Friday, July 8, 2011

four years in pictures

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of my summit of Mount Katahdin and the end of my four-month hike of the Appalachian Trail. It got me thinking of all the places I've been since then. Here's a five-picture tour, with links to narratives from those days:

July 2007 -- On top of Katahdin. You can read about that day here.

July 2008 -- San Rafael, D.R., post-4th of July festivites. Title of the blog from one of those early July days: Whelmed...over and under.

July 2009 -- Las Galeras, D.R., 4th of July football game with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Reflections on what it feels like to find out about Michael Jackson dying several days after the fact and some pictures of horses on this blog post, from a few days after that.

July 2010 -- The Citadel, Milot, Haiti (this is actually September 2010, but I couldn't find any other pictures). I do, however, have a blog post from July 2010 from three days after I flew into Port-au-Prince to stay for the next two years.

July 2011 -- Mirebalais, Haiti, checking in on some clients. Business as usual.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

one year

When I was in the Peace Corps, I celebrated my one-year mark in the Dominican Republic by going to the beach with a couple of friends, enjoying one or eight Presidentes, and generally reveling in all the great things associated with living on a Caribbean island.

This Monday, I celebrated my first anniversary in Haiti by heading down to work, despite some oh-so-typical intestinal issues and an even nastier cold. I took a half day.

On that day in the D.R., I remember contentedly sitting around with my group of friends, feeling like I had come so far, and learned so much. One of those traveling three-man beach bands stopped by our table, playing "La Bamba," looking for tips, and my little group of gringos requested all the best Dominican classics, because we knew all the words.

This week, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how little I seem to know about Haiti, while at the same time giving myself a little pat on the back for at least being able to speak fluent Kreyòl and being able to navigate the city. In some ways, the two experiences aren't so different. A lot of the same tricks that I picked up in the D.R. -- spotting a helpful person (nearly everyone) versus someone who is looking for trouble (precious few), flushing a toilet with a bucket of water, reading by candlelight -- are useful to me here, too. I also learned that I need to keep blogging or otherwise I'll let this thing sit here for months at a time without updating. So, maybe that's the real point of this entry, to keep a little continuity, although it does coincide nicely with what should be some nicely thought out reflection on all I've learned over the past 52 weeks or so.

It's a cop out, I know, but I recommend reading Steph's blog for more of what we've been up to over the past month. (Oh yeah, Steph and her cat, Mittens, moved in. That's news.)

Mittens in her D.R. days, eating cookie batter or something, because her mom spoils her.

Me and Mittens's mom on Mittens's mom's birthday.

Before I do something crazy like posting more pictures of cats on my blog, I'll finish up this entry with an impromptu list of goals for this next year:
  • Learn more about Haitian culture. It is shockingly easy to live and work in Haiti and have the most minuscule amount of interaction with Haitians. Ask 90% of the expats who live here. While I'm happy that almost all of my coworkers are Haitian, I am going to try harder to make more Haitian friends outside of work and, in addition, try to learn more about the culture.
  1. Improve my Kreyòl. It's pretty good, but it could be a lot better. This is closely related to the above point.
  2. Attend a voudou ceremony. I've been missing out.
  • Find other interesting volunteer opportunities. There are tons of interesting things that people do that I'd like to get involved in. My friend has a creative writing group for a group of Haitian kids downtown -- it sounds great, and I still haven't gone!
  • Meet more interesting people. Haiti is filled with fascinating people, Haitians and expats alike.
  • Keep learning. Sounds kind of cheesy, I suppose, but I've recently felt how easy it is to get into my routine and stop challenging myself. That's no fun.
Looking over the list it seems like I could just sum all of those things up into the general category of "get out more." That I can do!

Monday, April 25, 2011

hola hispaniola, continued

Three weeks ago, I took a deep breath, composed myself, walked into my boss's office and told her that I was leaving Haiti in the fall.

Today, I told her that I accepted her offer to keep me here for another year or so. So much for composure -- maybe I'll have better luck next year when I try to leave!

In all seriousness, I had started looking forward to going back to life Stateside for a while, but I have recently started to really get into the swing of things here and, as luck would have it, it looks like there is a need for me here for a little bit more time.

