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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The appointment today of 15 cabinet ministers in the Dáil came at a time when the country needed a ‘dream-team’ to be wheeled out, heads held high in confidence, ready to save the nation from oblivion. As the allocation of portfolios was announced, the question of the need for so many governmental departments arose. How crucial are these positions, and how much attention should they receive?

One of the cornerstones of the economy of a developed country is employment. Steady employment means taxable incomes, which means a government can fund things like a health system, roads, policing, schools and all the other things we take for granted (yes, even the Irish health system). These in turn provide employment in the public sector. It seems silly to simplify this to such an extent, but here in Haiti, this structure barely exists. Taxable incomes are virtually unheard of, so most of the money for the above comes from foreign aid. Again, all this is taken for granted in a developed country like Ireland, and so the system has evolved beyond the basics to include government departments with responsibility for less crucial matters, such as (forgive me) the Gaeltacht, Sport and Heritage. The order of priority of these affairs is a subjective matter, but the priorities of a government building an economy more or less from scratch should be unanimous. A solid department of finance is key, backed up by departments responsible for employment, education and transport. It reminds me of the exercise carried out in team-building weekends, and late-night college drinking sessions, where four people try to form a ‘table’ with their bodies. Each person has both feet on the ground, with their knees bent, and lies back on the lap of person behind them, who is at a right angle. This requires all four people to lie back simultaneously in a square, and if one person falls, the group falls. (I’m sure there are many appropriate engineering analogies relative to this issue, but this is the one that always comes to my mind.) The development of a country requires the simultaneous establishment and success of sources of employment, a functioning taxation system, infrastructure to facilitate transport, and education to further the qualifications of the workforce.  So this is the first page of every economics textbook, what of it?

 In overseas aid, particularly post-disaster, job creation is an area that is often neglected. The scale of the disaster in Port-au-Prince was extrapolated by the circumstances that lay in the city long before any seismic plates had shifted. Extreme poverty, and lack of infrastructure, drove people to the city searching for an income, meaning they lived in condensed, poorly constructed buildings, often over-crowded, in a dense semi-arrangement, such as the one on the steep slopes of Petionville, a suburb of the capital that was worst hit by the quake. Whilst jobs are currently being created by the aid influx, particularly in the area of construction, these are not sustainable. If and when the effort to ‘rebuild Haiti’ is completed, the number of jobs in construction will dramatically drop off. And a country cannot sustain itself solely on income tax from construction work. Right now in Haiti, roads are being constructed, and schools are being constructed, both at a rapid rate. These projects assist in addressing the issues of infrastructure and education, but job creation is relatively stagnant, outside of construction.

So why, you might ask, should we be worried about job creation in Haiti, when the live register at home is beginning to look like the 01-area phone book? Whilst we haven’t seen unemployment like the current situation since the 1980’s, the current level of unemployment in Haiti has not been seen in Ireland since before the creation of the State. Two thirds of people here have no formal employment. To go back to education briefly, the training of the workforce has increased as of late, again most notably in the area of construction, but third level education is still lagging behind. It’s like trying to dig yourself out of a hole with no training, formal or informal, in the usage of shovels.

The international community, in conjunction with the incoming government, needs to address the issue of unemployment, while it still has a presence here. Examples of projects that could be carried out include the chicken coop project UCDVO has funded previously, and about which I wrote last month. As farming is what most of the Haitian people have been doing to keep their families in food for generations, it is an area that they are already more than competent in, or at least have experience in. These sustenance farmers need assistance in transforming their farms into businesses. There are already some projects underway that I have heard about, with the goal of setting up the export of mangos to the US. Despite the abundant crop of mangos in Haiti every year, they are only a seasonal fruit, and cannot provide year-round sustainable income for farmers, and so there is a need to research and develop other potential markets for export, and not just to the US. There is also a need to address the issue of the importing of foodstuffs from Asia. However, given the minute crop of rice in Haiti relative to the demand, this does not look like it will change any time in the near future. Given Haiti’s tropical climate, it lends itself to the cultivation of many goods that might not fare well in other climates, and the export of such goods is an area where Haiti could potentially move to the fore, internationally.

Other areas in which Haiti’s export trade has previously blossomed are clothing and textiles. While undoubtedly, the wages of workers in such areas would offend most people, it is an area which could be regulated, and developed in cities other than Port-au-Prince. This could, crucially, balance out the number of workers in the agricultural sector. There are currently textile factories in Port-au-Prince, and the owners of these could be given tax incentives to open further operating plants at other locations.

