I recently spent four weeks in Haiti. The original plan was to spend time with women in grassroots communities and speak with as many women as possible in Port-au-Prince.
As it turned out, my well-ordered plans were disrupted by elections, protests, cholera, petrol shortages, illnesses and just general issues of organizing and re-organizing. At first I was frustrated, verging on feelings of failure, until it dawned on me that whatever happened would form part of my experience and understanding of the challenges faced by the majority of Haitian women.
I arrived on 27 November, the day before the elections. Below is my diary entry for election day, Sunday 28 November.
Breakfast of eggs and fried potatoes and delicious strong black coffee with creamy evaporated milk.
Election day. I visit some polling stations with Thony. Thony is one of the many people who came to the house after the earthquake. He speaks very good English, as he was brought up in an orphanage in Cité Soleil and then later in a home for boys called St Josephs, so he has been assigned the job of my interpreter and official teacher. The seven-storey building was completely destroyed in the earthquake. All that remains is a pile of rubble. Fortunately, no-one was killed or hurt.
Thony is very tall and skinny, quietly spoken and extremely polite. Three other young guys who want to vote come with us, plus François, the driver.
We arrived at the first polling station in the Pernier district of Port-au-Prince. We had anticipated some problems with entering the compound – me because I am not Haitian and Thony because he did not intend to vote. However, we had no problem whatsoever. Everything was orderly and calm.
Waiting to vote.
Inside the compound there were several tables, each with the glass voting boxes and surrounded by members of the CEP (Electoral Council). Large numbers of mainly young men were standing around and not much seemed to be happening, so we went from group to group asking questions about whether they had voted, the problems they had, and how they felt.
Many people were angry because they could not vote. They were either told this was the wrong polling station or they were refused to be registered. There was huge frustration because people could not get any information from the CEP, which seemed not to care. I spoke to a few of them and they were unhelpful and disinterested, with no desire to help anyone. No senior officials appeared to be present.
Those who did vote chose Michel ‘Sweet Micky’ Mattely, a musician known for carnival and cross-dressing and nicknamed Tet Kale because of his shaven head. (I later learned more about his less-than-innocent past connections to the Duvalier regime and the anti-Aristide campaign. Unfortunately, most of the young people voting for him were unaware of any of this.)
I also noticed there were very few women in the polling station – because they fear violence which usually occurs during elections, I was told. In fact, most of the people voting or trying to vote were young men, all unemployed.
We continued to two more polling stations in the Pernier area. The story was the same. People were happy to talk and vented their frustration at the election process as well as the whole situation, some so much so that their faces contorted with anger, their voices screaming at the injustices they had to endure over and over again. It seemed to me that the election process, which was already being labelled fraudulent, was yet another slap in the face of the people.
Another slap in the face of the people?
By the time we return it is late in the afternoon and we are all tired. After lunch of rice, beans and chicken we talk about the elections, Haitian politics and the whole damn mess. As dusk falls, everyone settles into their evening routines of watching TV, singing, chatting and studying.
It is the end of my first full day here and it’s a good feeling being back with this wonderful family which has grown to include extended family, the homeless and anyone who feels the need for some warmth.
Later in the evening Rea and I talk – well, she talks and I listen. She recalls the moment of the earthquake and how she dealt with its aftermath. She omits details about her feelings, only says that since she missed death by five minutes, and that she decided she must work harder to achieve her vision.
Complacency is easy when life is mundane even in a place of chaos. Chaos becomes normal and routine – it is expected and so what? A catastrophe changes the way you think about yourself and what your purpose in life is. You can wallow in it and do nothing but bemoan the tragedy unleashed, or you can recharge your energy and determination and create new ways of doing things and find new things to create.
The people I meet over the next four weeks all chose the latter. Out of the rubble a new direction is sought and found.