Category Archives: Port-au-Prince

Port-au-Prince is the capital of Haiti

The old military airfield – pictures

Some pictures taken during a registration drive at the old military airfield in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Same pattern as last time – we gave out flyers, sent in the sound trucks to inform and entertain, created a bit of a party – and then the registration began.

I love some of these photos. It is amazing how high-spirited Haitians remain, especially if you offer some hope. Music can be enormously powerful in these situations.

After I create a set like this, I like to make a quick iphoto slide show, and add on a nice nostalgic tune – in this case to Fool on the Hill by the Beatles.

It’s quite an experience – you see and do all these overwhelming things during a day, but it goes by so fast you don’t really register them until later. A relaxed photo viewing session, set to music, puts everything into focus, the historic nature of these events. This is really significant stuff. I sincerely hope the world doesn’t walk away this time.

APOLOGIES FOR BROKEN PHOTO LINKS – the UPDATED FULL FLICKR SET IS HERE

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DJKennyMix plays Champ de Mars; local outreach, my four jobs

Here’s a short video I made of our registration process, currently talking place around the country. Our first stop was the large settlement in Champ de Mars, the public park outside Port-au-Prince’s destroyed presidential palace.

It is an important part of the big picture. The information we get gets plugged into a larger strategy to (as far as we can) beat the rains, which consists of four main approaches – enabling people to go home (debris removal from home areas etc), helping people find host families, to support the ad hoc sites where people have gathered, and to plan and create new sites. (We have a very cool map on cccmhaiti.info which, with Google Earth, you can fly around the city examining all the sites in intricate detail.)

In all of this communications are crucial: and that means talking to Haitians in their own language and culture. As the media and communications officer for the International Organization for Migration, I have four jobs – dealing with international press, coordinating within the UN system, producing my own media (like the video below) and local outreach.

The last part is in many ways the most important; absolutely crucial to the success of the entire operation here.

Traditionally people had a sense of “this is the project” and “this is the communications of the project”. That is changing – albeit not fast enough. The humanitarian aid system is learning that you cannot delink the success of a project from the communications around that project, especially in a country like post-earthquake Haiti which has very limited local communications capacity.

In the first days after the Jan 12 earthquake, radio was central. An organisation called Internews organised a regular slot on 27 local radio stations in creole. There was also a lot of activity around SMS, which is clearly a growth area worldwide – with Thomson Reuters organising messages out, and Ushahidi organising messges in – but it’s effectiveness remains a little unclear.

Then there are more direct forms of communication. The video shows one: the soundtruck, with a DJ, going around playing music, talking to people.

Haitians, as all people, need more than food and shelter. They also need entertainment, and fun. These are basic requirements for a fulfilling life. So we try to address both with the roadshow – we play some nice music, and also talk about what is happening.

The result was heartwarming. Kids and women dancing in the street, smiles, a good mood all round. This was a valuable outcome in itself.

Even more encouraging, people the next day lined up peacefully in their thousands. What could have been a threatening tense affair, was remarkably relaxed. I like to think we had something to do with that, although I am also constantly amazed by the internal discipline of the Haitian people during this crisis. Given the situation and context, there has been remarkably little violence.

We have also created flyers with a local comics artist, Anthony Louis-Jeune. I have a new guy on the team – Bertrand Martin – who set up a marketing agency here before the quake, and who is proving invaluable at taking some of the load.

This is the flyer we are using in our next registration:

draft 1

In the longer term, I have many ambitions. I would love to create a radio soap opera, starring Haiti’s best comedians, charting the life of a family dealing with displacement.

It’s a winning formula, that has worked in many countries. Again, the mantra is to both entertain and inform. We let the artists do their thing, make it a good laugh, a fun event, but also push one message per show – which could range from wash your hands, to how to form a local community structure.

So much we can do, so much we can do. Interesting times.

On being berated for not doing enough

A letter by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator John Holmes was leaked to the Washington Post.

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations’ top humanitarian relief coordinator has scolded his lieutenants for failing to adequately manage the relief effort in Haiti, saying that an uneven response in the month after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake has undercut confidence in the world body’s ability to deliver vital assistance, according to a confidential e-mail.

Well, so be it.

No doubt many things could have been done better. For example, it would be better if so many emergency workers didn’t only come for two weeks. I understand everyone has lives, family, friends etc, but this constant throughflow of people really does make it difficult to get things going.

But I wanted to comment on what was not in the article. (And this is no reflection on Colum, who wrote an entirely fair story based on the Holmes letter. And this is in a purely personal capacity, no reflection of my organisation).

A lot of UN people died here. We were decimated.

This is not even mentioned any more.

For the first week, everyone was running around shellshocked, with no working communications.

We lost friends, partners and children. Families were ripped apart.

We were victims. Yet we have not been allowed any time to grieve, to cope with our loss. We are not considered victims, despite our lives being traumatically disrupted. Would have been worth a mention, I would have thought.