Until the next generation of educated Haitians comes into the workforce, the majority of jobs will need to be in labour and manufacturing. When the next generation of educated Haitians come into the workforce, there will need to be an incentive for them to stay. In a country where international trade is increasing, there will always be a need for people educated in the areas of business, IT, languages, and engineering, to begin with.  However the initial steps need to begin now, while the international aid agencies are sending qualified people into Haiti.

There will come a stage when the aid cash stops flowing into Haiti altogether. It is our hope that by the time that stage comes, these four pillars of stable economy will be established. From here, the government can take it upon itself to pick more narrow, direct priorities to share its attention. These will obviously differ from (forgive me) the Gaeltacht, etc. To go back to the analogy of the ‘four-person human table’, this stage corresponds to the point where everyone else argues about which people the newly formed table could support, if they sit on top.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


We had a visit up here, last week, from a French woman who is currently working for the Clinton Foundation in Port-au-Prince. Amid conversation about the differences between the French language and Haitian Creole, I asked her if the cultures of her native country and the one in which she currently resides bear many similarities. Haiti being a former French colony, I would have expected her to say that some form of hangover remains, to a similar extent that the language persists (albeit in a mutated form). She surprised me somewhat by saying that no, the country was much more similar to the USA, culturally, than to France.

Having thought about this since, it only makes sense. In Haiti, I have yet to see any person displaying any attribute or custom that I would consider typically ‘French’. I have, however, lost count of the number of times where I have thought something particularly ‘American’. Most clothing here comes donated from the States, and it appears every other Haitian child owns a t-shirt commemorating one homecoming or another. Obama, whose popularity I mentioned before, is known to some children who don't even know their own President. Brand symbols such as the nike swoosh are sown onto the saddles of 50cc motos. The culture, it seems, that most young Haitian people aspire to, is African-American. The icon of this is of course musician Wyclef Jean, who succeeded in the Haitian-American Dream of going to the US and becoming a millionaire rap artist. You might think that this is no different in Ireland, but at least most transatlantic-antics are taken with a pinch of salt, and the likes of Crystal Swing keep our aspirations of becoming rap artists firmly in the ground.

Although Haiti had been under French rule between 1697 and 1804, France has had some, but relatively little interference here, when compared to the US. After the Haitian Revolution, when Jean Jacques Dessalines became the first ruler of Haiti, he set about massacring any remaining French or mixed-race Mulatto people on the island nation, save some doctors and pharmacists. The remaining French class was small, virtually non-existent. Later, between 1915 and 1934, the US military invaded and occupied Haiti, taking apart the country's constitution and effectively re-introducing slavery. Granted, during this period of time under the American occupation, much of Haiti's infrastructure was constructed. The United States withdrew in 1934, and between this time and the inauguration of Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, Haiti had no fewer than eleven heads of state. Relations with America fluctuated during Papa Doc's, and subsequently Baby Doc's, reign as 'President for Life'. Eventually, in 1986, under pressure from the Reagan administration to relinquish control, Duvalier Jr went into exile in France, leaving, critically, on an US Air Force jet. 

In the mid-nineties, America actually assisted in the restoration of a democratically elected head of state. Having been inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of Haiti, with 66% support, Jean Bertrand Aristide was deposed by a military junta in 1991, after only eight months in power. Through 'Operation Uphold Democracy' (which, on the list of US military operations on Wikipedia, is definitely the LEAST ridiculous name - see 'Operation Sea Dragon' and 'Operation Bushmaster'), former US president Jimmy Carter was able to negotiate, with the head of the junta Raoul Cedras, the peaceful restoration of Aristide as President in 1994. It is also of note that the US and the Organisation of American States (OAS) imposed isolating embargos on Haiti under the military junta. Whilst these embargos intended to increase pressure on the ruling parties, they ultimately had the opposite effect. The ruling elite and the military, as one, excelled in smuggling, both in fuel and in illegal drugs. The detrimental effects were mostly confined to the lower-middle classes, working in relatively new private sector jobs. The effect on the environment was also significant. A lack of fuel meant Haitians turned to alternative sources, which in turn increased deforestation. This will hold particular resonance with former UCDVO volunteers, who have worked on reforestation projects around Gros Morne.

