Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In the debate on the ills and goods of aid...

...let us not forget something important:

“The international aid community has a tendency to colonize, and this tendency is no less apparent in its moral debates where all too often it has shown signs of making all the moral problems of the world its own. In debates about humanitarian ethics, this has sometimes meant that relief agencies and their critics have tended to overstate the moral burden on humanitarianism – perhaps because it is easier to accuse a relief agency than a warlord these days. But it should never be forgotten that relief agencies are always responding to the violence of others. The difficult moral choices faced by relief agencies usually come about as a result of the immoral choices already made by political leaders and other individuals and groups. In most situations, relief agencies inherit an already uneven moral playing-field. It would therefore be morally negligent if excessive agonizing by or about relief agencies (the groaning of the white man and his burden) shouted out the accusations of blame which should be put squarely where they are most obviously due: with the killers, the rapists, the dispossessors and their political leaders who initiate and sustain the policies of excessive and unjust violence in today’s wars and genocides.”

Hugo Slim - Doing The Right Thing: Relief Agencies, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Responsibility in Political Emergencies and War (1997)

Damn good point. Spend days on end reading about the ills of irresponsible aid can get a fella aspiring to work in the field (or one related to it) somewhat down, but every now and again you read something that highlights the other, equally important side of things.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Whiplash

People who've been at this longer than I have told me it'd come. They told me to be patient with myself, to recognize the effects, to understand the process, to keep perspective and push on, even if it meant faking it for a while. I trusted what they told me but I didn't really ever quite believe it. The whiplash, perhaps one of the most highlighted aspects of the international humanitarian experience, is well documented, but I can be stubborn in my moments, allowing myself the think that maybe I'm different. I'm not.

It's the unseen approach that's the trickiest bit. There's really no way to know. Like that unexpected burst of manic, overwhelming energy that flattened the city I called home for two years, the whiplash just hits. I've gotten in the habit of trying to avoid it through movement. A body in motion seems harder to knock down. Maybe that's completely wrong.

I'm walking down the street, fast, boots echoing off the pavement. I've been doing a lot of this recently. Blisters on my feet. Bandaids on my pinky toes. It's dark and crisp, and I can see my breath when I exhale. I'm wearing a lot of clothing, but the cooling sweat under it makes it cold. My iPod is in, set to repeat my "Rollin' in the Deep" playlist. There are no Adele songs on it. I'm thinking I'd like to be drinking right now. Bottle of red or a few cans of beer? Red would keep me warmer, but the beer's cheaper. I go for the beer. They tell me you can drink on the streets of London. No problems yet, so I suppose I believe them.

I walk in a direction with no destination but proximity. I know there's no point to it, but I do it anyway. I walk along the south bank of the Thames, past the London Eye and the OXO Tower and the Tate Modern. I like the look of the Millennium Bridge and tell myself I need to walk that too. I do, a few days later. I continue down into the darkened shadows of Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market, one my favorite places in the city, and linger there, indulging a few memories. I finish the beer, find a trash can, and keep moving. I'm headed south, closer now, and cross the street.

The pub has a little window at the top, connected to what I imagine might be a little room. The window was open a few days ago, but it's closed now. Through the larger streetside windows I can see there are a handful of people left inside, but they're just lingering, easing down the final sips. I'm tempted to stop and study them, but I don't. It is cold. I don't stop walking. It's something akin to morbid curiosity that brought me here, or maybe just a deep loneliness, and now it's time to go.

I'm down a side street, doubling back in the direction I came, headed back to the river, moving west this time. It's all in reverse: Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, The Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, the OXO Tower. I almost make it to Waterloo Bridge before what I've been trying to stay ahead of catches up. I sit on a bench under a tree, feel the wet through my jeans because it's raining now, and it comes. I'm quiet about it, not that anyone's around to hear. I can't even hear myself for the headphones. It doesn't last long, a few minutes, and then I'm still. The moisture is collecting on the edge of my beanie, which I keep pulling as low as I can. My nose is running, and I taste salt. I'm cold, but the release leaves me feeling peaceful. I'm OK with just sitting here for a while.

Big Ben looks pretty big. I walk under it a few nights later. It is big. Not New York City big, but this is London. It doesn't need to be that big. I think that this city is beautiful at night. I feel like I could love it, and at the same time want to fast forward through it all. I ask myself questions that are impossible for me to answer, and feel OK in my unknowing. I'm off balance, but collected, and it's time to move again.

It's slow now, the boots don't make much noise, a light scuffing along the ground. I keep the playlist going. I'm on Waterloo Bridge, looking at Somerset House, and next to it my university. I feel incredibly lucky to be there. I take my time in the middle of the span, looking down at the water. It moves faster than I would have thought.

