Monday, April 28, 2008

Food Riots in Haiti

Hola todos!

I’m back in Louisiana and re-integrating into Americana. In an effort to avoid unnecessary worry, I waited to post this entry til now, from my parents’ cozy living room...

Tuesday April 8, 2008

It feels like one of those moments in a movie that gives me goosebumps, when violent war or eery protest scenes flash on the screen, voices are yelling, and it's overlayed by some apocolyptic Ave Maria type music. It's usually the climax of a movie, and afterwards leaves me exhausted, without words, to stare dumbly at the credits as they roll by.

Except this is my office, my morning cup of coffee, and the radio rudely blaring of news of the ongoing violent protests in Haiti. Meanwhile, the church music is coming from another co-worker's computer. My Haitian co-workers are nervously scuttling back and forth. Everyone is trying to get news of the outside. I finally ask if we can turn off the protest news, because I'm in no comforts of an air-conditioned dark movie theatre, and my head is starting to hurt from the barrage of noise and information.

The gunshots started yesterday afternoon when I was in my boss's office. With no clue of what was about to begin, I laughed and asked if I could get a ride home instead of my usual walk. The shots continued throughout the afternoon. At one intense point, they sent us hiding under our desks and away from the windows. My laughing was replaced by an empty, tight feeling in my stomach, and wide-eyed alertness.

The culprit, rising food prices. Talk here is that drug-involved gang leaders ousted from the slum of Cité Soleil could be sparking the protests, or at least taking advantage of the situation and fueling the flames for their own purposes. Here's a brief background:

Yesterday, police helped all our employees get out the gates safely. Fonkoze's walls are thick and high, so I haven't been worried while I'm in here. A co-worker who'd somehow been outside though, had returned to the accounting division holding an orange-sized rock, streaked with blood. Friends of mine picked me up from work yesterday. They had me stay with them last night, as my apartment is just minute's walk from the thick of the protests around the Presidential Palace. They picked me up from Fonkoze, dodging the rocks in the road, and flying past any bystanders left in the streets. Roads around the city are blocked with demonstrators and flaming barricades. Stepping outside yesterday afternoon, I had my first intake of the distinctly unforgettable smell of burning tires. They're banging on the gates of Fonkoze as I write, I'm waiting here until things calm down. The Haitians are leaving the office now; I'll stay here with my boss where I feel safer.

All my friends have been amazingly good to me, passing me odd canned goods from their pantries until I can safely get to a grocery store. I'm home in less than three weeks, and not sure if I'll see the climactic war movie scenes in quite the same light anymore...

Wednesday April 9, 2008

Last night the rain pounded on my roof more furiously than ever before, since I’ve arrived in Haiti. It comforted me though, drowning out any other sounds, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. Who wants to riot in the rain?! It was the end of day two of the riots—a day filled with gunshots and BOOMS! By late last night though, the sound of the rain was mostly filling a void, an abnormal silence, actually. The streets were cleared of the average pedestrian and even the usual rooster calls were missing. (Yes, roosters here crow any time they get the itching to do so!) Earlier in the evening, my electricity had gone out and I was sitting at my neighbors, reading. She’d noted the only noise left was the crickets.

Yesterday morning, we all got out of Fonkoze by about 10am, before the roadblocks became truly impassable. At home in the afternoon, from my bedroom window, I could see people running in my street. Gunshots were alarmingly too close by. The explosions continued all afternoon, loud booms of I-don’t-know-what. Throughout the day, friends and I kept in touch by phone. Mostly, my friends called me, because I’m running out of pre-paid cell phone minutes, and can’t go out on the street to buy more minutes from a vendor! Some amigos of mine got home yesterday by armored convoy. (I walked home with another Fonkoze employee.) The Embassy gang passed through the thick of downtown, in front of the Presidential Palace. They reported that anything that could be thrown in the streets was. People everywhere, and the front gates of the Palace were seriously mangled. The crowds thronging the Palace yesterday weren’t successful breaking in because armed UN guards held them off, which was probably the sounds of gunshots I heard.

Andy, a friend of mine who teaches at a school further from downtown, was stuck at school for hours. (Sounds like a teacher’s nightmare!) Some of her students who’d tried to leave had to turn around and come back because they just couldn’t get through the roadblocks. A parent who was driving to the school to get her kid was forced out of her car en route, the car was stolen, and the mom walked the rest of the way to the school, through the chaos. Another parent left two separate vehicles at the various roadblocks, and finally got to the school on a motorcycle taxi to find her child. People are in such a desperate frenzy to get where they are going that they’ll hit your car and just keep going. The roadblocks, protests, and shootings have spread throughout town now, even in the zones where the rich blans normally go to feel safe.

