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.