Underneath the city it's warmer, and I've caught one of the final trains headed north to Manor House. Coming up again I can see it's rained here too. Harder, by the looks of it. My boots splash along the sidewalk. I hope the off license is open. I want a few more cans, and I like the German Shepherd puppy that lives behind the counter. It's not. I consider getting a kebab, mostly because I know I should probably eat something, but I'm not hungry, and I don't.

The temporary roommates have given me a key so I don't have to wake them. I let myself in. A few blinking lights illuminate the place, but it's silent. Opening the fridge I see an open bottle of white. I know I shouldn't but I pour half of it into a glass, and head up the stairs to the room I sleep in. I try and be quiet when I put the mattress on the ground. There's a little sleeping bag too, but I'm too big for it. I fold the pillow over itself in the silence and tuck my arm under it, the ringing in my ears amplifying and the wet of my beanie on my face as I put my head down. In the morning I can see my boots are water stained and have dirtied the sheet, but they've kept my feet warm through the night. I take a shower. It's really hot, and I like that. I use someone's shampoo. Some bandaids fall off. I flush them down the toilet, and put on new ones.

I'm outside and headed south again, back to the city. It's sunny. It feels like it could be a good day. People ride bikes past me, and I'm moving fast, my boots hammering the sidewalk, one hand rolling through the playlists, the other jammed into the pocket with my phone in it, hoping it will vibrate.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day XX - Restart: London

London. I’m here. Two years ago nearly to the day I had a feeling I would find my way to this city eventually, and it’s happened. I’m sitting in my friend Briony’s room in her flat north of city center, listening to Dug G, a Haitian rapper, and waiting. Waiting for a phone call from a friend, yes, but also waiting to see what’s going to come. This is the first time since leaving New York for Haiti on July 1st, 2010 that I know I won’t be needing to pack up again and shove off once more. London is home, at least for the next year, but perhaps longer. This year is only transitional if I choose it to be. My roots could eventually be English. Knowing that, knowing that this is where I stabilize, leaves me waiting for the post-Haiti fallout that hasn’t happened yet. Yes, I left Haiti at the end of July, nearly two months ago now, but in that time I’ve bounced from New York to Madrid to SE Asia and back to Madrid before landing at Gatwick last Tuesday, which is simply to say I’ve had no real chance to just be still and see what happens.

Not that I’m all that still here. I’ve got a lot of things to do before my course at King’s kicks off on the 24th, my 31st birthday as it happens. If it plays out as I hope, I’ll be getting a flat with two friends from Haiti, one of whom was there for just about as long as I was. That will be great. We’re pretty tight, and she’ll be someone I know will understand when the conversations inevitably drift back to the Caribbean, and the last two years. We’re very different in many ways – she inspires me and makes me realize that I’ve a long way yet to go – but we have Haiti in common, and have a tendency toward making one another crack up. It’ll be good.

People have been asking me to write something akin to a follow-up to the unexpectedly popular entry that I posted back in April of this year. I’ve thought about how I’d like to do that, and the simple truth is I haven’t followed that entry up because I don’t know quite what else to say. This isn’t that follow-up entry.  What resonated with people about the original entry isn’t my highlighting of Haiti’s problems, or my description of my work there, but rather my coming clean about my experience. I’m no expert on Haiti, and while I know quite a bit about a very specific technology that I worked with there (biosand filters), and about a community (Leogane), and I can speak to what it is like to live there, I’m not an aid expert by any means. Haiti was my jumping into the deep end – my attempt at challenging myself to see if the humanitarian world is something I can both do and been fulfilled by in doing. It was my Step 1. I’m just getting started. I’ve made the decision to remain committed to the field, hence my pursuing a degree in conflict, security & development for the next year, but I’d be very hesitant to ever try and write as if I know something fundamentally true or real about Haiti that many others before me know better and can probably explain in much better detail. I don’t want to provide a weak second voice if there are so many powerful primary voices already in the discussion. Two years, even though it is longer than most internationals spend in the country, is still just scratching the surface when compared to truly committed humanitarians that have decided to make Haiti part of, or the entirety of, their life’s work. Their answers are the ones that should be listened to.

So no, don’t ask me to give answers. I don’t have that many, and the ones I do have will just be simplified versions of what much more capable people have already said. I won’t give you answers. But I will try and give you a continued glimpse into what my experiences in Haiti have done in me: how they’ve changed me, how they linger in me now that I’m not in Haiti any longer, and how they might manifest themselves in my life going forward. I’ve no doubt that the academic challenge coming my way in just over a week, in which I’ll be taking a much more rigorous intellectual look at elements of development, and at conflict, an area I’m particularly interested in (even though it was not work I was involved with in Haiti), will bring out questions. I’ve also people here in London that I shared the Haiti experience with. And, my ties to Haiti are not severed completely. I am still working to make sure Jenny gets through high school, and I do stay in touch with my friends there. Which is simply to say there are things in my life that will keep me connected.