In kreyòl, they have a proverb that says N'ap pran sis kreyòl, which is a reference to a hymnal they use in church. Sis kreyòl is "six kreyòl," the sixth kreyòl hymn in the book. One of the lines in the hymn is Pran'm jan ou wè'm nan, which means "take me as you see me." It's a bit of a confusing etymology, but the message is simple: we'll take things as they come. (Thanks, Sam, for the proverb history.) Sometimes, as much as you plan ahead and work yourself up over the future, it's better to just take things as they come. Not to say that a little foresight isn't useful, of course, but sometimes the unexpected solution ends up being the right one.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


I meet a lot of other foreigners who are living and working in Haiti, and oftentimes we get to talking. For those unfamiliar with the ritual of meeting another blan in Haiti, the first two questions that every single one of these conversations begins with are: 1) Who are you working with? and 2) How long have you been here? After a couple of months, I found that this conversation was no longer interesting to me, so I started to try to take it in different directions. No matter how hard I try, though, we always seem to end up talking about the same stuff: Haiti and the work that we are doing in Haiti.

People are generally too polite to comment on or criticize other people's work, at least to their faces. I feel lucky because the organization that I work for is generally well respected, and I think that people mean it when they say complimentary things. With that said, I know there are others who want to cringe when I mention that I work in microfinance, which is just fine. I'm not 100% sold on it either. Most of the time, though, we never get into any real conversations about the nature of our work. Each person thinks he or she is doing a fine job and that's the end of it.

When it comes to Haiti in general, however, the story changes. Here is where every person has an opinion, no matter who he or she is working for, no matter how long he or she has been in Haiti. People love to start their sentences with grandiose generalizations, saying things like: "You know what the problem with Haiti is?" Or, "This is what needs to happen to fix this place." There are a lot of different topics that can come up in a conversation like this, but they become significantly limited when the aforementioned unofficial rule of politeness is imposed. By taking away any sort of criticisms of what all the other benevolent foreigners are doing, the blame list gets narrowed down very quickly: Haitian politicians, Haitian elites, the Haitian poor, the Haitian education system, Haitian natural disasters, Haitian deforestation, and all sorts of other "Haitian" problems.

The conclusion that is often drawn, then, is that all of these "Haitian" problems have piled up on top of each other to the point that the country has descended into a quagmire from which it is nearly impossible to escape. It has become the job of the foreign aid and development community to come in and help Haitians (because God knows they can't do it by themselves). Each person and each organization contributes where it can -- with golden hearts, we're all just "doing our part."

What the conversation almost always fails to include, whether it be between two development workers in Haiti or between several supposed experts in the national spotlight, is any hint of historical context. Haiti has existed in a hostile environment from the beginning, always pitted in an unfair fight against the world's greatest powers. The history of foreign intervention in Haiti's affairs is shameful (and, by the way, completely on the record). Here are some examples (a lot of this is taken from a chapter in Noam Chomsky's book, Year 501):
  • Haiti wins its independence from France in 1804, completing the only successful slave rebellion in history. The French immediately levy a debt on Haiti for losses sustained in the war for independence that the government of Haiti does not finishing paying back until 1947. You are reading correctly -- that's 143 years.
  • The United States refuses to recognize Haiti as a country until 1862, when Abraham Lincoln decides that Haiti would be a great landing spot for ex-American slaves to land after the Civil War is won.
  • Between 1849 and 1913, United States Navy ships enter into Haitian waters 24 times "to protect American lives and property."
  • In 1915, the United States begins a military occupation of Haiti under President Woodrow Wilson, who would later win a Nobel Peace Prize (sound familiar?). Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, upon learning about Haiti, shows his respect for the country by exclaiming: "Dear me, think of it! Niggers speaking French."
  • Between 1957 and 1986, the United States supports the Duvalier (Papa and Baby Doc) "Presidencies for Life," under which 10s of 1,000s of Haitians are killed and terrorized, many of whom were accused of being Communists.
The list goes on. In some cases, the intervention was direct. In others, such as propping up the Duvalier regimes, it was more tacit. The common theme throughout, though, is that in the last 207 years since Haiti won its independence, it has constantly been used for the benefit of foreign powers.

