well. And yet, I have still to see one of these people stopped to be asked for a dollar. This leads me to the conclusion, despite trying to avoid it, that people only ask me for things because I am white. Which is grating.

There are a certain amount of assumptions that are made of white people here. Some are true, some not, some vary person to person. A running theme is that there is an endless supply of goods attainable to all white people. When asked for my watch last week, I asked why? The phrasing of the word for ‘why’ in Kreyol is the same as ‘for what?’, so I was met with the response, ‘in order to tell the time’. When I elaborated my question to ask as to why I should give the young man my watch, leaving me without one, he answered in English ‘You can buy the next one’. He repeated his answer in Kreyol, and although he meant to say ‘You can buy another one’, his initial mistranslation may have been more appropriate.

This was not an isolated incident, and a couple of times a week, I will be asked for my watch, my sunglasses, my cap - items which do not hold a large amount of monetary value, and are all easily replaceable. So why not give my watch to every person who asks for it, and just replace it? (In case you’re wondering it’s a relic, it cost less than ten euro, and would be even cheaper to replace here).

When it comes to a question like this, I find there is a spectrum along which an answer can be found. At one end, you can find the opinion that yes, why not? If someone is in need, and you can afford to replace your own, give. At the other end is the view that if you give once, there can be no limit, until before you know it, you’ve spent all your money on watches - assistance should be controlled in a regulated manner. Both sides' arguments rubbish the opposite, picking at the fundamental flaws they both inherently have. The latter view is taken and preached by many NGOs with staff working in developing countries: aid, in all forms, must go through certain procedures, which may seem bureaucratic, but are necessary to ensure fairness. On the other hand, if you are in a position to change somebody’s position immediately, why wait for them to be assessed by a means test if you yourself can see that they are in need?

There is no right answer to this, but if giving, the effects must be considered. You may never see this person again, but what happens the next time they see another white person? If they have had success before, they will likely ask again. If they tell their friends or family ‘a white person gave me their watch’, these people are likely to adopt a similar attitude. Personally, I am less inclined to give when asked on the spot. An advantage I have in being here long term is being able to repeatedly meet people, to better understand their position and their need. If giving, a strategy I have found helpful is, having been asked for something by somebody, to invent some sort of task, as menial as it may be, a job that will warrant a payment. This means that less of a ‘hand-out’ culture is encouraged, and a value of work is promoted. Another advantage of being here long-term is to alternatively offer something of non-monetary value, such as English classes.

It is sustainable gifts such as education or a means toward a livelihood that are also promoted by NGOs and charities. (Insert ‘man/fishing net/feeding his family’ parable here).  However, sometimes it is difficult to say no. An attitude I think that is applicable to almost all instances, not just in developing countries, but at home too, is to engage with a person, so far as is possible. So often it is easier to just give somebody some money so they will leave you alone, but this is irresponsible. As we have all seen, throwing money at something (say... a failing financial institution for example) doesn’t always work. A conversation will enlighten you to the person’s specific situation, and may present opportunities to help them in a number of ways, be it advising them where they might find work, or shelter, or cheaper food, or otherwise. Although barriers of race, culture, language, or socioeconomic status may divide, an effort to engage in conversation will yield, in most cases, greater benefits than currency. In giving a person your time, rather than your watch, the person will in most cases be better off.

Monday, March 28, 2011


The run-off of the Haitian Presidential election was held on Sunday last, March 20th. Whilst the election itself thankfully passed without incident, the events of the weeks leading up to and following the poll, were in perfect tandem with Haiti’s turbulent history.

The first event, on the Friday prior to the ballot, was the long-awaited but poorly timed return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, after seven years in exile, from South Africa. A White House spokesperson had stated that Barack Obama had phoned South African President Jacob Zuma, to express the concern with regard to allowing Aristide to leave for Haiti. To counter this, there had been a number of open letters published by the Guardian newspaper, London, from a long list of campaigners including actor and black rights activist Danny Glover, and Rev Jesse Jackson, calling on South Africa to assist in Aristide’s return.