I can feel it right now, as I sit in this chair staring at my laptop - that unknown something, the cumulative effect of that beautiful, devastating, and even absurd experience. It is so big. The energy in me is palpable. And yet, the result, at least for now, is silence. It’s thinking. It’s stillness. It’s sleeping. A lot of sleeping. It’s internal conversations that go in circles and don’t quite come away with anything. Not yet. It’s big, and it’s led to my choice to commit myself in ways I’ve not done ever in my life prior. And yet, it’s just beginning. It’s over, but it’s just started. That’s what I have to offer right now. It’s not much, yet, but it’s growing.

London. You’ve been a long time coming.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Day 0: Ovwa Ayiti (Anko)

Monday, July 23rd I left Haiti and landed in NYC, where I've been since. I have things I still want to write, but there's no time for that yet. Just walking around this vast, familiar yet somewhat alien city that I used to call my home has made it clear to me I've much more to process before I'll have the slightest inkling of what the experience in Haiti has been for me.

I left Haiti on Day 417 of my return trip. Combined with the 201 days of my first trip, I spent 21 months in the country. Along with the process of being with my mother as she slowly lost her life to cancer, they were unquestionably the most defining, challenging, and beautiful months of my life.

More to come, of that I'm sure.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 326: Questions & (No) Answers (The Aid Bitchslap)

"It's going to take a while before I can even make sense of all of this." I'm talking to Paddy as we make our way down a dark street in Leogane, dodging motos and trying to avoid the mud. "It won't happen here. It won't happen until I've left." He nods. He feels the same. Our time in Haiti isn't over yet, we've both got a few months left, but we're feeling the end now, and we're feeling what it took to get here. We're tired, and confused, and frustrated. We're excited. We're proud. We're trying not to pass quick judgements, and we realize how hard that is to do.

Project Leogane is nearly over. Tomorrow marks the final week. April 27th work ends. April 28th we have the farewell party. April 30th the lease on our house is up, and people make their way to whatever is next. In my case, making my way isn't too tricky, as I'll be moving in to the base of my friend Jason, along with Paddy and Billy, where we'll work for the next two months finishing up our obligations to GOAL and the partnership we have with them. We'll also be mentoring our handover partner, the Haitian-American organization FHED (Foundation  for Humanitarian Education & Development), who will be continuing our biosand filter program once we leave. Billy stays until the end of May. Paddy leaves the end of June. Alejandro and Diana will stay until May 15th to support our transition. I will stay until the end of July. I wasn't the first to arrive here with All Hands, but I'll be the last to go.

I know Haiti isn't yet done for me, but the nature of how I've lived and worked here since July 2010 has changed many times, and this perhaps marks the most distinct change. Project Leogane, and All Hands Volunteers, my organization and identity in Haiti, is nearly over. The skeleton crew staying is very much that. We'll no longer be part of the group. We'll be the entirety of it. I've no problems with that. If I'm honest, I'm excited to see how it will play out, but it does get me thinking. Of what, I'm not so sure, or more accurately, I'm not so sure I can yet explain it in any coherent way. Too many things. So many things. Only through a total disconnect will I have the distance and time needed to sift through all of this, and I'll have that before too long, but I still feel the urge to try and write about it, to mark it down in some way, although all recent attempts at doing so result in deleted entries, rambling and uncertain sentences that frustrated me but accurately reflect where my head is at these days. I honestly don't know what to make of this place and this experience.

I do know this. I'm ready to go. Haiti, while still powerful in her effect on me, is beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Going out into the monotonous, seemingly unchanging landscape of Leogane, which some of us have now taken to jokingly referring to as "post-apocalyptic", is something I try and avoid unless in a state of mind sufficient enough to match whatever absurdity is going to come at me. My patience is near gone. I still feel for people. The empathy is there, but it's become something different than it was before.