Today, day three, nobody is going to work—no way to get around! Hope you’re not in labor! My neighbors are in the compound with me, which reassures me. I did a food inventory, and should have enough for ten days. About half of that is straight rice though. Fortunately for me, some former tenant left behind an abnormally large amount of tarragon and balsamic vinegar. (Who eats balsamic vinegar in Haiti?!) I bet I can make something snazzy with that though! Rumors are saying the protests should last only three days. President Préval is supposed to address the nation today… (He was supposed to speak yesterday afternoon, then last night…) Hmmm, we’ll see.

Truly, my greatest worry is that my Mom will find out what is going on in Haiti! My Dad has been seriously ill and in the hospital for over four weeks now. I think Mom would implode if she has one more factor to make her stress right now. It’s her birthday today, too. Knowing I probably wouldn’t have internet today, I craftily sent the early Happy Birthday e-mail last night, (“Look what a punctual early-bird daughter I am, Mom!) so that hopefully she won’t suspect a thing. J She’s so composed, but just doesn’t need to know this now. She’s helpless in the situation and it would only cause her worry. I’ll be home so soon anyway, a bit over two weeks. In a moment of lucidity, Dad had joked a couple weeks ago that he wasn’t in the shape to come get me if I got kidnapped. I promised I’d behave…! I doubt our local Lafayette Daily Advertiser covers Haitian news. (More likely to find schedules of the Rayne Frog Festival, the Delcambre Crawfish Carnival, and Zydeco Joe’s next musical appearance!) If any well-meaning neighbor or friend says anything to her about the situation down here, I’d want to sock him in the face!

Tuesday April 15, 2008

By the Thursday morning of April 10, day four of riots, friends and I had an elaborate scheme of crack-of-dawn maneuvering to extract me from the craze of downtown Port-au-Prince. Not knowing which way rioting would turn or how long it would last, I welcomed the chance to get out of the haze and stay in the security of my friends residential neighborhood. I felt guilty though that I was going to enjoy a day with friends, at their apartment complete with pool, while the real reason we were even liberated from working was everything opposite of such comforts!

Haiti is FULL of these dichotomies.

I was ready for action by sun-up at 5:30am, Operation Skedaddle Out! At which point my BOSS calls me! (Surprise!) In a turn of events, I was out the door by 6am for a field visit to one of the Fonkoze’s branch offices in the rural North instead. As Boss and I drove to the airport, we saw the charred black leftovers of burnt-tire barricades everywhere. The gas station quickie mart around the corner from my front door was completely looted—huge glass windows all busted. The pattern of destroyed windows, some raided offices and stores, and overturned dumpsters in the streets repeated itself all the way to the airport, where I caught a flight North.

By the time I got to our cozy Fonkoze-peach-and-purple branch office in Lenbe, it felt decidedly like Haiti, but a world away from the craze of downtown capital.

PS—I still plan to post some last best-of-Haiti pictures... :)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Leaving Fonkoze

Fonkoze’s Port-au-Prince branch office, resplendent in barbed wire :)

Friday, April 18, 2008

I’m not ready to leave Haiti!!

It’s my last Friday night in the country. No, I’m not out on the town… in typical I-live-in-Haiti fashion, I didn’t have a ride for an evening out, so I’m hanging out with Ramen noodles, garbanzo beans, and a good book tonight! I don’t mind, I need a chance to gather some thoughts, and a bigger bash is planned for tomorrow night.

There were times when I was ready for this moment of departure—almost counting down. And now it’s here, and I don’t want it. Even in the thick and the mess of the violent food riots, or on crutches, this is where I’ve wanted to be.

I just said goodbye to my boss. We both got teary. And I needed a hug. It’s in my genes—Mom cries just as easily! I wasn’t expecting the thoughtful gifts and kind words my boss left me with, and it set off the sentimental switch. It is an amazing feeling though, when a boss tells you, if things don’t work out in Cameroon… you are welcome back here any time.

And my Haitian colleagues. The chief accountant, who sits back-to-back from me with about 2 feet of separation in our cozy quarters, constantly cracks me up with her favorite emphatic expressions, so much so, I’m sure I’ll be repeating “MezANMI!” and “ohOO!” plenty once back in the States. The deputy director, who when he is nervous, makes an endearing high pitched “Eeeeeee!” noise while smiling and laughing. My accounting colleagues—the ample and patient help I’ve gotten from so many of them when at times I was feeling like a very impatient blan. I really appreciate them. Even the adorable kids of my colleagues, who often come into accounting and traipse around after they’ve gotten out of school—I just had to squeeze one of them’s pigtail puffs today!