The late nineties and early noughties seem to be a bit of a murky period for relations between Haiti and the US. From what I can gather, the following happened:
1.Aristide genuinely had the best intentions for his country and its people, and while realistically did not see his country dramatically evolving into a global force financially, he did want his people to maintain dignity in their relative poverty. Thus, he did not want his country to be taken advantage of.
2.This, combined with the popular support of Aristide, did not sit well with the US, but Aristide would be out of power in 1996, and under the Haitian constitution, could not stand for a second consecutive term.
3.Aristide was re-elected in 2001.
4.The US imposed a government aid embargo on Haiti in 2001.
5.Aristide was forced into exile in 2004. His lawyer claimed prior to this that the US had been arming anti-Aristide factions, who subsequently took control of northern Haiti. Aristide claims that on March 1st, 2004, the chief of staff of the US Embassy in Haiti came to his house, and told him that if he did not leave office, he and many other Haitians would be killed, and that he was then escorted to a flight to the Central African Republic by US authorities.

Prior to coming here, and even after, the general perception of Aristide I had was one of a dictator. This, I have since become aware, is probably due to the general control of the US over the media. Aristide’s general demeanour of a passionate, vociferous priest doesn’t help.  In recent days, there have been a number of open letters written to the Guardian Newspaper, London, calling for the return of Aristide from exile in South Africa. The general perception of liberal news sources outside the US, is that there is pressure from the US on South Africa to keep the former President out of Haiti until the run-off of the Presidential Election is held here on March 20th.

This brings us nicely to the most recent bout of alleged US interference in Haiti. The current elections have no doubt come at a poor time. Any country would need more than a year to re-establish order after a cholera epidemic, let alone such a massive earthquake. In the earthquake, the government buildings next to the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, purportedly taking many records of the electorate with them. The result of this was that a significant portion of the electorate did not receive their ballot cards, and was reflected in the 22% turnout at the November 28th General Election. The international pressure for Haiti to hold these elections, despite all the signs opposing it, had prevailed.

Pressure to hold an election was one thing from the OAS, but then, following the announcement of the provisional results, pressure to change the results culminated in an alternative line-up announced at the end of January, for the run-off election between the top two candidates, on March 20th.

As the foremost donor of aid to Haiti, one could argue that the US deserves a certain amount of input into how Haiti should be run, at least for an initial transition period. When responding to the reports by members of congress of US involvement in the deposing of Aristide in 1994, Colin Powell was quoted as saying "It might have been better for members of Congress who have heard these stories to ask us about the stories before going public with them so we don't make a difficult situation that much more difficult" and that Aristide "did not democratically govern, or govern well".

A running joke in our house is to list off the things that America 'invented'. For example, I'll say "Oh, this sandwich is really good" and Mitch will say "America invented sandwiches". Other examples include Jokes, English, Computers and many many other things America may or may not have invented (but probably didn't). One of the ones I thought particularly ironic was ‘democracy’. It seems that America has tried on numerous occasions to show Haiti how democracy should be done, and yet the model doesn't quite seem to fit. While culturally, it appears America has drawn the minds of the next generation, only time, and US immigration law, will tell if that leads to a more physical draw. For now, Haiti needs to develop a stable democracy, with a flourishing economy, and the US should support, but not try to impose this. 

Friday, February 18, 2011


This week has seen the beginning of two construction projects in Gros Morne: the first, is the much-mooted chicken coop, which has long since been on the minds of UCDVO alumni, since in the region of €10,000 was raised for the project over 2 years ago; the second is an extension to the Fon Ibo school - five classrooms and a block of latrines to be built on land adjacent to the existing school.

The chicken project itself has been under way in some form since 2007. To date, land has been purchased and fenced, a well has been dug, hens have been purchased in Jamaica, and the grain storage and guardian buildings have been constructed, both wooden structures. The final construction to be completed is the actual coop itself, which will consist of three brick rooms, each housing 50 chickens. The project is being overseen by Christie Newman, a volunteer and agronomy graduate from Washington D.C., who is here for 5 months, having previously spent a year living with the nuns in 2008. The coop will function as a co-operative (a coop-co-op?), enabling locals to buy eggs at a lower price, either for consumption by their families, or to sell on at the market. From looking on the internet, there are a number of other projects in Haiti, and globally, with similar goals of providing an economic ignition point for a small community. They seem like small projects relatively, but the work required from both the organisation responsible and the local labour make the simple task slightly more expansive, and as with all projects involving the purchase of land in Haiti, time-consuming. Aside from the planning and construction of the facilities, often there is also a transitional period required, to oversee the smooth and effective transfer of management of the project to a local body. It's all well and good building a chicken coop with 150 chickens, but if the community haven't been educated, and they're hungry today, two guesses as to where those chickens will end up. Having said that, chickens are a commonly-farmed animal here, and it won't be like throwing a load of Kangaroos into Dublin-west. They know how to look after chickens on a small scale, the transition in this case will involve training in the running of a larger business operation.