"Fuck you!" The shouts come pretty regularly these days, sometimes from kids, sometimes from adults, always directed at us for no other reason than the fact we are foreigners, that we are blans. I don't know the people shouting. Sometimes we shout back, other times we shake our heads at the stupidity, sometimes we laugh, other times we stop the car, get out, and watch the guilty children run away, or the guilty adults eye us up. A few days ago it's a group of guys playing football in the middle of the street. "Fuck you!" We pull over, not because of the comment, but because we're at the chicken stand we were headed toward to buy some food. My patience is worn thin. We get out of the car a few paces from where the guys are. "Masisi! Masisi!" They're calling us faggots. Really? Really? I don't even know you. Fuck this. I hammer back at them. "You think we're faggots? Is that what you think? I think you're a bunch of uneducated, ignorant idiots. Instead of playing football in the street and telling blans you don't know to go fuck themselves, why don't you go to school? You're young men. You're not kids. Do something with your lives." I want to keep going. I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn't tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don't, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don't deserve to be shamed for their condition. Most people just play the hand they're dealt. Few opt to really try and change their hand, let alone the deck. That's not Haitian. That's human. Haiti just happens to deal a pretty shit hand to most. I'd be a fool to place the entirety of the blame on them. They're not the cause. They're part of the effect.

We get the chicken and drive away. One of the guys mimics punching us. I enjoy the five second fantasy of laying them all out in the street, although I know that will never come to pass. I'm not a fighter. We laugh it off, but not really. "This fucking place..." Every day. We allow ourselves some ignorance of our own, mocking the wannabe gangster culture the men in the street all had on display. "Oh you're a gangster are you? You're hardcore? You can't even get food. So hardcore. So gangster." We laugh, hard. I know the comment is off-color, but I also know I'm doing it to release. I'm aware when I'm allowing myself to mock a situation that shouldn't be mocked, when I'm engaging something I'm actually against. I'm aware that I'm doing it more and more these days. I'm aware that, at the end of the day, I do it because it helps mask the underlying frustration and sense of overwhelm and guilt that comes with being a foreigner in Haiti.

We come home, tell some housemates about it. They tell us how people started throwing rocks at one of our roommates as he was getting a dance lesson on the roof from a local Haitian girl. They had to come inside and continue the lesson out of reach of the rocks. I get a phone call. My friend Jenny, a Haitian girl I'm close to and care for a lot, tells me her grandmother has died. Paddy and I go to visit her and her mother and sisters to offer our condolences. While I'm sitting with Jenny and her older sister Katia, Paddy is talking to their mother, Madam Michelle. It was her mother that has just passed away. We stay for twenty minutes then say goodbye.

"Fucking hell..." We're in the car, Paddy looks tired. "What's up man?" I ask him. "Madam Michelle was asking me for everything - my bed, my table, my mattress, anything I can give her once All Hands leaves." I can see the frustration in his face. "Your mother just died. For fuck's sake can you stop for just one minute and grieve?" It is endless. Today, here in my room, I hear a knock. Ornela, Madam Michelle's youngest daughter, Jenny's little sister, is at the door. "Qwen? Qwen?" "Hold on a sec sweetie." I open the door and she's there. We talk for a bit. She asks me a question. "Qwen, can you buy a painting from my mom? We need money to go to Jeremie." Jeremie is where their grandmother lived. She's talking about the funeral. My heart melts, but I've learned a long time ago that I have to draw a line. "I'm sorry sweetie, I don't have money for that right now." I hate myself for even saying it, but I know I've done a lot to help her family. Jenny is back in school because of me and some of my friends and family I reached out to. Seeing her finish high school is a personal goal of mine. I have to keep that in my sights and put blinders on for everything else. A week ago Jenny called me, she tells me Katia is really sick, that she has to go to the hospital. She asks me if I can pay for it. My heart hurts again, but I repeat the line I've learned to live by. "Sorry Jenny, I don't have money for that right now." "OK Qwen. It's OK." Jenny, eighteen and whip smart, knows me pretty well. She's been on the receiving end of my anger when she tries to push the boundaries of my charity. She's heard my rants on Haiti and the culture of dependence and expectance. She also knows I really care for her and her family. Still, the requests don't stop. They won't stop until I leave. Even then they won't stop. Facebook chat post-Haiti often involves requests for money from people I know here.

Some things I have become clear on as a result of Haiti: 

1. Good intentions aren't enough. 
2. Rose-colored glasses are bullshit. 
3. The white savior industrial complex is real, demonstrated daily by feel good aid programs that probably don't work, or feel good causes like Kony 2012 that generate plenty of buzz but don't add up to much when people are actually supposed to do something.
4. You can't help people who don't want to help themselves.
5. True altruism is an incredibly rare thing. (See #3)
6. Little victories must be celebrated if you want to protect yourself from the crippling effects of the larger failure.

I came to Haiti very much guilty of believing good intentions were enough, and I certainly had the rose-colored glasses. I knew a bit about the idea of the white savior industrial complex, but didn't know enough to realize I was playing right into it. I believed people inherently do want to improve their lot, and will work hard to see that happen. I also believed myself to be a fairly altruistic person. I'm not so sure about that any more. And while I never came here thinking I could "save Haiti" (an incredibly egotistical idea to begin with), I also didn't realize the importance of allowing yourself to truly appreciate the small things before the big things break you down.