There was confusion with regard to the specific date of the former leader’s return. As we reached midweek preceding the election, it seemed that Aristide’s detractors had given up that his return would inevitably happen, but they were fighting still to delay the homecoming. Even after it became clear that Aristide would arrive in Haiti Friday morning, elitist radio stations in the capital, often Aristide’s harshest critics, broadcast that his return would not be until the following Tuesday, seeking to misdirect his supporters in Port-au-Prince.
The number of people reported at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in the capital on Friday morning varied, but all accounts agreed that there was a continuous flow of people in the streets, making their way to the airport; walking, riding in cameyon trucks, and, as one Haitian did, riding down the street on horseback dressed in late 18th century battle attire as worn by Jean Jacques Dessalines, the first leader of Haiti. Crowds chanting ‘Titid, Titid’, a nickname for Aristide, crowded the airport, climbing trees and slipping through fences to catch a glimpse of the former president. Upon landing, Aristide addressed the crowd, speaking in ten languages, including the Zulu and Swahili that he had learned whilst in exile, and thanked those who had supported him during the past seven years. He talked of the current elections, and how the exclusion of his Fanmi Lavalas party, was an exclusion of the majority. Following the speech, he and his wife and two children made their way in a car with tinted windows to their home in the north of the city. Here, many more crowds had gathered, chanting in celebration of the return of a man they observed as Haiti’s hope in this time of turmoil.

The statement by Aristide that he was returning to Haiti to be observed not as a politician, but as an educator, had been questioned, but he held his word, from the time of his arrival to the election at least.

The following day, Saturday, the eve of the election, Presidential candidate Michel Martelly had organised a large rally in front of the national palace of Haiti, the culmination of a series of campaign concerts around Haiti. Haitian musician Wyclef Jean performed at the event, which included lights, fireworks, and had the general atmosphere of a well-funded campaign. The following morning, as the polls opened here in Gros Morne, word trickled out that Jean had been shot shortly after the concert. Jean’s brother told reporters he had been shot, and a spokesperson reiterated later that he had received a bullet would to the hand, but was recovering. The news of the shooting would naturally lead, given Jean’s role as a primary supporter of Martelly, to the assumption that the supporters of Mirlande Manigat, Martelly’s opponent, had taken up arms. There had been word earlier in the week, mostly via radio bouche (literally ‘mouth radio’, analogous to ‘word of mouth’), that if Martelly was not elected, things, to put a point on it, would kick off. His base support of young males would apparently ‘set Haiti alight’, if their preferred candidate was not given the office of president. The reports of Jean’s shooting may, or may not, have cast a shadow of doubt for voters on Manigat’s campaign in the early hours of the polls. If this was true, Manigat’s pitch of a mother nursing her injured child was voided: she was like all those that had come before her, resorting to violence. However, as the events of the alleged shooting were investigated further over the course of the day, it transpired that when quizzed by police, the doctor who had attended to Jean’s wound stated that the small graze on his hand had been caused by a shard of glass, and not a bullet. Jean would over the course of the following week maintain his story that he had heard ‘pops’ like those of a small gun, realised his hand was bleeding, and had quickly driven with his entourage to the nearest hospital. It may have been a coincidence that the events occurred the night before the vote, but this meant the headline of ‘Wyclef Jean Shot’ would reach voters through radio stations and radio bouche as they stood in line waiting to vote, before the details of the story emerged later.

The day of the election finally arrived on Sunday. We had been advised, to my surprise, the day before, that driving was forbidden on the day of the election. Two of the party of eight in our household had been asked to volunteer as independent observers at the two polling stations in Gros Morne. When they returned home on their lunch break I asked if I would be allowed into one of the centres with them upon their return. We agreed that it was worth a try. Although the two had been issued with badges to prove their status as independent observers, as I have alluded previously, being a blan in Haiti is like having ‘CD’ registration plates on a car in Ireland: very few ask questions. As I approached the entrance to the polling centre with my colleague Mitch, my left hand leafed the passport in my pocket, should they ask for identification. In my right hand I held a notebook and pen, half-heartedly suggesting my being here was of a professional nature, though somewhat voided by the Led Zeppelin tshirt, shorts and flip-flops. My precaution was irrelevant, and I nodded with a feigned sense of mutual understanding at both the local police officer and the Argentinean UN soldier standing guard, as I passed through the small gate.