There has been a lot of press lately concerning the massive humanitarian effort ongoing in Haiti, concentrated primarily in Port-au-Prince. There seems to be a consensus that this effort, relative to its financial scope, is failing. Granted, the scope of such a humanitarian effort is unprecedented, especially in a country which was so poorly developed to begin with, so I for one think its relative success or failure might be unquantifiable. Having said this, a lot of money seems to have been pissed away. In an age where communication is ever cheaper, it would seem to me that the key to less money being squandered would be more communication between smaller organisations, or divisions of organisations even, with narrower, more direct goals. Maybe I'm wrong on this, but hopefully this small-scale chicken coop will become reliable source of income for the community.

The second project I mentioned was the ground-breaking for the Fon Ibo school extension. Fon Ibo is a primary school in the centre of a small community on the outskirts of Gros Morne. The school system in Haiti is similar to the Irish system, consisting of two infant years followed by six years in primary school, then an exam and transition to college, or secondary school. In secondary school, the first three years are capped by state exams, followed by another three years ending in another set of state exams. This year is then followed by the 'Philo' year, which acts as a preparatory year for University, and culminates in a third set of state exams. Similar to Ireland, children start at the age of 4 and complete second-level at the approximate age of 18. Or at least that's the ideal scenario. Not all schools are state-funded, in fact relatively few are. In Gros Morne, most of the schools, primary and secondary, are tied to a church or privately run. In schools such as these there is generally a charge, about an average of US$15 per year. Plus the costs for books, uniforms etc. Taking this into account, many families can't afford to send their kids to school, at least not at the age-appropriate times, and often children miss a year if parents can't afford to pay at the time. As a result, there are kids up to the age of fifteen still in primary school, and a considerable portion of secondary school graduates are well into their twenties.

Still, things are more than moving in the right direction, which can be seen by the increased enrolment rates in schools. With this, however, comes the problem of space. I know there are still schools in rural Ireland which might share a classroom between two or three classes of three or four pupils, but here, there are classrooms that house two or three classes of 25+ pupils each. Some classes hang curtains to divide them into two, or use the blackboard, or simply have the classes facing opposite directions, two blackboards on opposing walls.

This is the case in some of the classes in Fon Ibo school, so the expansion could not be more welcome. At the ground-breaking yesterday, pupils and their parents carried rocks from the banks of the nearby Troi Rivier that will be used to form the foundations of the new buildings, whilst the construction crew dug the trenches outlining the structure of the new school. This community involvement was an apt and encouraging accompaniment for the laying of the foundations of the classrooms.

Employment and education. Janey mac. As if you don't get enough of that kind of talk at home these days, eh? Say hi to Mary Hanafin for me.

The Ground-breakers: A representative from each class did their part.

Community Gathering: The rest of the school and a large group of parents gather to watch the ground-breaking ceremony, and help in the formation of the foundations.

Speech Time: Not short. 

Nice shovel.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I realise now that maybe the previous two entries were a little removed from what exactly I personally am here to do, so I thought maybe I should address that for a change.

It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived in Gros Morne, and I’ve just about adapted to the dual culture shock of living in an American household in Haiti. For those who have been in Haiti with UCDVO before, I would say it is very different. Firstly, thus far, the pace has been far removed from the manic nature of the summer projects. When it’s a four-week project, you are on a very tight schedule, where every day is pretty precisely mapped out. You really have very little time to stop and smell whatever it is that’s burning at that time. Second, is the obvious lack of the Irish group’s presence. Having a group of people of a similar age and cultural background with whom you can contrast your life at home and life in this new environment is one of the best aspects of the summer projects. You know like, we’re sound like, aren’t we? Third, everyone in the house has a work schedule that they are already familiar with, so it’s a bit more along the lines of ‘what am I going to do today?’ and then making a list.