I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. I question whether the work I've done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? We'll know that as we conduct final follow-ups over the next two months, now that production and installations are nearly finished. I'm wary though. Every biosand filter I've ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we're giving people a "solution". They tell us they want it, but it's not of their own design. And yes, while I have spoken to families we've given filters to and heard from them they are getting sick less, and they no longer fear cholera, I also know of families that never used the filter to begin with, and only wanted to be in the program because their 100 gourdes contribution got them both the filter and a new Culligan bottle, which is worth 250 gourdes. Is that our mistake? Probably. Is there an easy work around to it? Not that I can think of. Asking for a contribution of more than 250 gourdes will guarantee that truly poor families will not be able to get a filter, and not providing a Culligan bottle (or any other safe water storage container) will result in families using open buckets instead, which we've tested and know 95% of the time result in re-contaminated water. It's a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrates the complexity of trying to "help" people.

If I were to do it all again, I wouldn't design a solution. It isn't my place to do that. What I'd do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn't come in as the guy with the answer. I'd come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen. 

Or, perhaps if I really wanted to help, I wouldn't ever come to Haiti to begin with. I'd keep my fight at home in the United States, rallying people to try and build awareness that places like Haiti suffer because of policies benefitting our government, our corporations, and ultimately, ourselves. Policies created by our politicians, sometimes with our consent (the Iraq War) and sometimes as a result of special interests (the Supreme Court's campaign finance reform ruling), result in massive problems for other people in the world. Sometimes I wonder if that truly ever can be remedied. 

Nature has a distinct element to it that is both brutal and undeniable: to be alive means to take care of you and yours before all else. There are rare exceptions to that rule, but they are just that - rare exceptions. The lioness doesn't feel guilt when she brings down the days-old gazelle, despite knowing the gazelle could never hope to challenge her. Is it the same for us? We may all be part of the same species, but we've always cordoned ourselves off in distinct groups, be it religious, racial, or geopolitical, and time and again worked to improve our groups at the expense of other groups. We are not a peaceful species. We are not enlightened beings. And history has shown time and again that, like the lioness, we show no remorse or mercy when faced with a weaker opponent. I sometimes wonder what the Taino people, Haiti's original inhabitants, were like. I'll never be able to know. They were raped, murdered and enslaved to extinction at the hands of the Spanish. There are no more Tainos in the world. 

Is it naive to believe we can ever change this part of being human? I've often wondered this. If we ever had a chance at change, now would be the beginning of it. The internet and advancements in communication and transportation have made the world a much smaller place. I'd like to think that will lead to a greater mutual understanding of the fact that we are all, indeed, human. It might, or it might not. I often think we will have to evolve to the point that the idea of religion is cast aside, that the idea of nation is cast aside, that the way we define ourselves (white, black, Christian, Muslim, American, Haitian) have to be abandoned. Without first accomplishing that, we will always have a way to cordon ourselves off from others, to group up, and to grow to believe that our group is the most important group. Those groups must be broken for us to advance.

It makes me think of something a friend of mine who works in Rwanda told me recently. She told me that the majority of Rwandan children today do not know if they are Tutsi or Hutu. Their parents do not tell them. She told me that it is illegal to ask someone if they are Tutsi or Hutu. She told me that all forms of personal identification no longer have the words "Tutsi" or "Hutu" on them. She also told me Rwanda is one of the more progressive and advanced countries she's visited in Africa. That came at an incredibly high cost, but maybe that's what it takes. The EU, flawed though it is, and in and of itself a group, was born out of the desire for integration that was the result of two devastating wars that killed entire generations of Europe's people. I'd like to think we can learn enough from our history to be able to continue that process of integration without the prerequisite of mass suffering, but maybe that is indeed a prerequisite. If so, there's certainly suffering enough to go around. The world's groups are still devouring each other. The question is, if we do not feel we are affected by it, do we care enough to try and stop it? And, the skeptic in me asks, if we do care enough to try and stop it, why? What do we stand to gain? #5 - true altruism is an incredibly rare thing.

Indeed, a lot of questions, not a lot of answers, and a fair amount of pondering. If nothing else, Haiti has given me that, and that, ultimately, is a good thing. An engaged thinker is a humbled thinker. I do not yet claim to be either, but I aspire to be both.