And people gloss over “logistical difficulties” as though it is a mealy mouthed excuse.

It is not. Haiti is a very poor country with very limited infrastructure that has just suffered a catastrophic earthquake, disrupting social systems, disrupting all governance, leaving roads clogged with traffic, rubble everywhere; with a road from the DR that floods, a small airport and a half-broken port. This isn’t just a logistical difficulty – this is a herculean challenge. Why is it so hard to get this message across?

It is as though one month after the world’s largest natural disaster we are expected to have reversed two hundred years of stunted development.

Have you ever tried adding a garage to the side of your house? How long did that take? Getting the planning permission, desgning the garage, contracting the builders etc etc. In the richest countries of the world, with working government and infrastucture, from start to finish how long would that take? A couple of months?

In Haiti, an entire capital city has to be rebuilt, with no infrastructure. With the rains now falling. With a hurricane on the way. With regular aftershocks and a new earthquake expected. While we all live in tents ourselves, moving around constantly, operating on very little sleep.

I am not saying don’t criticise where criticism is due. We must always search for better systems. It is important to recognise shortfalls.

But a little empathy would also be a nice thing.

More colours on the Route de Freres

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Colours on the Route de Freres

On one level, the twice daily drive to and from Dorian’s school is a chore. In another life, I am going to become a frontier traffic flow analyst, fighting embouteillages wherever they may lurk.

But take the time to look, and this drive is transformed into something rather special – a feast of shapes and colours, constantly rewarding, always fresh. I hope I never learn to filter it out.

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The traffic jam on the Route de Freres gives me time to stick my camera out the window and snap, even while negotiating oncoming lorries, tap-taps and pedestrians with my other hand.

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Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes not, but I have started to envision a few potentially perfect pictures, if only the traffic stops at the right moment, and the right confluence of people gathers at the right spot.

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It’s a curious thing to see beauty in such poverty. Let’s be clear – there is nothing beautiful about poverty itself. It’s the ugliest thing we know. But there can be beauty in the sights one sees in a poor place. And aspects of Port au Prince are stunning. The more you look, the more stunning they become.

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There is also a wonderful sensation of constant change. Two days ago this wall was white, now it counterpoints with a delightful orange:

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And the colors are so varied. Blues, yellows, oranges… this extraordinary green:

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The vigour of it all is what appeals most. A ceaseless shifting, evolving. I feel I could take a hundred photos of this same street, and each would be remarkably different.

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Tap-taps, Edith Piaf and Assez de la Misere

Every day I spend countless minutes watching Haitians in the back of tap-taps.

Tap-taps are the predominant public transport here; creaking pick up trucks with a bench on either side, mounted by a jury rigged plastic or metal roof, which squeeze in 10-12 people.

Every developing country has its version of the tap-tap. In Kenya, where I lived for five years, it was the matatu: mad mini-buses that menaced the highways in swarms. Those matatus were deeply unpopular, and always entrenched in some great battle with either the public or the authorities – neither of which could do without them.

I remember having a small altercation with a matatu; my fault entirely. But everyone on the street, all the witnesses who could have implicated me, unanimously declared the matatu driver to be the culprit. Coward that I was, I did not protest.

Anyhow, in Haiti it is the tap-tap. Often a nondescript white, but as likely to bear garish paint jobs proclaiming Jesus’ love, gaudy decorative flourishes bequeathing striking individual identities. One I spotted had large metal hands sticking menacingly from its sides – no doubt to force other road users to keep their distance. Good idea.

Merci Jesus... the ride is almost over

Marie-Rose, who helps clean at our house, tells me they cost from 5-10 gourdes (25c) for a ride. There are some proper buses (the one from Petionville into town is known as the ‘Obama’), but these simply aren’t sufficient to meet demand, she explains, and for the most part the tap-tap is the only option.

I excuse myself for not showing solidarity by taking the tap tap because of my children, but I know deep down I would have avoided them anyway. I certainly shunned matatus in Kenya. Tap-taps are miserable bone-jarring affairs. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself stuck at the end of the bench, you face long minutes sweating beneath the blazing sunshine, breathing diesel fumes, and generally – I suspect – praying for the damn traffic to get a move on.

[UPDATE: I draw your attention to Ansel’s comment below. By its nature this is an impressionistic blog, fueled by biases both conscious and unconscious, and I have a lot to learn. I am always happy to be corrected.]

Yet I can’t help watching the tap-tap and their passengers. I always seem to be stuck behind one in Haiti’s eternal traffic jam. I am transfixed. They stop and start erratically, diving in and out of curbs (so much for the ‘arrete tap-tap’ signs) and pose a constant hazard. (Add that to potholes, mad truck drivers, and hordes of people walking in the road at every point, and every drive in Port au Prince becomes an adrenaline fuelled obstacle course.)