Currently, the item at the top of my agenda is to become as close to fluent in Haitian Creole as possible, my fluency being a rate-limiting factor for much of the other work.  Easier said than done, eh? I am, at the moment, the only one of seven in the household without sufficient Kreyol to have a phone conversation. This, I feel, may be an advantage, in that it puts more pressure on me to ‘up my game’. Jenny, one of the American volunteers, has very kindly offered to give me hour-long classes, and I can honestly say that I haven’t read anything other than the grammar book ‘Creole Made Easy’ since I arrived. But the biggest benefit is obviously talking to Haitian people. I never previously realised the eagerness of Haitians to teach their language to non-native speakers. A few of the people I’ve met who have had some English, have expressed how much of a bon bagay (‘good thing’) it is to learn Kreyol, and of them, most have offered to teach me. Prior to this excursion, I had no French, and just enough Kreyol to get by at the camps, and had considered learning the language a laborious task. Two weeks in, I am now of the opinion that the language itself is relatively very simple, featuring very little in the way of tenses, and many of the nouns and verbs relating easily to their English translations. This grammar book I found in the house comprehensively explains every aspect one would require in everyday speech in about 40 pages. I emailed the book out to this summer’s volunteers earlier today, and joked that if volunteers had had this book in previous years, there might not be any work left for the new group to do here. I’m giving myself another two weeks to get to a more independent stage, where I will hopefully be able to hold a conversation. Watch this space.

Another of the current day-to-day jobs is helping another of the American volunteers, Mitch, on his construction projects. This week he has just finished construction on a two-room house for a single mother of four. The house is located near the Fon Ibo school where the American summer volunteers run their summer camp, and it is a very good house, with a latrine and a water cistern for harvesting rainwater. There was a construction team of five Haitians working on the house, who were, again, very keen to help me out with my Kreyol, and also very keen to learn my wife’s name and all my childrens’ names. That one took some explaining. Mwen pa yon masisi. Having just completed the house, Mitch’s next project is to oversee the building of an additional five classrooms for the Fon Ibo School. This is due to start next week, so over the next few days, I’ll be helping him with some renovation work on the existing classrooms.

As the work is still in its planning stage, it’s a bit too early to say what the projects for this summer’s Irish volunteers will be for certain. Liam Doyle, from the board of UCDVO, was here for my first three days in Gros Morne, and we looked at some potential projects. One of these was the construction of latrines for the people living on a hillside area of Gros Morne known as Empas Kade. It appears as though there are some latrines in the area, though not nearly enough for the population there, and given the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti, there is certainly a direct need for sanitation facilities. Part of ongoing projects in the area also includes the construction of stone walls, to stem the flow of rain water on the hillside, and thus preventing houses being washed away. There is a Ravine Committee, consisting of seven locals, who decide where and when to build these walls. UCDVO has also been involved in the construction of these walls in the past, as evidenced by the wet cement handiwork of ‘Don, des Irlandais’ on 23/7/07, and one Conor Tonry, at some stage in 2010. Other projects will undoubtedly come to light over the coming months: having a reputation of doing work in the community, people are not shy about suggesting future projects to the nuns or their associates.

But, as they say, it’s not all work. In fact, rarely do a few days go by where the household does not have an event of some type. Last Wednesday was the Feast of Manman Lachandeleur, the patron saint of Gros Morne. This was quite a big deal in the town, both to those with religious inclination and those without. The streets were lined with stalls, selling religious paraphernalia such multicoloured rosary beads and commemorative tshirts, and others that were straight-up gambling. This included one table with a roulette-style rotating wheel, only instead of numbers, it bore toy animals attached to the top, and bets were placed on painted pictures of the animals on the table. The true religious aspect of the feast did not go uncelebrated, however. Pilgrims from as far away as Port-au-Prince came to the overnight vigil in the church, and following the mass on Wednesday, a procession of about sixty to eighty priests, nuns and pilgrims attended a lunch up here in the sisters’ house. I kid you not, it was like a scene from Father Ted. And lo and behold, like there is at every religious gathering worldwide, there was a nun from Ireland present. Blanchardstown, in fact. Just goes to show how far Irish nuns will go for a good mass.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


It seems a rather large topic to cover in one posting, so I'm not going to. My understanding of Hatian Politics is only a small scratch in the dirt of a much deeper quarry of history. Having said that, the situation here is in flux, so I can give a somewhat accurate account of the events of late. 'Somewhat accurate' is a running theme throughout Haitian politics apparently.

To summarise the background to the election, on November 28th, 2010, the Haitian people went to the polls, after a delay of 7 months, to elect a new president, ten departmental senators, and ninety-nine local deputies. The incumbent President, Rene Preval, was due to leave office by February 7th, 2011, and despite the January 12th Earthquake, and an outbreak of cholera, pressure to hold the election prevailed.