Mitch introduced me to Osam, the coordinator of the independent observers, who was only too happy to proudly show me around the polling centre and explain the system to me. This particular centre, in a school on the main street of Gros Morne, was one of two centres in the town. Each of the two centres consisted of fifteen offices, most of which were housed in a half of a classroom, separated into two using the school-benches. Each office had a list of approximately four hundred members of the electorate, posted outside on A4 paper, who were eligible to vote in that office. The Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP) had assigned to each office a president, vice-president and secretary, tasked with the checking of identification cards, distributing ballot papers and inking the right thumbs of voters to show that they had voted. As a concurrent run-off election for the departmental senate seat was being held, there were four political parties with an interest in the ballot. Four representatives, one from each party, were posted in each of the fifteen offices to observe the voting and the count that followed. Osam told me that the turnout had been low, similar to that of the first round of the election in November.

Four o’clock came, and the gates to the centre were firmly shut, nobody being permitted to enter or exit until the count was finished. I walked around the fifteen offices observing the counting process: the secretary of the office removed each ballot paper from the transparent plastic polling box, showed the observers that the back of the paper had been signed by the voter, read aloud the name of the candidate that had been selected, then finally placed the paper in a pile corresponding to that candidate. All the other staff jotted rough counts while this went on, and then when all the ballots had been removed, a recount was carried out. The presidential votes were counted first, and then the senatorial votes.

The count did not take long, another reflection on the turnout. As I waited for the recounts to be completed, I tried to start a conversation with one of the three UN soldiers in the centre. As it transpired, he only spoke Spanish, and upon trying to retrieve some of the language from the depths of my brain, I found it had all been replaced with Kreyol.

When Osam had collected the figures from all fifteen offices, he showed me the final tally. From what I could observe quickly, the average turnout between the offices had been 120 from four hundred people, thiry percent of the electorate. In each of the offices, Manigat had achieved a winning margin of about 2 to 1. Osam explained that the presidential election worked on a popular vote system, so each vote here for either candidate would count for the exact same as a vote for either candidate in any other part of the country, without any type of departmentalisation. He explained further that the count from the other centre in Gros Morne had been very similar, but that the margin of approximately twelve hundred votes for Manigat would compare minutely to the hundreds of thousands of Martelly supporters in the larger towns and cities. We thanked Osam for his patience with us, and left the centre as the other staff filed out.
The relatively small victory for Manigat in Gros Morne will no doubt, as Osam said, pale in comparison to the support gained by Martelly in Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Gonaives, and Cap-Haitien. However, Manigat’s corresponding victory in the first round shows that of the members of the electorate that did come to the polls in Gros Morne, most stuck with their initial preference. As Manigat topped the poll nationwide in the first round, this should not be dismissed.

As the reports came through on Monday that voter turnout had been similar throughout Haiti, speculation began of who would emerge victorious. Martelly’s young supporters had enjoyed a colourful campaign trail, but could they be relied on to have actually gone to the polls? The provisional results of the election will be announced by the CEP on the 31st March, with the final results following on April 16th. While hopefully these announcements and the following transition of power can occur peacefully, it appears that Haitians, in their millions, rather than expressing their views by voting, have done so by not voting. Whether these views are a sign of support for Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas, a sign of apathy throughout the country, or otherwise is open to debate.

Biwo your head in the sand: one of the polling offices, without much of a queue

The count proceeds under observation.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


One of the associations many people make with Haiti, aside from the earthquake, voodoo and a dynasty of dictators, and an association that is of a much less grave nature, is with musician Wyclef Jean. A Haitian who found fame with rap group The Fugees in the mid-nineties, Wyclef has done work of mediocre acclaim since, but has remained in the public eye, especially in Haiti. He recently came prominently to the attention of the international media by announcing, early last year, his plans to run for the office of President of Haiti in the 2010 elections. He was subsequently denied the permission to run for the office, as he had not been resident in Haiti for the requisite period of time. Wyclef has been politically outspoken with regard to his native country, and has done considerable work to put aid money into Haiti. Notably, he established the Yéle Haiti Foundation, which provided scholarships for thousands of Haitian children in a number of cities in Haiti. The charities reputation, however, is far from amicable, having been the subject of criticism in relation to delayed tax reports and payments made by Yéle Haiti to Jean himself, including $100,000 for a performance at a benefit concert. Despite his dubious reputation, Wyclef is a household name in Haiti, as well as in the States, and many Haitians, particularly young males, would hold him in high regard. 

To draw an easy analogy, he's their Bono.

