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Author: Susana

lessondary

 
Tabarre March 2012 and Baz Gwo Wòch, Furcy April 2014. Everyday Haiti, everyday lucky, Instgrammed.

A very short compendium of Life Skills and Small Sagesses picked up over four-ish years in the blessed, beautiful Republic of Haiti, though useful far and wide:

1) How to hide cash, phone, keys, and anything else you may need (which is to say, nothing else) in a bra to keep from getting stolen during the inevitable finger-crawling-body-crush during Carnival. Lifehack for the braless: put everything into the pockets of a pair of shorts worn under your jeans.

2) How to ride a motorcycle taxi. Excellent core workout. Ass out, thighs strong, back partially arched, but body still loose enough to flow with the curves, hills, sudden stops, and shifts in speed. Arms can stay relaxed, fingers tapping nonchalantly just above the knees. Optional: bump up the IDGAF levels by typing up story notes and firing off emails on your phone while weaving through traffic. If you can write and file assignments this way, a frosty Prestige beer can be your reward when you finally hop off the bike at the end of the road.

3) There is no better reward at the end of a sticky, dusty, shouty, melty, dramatic day than a frosty Prestige.

4) Lime on the face eases the sting of tear gas. Some people go for toothpaste, but if they’re in season, I swear by lime. Secondary bonus: citrus facial treatment. When you wash the layers of black tire ash and grime from your face after the protest, soft glowing skin awaits.

5) DEET melts nail polish. Nail polish hides grime. Mosquitos are vile little evils. Learn to make your own repellant with grapeseed oil base and lavender, eucalyptus, citronella, and vetiver essential oils.

6) When someone in the street randomly tells you they love you, the appropriate response is “Thank you.” Love is love. Keep it moving.

7) How to eat a ripe mango without a knife, no mess, no fuss. Choose a fruit free of dark spots and gently massage it, starting at the top and stopping just short of the bottom. Tear off a small piece of the tip with your teeth. Drink.

8) Rain can be more destructive and frightening than bullets.

9) The subtlety of egos, angers, and body languages. How to take the temperature of a large crowd or an imposing individual who may or may not try to lock you in their office to assault you. How to taste the exact moment just before things turn, anticipating your last window to make a safe and graceful exit. This can save your life.

10) The art of cool, quiet patience. My first lesson, and one I’m still learning. You will be trapped by horrendous traffic, the power will cut, the cooking gas will run out, the signal will drop, essentials will break down, and someone will be hours late or not materialize at all. The key to waiting is to never actually be waiting. Save your anger, smooth out, and drink every moment. If you can’t, at least drink a Prestige.

 

 

interlude

 

I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.

/mia-skye sagara

 

It is a strange thing to feel in exile at home, rather than at home in exile.

My last real home, or closest thing to home, was Port-au-Prince. I spent nearly four mostly-consecutive years in Haiti, but a few months ago decided that I needed a breather. I wanted to be quiet and still and nowhere for a little time, to think and to write, before packing up again and either returning to the heat or moving elsewhere. Nap swiv.

And so I landed in West End Toronto for the summer. The friends who have gotten used to seeing me pop in a few times a year for short visits are not quite sure what’s up now that I’m hanging around longer. They are almost startled to bump into me on the street or at parties — Oh, you’re still here? Others, who I haven’t crossed paths with in years, are confused about where I’m supposed to be. How’s New York? they inquire. When do you fly back to Paris?

I blame my blog name in part. I’ve used “nowarian,” a word born of the playful genius of Caribbean English, as my username, social media moniker, and blog identity for nearly a decade. In that decade I have moved house at least 22 times (that I can recall) in five countries. This has made me very good at packing and unpacking, a master at airport security lines, more graceful with goodbyes and heartfelt with hellos, and kept me from accumulating more than I can carry. My shoulders have never been stronger, my keep-or-toss decisiveness never sharper.

But lately, I’ve been complaining to friends, the word has started to feel like a burden. What if I want to accumulate things? What if I want to lay down roots? What if I don’t want to be from nowhere? After so many years away I’m a ghost in my own home town, a foreigner in my fatherland, and the last place I felt entirely in my element is a country that, even should I decide to live out the rest of my days there, will forever view me as an outsider.

Adaptable Otherness, in a way, is my jam. This is how I was raised in West End Toronto, crashed up against all these other kids whose parents’ life choices and migratory options forced us to grow together, all different skin tones and hair textures and cooking spices that seeped into our bargain bin, hand-me-down, and home-made clothes. I can’t recall if we asked one another where we were from. I’m not sure we cared at that age. At lunchtime we traded leftover curries, cured meats, greens, thick soups, beans and rice, spicy roasted peppers smothered in olive oil and garlic. We taught each other how to swear in our respective native tongues, played tiny interpreters at parent-teacher meetings, and developed a collective way of speaking that incorporated our many accents. Nobody stuck out as different, because we all did. I romanticise those days, though I know I shouldn’t. The poorest kids were sometimes shunned for being too fresh-off-the-boat, frayed fabrics, faces dirty, bruised. Mr McLean choked one of the Jamaican kids up against a wall after recess. The French teacher screamed at the Mexican kids, calling them gangbangers. I still sting with the memory of the school librarian taunting me, her British accent echoing, asking if I knew how to speak English.

