Thursday, 2 December 2010

Dancing to an unstable beat

It began at the airport, where a Haitian band was making music before we even got on the bus to the airport gate. Canadian police men and women, who apparently were sent to assist during the presidential elections, started nodding with the beat. As I walk through the SOS Children’s Village Santo two weeks later, I see a group of boys standing around an empty plastic barrel dancing to the rhythm they are drumming on it. Two girls on the way home from school sing together as they balance their schoolbags on their heads. A few steps further on I walk past a house where children are practicing a choreography for their christmas show. Music coming from a radio from an SOS family house accompanies a group of children as they play. Music is omnipresent in Haiti and everything has it’s own rhythm.

Dany’s barbershop is exactly what it sounds like, except it is also a bar. Haitian compas tunes flood from crackling speakers at deafening volume. Several men drink their beers while the barbershop owner sways her hips in a slow shuffle. Next to the hairdresser's chair a couple is dancing cheek to cheek. Outside, two men get up and, keeping a one-meter distance, mirror each others movements. All this happens in the face of instability, as uncertainness in Haiti increases around the presidential elections. Just a few days later hundreds and thousands of Haitians fill the streets, clamoring for a system without corruption and economical injustice.

Dancing is an important thing on the caribbean plate. Children learn to feel the rhythm, dance and sing at the same time as they learn to walk and talk.

A sense of rhythm, dance and song come as naturally as walking and talking to children in Haiti. - Photo: Sophie Preisch
 Sunday morning, Ylasse is tired. Asked whether he would participate in the elections after work he reacts almost appalled: "No. That’s too dangerous. Haitians kill other Haitians". He’s in the last hours of his 24-hour shift as a guard. Every week he does three of those shifts. At the end of the month he earns about 6.000 Gourdes, which is about 150 USD. Prices in the supermarket are as high as in central Europe, for some products even higher. That is just one thing that corners Haitians more and more. And in this corner Ylasse is just one of many who decided to not participate in the elections, one of many who seem to be just waiting until a decision is made and life can go on.

For some days around the elections public life seems to be sleeping. Only a few means of public transportation remain operational, protesters on the streets keep others from leaving the house and most public institutions stay closed. On Tuesday 30 November the SOS School opens again, the SOS Social centre as well. Still, there are many co-workers who have to leave at noon since public transport is still unreliable. During the nights it sometimes gets noisy in Santo: it seems like small demonstrations take place just at the other side of the fence. But the noise is not just shouting, it is people drumming and singing. Meanwhile, Ylasse walks around the SOS Children’s Village, listening to bachata music on his mobile phone.

"There was quite a lot of movement", states Cap Haitien’s SOS Children’s Village Director Arrol Francoise on the Monday following the presidential elections. Fortunately, no one in the programmes of SOS Children’s Villages has been hurt. And fortunately, as well, Haitians know how to dance to the beat of the eternal back-and-forth between tranquility and frenzy.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The world on a soccer ball

"Chile" shouts a boy, indicating to Felipe that he should pass the ball over to him. The sun is already setting as this group of children of the SOS Children‘s Village in Santo runs after the ball trying to score as many goals as possible. "I did not know a single word in Haitian Creole when I came here", says the Chilean social worker Felipe, "but as long as we are playing soccer, language does not matter. I just came here, told five children to go to one side, five children to go to the other side, so we had two teams and started to play. You really don't need more than this to understand each other.“

The basic principles of soccer know no language barriers - Photo: Sophie Preisch

Felipe came here with the Chilean organisation "América Solidaria", which cooperates with SOS Children‘s Villages and provides professional staff. He has been picked out of many candidates to do this voluntary work with the organisation. Felipe was told that he would work in the Dominican Republic and was already well prepared, when he received a call one week prior to his departure. "They told me I‘d be going to Haiti instead. It was quite a change for me, but then I just said to myself: 'that‘s probably where they need me the most.'"

Working with children is important to Felipe. Here, he usually works with youths from the SOS Children's Village, so he decided to spend his spare time with the children. He has the idea of training boys and girls in soccer and probably organising a SOS Children‘s Village championship one day. "When I entered the children‘s village trying to get to know the families and the kids I did not think: I need to do that in order to be accepted here. I just did what I wanted to do. I wanted to get to know people."
Felipe sees soccer as a way of getting to know people without speaking their language - Photo: Sophie Preisch

These days you hear a lot of talking about aggression against white people, against the strangers here in the country. Indeed, says Felipe, there would be some dissatisfactions amongst Haitians with regards to international staff. "I do understand that. Everything is chaotic here, some organisations bring voluntaries for one week or two. Everyone starts working on a project, and leaves it after a few days. To me, that seems more like some kind of social tourism than actually helping this country to get stronger", Felipe says. To him, it is important to actually understand people and their culture to be able to work together.

Language, of course, is one big part in the act of getting to know someone. Felipe takes classes in Creole. "I‘m here for a year, so of course I want to be able to talk to people. But the matter of not knowing the language should not be a reason to avoid contact with people either.“ After all - all you need is a soccer ball.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Bonjou Ayiti!

All of a sudden I‘m torn out of my dreams by all those chickens clucking and fighting over their breakfast grain. It must be almost six o‘clock in the morning... and step by step I realise that a new day in the SOS Children‘s Village in Santo is about to begin.

"There is only one armed force in the children‘s village of Cap Haitien: the mosquitos", says my Haitian co-worker Samy, asked whether he knows how much the village was affected by the tense social situation in Haiti. After riots in this northern city, official buildings stayed closed for some days, children of the SOS Children‘s Village in Cap Haitien did not attend school last week. News about riots and conflicts in this country spread around the world, while I am spending my first few days here. So far nothing has threatened us in the village, but there are some security measures to be taken.

While the tension rises in Port-au-Prince, the children inside the SOS Children's Village Santo feel safe. Photo: Sophie Preisch

The presidential elections on Sunday 28 November ended in confusion and allegations of fraud. Houses, walls and ruins in the capital Port-au-Prince are still covered with posters of the 19 candidates. UN-peacekeepers have been accused of bringing cholera to this country; and during the past weeks and days the aggression against internationals here in Haiti has apparently been increasing.

But the situation is difficult for Haitians as well: "We don‘t know for how long people will be on the streets", says Francoise, an SOS Mother. "We need to buy food and prepare to stay indoors in case of riots. But if we go out it might already be too late, there might already be too many demonstrations, riots and barricades to bring everything home safely." Still, Francoise says, she has always felt safe here in the SOS Children‘s Village of Santo.

Everyday life does not seem too tense so far: as I walk towards my office - a metal table at the corridor of the SOS school - curious children want to know my name, want to touch me and start to wonder where the freckles on my nose come from. They kiss me, hug me, make fun of my poor language knowledge and ask me to take a picture of them. For every „bonjou“ I offer, I get warm smiles in return.

As I am sitting here, writing this blog, I am scratching the wounds that mosquitos left on my skin. This armed force, mentioned earlier by Samy, is fighting in Port-au-Prince as well. A rooster calls the chicken to an early morning meeting; a group of children from the SOS Social Centre passes by in single file, repeating what the caregiver sings to them. During this time of political tensions life in the SOS Children‘s Village of Santo just goes on... - and bit by bit I realise with satisfaction that I am part of this life now!