In 2006 while travelling for Trócaire I made a trip to Haiti to report on the work of Trócaire’s partners, mainly working with women’s groups. The difficulty with documenting some of the horror stories of the women’s experiences is that it has to be sanitized enough so it doesn’t cause offence to a first world audience. Documenting stories of rape and violence was no easy task as I set about trying to word it so it was palatable enough for people who know nothing about the developing world or issues of violence against women, to be able to read over their muesli in the morning.
Screwing it up
Haiti is just out on its own. Not exactly your regular tourist destination and it was never on my must see before I die places to visit. It’s Africa in the Caribbean – the oldest self ruled black country, gaining autonomy in 1804 – they had 200 plus years to screw it up and they did a good job. It shares the island with the Dominican Republic and when you fly over you can see how there is practically no forest left in Haiti while in neighbouring Dominican Republic is lush and green, as it should be.
At the time I travelled it was estimated that 8 out of every 10 women in Haiti suffer domestic violence and the law only changed in 2005 to make rape within marriage illegal. I know they had a series of despot leaders from Papa Doc, to Baby Doc to Jean-Baptise Astride but that would be only the last 50/60 years. It should be a tropical paradise but instead it’s so dangerous that as a visitor you can’t leave your hotel unaccompanied. It makes Somalia look tame.
They even have their own virtual currency here. I was in the supermarket buying water and couldn’t figure out the change. They had charged dollars but the change in the currency ‘Gourdes’ didn’t add up. Apparently 20 years ago when the US dollar was worth 5 Gourdes, 5 Gouds was referred to as a dollar. Although 39.75 Gourdes is worth 1 US dollar – 5 Gourdes is called 1 $. Confused? Good – because I have never been more confused in my life. It was just as well there was somebody accompanying me the whole time because I felt like some little old lady who couldn’t figure out the ‘new’ money.
I was mainly staying around Port-au-Prince, the capital. As usual, Trócaire had one of their local partner organisations take care of me while I was in the country. Unlike the other countries I visited Trócaire’s local partners were anxious to show me their work so I could say nice things about them when I reported back. This time it was a little different, the man who was charged with my itinerary unceremoniously dumped me back at the hotel at 4 p.m. every day and picked me up the next morning at 8 a.m. Let’s say he didn’t go out of his way to make Haiti any more appealing.
When I arrived, he tried putting me in a convent-type accommodation. In the heat of the day, we must have climbed 50 or 60 steps, with me struggling with my luggage, camera bags and lap top and he frolicked up the steps, arms swinging. I registered at reception and when I was shown to the room with no air conditioning, no ensuite, no internet and no fan, I said “no way” and checked out. It didn’t get a whole lot better when he brought me to another accommodation. The US $65 a night seemed a little steep at the time but at least there was guaranteed air-condition, even if they charged an extra $8 per day for electricity on the bill!!.
Haiti is a very violent society with impunity for many men who commit violent acts and rape on women. I was brought around to meet women in a shelter, who were the victims of violence. Often their stories were so horrific I would sit and cry with them as they would recount to me their experiences. One woman was brave enough to report the rape of her daughter, but when she did so, the perpetrators returned the following evening, murdered her daughter and raped her. Somebody had taken a photo of her dead daughter and she sobbed , she turned to me and asked “Who will take my photo?” It was a horrific story and just one of many I documented on the visit to Haiti.
I did have one trip down the country to a community only about 160 kilometres distance – it took 4.5 hours to travel the 160 kilometres and the 10 kilometres through a few mountains in a 4-wheel drive took up one whole hour. It was a bit of a trek, bouncing around in a car for the whole journey. Most of the roads were covered in pot holes and it felt as if the whole journey was off-road driving.
Mud huts and washrooms
For some reason I thought I would be staying in a bed and breakfast type accommodation. The penny should have dropped when we called to pick up supplies in a local shop. We arrived and I was shown to my accommodation, which was the house of a local woman who had travelled to Port-au-Prince for a few nights. The accommodation was a mud hut, complete with a thatched roof and spotlessly clean. She had obviously gone out of her way to prepare for the visitor she wasn’t going to meet. I was however, a little perturbed not being able to find the bathroom facilities; either shower or toilet.
I travelled with two men from a non-government organisation Trócaire was supporting , we arrived in the late afternoon, so not a lot of opportunity to talk to the community who were busy preparing for supper. While the food we brought was being prepared by some local women, my two carers announced it was time to wash before supper. I quietly mentioned that I had no towel so one of the men kindly provided me with his towel. I was accompanied down to the river as we passed men swimming in one area, we moved upstream to a more secluded part.
There was a young girl sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, with nothing on except a pair of panties, washing. She was like some exoctic sprite and looked at me smiling. There was another large rock beside her and one of the women pointed, indicating that the second rock had my name on it. I was expected to whip off my clothes down to my panties, wade out to the middle of the river and provide the evening’s entertainment with a gang of kids all standing with their mouths hitting the ground. I waved at some of the women who actually waved back at me. I felt as if every women and child in the village had come to watch.
I moved closer to the water, trying to avoid the stones under my feet as they laughed at my feeble efforts to wade barefoot into the river. As expectations were mounting and women and children were vying for space to get a better look, I was determined not to become the topic of conversation for the next month in the village. I stood at the edge, wrapped in a towel and threw water over the visible bits. I simply refused to exhibit my blue-white body to a whole village.
Darkness fell very early in the evening and with no electricity, there was nothing to do except go to the house. I felt as if the whole village was sitting outside watching, so when it began to rain heavily, I was relieved. My bladder was bursting and I needed to pee really badly. I stepped outside the house in the pouring rain and relieved myself. A couple of hours later, a knock came to the door and a young girl handed me a plastic basin. I scratched my head unsure whether it was for washing or using as a potty in the middle of the night. I used it as a potty.
The son of the school teacher in the village was about 5-years old and took such a shine to me. He was the cutest little thing and every time I looked around he was sitting beside me, batting his eyelashes at me. At one stage he sat beside me and tried to put his arms around me as if I was his girlfriend. I could have taken him home and indeed one of the men asked would I not take him home. He (the child) sat and explained in Creole all about the orange trees and how the women collected the avocados and about his dad and the school. He told me all about the woman whose house I was staying and followed me everywhere for the time I was in the village. I would loved to have been able to communicate with him and he was trying so hard.
Every time I looked out of the house, he was either coming down the pathway or sitting on the rocks outside, waiting patiently. When it came time for my departure, he was so upset and no amount of cajoling could get a smile from him. He stood at the gate in floods of tears as I left.
I was glad to have visited the village and experience rural Haiti, where life seemed a little less violent and the community seemed more in hamony with nature and life.
Until next time.