When we frame the conversation in this way (which, again, is completely factually accurate), we see that the conclusions drawn about all the "Haitian" problems are disingenuous. Haiti's problems are, in fact, the direct result of more than 200 years of foreign meddling, which has bankrupted the country and facilitated the creation of a deeply-ingrained power structure, whereby the great majority of poor Haitians are not granted access to any of the country's resources.

The idea that we are all just "doing our part" to remedy these "Haitian" problems is equally troublesome. By approaching our work in this way, we ignore the root causes of the issues and resign ourselves to the Sisyphian task of palliative care. While it is noble to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, we must constantly ask ourselves whether or not the work we are doing is helping to change the structures of power that are keeping people sick, hungry, and homeless. If our work is not doing that (or, worse, if it is in fact helping to maintain or strengthen those structures), we need to re-think what we are doing. If not, we are all just "doing our part" to keep the Haitian people down.


Now that I got that out of my system...

Another random note: The band Arcade Fire, recent Grammy winners, played a surprise show at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday (here are some pictures from Rolling Stone). It would probably be cooler to say that I loved the show and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I showed up 45 minutes late and only caught the last song. RAM, the local band who have been on a hiatus from their weekly show for the past few months, came on after them and were great.

Friday, March 18, 2011

thousands of words picture form.

It seems I've been quite negligent when it comes to the old blog. Personally, things are going very well. I'm enjoying work, staying quite busy, liking the new house and, overall, feeling good about things.

I've had an eventful month or so since I last posted, which has included: some client graduations, a trip to the beach town of Jacmel for Haiti's version of Carnival (Kanaval, in Kreyòl), and a week spent hosting students from American University as well as a photographer who is working for us. I've spent a lot of time running around and have been thankful for the last couple of days I've been able to just spend being boring in the office.

Things may be returning to the exciting side, though, as former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide landed in Port-au-Prince after seven years spent in exile in South Africa. I've already gotten in trouble around here for spouting some opinions about the matter, but here goes anyway. In my opinion, whether or not you agree with Aristide's politics and whatever he has done (or not done) in the past, he is a Haitian citizen and has a right to be in Haiti. I'll leave it at that, mostly because I think that taking any argument further than that starts to delve unproductively deep into the realm of subjectivity, at least for this here blog. He is without question the most polarizing figure in Haiti and one of the most polarizing in the hemisphere. At any rate, it's not my decision to make as to whether or not he comes back to Haiti (nor is it, by the way, President Obama's, despite his apparent effort to keep Aristide from returning to Haiti by calling the President of South Africa and asking him to prevent Aristide's departure).

Anyway, he's here now, so we'll see. Or, as we say in Kreyòl, n'ap gade pou nou wè (literally, we'll look for us to see). Or, simply, n'ap swiv (we'll follow).

Oh yeah -- and the run-off round of presidential elections is scheduled for Sunday. It pits Michel Martelly vs. Mirlande Manigat. Tèt kale vs. Ban'm manman'm. "Bald head" vs. "Give me my mom" (actual campaign slogans). N'ap swiv.

Here are some photos of things I've been doing in the past month.

My team.

Getting down at a client graduation in Lenbe.

A skit at a client graduation in Lenbe.

Panoramic view from Tit Montayn, a five-hour walk from our closest branch.

Tit Montayn again. Can you see the market nestled down at the base of the mountains?

Kanaval in Jacmel. This particular guy, like many others, is sporting a mean pair of wooden wings that make an alarmingly loud sound when smashed together with a mechanism he has rigged up to his arms.

More wing devils.


Monday, February 14, 2011

house pictures

As promised, here are some pictures of the new place! Nothing too exciting, but it'll help you to have an idea of how I'm living.



Balcony (with easy access to the roof!)