I realize—well—I like to work. I like to contribute. I like to see that I’m making changes in an organization for the better. During my six months at Fonkoze, I had taken the place of one of their senior accountants, who unexpectedly quit just as I arrived. So I had ample opportunity to really get into the weeds of my work. Of course in DC I worked an insane amount, and here, it’s toned down toward normalcy, but I still comfortably put in ten hours a day on no salary. There’s a piece of me that knows I could really help Fonkoze and could contribute even more… if I stayed. I think my boss and I both know it, thus the tears, and feelings of mutual appreciation. In general, Haiti is a place that brings out the strong feelings in you. Life here is just more intense.
(Like, for example, the fact that I am going to work til about 1pm before my 4pm flight on Thursday! :)

But to end on a lighter note that gives you a little feel of my Fonkoze day-to-day, there is an ad painted on the wall directly outside the office. I see it everyday coming in and out, but never knew for the longest time what it was! A soccer team? no. Another friend had thought… a security service? Nope! The ads are so thoroughly ubiquitous, friends and I have even played a game of “how many Pantè ads can you spot?!” while driving through rural towns. So, mes amis, guess this product! The winner gets a cookie. :)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Downtown Port-au-Prince, April 8

April 15, 2008

I can’t shake an odd feeling.

In his book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Paul Farmer described an encounter that is running through my head. Early in his work in Haiti, Farmer had a conversation with another American doctor working here. The latter was preparing to return to the United States definitively. Farmer asked the other doctor how he was feeling about his imminent departure, and it was clear the doctor was ready to disconnect from Haiti, and delve back into a life of Americana. Farmer realized he was the opposite, that he couldn’t just “turn off” Haiti when he wasn’t here. He couldn’t just forget about it all.

Maybe prior to the last ten days, I could have unplugged from Haiti and walked away, like the perky American doctor, ready to get back to full-time USA! But ignorance is bliss, and I don’t feel I have the luxury of ignorance any more. The food riots of last week and the continued unrest leave an indelible imprint over me. Living in Haiti I am forced to notice what in America we largely can’t be bothered to think about. But I am forced to care because the food riots are not just in Haiti. Yesterday, CNN reported the following:

"This is the world's big story," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"The finance ministers were in shock, almost in panic this weekend," he said on CNN's "American Morning," in a reference to top economic officials who gathered in Washington. "There are riots all over the world in the poor countries ... and, of course, our own poor are feeling it in the United States."

"In just two months," Zoellick [the head of the World Bank] said in his speech, "rice prices have skyrocketed to near historical levels, rising by around 75 percent globally and more in some markets, with more likely to come. In Bangladesh, a 2-kilogram bag of rice ... now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family."

Looking for food in the dump.

Many things happen in Haiti, poorest step-child country of the Western hemisphere, where people can seemingly shake their heads and say, “That’s just Haiti.” Our infamous mud cakes are an example. But the hunger riots are in Egypt, CAMEROON, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Bangladesh, Mozambique…! With food prices rising on staples by 75% in two months time, it seems life as we know it is changing.

I’m not scared, but wide-eyed alert, as I am soon going to live the next two years on a Cameroonian salary. About $11 a day. It’s what many of my Haitian colleagues at Fonkoze earn. In contrast, some 65% of Haitians live on $1 dollar a day; 75% “get by” on $2 daily. I’ll no longer be in the category of thinking about filling my gas tank, but my belly. It’s a shift for me. How much longer until the shift creeps upward through class, salary range, and national borders?

Downtown Port-au-Prince, April 12

See the full CNN article here:

And again, Haiti's hunger on the front page of today's New York Times:

Monday, April 14, 2008

Crutches :)

April 13, 2008

An alarming number of folks in Haiti lead their lives on one leg, one stump, and crutches.

For me, as many of you know, it’s a bit of a tradition to break some bone in my body roughly once a year. Now I can add Haiti to the list of places where I have been busted-up and on crutches!

I either break/sprain my body parts in a fit of athletic glory, or on a sidewalk/curb. Prior to last night, my athletic : sidewalk ratio for injuries was 8:1. Sadly, it is now 8:2. I just didn’t see a small step outdoors at a friend’s apartment last night!!! So as a result, I have a bad purple sprain and a grapefruit-sized ankle.

But in Haiti, life is never as simple. Yesterday afternoon, a UN policeman was pulled from his car and shot execution-style in the back of the neck. It happened by the market in front of the national cathedral, a 15-minute walk from my house. The random-ness of it rattles me. This comes after a week of violent riots in Haiti, which resulted in yesterday’s ouster of the Prime Minister. By yesterday, many of us were beginning to think that the worse had passed. My confidence in that idea is shaken now.