So to focus on the background to the events of the Friday just gone, Wyclef has recently announced his support for one of the candidates in the Presidential run-off election, Michel 'Sweet Micky' Martelly, formerly a fellow musician. I have written previously about some of the more farcical elements of this election, but to summarize, Martelly hardly seems like a man with the qualifications to hold the office he is running for, but given the lack of a strong opponent in Mirlande Manigat, as well as his overwhelming popularity, it seems that in all likelihood, Martelly will emerge elected. His popularity is only furthered by a tour of ‘political rally-come-concerts’ he is currently conducting in towns and cities around Haiti, as well as Miami, a city with a substantial Haitian migrant population. (As an aside, despite not being resident in Haiti, Haitian citizens living abroad are permitted to vote. Herein lies something the Irish government could learn from). Wyclef has joined Martelly on occasion at these events over the past two weeks. And so, on the night in question, I was not surprised to hear, on arriving at a local bar in Gros Morne, that the duo were performing at a street concert in Gonaives, a large city about an hour from Gros Morne.

The bar in Gros Morne is Panic Beach, owned by Tidenn, a giant man of about fifty years, who trained as a mechanic, and has worked for the nuns, as a driver amongst other things, for the thirteen-odd years that they’ve been here in Gros Morne. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but to any of the volunteers, American or Irish, who have worked with the nuns, he is a friend. It was Tidenn who broached the subject of the concert in Gonaives to the four American volunteers, two other Haitian friends and myself on Friday night, which was particularly quiet at Panic Beach. There were in fact no other customers present, and as it was pushing half nine in the evening, it seemed unlikely that there would be any further arrivals. Panic Beach is an outdoor bar that lies beside a river on the outskirts of Gros Morne, and with the opening of another bar in the centre of town, Ma Preférence, business in Tidenn’s is becoming increasingly confined to public holidays, or evenings that he has a band in to play. It was proposed, on a whim perhaps, that we travel to this concert in Gonaives. It was dark, and the only vehicle at hand was the nuns’ old Toyota 4x4, affectionately referred to as ‘Bon Sam’, an abbreviation of the large red print along its side which reads ‘BON SAMARITAN GROS MORNE / PENDUS’. Bon Sam has seen better times, and the registration papers of the vehicle are somewhat questionable. Nonetheless, it contained more than enough room for our party of eight, and there are few people who have driven the road between Gros Morne and Gonaives more than Tidenn. So it was decided upon to make the trip to Gonaives. We had just ordered a round of drinks, but Tidenn held the matter of urgency in higher priority than his Prestige beer bottles, and so we were encouraged to bring them on the road.

As any previous volunteer with UCDVO will tell you, the roads in Haiti ‘have character’, in a way that trip down the side of the Sugarloaf on a peddle-bike might have character. I wrote about the roads before I had arrived in Haiti, in January, but was surprised to find, on arrival, that the situation has vastly improved since last August on the road from Port-au-Prince to Gros Morne. The majority of the road has now been laid with tarmacadam, the noticeable exception being the last stretch between Gonaives and Gros Morne. A reasonable estimation of the journey time between these two towns, in a decent 4x4, would probably be about 50 minutes, town centre to town centre, with little traffic (there are no traffic lights, of course).

We were lamenting the lack of any radio or stereo system in the back of Bon Sam, and making up for it with sporadic renditions of ‘Ale lave platfom ou’, a current hit in Haiti, for no more than twenty-five minutes, when we noticed the favourable transition from dirt road to tarmacadam, and Tidenn announced our arrival by rolling down his window and shouting at a man across the street in typical booming fashion, asking where the concert was being held. The man indicated we head straight along the main road. We continued on, until the street began to become increasingly dense with people, and then as we reached a large open junction, saw UN police directing people and traffic away from a large pink stand with the words ‘MARTELLY TÉT KALE’ emblazoned across. It was established very quickly that unfortunately the concert had just finished, but that the duo of Martelly and Wyclef would be making an appearance at a hotel further back the road. A quick u-turn was performed and we somehow seamlessly merged into an entourage of official-looking vehicles with darkened windows. A large gate was being opened for the convoy up ahead, and we pulled in, the gate swiftly rolled shut behind us.