- - -

Note - thank you to Shotgun Shack for cross-posting this over at her blog. Check it out here.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Day 303: Cassie Comes Back

A good friend of mine from back during my first stint in Haiti recently returned for an uber-quick trip to do some filming for All Hands. It was great to see her. A quick summary of her time here, including a fun early AM run to the beach (along with some kick ass photos, as to be expected) here:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 302: The End Game

And so, as my time in Haiti comes to a close, it seems my blogging slows down, which I should probably make an effort to counter, but I don't seem to have the same drive (or perhaps energy) to share as I once did. Now that I have a proper bedroom I really must admit, coming back from the office, hitting the bed, and grabbing a book is pretty much heaven for me. I tend to repeat that pattern quite frequently.

That said, this seems an appropriate time to write, as some big changes have happened in terms of my immediate future, and while some are frustrating, I am, more than anything, excited at what is to come.

First things first, Project Leogane is coming to an early close. Without going into too many details, All Hands finds itself in a situation right now where continuing to fund Haiti - now over two years after the quake - is proving to be an exercise in futility. A decision had to be made, which balanced Project Leogane against the overall financial health of the organization, and, unsurprisingly, the AHV board decided Project Legoane had to finish so All Hands can continue. I'd imagine this is a decision that many small organizations have found themselves having to make, as, afterall, this isn't a business. We depend on outside funding. When that goes away, we go away. Funding can be fickle. Haiti fell out of the news a long time ago. The funding tends to follow suit. So here we stand: the final day of work for almost everyone on the ground in Haiti is April 27th, 2012. A few people will stay on, myself and Paddy being the two who will effectively be the last All Hands members to leave Haiti (more on that below), but as it stands now, nearly all local and international staff leave Project Leogane the 27th.

The news took the wind out of our sails for a while, but, regardless of the reasons for it happening, it makes sense when I step back and look at it from the perspective of the higher ups. Yes, there are elements at play that do frustrate me, as many of us on the ground here feel our programs, which could be argued are the best programs the organization has ever run, are being cut due to decisions made above us that didn't have the desired outcome and have thus forced this hand. That may or may not be true, but I realize that it is easy to play the blame game, and to me, that seems pointless right about now. At the end of the day, I know what is happening on the ground in Haiti, and I know a bit of what is happening in the circles above, but I'd be wrong to assume I know the details behind the decision to close the project, and as such pointing fingers seems a base thing to do.

So we'll keep it at this: I'm sad to see the project close early, mostly due to the impact it could have on our local staff, but I was and remain incredibly thankful that I got to be a part of it. I don't think that what I've been lucky enough to help do here could have happened for me in any other organization. And yes, while Project Leogane is closing early, we can still be incredibly proud of the work we did, and the many thousands of people we helped. As an organization, All Hands stretched itself further than it had ever dared to before in doing what it did here, and once the current financial hurdles are (hopefully) cleared, I believe the lessons learned and experienced gained as a result of Project Leogane will be a major stepping stone toward future growth and improvement within the organization. When it's all said and done, I can't see how anyone could argue Project Leogane was anything but a success. We did what we came here to do: help people help people. That's a beautiful thing.

So what's next? Well, as mentioned above, while most everyone else will be leaving Haiti at the end of April, Paddy and myself will not. We recently finalized a partnership with GOAL, the large Irish NGO, to build and install 400 biosand filters for their beneficiaries in and around Gressier. While we plan on finishing the installations before April 27th, we do need to conduct two months of follow-ups with the families to make sure they have the support they need to use the filters over the long run. As such, Paddy, myself, and a few of our local staff will remain in Haiti until the end of June to see that through. We'll likely be staying at the base of a friend of ours, while still working for All Hands. Should be interesting. It will be strange to be the final two, but I do like the idea of being able to finish (or ideally, hand off to another organization) the program we helped start back in July 2010. I like the completeness of it - from beginning to end.

After June? Two potential options as of right now. The first involves staying in Haiti for another month working, temporarily, for a larger NGO on a specific project they want me to do, then heading out to Spain in August to spend a month with a friend of mine I've not seen in ten years before heading to London and graduate school in September. The second would be to leave Haiti in July, head to Spain for two months instead of one, potentially work for the NGO from there, and then head to the UK come September. Nothing set in stone yet, and both of those largely depend on my ability to secure the funding I need to pay for grad school. London, and King's College, are not cheap.

Much more to write about (Carnaval in Les Cayes, a trip to Haiti's northern coast, learning the hard way not to put everything you value in the back of a truck in PAP, a reconnection with old friends, etc.) but at the moment I'm in Santo Domingo, and the little restaurant across the way beckons with good food and cold beer.

