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.