Clowns Without Borders-USA has just returned from a 10-day exploratory expedition to the southern part of Haiti. Working in partnership with Maison de Naissance and the White/Flowers Foundation we performed 15 shows from hospitals to rural rice fields in the Cayes/Torbeck region. Despite warnings from the US government, the negative media surrounding Haiti, the pre-election violence in Cite Soliel, Port au Prince, and surrounding areas, we were entirely safe and warmly welcomed by our Haitian friends. In fact, we could not imagine how any negative press about political violence could come from the region where we were staying.
When I asked one of our hosts San San about violence in the area, he shook his head and laughed, “Violence? Do you see violence here? No, pas du pwablem!” Liz Turkel, Jamie Lachman, Ivor Prickett, and myself baked in the humid sun, surrounded by friends, and children eager to juggle, play, and laugh. In the course of our visit our audiences ranged from 20 to 200, burn victims, infants, and an older drunken man who found his way up on stage during our map lazzi wanting us to show him where the US was and to help us find our way home. “Nou Pedi!” was the chant that began every show. “We are lost!” Most laughed and joined us in this chant; this man took it literally and was overly helpful in trying to guide us home. Daily, we witnessed the brutal health conditions that envelope Haiti. Our first day of work we visited the Cayes General Hospital Pediatric Ward.
After performing for an hour or so with patients, on our way out of the hospital we noticed a crowd of nurses around an infant’s bed where we had performed and members of the MN team had visited. I first thought the nurses were administering some sort of treatment for the ailing child. As soon as we left the building though, one of the doctors from the US informed us that that infant had just died. Another child dying from malnourishment–a common and sobering occurrence throughout Haiti and that would follow us throughout our trip. We rode home in silence as we passed fields of rice, corn, and fruit trees.
Our trip was full of joys and sorrows as unpredictable as the treacherous roads. We gave clown noses to elderly widows awaiting the construction of a new home, took over a dance club with our antics, and even had to wrestle a pig that Jamie had frightened with of his antique car horns. The startled pig broke free from its rope after hearing the honking and ran for the road, we cut it off and muscled it back to safety. Every day offered something new and quite unbelievable. Our work brought us full circle, back to the Cayes General Hospital.
On our last day of performing, we returned to the explosive joy of the many of the patients and staff and had a festival of laughs in the pediatric ward. After doing the “moushwen” handkerchief disappearing trick ad nauseam and the Johnny Depp/Benny and Joon hat bouncing off the head gag, we had worked with almost every patient in the area. I then found myself in the back corner of the malnourishment/rehab section with a child who seemed nearly forgotten by the rest of the joyful kids. She was an infant, born with HIV and was suffering severe malnourishment–her body half the size of what it should be for an infant of her age. She moaned as she tried to move so I sat next to her and started to strum my ukulele. I played the only chords I know, the tune to “Good Night Irene” and she gradually lifted her head. This act alone looked like it took all of her energy. She rolled her head to one side and groaned with nearly every breath. Her sister, a bouncy young girl with light curls crawled into the bed next to her and started to gently stroke her. The infant’s eyes gradually stopped rolling around in their sockets and focused on the uke. Her groans began to change in tone and began to resemble happy goo’s and gah’s. We played, we connected and she calmed down, just gazing and the instrument. We played together for quite a while, I stopped the strumming occasionally to brush the flies off of her face. This trip to Haiti is the beginning of much more clown work to take place there. We plan to perform more, do more workshops, make more juggling balls, build a circus…and one day maybe even eat the moon.
Woch nan dlo pa konnen doule woch nan soley.
“The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun” There seems to be no way to stop sweating here, day and night I drip. We drink endless amounts of water and add salt to everything to keep up with the liquids lost everyday. It has only taken us a few days to figure out that no work gets done between about 11AM and 3 PM—it is just too hot. On Palm Sunday, after hearing a rollicking sermon comparing the state of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus to that of Haiti while under various military regimes, we returned home to soak in the sun with a little siesta before one of our most exciting days.
Around 3 PM our truck arrived with Lackson behind the wheel. We were going to embark on a trip with a program called Loaves and Fishes, which provides rice (rice bought from the US, despite fields and fields of rice in the Cayes area) to families (many of whom live surrounded by rice fields) who do not have enough food. This paradox alone is extremely frustrating that food often gets shipped out of Haiti to the US and then bought back from the US to consume in Haiti. So we climbed in the back of the truck to deliver the rice. This day we learned very quickly that it is impossible to understand the need, pain, and hopelessness of many Haitians held in the grips of this absolute poverty. “Woch nan dlo pa konnen woch nan soley.” Because of this, our work demands a different kind of compassion, one in which we realize we cannot comprehend another’s circumstances, we can only be available to listen and try to find a mutual understanding in the present moment.
The more we travel and perform, the less we understand. The more lost we get, the easier it is to connect with individuals. The more we stop trying to “do good,” the more present we become to the needs of a given situation. About halfway through our stops we found ourselves way off the main road in an enclave of trees so thick that we felt like it was dusk. The shade of the tress fell upon a small hut in which I barely made out the shadow of a man sitting down.
Our driver stopped the car and pulled out some rice, he beckoned us to come, but we hesitated not seeing any children around that might want to play. Out of nervousness I started to juggle, to make us blans climbing out of the truck appear that much more strange. Then, as I peered into the dark house, I saw the man’s bright white teeth suddenly glow with a smile. I thought of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, who, in the Disney Cartoon, disappeared completely except for his broad smile. This man hobbled to the door, then another person came out, then another. An elderly couple and, their children, their children’s children came from the house and the neighboring huts and before we knew it there were at least three generations of people around us waiting for our next move. I quickly counted the crowd that had gathered and has Jamie and Liz played music and did slight of hand magic, I reached into my bag and brought out foam noses.
We had plenty to go around and so as we played and danced, we had the honor to place a nose on each person, from the 80-year-old great-grandmother, to the naked 1 yr old with a drippy nose. The neighbors flocked in and we had witnessed the start of a block party. We were kindly guided away from the 30 ft hole (a well) standing open on the side of the yard and we danced, kissed, and hugged our way back into the truck and on the road again. Times like these were the most memorable for this experience; times when we had no idea what to expect or even do; times when we just had to be there, and inspiration came. We do not understand, nor can we begin to touch the depth of suffering the people we met face day to day. We are wasting our energy if we try.
We learned that our work must be heartfelt in the moment, full of joy and honest play. Our strongest connections on stage and off have come from simplicity, not trying too hard, just looking folks in the eyes and saying “thank-you for letting us see your country.” The last morning I woke to watch the sunrise at the beach down the road. I saw the silhouette of a fisherman standing on the shore. The sun caught a glimmer on the side of his face and he began to juggle two rocks. I slowly walked toward him, and picked up some rocks to juggle myself. We both stopped. He put his rocks down and told me all about fishing in the morning here, he told me about the different types of boats, he told me the joys of the sunrise and how the fish too love coming up with the sun.