Living room

Bathroom (not a closet - just drying some clothes)

My beautiful (and terribly dirty) 2003 Nissan Sentra

Neighborhood view to the left

Neighborhood view to the right

It's a work in progress - and every time we make a little progress we just seem to find more work. Slowly but surely, though, it's becoming home.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

tout bagay anfòm

I haven't felt particularly inspired to update the blog in a couple of weeks, but in the interest of continuing a good thing I thought I'd post a little update. Overall, though, tout bagay anfòm - all is well. Here is some what's going on with Haiti and with me:

Or selections, depending on your perspective. Here's a quick recap of the events up until now:

On November 28th, the first round of Presidential elections was held, where very few voters showed up and those that did were faced with widespread fraud. On December 7th, the results of the first round were announced: 1) Mirlande Manigat, 2) Jude Celestin, 3) Michel Martelly. The first two candidates were to go on to a run-off election, scheduled for January 16th. On December 8th through December 10th, nationwide protests forced the organizers of the election to go to a recount. This was due to the fact that Jude Celestin (the incumbent President's party's candidate) came in second, a fraction of a percentage point ahead of Michel Martelly, and most Haitians agreed that this should not have been the case.

On January 26th, the results were re-announced, with a slight change: 1) Mirlande Manigat, 2) Michel Martelly, 3) Jude Celestin. The incumbent's candidate was out, and the run-off election was reschedule for March 20th. There were no protests, which gave the impression that the people got what they want.

Democracy, right? Not exactly. As I've elaborated on before, the elections were fatally flawed from the beginning. With political parties arbitrarily excluded from participating and hundreds of thousands of unregistered voters unable to cast their votes, it was far from a democratic election. It appears now that the run-off election between Manigat and Martelly will still take place on March 20th, but it's a far cry from a democratic result when they received 6.4% and 4.5% of the registered voters' support, respectively, in the original election (see this CEPR press release).

Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc):
Haiti made it back into the headlines with the return of Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier a couple weeks ago. It's widely agreed that Baby Doc and his father were despots and killers, with the blood of thousands of Haitians on their hands. What isn't so clear is why he came back. The hypothesis that seems to have become the top rumor is that he was broke and needed to come back to Haiti in order to clear up some legal problems so that he can access some overseas bank accounts. Seems plausible, I guess. I'm happy enough just to ignore the guy, although if he's brought to justice for the crimes he's committed against his own people I wouldn't object.

Jean Bertrand Aristide:
Duvalier's return has opened up the door to another one of Haiti's Presidents of the past, Jean Bertrand Aristide. As this great post points out, though, it is almost a crime to even speak about the two in the same sentence. While a lot of news sources are wrapping their respective returns into one story, the two men have very different legacies. If you'd like to read more about Aristide and why many (including me) think that his return would be a positive thing for Haiti, read this article. It's got one of my favorite two-faced U.S. diplomacy anecdotes:

Regarding Duvalier's return:

"this is a matter for the Government of Haiti and the people of Haiti." (from State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley)

Regarding Aristide's return:

"today Haiti needs to focus on its future, not its past." (Crowley again).

You can't make this stuff up.

Dominican Republic:
In personal news, I just spent a great weekend with my dad, our friend Jeanne, and Stephanie in the D.R. We went to the beach, ate fresh fish, drank a bunch of Presidents, repeated the previous activities a few times, and watched the Super Bowl. It was a great getaway for the weekend (probably more so for the two who came down from Minnesota, but it was still nice for me, too). It's been a few months since I've lived in the D.R. full time, but it still feels like home in a lot of ways.

My trip back to Port-au-Prince was delayed by a day as Haiti's current president, Rene Preval, decided not to step down from power even though February 7th was originally supposed to be the last day of his five-year term. The bus company canceled the Santo Domingo - Port-au-Prince route for the day because there were some half-hearted protests in the Haitian capital and I guess they didn't want any trouble. Anyway, the protests only lasted about a day and things have calmed down.

New house:
I moved! I'll post pictures of the new luxury pad soon so you can all bask in its glory, but suffice it to say it's a great place and I'm very happy. It's got two bedrooms (one for me, one for my friend and colleague, Mor). a bathroom, a nice kitchen, living room, and a balcony. We're on the second floor, but the people who live on the first floor are hardly ever there (I think they live in the States). It's in a great location, in a nice neighborhood and, maybe best of all, cuts down my commute to and from work in half. It's a work in progress, and I've spent the better part of the past week and a half trying to finish it up, but it's definitely home, which is a good place to be.