In the interim, watch this, it's cool:

Hasta pronto.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Day 258: Thoughts On A Perspective

A few weeks ago a girl I met and spent some time with shortly after my returning to Haiti in June of last year returned to Haiti herself, and spent four days with me here in Leogane before heading north for a project. I enjoyed the time we spent together, but it was certainly different than before. That was OK with me, but I think it bothered her somewhat, and being a talented and candid writer, she wrote an entry on her blog sparked by the change she saw in our interaction. It is a good entry, and certainly deals with one of the most difficult elements of being here in Haiti for a longer period of time, in which you start to lose faith in the people you're here trying to help, but it missed the mark when it attributed that to the change in me. I don't think that's what caused the shift in me, but it got me thinking nonetheless, so I'd like to take a bit of time to address her entry with an entry of my own.

To start, she was and is right in saying I've changed. I have. I have in respects to how I engaged with her, as I have in respects to how I engage with most everyone and everything. That has been an ongoing process since arriving here for the first time in July of 2010, but it's become most apparent the last few months. Whereas before I tended to lean toward being social and goofy and a bit debaucherous during particularly inspired moments, I now opt to spend the majority of my non-working hours by myself. Whereas before I'd likely visit the local watering hole to drink a few beers with friends, or chat up a pretty volunteer for the simple fun of flirting, I now keep the company of my books more than most other company, and choose to sleep early and often for the simple joy of sleeping. If you didn't know me well, really well, you'd assume something would be amiss there - to those that don't know me that well, and therefore never get an insight into the more quiet, sensitive and uncertain parts of myself, there tends to be the assumption that I am always and forever the loud, charismatic half-man half-boy that takes the external stage. That is certainly part of who I am, but it isn't the whole. It is the half that gets the attention, because it is the half that is seen. There is an internal stage as well, with an entirely different player on it. Very few people here in Haiti have seen that player. I can count them on my fingers: Paddy, Mathilde, Jenni, Leslie, Simon, James, Cassie, Joe, Mariana, Paul. All of them, save Paddy and James, are gone.

Pulling into myself, "shutting down" as she called it, isn't so much a change in my character as it is a change in what parts of my character I'm choosing to engage. Is that a result of Haiti? Yes, in some ways, and no in others. Haiti can certainly be a difficult place to be for a long period of time. By the nature of being foreign here, a blan, there is attention heaped on me constantly by the people - the strangers in the streets calling out to me, the kids with their ribboned hair smiling and waving (which always makes me smile in return), the young men shouting from their motos, the pretty girls quick to tell me they love me in their funny half-English, still unsure of my name, trying to secure a different future. Some of those interactions are light, some fun, some interesting, but most simply fired quickly and without any real substance - repetitions that, taken alone make no impact, but strung together day after day begin to wear. Becoming conversant in Creole is both a blessing and a curse in regards to them. Yes, I like that I can now understand what people say when they talk to (or at) me, but often what they say is frustrating, and stale. "I'm hungry." Yea, I know. At this point, I mask the annoyance with humor. "You're hungry? Me too! Have any food?" That usually surprises them, and sends any others within ear shot into hysterics. "Blan pale Kreyol! Blan grangou!" Yes, I do speak Creole, but no, I'm not actually hungry.

If anything, Haiti has resulted in me seeking my own company for the simple fact that not doing so results in fatigue. That isn't a negative reflection of the country, but rather who I am in the country, and also the conditions I've lived in for the last two years. Remove Haiti entirely and I probably would still have chosen the more removed path as a result of living in Belval Plaza for eighteen months - everything shared, nothing save a tent (which wasn't accessible during the day given the heat) to call your own, to retreat to. There's precious little balance there. Now that I'm in a house, with my own room, with a lock on the door, I'm not surprised in the least that I'm opting to spend the majority of my time there, with the door locked.

Outside of that, I also now have post-Haiti ponderings crashing around in my head daily. My focus, when not on the program I'm here helping to run, is on what is coming next. I've been accepted to study at a great university in London. London holds a lot of significance for me, not simply for the fact that it is a big, busy, modern city (and therefore certainly a dramatic switch-up from Leogane) with a lot of opportunity should I apply myself well, but also because there is someone of special importance to me there. A part of myself has remained reserved for her, and while I have no idea what will come of it, I do know that that too has often given people the wrong impression about my state of mind, about me and where I'm at. I've had many moments since my time with her where I found myself unable to cross a certain level of connection with others. It isn't something I feel embarrassed or ashamed of, if anything it is quite the opposite - I am totally comfortable talking about it, when questions are asked. It seems wrong not to. I appreciate candidness. Besides, it doesn't have anything to do with those others I might find myself with. Indeed, I've met and gotten close to some people that, had the situation been different, I could easily see myself going further with. But it hasn't played out that way yet, and I can see how that limitation could be interpreted as some general malaise - the byproduct of being in this environment, sad (and sometimes hopeless) that it often is.

