Builders of Trust

Many Haitians Amaze Us With This Balancing Skill

We were passing through a village in our four-wheel drive. The rocky road was quite rutted, so we had to drive slowly. Then we pulled over when a tap-tap bus bounced by. That was cool, since I could see a glimpse of daily life, such as the couple leaning toward the ‘bol’ on the ground.

Haiti market, water balance
In the background, a Haitian woman exhibits excellent balance and strength at Forêt des Pins market. In the foreground, Alex delicately retrieves the ball near the horse’s hoof.

This ‘bol’ is the Kreyol word for a bowl shaped container, about an arms length in diameter, used for carrying things. Since I was in the car, I couldn’t see exacly what was inside. Items to sell?  Dirty laundry? Water jugs? A man and woman bent over, and lifted it off the ground together. In a heartbeat, it was smoothly lifted, and resting on her head.

If there were water vessels in there, they were full, because I could tell the load was heavy. But once it was on her head, she dropped her hands to her side. Look ma, no hands! And that was just a start. She took a couple of steps down the walkway, and spun 90 degrees onto the sidewalk.  For her, it was no big deal.


We three clowns have all practiced balancing among other circus skills. Her head balancing was rather a common sight in this village, but it seemed as masterful as anything we could do. It also reminded me how much skill and effort is required to simply bring water and other necessities to and from the home. When I see how Haitians work to simply get water into their home, is a clown show really that much help? Once our hour of mirth making is over, they’ve got to go back to more pressing problems. Are we just a temporary distraction?


Working the land in rural Haiti
Working the land in rural Haiti.
Girl and her horse, Haiti
Girl and her horse, Haiti.


Well, are we just a temporary distraction?  


Alex Feldman juggles at AyiTimoun Yo Orphanage Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti.
Alex Feldman juggles at AyiTimoun Yo Orphanage Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti.

Louise Lindenmeyr told me of the effect we bumbling American clowns can have. She is a musician and nurse practitioner. For years, she’s been coming to Haiti every 3 months, advancing the work of Hispañola Health Partners, which she co-founded, and project Troubador, which collaborates with performers. Louise and Chris have collaborated on and off for nearly 20 years. When she treats a patient, and has instructions for healing, she knows that gaining her patient’s trust is of utmost importance. Louise points out that the majority of white folks that the Haitians see are either missionaries or work for non-profits. In either case, they have an earnest message about how to do things.


Chris Yerlig being, "outlandishly goofy." Haiti
Chris Yerlig being, “outlandishly goofy.”

Clowns are a bit different. Chris and Clay bang into walls, objects and each other. They get lots of laughs being clumsy and outlandishly goofy. I often play over-the-top, too, but for this tour, I’m choosing to be a quieter clown, to balance the energy in our ensemble. In fact, my character is becoming more shy and uncertain.


Louise explains that the Haitians aren’t used to seeing white people act in any of these ways. More typically, they sound so sure of themselves, and tell the Haitians how to do things. From the missionaries, who explain how to pray, to the well intentioned NGO’s that explain hygiene, all they keep hearing, is, “Do it this way!”


Clay Mazing at AyiTimoun Yo Orphanage Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti.
Clay Mazing at AyiTimoun Yo Orphanage Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti.

We don’t sound anything like these “experts”! By showing another, perhaps more human side of foreigners, we can break up the drumbeat of earnest pleading, and build more trust.


Rebuilding trust works both ways, too. When I perform abroad, I’m usually invited by countries that can afford to fly entertainers to their festivals and events, and pay them. Here, where the average workers earn $6/ day, I’m told not to pull out my iPhone much, and to use our computers very discretely. So, I was hyper vigilant at first. I’m not anymore. The locals I’m meeting inspire confidence and trustworthiness. I don’t get the feeling that people are trying to scam.


Oz, our interpreter, explained to me that there is way too much negativity in the foreign press about Haiti. He is Haitian, and says that if the news was more balanced, it would inspire more trust among foreign investment and could help tourism rebound, going a long way to rebuilding its economy.

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