I feel like a denizen of Versailles, venturing out in his gilded carriage, hypnotized by the sights without. I want to take more photos – tap-taps would make a great essay, I think – but for the most part I can’t bear to do so. Snapping pics of transport hell from my air-conditioned 4×4 of others’ public transport hell feels dirty.

Tap-tap passengers often carry a blank, distant gaze, no doubt dreaming of elsewhere, willing the ride to be over. I wonder what the rules of eye contact are? Some people chat; some stare fixedly into space.

It is impossible to stay poised in a tap tap. Occasionally passengers catch my eye, quickly look away. There is no dignity in being watched in a tap-tap. (I am struck by Marie-Rose’s lack of complaint at her own tap-tap rides, which must be gruelling. She works for two families. It is what it is, I guess. Today, I discovered her uncomplainingly washing herself in a bucket in our back yard and felt awful. I told her she should really use the spare bathroom upstairs. I was shamed by how grateful she was.)

Surreal musical accompaniments drift over the car radio. One moment it is Edith Piaff – ‘les trois cloches’ – warbling French chanson, instant nostalgia that fits surprisingly well with the ambiance. Then a jaunty jingle: “assez, assez, assez… assez de la misere”.

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I listen to one academic, in love with his own diction, railing against the UN. “Le Minustah, les Nations Unis, Mr Annabi, Ban Ki-Moon… excusez moi l’expression, mais c’est toute la meme merde.” He stresses each “i” in the series. An occupation without vision, he calls it. The interviewer politely suggests that the UN is there to provide security while Haitians provide the vision. The academic blusters. It’s not as much fun having to blame yourself.

All the while, I conduct a constant chit-chat with Dorian in the back of the car, who quizzes me relentlessly about this or that sight. The world of money is beginning to dawn in his four-year old mind.

Why is the road so broken? Haiti has no money. Why does it have no money? It’s complicated. Do we have money? Yes, some money. Can I buy a car for my birthday?” and so on…

At one junction, young children start tapping on the window asking for cash. Dorian starts to press down the electric window button to say hi to his new friends. I tell him to put the window back up (feeling a bit of a heel, but protection of my kids comes first).

Dorian asks me why I didn’t let him play with them. “They want to take your money,” I said. He looks rather sad, almost weepy.

“But I don’t want them to take my Mummy.”

On house arrest, regret, reading gawker from Port-au-Prince and the therapeutic effect of traffic jams

A mild sensation of house arrest (I know, I know… hear me out before ye judge). The transport issue remains unresolved, so I have been getting two brief trips a day beyond these four walls – to deposit and collect Dorian from school. Tomorrow that will be reduced to one. I feel a little trapped.

There is a common emotional cycle amongst expats in challenging poor countries: elation (all those new sights and sounds!), slump (what am I doing here when I could be there?), then equilibrium. This cycle can play out repeatedly over multiple timeframes, and rarely fully disappears.

This is not entirely helped by finding oneself reading gossip on gawker.com about the latest celebrity bar in New York, and how fabulous it all is; although one finds comfort in snarky reader comments decrying said celebs as worthless.

In these moments of reflection, a nasty and dangerous parasite called regret can sometimes rear its ugly head. Regret is an insidious worm. It writhes in the creases of the mind, and casts pernicious shadows over past decisions. One’s better nature counters with rationality, with practicality and perspective (this too shall pass), but the worm slithers deftly past these defenses and burrows ever deeper.

Regrets? What's he talking about? He's got it made.

Yet help arrives from an unlikely quarter. The traffic jam on Port-au-Prince’s Route de Freres is a permanent fixture, and as one settles into its unhurried rhythm one cannot help but contemplate – as an expat – how carefree one’s life remains.

Hey mate - when you've finished feeling sorry for yourself, how about you buy an aubergine?

Market stall women crouch all day on dirty patches of crumbling concrete, beside stinking mounds of vegetable refuse. Sweating porters struggle past with overloaded wheelbarrows, finding scant purchase with collapsing tennis shoes, most likely cast offs from the US. The radio blasts a steady stream of uplifting Caribbean tunes; Benson tells me how, since the day he was born, he never knew a president who did not eventually run away from Haiti carrying with him all his ill-gotten gains.

Traffic jam? Pah. I'm a cop on a buggy. See me roar.

Benson is a trained network engineer; he has found no proper work since 2004 and is now driving expats kids to school. His wife, a university trained manager, has found no work either. It is an exercise in humility for intelligent people. Yet Benson finds genuine pleasure in playing the “sticky!” game with my three year old, and tells me of his struggles without any apparent resentment of the fact that mine are so minor in comparison.

At the school kids crowd round me while I cuddle Dorian goodbye, and I snap a shot of their fun-filed faces. I am looking forward to telling stories from this place, if only I can find an audience.

Kids wave to me at nursery school