Tim’s Journal

I’m standing at the inner gate of the clinic compound where I am working for two weeks to help teach and run a research project called photovoice.  Today, while my study participants are out taking photographs I was invited to participate in a weekly health class for young adults (18-22) that the clinic I’m working for holds at a neighboring tent camp.  The day prior there was a fatal incident at this camp, so security is more alert and folks are more tense than usual. I am required to be escorted by security to leave my compound and enter this camp.

The camp is surrounded by cinderblock walls laced with broken bottles and razor wire.  There is only one gate by which to enter and exit.  Just inside of the gate and next to the armed guard’s shelter are three giant water bladders.  Each bladder gets depleted and filled daily; this is the only water source for the 2,000-3,000 people living within these walls.  Tents line up with barely a shoulder width distance between each other, rows and rows of green, grey and white. Splotches of blue stand out amongst the tents; this marks the tents that have developed holes and leaks.  The blue tarps are temporary fixes for these “temporary” homes that have been in place since January.

Beyond the bladders is a line of razor wire, coiled and sitting about 3 feet off of the ground.  It is backed by one of the perimeter walls of the camp and it encircles a small plastic tarp shelter.  Beneath the shelter are 5 or six benches and a chalkboard.  My escort opens up the razor line for me and I’m in the open-air camp classroom.

I sneak into the back of the class to listen to the learners discussing how to develop a business model and organizational structure for new entrepreneurs.  Each week members of the course are responsible for leading discussions on certain topics. After the discussions, the teacher and classmates critique the discussion regarding content and discourse.  The business discussion ends and another student then passes out condoms to each classmate and booklets on preventing STI’s and TB.  Somehow the conversation turns into a heated discussion on what a comedian is.  My Kreyol is remedial at best and so I missed how the discussion went from start-up businesses to safe sex and then to “what is funny?” and how to define a comedian.

“Speaking of comedians” said the MD facilitating the class, “now maybe we should let Tim speak.”

I was asked to come to the class to speak about the importance of psychosocial support, play and laughter when it comes to mental health and a more holistic view of health.  Like I said, my Kreyol is far from adequate to give a dissertation on anything, so up until that point, I had no idea how I would share my opinions.

With a stack of condoms in hand I walk into the middle of the room, start to introduce myself, trip, fall and condoms fly everywhere.  I pick them up try again and then trip again, this time bigger.  With each interruption the group is laughing louder and louder.  I tell the group that I used to think that maybe I was a comedian, but after the discussion, I realized that might not be the case–more laughter.  The bit then turns into me trying to figure out what condoms are for, I mistake the Kreyol word for condom “kapot” as someone in the classes name and then proceed to having the class tell me that the condom is not a hat for my head, knee, foot or hand.  When they finally tell me what it was for, I blush with embarrassment.  I began to sweat nervously to the class’ enjoyment. I started drying up the sweat with my red handkerchief which then suddenly disappears. Silence when the handkerchief first disappears and then awestruck laughter as it comes back out of someone’s ear, then from someone’s shirt and finally out of my mouth.

About 50 people have gathered on the other side of the razor wire to watch this speech that has turned into a ti spectacle.

dsc05163With the help of an interpreter, I explain briefly why I do what I do and how I believe in the health benefits of laughter.  The group nodded as if in concurrence or anticipation of what might happen next.  So then I ask “ou vley chante?” (Do you all want to sing?)  And the whole group inside and outside of the razor wire shouts “Oui” I end my “speech” with a group song and tell everyone to come back in a week to see the full show.  I will be back in the camp to do a clown show for a health class of young children; hopefully they will be able to open up the jagged classroom walls a bit more to let everyone in.

A swarm of children find a break in the wire and come into the classroom after the song and soon we’re all singing and playing.  One child named Ti-Rasta (little Rasta) comes up to me and teaches me to play “hot hands.” He asks “Ki kote moushwen?” (Where is the handkerchief) that I had been making disappear and I tell him that I don’t know, it’s gone.  Then one of the students points up to the top of the wall behind us. Stuck in the barbed wire is a pair of red women’s underwear that from a distance looks like my handkerchief.  He says “La!”  There it is!

Ti-Rasta and two camp volunteers offer to take me on a tour of the tent camp.  We embark into the field of tents, followed by many other children, but we soon lose them as there is not enough space for a large group of people to walk through.  We start on the north side of the camp, rows of 30 or more tents lined up next to each other, then a small walkway out the front of them and then another long row.  This pattern repeats for the length of 1-2 soccer fields.   These first tents are by American standards “4 person tents.” Many of them have holes, ripped covers and broken zippers.  They hold one to two families each (between 4 and 8 people).

dsc05130A woman pulls me aside to show me how her tent is falling apart and says that when it rains the tent fills up and everyone gets soaked.

We move to the middle of the camp where there are tents donated by the Red Cross.  These are 4 family tents holding on average 16 people each, they are the length of maybe 1.5 SUV’s lined up head to toe.  Occasionally we step over a small hand dug runoff ditch full of stagnant water.  Some of the water is white like diluted cement; some is a toxic shade of green.  All of it is full of flies and insects.  On the east side of the camp we find the perimeter wall flanked with about 10-20 showers and 50 portable toilets.  This is the bathroom.

The way the toilets are lined up remind me of how you find toilets stacked up at marathons, carnivals or county fairs.  Those toilets are often only out for a few days or even hours and you know how that smell pervades.  These toilets have been here and in use by thousands daily since January.

We round a corner, over another runoff ditch and one of my guides points out some large green American military tents.  Ti-Rasta then runs up behind me, pulls at my shirt and starts saying “Obama Obama Obama!”  My guide tells me that these tents are the Obama tents.  They hold 4 or more families and are the Cadillacs of the tent camp, dry, sturdy and quite compared to the other tents.

We round through the “fancy” side of the camp and come back to the main entrance, back near the water bladders.  I watch a few children get into a fistfight and then run off.  The word on the ground here is that people are expecting two large cyclones to hit in November and are quite worried about it.  All of the tents, including the “Obamas” are showing signs of wear and tear; a cyclone right now would reap unimaginable havoc.

My guides talk about rain, and then begin to talk about how they would love to have an arts program at this camp.  There is a small band that has gotten together at the camp that plays rock and kompa music.  Other writers and artists have surfaced as well.  I begin to wonder how Clowns Without Borders could develop arts partnerships in these settings.

At the gate, my guides hand me off to the security guards again to take me back over to the clinic.  The walk is not far, but the streets are chaotic.  One of the men who lives near the gate turns on an old CD player boom box radio.  The speakers are blown and full of static but I quickly make out the song:  It’s the Rihanna and Jay-Z version of  “Umbrella.”

I say goodbye to Ti-Rasta and his crew of friends. As I step into the street Rihanna’s voice gets drowned out by cars honking, engines roaring and street vendors selling bottled water, fruit juice and random electronics.

15 minutes later the wind picks up throwing leaves all over the clinic compound.  Car alarms begin to sound in the clinic’s parking lot.  And then a 30-45 minute deluge breaks from the sky.  Thunder and lighting, power is lost as nutrition clinic fills with mothers and babies from the camp seeking shelter.

After the storm clears a many of the small tents have been destroyed in the camp the larger tents have also sustained significant damage.  Most of Port au Prince is now filled with tree branches and downed power lines.  This storm lasted less than one hour.  I cannot imagine what a hurricane or cyclone would do.

A recent NY Times article states that there are roughly 1.3 million people still displaced and living in these tent camps.  Very few people have the “Obama” style tents, many have simple tarpaulins that are their homes.    1,300 camps such as the one I  visited are scattered throughout the country.

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