Of the 19 candidates on the ballot paper, a notable exception was a candidate from the Fanmi Lavalas party, lead by Jean-Bertrand Arisitide, the former president of Haiti, who had been in exile in South Africa since his ousting from power in a 2004 rebellion. Fanmi Lavalas had decided on a candidate, and the party leader, Arisitide, had signed the endorsement via fax. However, in the period of time leading up to the election, the electoral council (CEP) changed the requirements such that the endorsement should be signed in person - a feat impossible for Arisitide and his party.

Another potential candidate of note was musician Wyclef Jean. Jean had departed from Haiti when he was 9 years old for New York, and according to many, is fluent in neither Creole or French, the two official languages of Haiti. Jean was deemed ineligible to stand for election as he did not meet the requirements regarding residency within Haiti in the past 5 years.

Opinion polls prior to the election varied wildly. However, Mirlande Manigat, from the Rally of Progressive National Democrats, featured prominently. Manigat, a former First Lady, had long been a leader of the opposition, and was running her campaign with a large emphasis on combating corruption. Rene Preval's Party, Inite, was backing Jude Celestin, who had previously taken charge of Haiti's road-building efforts (see previous post).

Okay, before this turns into the Wikipedia page for the election, I'll cut to the chase with regards to events. Provisional election results released in early December placed Manigat in first place with 31.37%, incumbent-backed Celestin in second with 22.48 %, and pop singer Michel 'Sweet Mickey' Martelly in third with 21.84%. The voting system requires a candidate to obtain more than 50 % of the vote, so the top two candidates go to a run-off election. Obviously, there was uproar at the difference of 0.64% between second and third place, and claims that ballot boxes had been stuffed in Celestin's favour.

On December 10th, it was announced there would be a recount.

Debate went on throughout December concerning the elections. Most candidates who did not feature in the top three called to scrap the election, and argued that the international community was pressuring the CEP to push the election through, even though it was obviously not without some element of tampering. One of the counter-arguments to this was the cost of another election: $29 million, which Haiti cannot afford.

January was quite an interesting month in Haiti. On the 17th, former 'president-for-life', Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier returned to Haiti, to a mixed reaction. He was subsequently arrested for fraud during his term in office. It was announced that the revised election results would be released towards the end of the month. Rene Preval's party, Inite, announced that it was withdrawing it's support for Jude Celestin. This led most to the conclusion that the two candidates that would be named to contest the run-off election would be Manigat and Martelly. Most were right, and after the customary delay, the election results were announced on the morning of February 3rd, with Manigat and Martelly contesting the run off to be held on March 20th.

Amid the ongoing delays, the general public, up here in rural Gros Morne, have grown tired of the election. It's old news. People, like in Ireland, are beginning to recall back to 'The Good Old Days'. Only in Haiti's 'Good Old Days', the country was run by Papa Doc, a self appointed dictator, who ruled by fear.

For the candidates contesting the election, the issues to be raised seemed fairly obvious: rebuild the country after the earthquake, educate the young, etc. For the most, candidates did not vary significantly. However, an issue which does not appear to have been addressed head-on is security. A view that I have heard numerous times from Haitians, is that at least under Duvalier, one could walk in the streets at night. There was no fear, except fear of the regime. But if you complied with the regime, happy days. People had houses to live in, food to eat, and jobs. Approval of Duvalier's methods may seem dramatic, but for most people, it makes sense. They are not political ideologists. They just want 3 meals, a roof and a pair of shoes for their child.

Another element which has arisen in recent days is the potential return of Jean Bertrand Aristide. There is a level of desire for his return: only today there were Pro-Aristide supporters burning tyres in Port-au-Prince, calling for the return of 'their president-in-exile'. However, whether his return, if it happens, has any effect on the future of the country remains to be seen.

With regards to the elections however, all is quiet, for the time being. The two candidates do differ in the way they are being sold to the Haitian people. Manigat comes across as a calm older woman, seeking to restore order after turmoil. She is not a radical feminist, and has not raised any massively contentious issues. She is a mother, looking to nurse her injured child back to health. Martelly, however, is one of the strangest politicians I've come across. Bonkers, to be honest. Search for his music videos on youtube. Catchy, eh? Now search for his campaign images. It honestly looks like somebody photoshopped a bald head onto a photograph of Obama. Haiti is still going through Obamamania, so this is no wonder. I've passed at least two 'Hotel Obamas' since arriving here. Martelly, who as the nuns here put it 'is famous for showing his briefs in public' has an obvious draw to a country with a very young population, but his qualifications for running a country are about as hard to find as a hotel named after George Bush.

The lead up to the run-off elections should be interesting, and hopefully, peaceful.