There are many hotels and resorts throughout Haiti. It is a Caribbean island after all, and whilst holidaying in a country as poor as Haiti does not appeal to many, there is a tourist trade, as well as the endogenous bourgeoisie society, and the off-duty UN and NGO staff, all of whom are catered for at beachside locations around the country. Many of the UCDVO volunteers have visited Kaliko, one such resort north of Port-au-Prince, which with a swimming pool and air conditioning, is a stark contrast to the capital city, only a thirty minute drive away. This particular hotel we happened upon on the night in question was not complete, but nearing the completion, as one Martelly supporter explained to me, showing me the swimming pool, the stage with outdoor dancefloor, the indoor dancefloor with disco lights and extravagantly oversized portraits of Haitian rap artists, the fountains that lined the walkways at the entrance, and the tiled bar with an adjoining pavilion, in which a buffet table had been set up, covered with food in anticipation of the presidential candidate’s entourage. Again, the contrast of the hotel with the streets just outside its gates vividly highlighted the degree of the poverty gap in the country. This is not to say that we weren’t completely in awe and appreciation of these surroundings, and were trying hard not to look like fish out of water, always a difficult task for a blan in Haiti. There was no doubt that we had been admitted to this plush setting because the colour of our skin differed to that of almost all others present. Events were clearly in the preamble, a DJ alone on the stage, playing Kompas music at a reasonable volume, while those present, numbering only about thirty, all dressed in the shade of shocking pink used by Martelly in his campaign paraphernalia, sat around patio furniture sipping drinks from glasses - as opposed to plastic cups or glass bottles. We took a table next to the outdoor dancefloor, and awaited the arrival of the entourage.

After about an hour, I had gotten up to talk to one of the security guards, when the noticeable change in atmosphere indicated the arrival of Martelly, Wyclef, et al. Both the musician and the politician were met with great enthusiasm by the two Haitian friends who had travelled with us from Gros Morne, and much hugging and handshaking ensued. The security guard had been in the middle of showing me a range of identification cards he had in his wallet, and was not prepared to abandon the conversation with the arrival of Martelly’s party. Identification cards seem to be a form of status symbol here, and often you will see Haitians wearing their work ID attached to a lanyard around their neck on weekends or occasions when they are clearly not on their way to or from work. Martelly, Wyclef and co were busy getting food from the buffet by the time the security guard had finished showing me the cards in his wallet, so I got a drink and struck up a conversation with two young Haitian lads, strategically positioned to shake hands with the politician or the musician as they left the end of the buffet. Martelly was continuously surrounded by at least one security guard, as well as his wife and a tall white man who struck me as some sort of advisor, and as they left the buffet table, they bypassed myself and the two Haitian lads, and went to a table in the corner of the bar. I consoled myself when I spotted Wyclef leaning on a barrier, eating and talking to a bulky security guard. Myself and the two lads weaved over and, making eye contact, I shook his hand. I asked him how he was and how the concert had gone in Creole, and he replied to me in English that he and the concert were ‘good’, and then made a facial expression as if to anticipate further questioning. As I supposed striking up a conversation concerning the scamming of moneys from charitable organisations might make proceedings a little uncomfortable, and having little else in mind to discuss with the musician, I decided that it would be best to vacate the area before things became awkward, and, confident that Martelly would be similarly receptive to my conversation, went in search of the politician. He was still sitting in the corner surrounded by supporters taking photographs when I found him, and after waiting on the periphery for about five minutes, I became bored and returned to the table with the other white folk.

After another half an hour, it began to rain, and given the outdoor nature of the soiree, this was taken as a sign to conclude the evening’s events. As the entourage prepared itself to walk to its convoy, I pushed through the throng of people surrounding the politician. His wife had produced a yellow rain mac from somewhere (the shop must have run out of pink rain macs), and was putting it over her husband’s head. As he walked through the crowd, shaking hands with well wishers whilst security guards cleared the way, I made one final push, hand outstretched. He shook it, looked at me, and gave me firm smile and nod, before he was immediately whisked on by his people. The swell of achievement lingered for only a moment, before being brought back down to the common sense realisation that this man had not yet been elected, and if he was, it might not be the best thing for the country in a time where it needs strong, experienced leadership. Having said that, as we bounced along in the truck on the way back to Gros Morne, it had been worth the trip, and as revealed later by Tidenn as he produced a stuffed plastic bag upon our arrival, we had emerged in the receipt of the universal currency of politicians on the campaign trail – the free tshirt. Pink as my sunburnt forehead.