Haiti 2005: Sarah’s Account

We are just back from three weeks in Haiti (Ayiti in Creole). The trip was organized by Clowns Sans Frontieres in Canada, and put together and funded in partnership with CARE. Zuzka came to meet me in Portland a few days before the trip to put our act together, and then we flew to Haiti to meet 4 other French Canadian clowns.
We fly into Port-au-Prince on Thursday, March 10th. There is often violence in P-au-P, and we have been warned in advance NOT to leave the airport unaccompanied. A driver from CARE is waiting for us. As soon as we step outside, baggage handlers in neat uniforms descend upon us and a man with one arm manages to wrest a piece of luggage from us. He laughs and jokes with other handlers, almost walks off in a completely different direction, and then single-handedly loads the CARE car with our stuff and demands a tip. We then drive straight to a hotel in Petionville, a suburb. The road into town is bleak and wild. People sell souvenirs outside the UN compound, men manually pump car tires and weld metal alongside the road, the landscape is denuded and half-built hotels and houses sit abandoned behind cinder-block walls. At the hotel we meet the Canadians. Jacko, who was the primary organizer of the trip, has been to Haiti 5 times before, and has been clowning for all of his 49 years. Simon, Jacko’s friend and colleague, has been here twice before. David and Elise, both in their twenties, are here for the first time, like us.

Our first show is the next day at the CARE headquarters in Petionville, for about 200 kids and adults. On Saturday the 12th, two CARE drivers take us up to Gonaives, a 5-hour, 140 mile drive north of P-au-P. There is one vehicle for us and another for our luggage – the Canadians have brought 26 bags of equipment, including 19,000 clown noses to give out to the kids!

From the 14th to the 25th of March, we perform 23 shows for about 25,000 school children. We do two shows every day except Saturday, when we have the morning off. We are scheduled to perform for audiences ranging from 500 to 3,000 kids. Most shows ended up having larger audiences than predicted: besides the 3 or 4 schools of kids who would be watching, people from the neighborhood would crowd in from the street or climb up onto the school rooftops to watch the show as well.

Our shows are all in and around Gonaives because there are so many children here who were traumatized by the floods brought by the hurricane last fall. Most people in the city have lost family members; many have lost their homes. There is still a big lake from the flood that covers the main road on the way to Gonaives: to get to the city we turn off onto a temporary dirt road roughly cut out of the cacti and brush. In town we can see debris from the flood on rooftops and piled in the street, and many buildings that have been reduced to crumbling walls and foundations. Emergency crews from NGOs are still cleaning mud out of schools and hospitals. The mud has dried and turned into a great deal of dust, which is everywhere. (When we start handing out clown noses to kids, many adults ask for them too because they help keep the dust out of their own noses.)

As soon as we arrive at a school the kids crowd around us and the truck. It feels a bit like we’re the Beatles: we’re mobbed before and after the show by excited kids, and even during the show the crowds of kids often push past the ropes and crowd into our playing space. CARE workers have to struggle to keep them back, sometimes aided by teachers who hit the kids in the front row with thin sticks. Sometimes the teachers just throw up their hands and we spend the remainder of the show struggling to keep the kids from trampling each other, consoling the crying, and calming the shoving matches that break out.

Because we are white, we stand out wherever we go in Gonaives, and in a way we are performing all the time. People crowd around us not only before and after shows but any time our truck stops at the market or on the way to or from a show. Some people smile, excited to see us. Some are simply curious, having never seen white people that are there to play and not to teach them about Jesus or sanitation. Many ask us for food and water, or for whatever we have that they can see: balloons, our costumes, our instruments. Most of the time we are able to redirect their energy from begging to playing, doing simple tricks, making faces, singing songs or beat-boxing with them, speaking to them in what Creole we know.

The first time we stop at the market a large crowd of people gather around the truck; people stare, try to sell us things, ask us for food and water. A few look hostile. We pull out our instruments and juggling equipment and do a little show for them while we wait for Jacko and Wilner, our CARE contact. When Wilner comes back he has our driver take us away quickly, and tells us never to perform like that in public, especially if he isn’t with us: it could be dangerous. The danger lies in the crowd we would quickly draw with our antics. The tension between locals and foreigners, the haves and have-nots, is palpable. However, we can’t pretend like people are not trying to communicate with us and the next time we stop we tone it down, but we still play with them. This is what we came to do. One woman said to us after learning of what we are doing here: a show is great, but we need food to eat. We all know that it is easy for us to laugh on full stomachs. This is the most difficult fact of the trip for us to swallow.

We are generally very cautious, and the worst violence we see is the occasional person on the street who sees us weird-looking white people and throws mangos or stones as we drive by. We do not go out at night, which is when most of the violence occurs on the streets. While we are in Gonaives there are threats of violence against the UN troops, who set up checkpoints on the main road. We hear reports of UN soldiers killed in the south while trying to stop pro-Aristide protestors from writing graffiti on a building. There is fighting and demonstrations in P-au-P. The day before we were to drive up to Gonaives protestors set up barricades on the main road with guns and burning tires, but they were gone by the time we got there. Despite scattered violence against the UN, there is generally a feeling of acceptance of the UN here. There is no local government or police force in Gonaives, and it’s the UN and NGOs that are holding everything together.

Gonaives is one of the poorest cities in Haiti and has been the flashpoint for violent protest in the past due to the miserable conditions there. Ironically, the terrible flooding last fall has indirectly caused conditions to temporarily improve here by bringing in so many NGO emergency teams. Still, people are hungry here: even the people at the CARE hotel who serve us food are sometimes going hungry themselves. Most people have no running water, and the water that does run is unsafe to drink. Some of the water you can buy to drink can be contaminated as well. Where there is electricity in Gonaives, it is sporadic: it will be on for an average of 5-6 hours a day, at unpredictable times. Schools generally have no electricity. Classrooms are bare cement walls, a chalkboard, a row of desks, and dust. Toilets are cement holes in the ground. There is no waste disposal system, no trash cans: garbage is thrown in the street and sits there in piles that pigs and goats root in. Occasionally the piles are set on fire as a means of reduction.

By our second week in Gonaives people begin to recognize us and wave to us as we drive through the streets. We see people riding their mopeds wearing clown noses. People start to know who we were and why we were there.

Adults sometimes thank us after a show for providing a means for the children to laugh and forget some of their recent trauma. We call what we’re doing an “anti-stresse” mission, because in Creole the term “anti-stresse” signifies fighting against trauma, grief and hardship. The mission feels like a success: the children running after the truck as we drive away from the schools are laughing, waving, making silly faces. We have also left them with an experience of white people who were not proselytizing or in some kind of official role, but who were there to play and engage with them.

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