After 5 shows, Clowns Without Borders USA Haiti 4 has performed before approximately 400 children and 275 adults! I can’t believe we’ve already reached the latter half of our expedition. I find that time is difficult for me to keep track of in Haiti, partly because of our packed schedule, but more so because of the drastic, contrasting qualities this small country displays. The close proximity of happiness and tragedy in Haiti has created a dream-like quality to our expedition.
Strong rains come and go here along with enormous white clouds. The sky is pure blue. Small streets are crowded with bloki, Haitian for traffic. Most people clearly have nothing. Simultaneously, children dance and clap and laugh at our clownish behavior with boundless enthusiasm. Then one observes the rubble. Leveled structures want badly to be cleared from the lives of the survivors. It really isn’t hard to understand that some 230,000 people died in the 7.0 earthquake last January.
Haiti means, “land of high mountains.” The mountains surrounding Port au Prince are high, and beautiful. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t realized Haiti was a mountainous country. Below the mountains, however, cobbled together tent and tin communities sit in the constant smell of sewage as it trickles slowly through camp. Today, forty children gathered to play with us beside such a ditch, their young, delicate, impressionable faces turning up to meet our own. Every moment we spend serving them feels like an eternity where nothing else around matters. The sewage is forgotten, the weeks and months of boredom and sadness grow distant, and shrieks of laughter wash over the camp and their relieved parents. I feel deeply honored to be here to participate in such an exchange between clown and child. I stand back to watch the children and the party they share with Julie and Jay, and I pinch myself.
Imagine the White House has collapsed in on itself. Roof caved in, pillars crumbled, steel pylons hanging from what used to be a second floor. All flags have ceased to fly. The one building that represents The United States’ unity, security, power, pride and opportunity has been destroyed. Just imagine. That is what has happened to and remains of its equivalent in Haiti, the presidential palace. Nowhere is the destructive force of the earthquake more apparent – untouched, brightly painted businesses next to urban ruins and piles of rubble. And yet the downtown area of Port au Prince bustles with activity – food markets, cars and transport buses, construction, demolition, commerce. People walk to and fro in front of their country’s presidential palace in ruin without skipping a beat. A country in crisis? Yes. A people in crisis? Still, yes.Their spirit in crisis? I won’t pretend there isn’t frustration and despair here. But the many Haitians I have met so far combat their situation with a singular, smiling determination and a wicked sense of humor.
Today we performed for 250 people in a camp called Delmas 60. It took us about an hour over some very rough, urban terrain to get there. Upon arriving we encountered a dangerously narrow entrance road squeezed between makeshift shelters and what used to be a large waterway/drainage canal, an even narrower open sewer line running between shelters, and pigs with color lines on their snouts from rooting in trash and sewage – there is without question an incredible sanitation disaster here.
It has been said that you aren’t a full-fledged clown until you make a child cry. Not surprisingly, it happens a fair amount. Well, today I up the ante. I call your crying child and raise you a terrified sprint. When we first pull into a camp, we are met by a wide variety of reactions: pure delight, curiosity, shyness, apathy, confusion, you name it. We are even, on occasion, grimly sized up and put on the spot. But never has someone straight up run away from me – until today. A small number of people had gathered around the car as we hopped out and surveyed the area around us. As I walked towards our playing space, a young adolescent boy tried, and failed, to get out of my way. In the spirit of clown, I smiled, gently mimicking his difficulty in trying to move and kept walking towards him wherever he moved. He turned and started walking away, uncertain of what exactly was happening. I walked after him, arms outstretched, still smiling. He picked up his pace, casting quick glances at me over his shoulder and I began to gallop after him, arms wide. And to the roaring delight of the growing crowd, that boy sprinted away from me like no one has sprinted before. And so began tonight’s show – 3 clowns and a huge audience of laughing inhabitants playing together against a stark backdrop of tragedy. This evening’s show held another first for me – the great majority of the children copied just about everything we did, whether we asked them to or not. They followed it all – yelling back to us whatever we had just said, mirroring gestures, faces, and even acrobatics! In their unflagging commitment they even chose to fall down with me and two young volunteers who took a small tumble from a balancing pose. As you can imagine, there was no shortage of volunteers to join us onstage.
On our way back from the show, our driver Rene took a short detour and showed us his home: a small shelter standing next to the ruin of his former house. From my window I saw a small girl in pink rapidly weaving her way towards us through a maze of still standing half-walls. She ran up to Rene’s window and lovingly greeted him – his daughter Michaela. This morning a camp inhabitant invited me into his home and proudly showed me around the small space that he and his family occupied. A housemate from Chad led us into his modest room to shows us pictures of his daughters. In these circumstances, there is little else more generous than inviting a complete stranger under your roof, into your hard-won personal space. And while negotiating your way through a devastated country, nothing makes you feel quite at home as, well, being home.