On a personal level, I’m normally over-confident in my ability to protect myself in the streets, being tall, generally athletic, and in decent shape. Now, I’m a little scared. Nothing says target like white girl on crutches. I’m in Haiti for 11 more days now, and this weekend’s events are compounding my already jumbled emotions about leaving this place I’ve grown fond of, and these amazing people, with whom I’ve created powerful memories.

As I sit and write in the dark, I vaguely wish for a little electricity. There’s not much gas left in the country after the riots, so our generator silently waits unused in a corner. I’d love a bag of frozen peas or a few ice cubes to throw on my grapefruit ankle, but that won’t happen tonight. I feel insanely lucky even, that a friend of mine who works at the US Embassy drove across town this morning to pick me up a pair of crutches from the Embassy medical unit. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I heard the crutches were going to come through. If this happened to your average Haitian, you better believe they wouldn’t have such resources at their disposal, or the other generous friends who even drove me out for brunch this morning. I was able to happily carry on with my normal plans, just turning a couple heads as I one-legged-hopped through the restaurant. (This was before I received the crutches!) When a Haitian is on crutches, it is because they are missing a leg. Amputations abound here, relative to what I’ve seen in the US. Crutches are battered and wooden, stumpy, like the amputated extremity. What are they going to think of some white girl with two full legs, still on crutches?! An average Haitian would suck it up, hop on a taptap anyway, and get to market to sell their wares, get into their fields to work, or not be able to feed their family that night. I realize that treating my injury in Haiti, although atypically difficult for me, is a walk in the park compared to the alternatives of the Haitian peasant.

With my looming departure hanging over my head, and my shiny metal crutches in hand, I’m feeling more American than ever. And I’m feeling grateful.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


I’ve found a few similarities between my US of A and the Repiblik d’Ayiti. Some similarities are more comforting than others.

Girls being girls.

When I started my employment at Millennium Challenge Corporation, an arm of the US government that distributes US foreign aid, I signed some clause that said I would never use the workplace as a grounds for my own entrepreneurship, business interests, or personal profit. Not so at Fonkoze!!! Regularly, some chica in the accounting department will come into the office with a suitcase full of clothing to sell. In the case of one esteemed male colleague, well, he brought in a whole slew of pastel-colored panties to work one day to sell. Apparently it’s his wife’s business.

SO. Yet another colleague had brought in a suitcase load of clothes from Miami. One of my colleagues asks me, Kate ou pa vle gade rad? You don’t wanna check out the clothes? No, mesi, m gen suffisament de rad! No thanks, I’ve got enough clothes!

I discuss a bit further with one colleague, a beautiful woman named Vayola. When I explain that I don’t need new clothes because I already have enough, her response is Me li fo renouvele detenzanten. But you have to renew your wardrobe from time to time. I signal to the lovely pink shirt I am wearing. I bought it 6 years ago for 10 bucks. M ap pote ca juskaske li dechire! I’m going to wear this til it rips! Maybe if I had a huge whole here (I signal to the shirt) wi, I’d buy a new shirt.

That said, I’ve got some gorgeous and well put together colleagues. I, on the other hand, have worn my last four pairs of pants until they split right up the seams!! Some DC friends have been lucky (?) enough to be witness these events. :)

I just hadn’t expected to be arguing this point in Haiti. In the poorest country in the western hemisphere I’d assumed, maybe naively, that folks would treasure and keep material goods longer, as grandparents who lived through the Great Depression do. Is it so common that so many women want to buy unneeded objects, look good, and have up-to-date fashion? More so than I thought.

The other universality. Tea Parties.

I was up early this morning, and gazing out the second-story window of my apartment. I could see into the yard of my Haitian neighbors, and was observing little Lovelyn, the 4-year old, in action. Lovelyn had propped up her big white doll so it was “sitting” on the clothes rack in her family’s small yard. She carefully arranged stones around the doll to support it and make it comfortable. She chatted with the dolly in a sing-song voice, although in a tone too low for me to hear or understand. It all reminded me of many images of myself playing on the carpeted floor of my room as a 4-year old, with the low plastic table and chairs I used for similar formal tea-party occasions.

The kicker was when Lovelyn brought out what resembled the tea set: a tray with a few glasses on it, and set it down by the doll. Granted, the tea party took a bit of a different twist when Lovelyn walked a few feet away and dropped her pants to take a pee in the backyard, then promptly return to tea time.

It warmed my heart to see her enjoying the carefree pleasures of tea, and to know that plastic chairs and tables are not necessary for tea, when well-placed stones will suffice!