But the truth is, I'm not lost in some malaise. I'm not shut down. I'm not burned out. I'm simply quiet. I'm still. I'm thinking. I'm reading and writing letters and driving unknown roads on the weekends for the simple joy of going somewhere new, and for the simple joy of driving itself. I'm contemplating my future. I'm saving my energy for when it is needed. I'm saving my money for when it is needed. Am I a hermit? Perhaps a bit, but I assure you, if you put on a great drum and bass track with some volume behind it, you'll soon find me bouncing around, smiling. That isn't something a shut down, shuttered person would do. The broken don't dance. I'm not broken. Not yet any way. And you know what? If I do break, there's something in that I'm OK with. Breaking allows you time and space to examine the now-scattered aspects of who you are, of what kind of life you are living. It allows vision to see parts otherwise hidden. There's a lot of beauty in that, because, blessed with that opportunity, and the clarity it often brings to those who see it for what it is, a life can be remade to resemble something closer to authentic. I've broken before. I wouldn't change those experiences for anything. If Haiti does end up breaking me, not opening me, not shifting me, but truly breaking me, well, we'll see what comes of it eh? But that hasn't happened yet, and I don't see it happening before I leave. I'm at home here now. I'm used to this. It's a strange home, but it is my home. I've had moments of weakness, and those moments have certainly exposed and allowed parts of myself often overlooked to take a larger role in defining who I am, but I haven't broken. Haiti has made me stronger than it has weak.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Day 251: Community Engagement Is The Name Of The Game

Our current biosand filter beneficiary community, Jean Jean, is the furthest one we've yet worked in, and comes with a few logistical challenges. Besides the distance, Jean Jean is at the end of a long, narrow dirt road, which dead ends into the "center" of the community, if it can be called that. Most of the people who live there, however, live away from the road, either up the side of the mountain, or across the river in a subsection of Jean Jean known as Jean Jean Two (keep it simple stupid!). Normally, our installation teams can get close enough to the homes we'll be installing the filters into that getting the filters from our truck to the homes isn't a problem but that isn't the case in here. Problem. 

Solution? Community engagement! We've asked all families that want to get a filter to help us in moving them from our truck to their homes, and it's worked great. Now, when our installation team arrives with the filters, we have the beneficiaries at the drop spot, ready with donkeys and motos to take their filters to their homes. In exchange, we lower the contribution amount we ask for their filter, so it's a win-win for everyone. Sure, it's minor in the grand scheme of things, but small victories should be celebrated. So, on that note, a few photos from the field...

Filters are unloaded from Kepler's tap-tap and loaded onto local motos.
This lady handles her filter like a pro.
Another delivery set for take-off.
Making it look easy.
Google Maps view of Jean Jean.
Some of the kids decided to hang out during an install.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Day 241: Not Dead Yet

Nope, not dead yet. Apologize for the lack of updates, been a very busy re-entry into Haiti and the BSF program. No time at the moment for a proper update, but a few things have happened.

1. Belval Plaza is gone. I'm writing this from my room in the new house in the neighborhood of Chatulet. My OWN room. Yes. I even have a bed. With a mattress. Life is good.

2. New office too. In theory this keeps work / life balance. Doesn't work that way, but the new office is a much improved version of the old one.

3. Break in the Dominican was alright. Las Terrenas wasn't really my cup of tea, but I was with good people. Think next time I travel though I'll go solo. I find when I do have downtime, I want to be alone.

4. The biosand filter program is looking at a big year ahead. Lots of interest from other NGOs and even the Haitian government in potentially partnering with us, so that's cool. Lots of work though. LOTS of work (hence no updates).

5. I got into grad school in the UK. King's College London - MA in Disasters, Adaptation & Development. Not decided on whether or not I'm going to that specific program, but King's interests me. It is in the heart of London, one of the top schools in the UK, and everyone I've spoken to that's been there tells me it's great. So that's cool. Now to figure out how to pay for it...

6. Post-Haiti ponderings. I've got a lot on my mind around that. The next steps following Haiti could be some of the most life-defining. So many key aspect of a life are in play post-Haiti: love, education, career. It could all come together in some beautiful way, or it could all fall apart. I need to get my head in the post-Haiti game, but at the moment I truly can't. I'm too busy. Going to have to carve out some balance. At the moment I've got none. I've been OK with that for a while, but that is changing now. The last thing I want is to leave Haiti with everything to come half-figured out. I've given a lot of myself to this country, this organization and this program, and that was something I chose to do, something I wanted to do, but I'm at the point now where I know if I don't draw a line in the sand, I'll resent it later. All of this will end in August. My life won't. I need to take the time now to make sure I continue in a way that I'm proud of, and moves me closer to what I want. I'm by no means done here - this is where I want to be - but I do need to create the space I need to start to get ready for what's coming next as well.