In 2008 I called up Dr Winford James in Saint Augustine, Trinidad on a day when he was feeling “good and strong, good and strong” to ask about nowarians. He was as solid an authority as any, it seemed, as he helped write the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Dr James explained that the word has origins in Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Tobago, and Trinidad. There was no one correct way to spell it (nowarian, nowherian, nowhereian, nowierian), just as there was no single agreed-upon meaning. He walked across his office, found his copy of the dictionary, opened it to page 409, and read aloud an official definition:

no-wher-i-an 1. A person who is not connected with any church or who professes no religious faith. 2. [By extension] Sb who is not respectable; sb of no consequence. 3. [By further extension] [Derog] An unkempt looking knockabout; a person of no fixed abode.

Yikes, I said. Dr James tried to mellow the harshness: “It’s a term that has a kind of semantic potential,” he said. “It has shades of meaning.” Shades that can shift and migrate. If a nowarian can be from nowhere — disconnected from his or her roots and surroundings — then a nowarian can be from everywhere too. At the time, I found some comfort in this.

“I don’t belong here,” a friend said to me one night in Port-au-Prince before I left, as so many have on so many Port-au-Prince nights. This one was a blond American, a foreign aid worker. She hadn’t grown up questioning, in ways subtle or enormous, whether or not she belonged in her Northern California town. This discomfort was new for her, and no matter how long she stayed or the effort she made, she said morosely, she would never belong in Haiti. Of course she wouldn’t, I thought. Aloud, and naively, I wondered: why was that so awful? She looked at me, bewildered by the question.

*   *   *

 

[Because it needs to be addressed: Sorry for the silence in this space. I have drafts on drafts, accumulated over the past year plus, but none of them felt right. Like everything else, I’ll throw blame on the burden of that word, hungry for motion, nowarian.]

papadocratic caucus


Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti’s former President-for-Life and son of François Duvalier, in appeals court. 28 Feb, 2013.
Photo by @etiennecp.

One hot February afternoon last year I was sitting under one of the broad, white tents that was often erected on the National Palace grounds for special events — inaugurations, visits from foreign heads of state and the like — waiting for a promised interview with Haiti’s then-Foreign Affairs Minister, now Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe. One of his aides, an omnipresent Canadian, came and sat down next to me. The aide pushed for details on what questions I wanted to ask Lamothe, stressing that there’d “only be time for one,” and asked if he could shoot video of my interview. I declined the strange request and said, vaguely, that I wanted to talk to him about the campaign to re-brand Haiti’s international image and the many challenges on that particular road. What kind of challenges, asked the aide, barely concealing his alarm. I laughed that there would be quite a number of bumps in any Haiti brand makeover. Shaking off negative stereotypes to attract investors would be tough — chief among them, the long associations with instability, inequality, and Duvalier. An investigating judge had just recently ruled not to bring human rights charges against the former President, who had returned from exile the year previous. The government aide scoffed at the D word.

“Don’t ask him about that,” he said sternly. “That’s the past. We’re looking to the future.”

I didn’t get my interview that day after all. But despite repeated attempts to shove the Jean-Claude issue aside, a year later the Duvalier name is on airwaves, printed in newspaper pages and slips off people’s tongues every moment of every day in Haiti. Even the Senior Duvalier, François, has been pulled back into conversation, with sharp local reactions this past week to an adoring memorial penned by his grandson, Nicholas.

In the case of Nicholas’ father, Jean-Claude, the human rights violation charges may have been dropped, but certainly not forgotten. I’ve been following the appeals process in a downtown Port-au-Prince courtroom since hearings began in late January, where alleged victims of his regime spend their Thursdays giving personal testimony of their unlawful arrests, solitary confinement, beatings and other tortures. The process is long, and few are optimistic about Haiti’s judicial system, but at least this particular piece of Haiti’s history is not being laid to rest, or rebranded, any time soon. Some of those testifying will participate in a number of memorial services tomorrow, April 26 — a day that is significant for a number of reasons.

Fifty years ago tomorrow was, according to documentation, a particularly evil day in a period that was already deeply marked by violence. Papa Doc was in charge. From Red Heat, the context: post-Trujillo President Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic calling for François Duvalier’s ouster, mass arrests and tortures of student protestors in Port-au-Prince, John F. Kennedy mulling over whether to invade or support a coup lead by ex-Macoute Clément Barbot, and a nascent mutiny astir within the Haitian army. Duvalier Sr purged the army and threw himself a party to mark his apparent unfuckwittableness. And then:

Amid the celebrations, on 26 April, a limousine was taking two of Duvalier’s children, fourteen-year-Simone and eleven-year-old Jean-Claude, to school. Two blocks from the National Palace, another car slowed down alongside the limousine. With perfect precision, three shots were fired. The driver and two Tontons Macoutes, the children’s bodyguards, slumped down dead where they sat. The assassin did not fire on the children, who scrambled out and ran into the school, unharmed.

General Constant and Duvalier’s physician, Jacques Fourcand, begged him to calm down, lest he have another heart attack. “The children aren’t hurt,” said Fourcand. “You have time for sober reflection.”

Sober reflection was not Duvalier’s strong suit. Instead, he ordered sixty-five of his officers to be shot immediately without trial. The Tontons Macoutes were unleashed. Guns cocked, they swaggered through Port-au-Prince, shooting and killing anyone whose car was the same make as the assassin’s. Hundreds of civilians disappeared that day. By nightfall, bodies littered the streets.

The sharpest shot in the Haitian army had been one Lieutenant François Benoît, though he had been purged the previous week. In a blind fury, Duvalier became convinced–without evidence–that Benoît was the only man in Haiti capable of pulling off such a feat of shooting. The Macoutes went to look for Benoît. Twelve hours previously, he had escaped into the Dominican embassy. Instead, they went after his family. A squad arrived at the Benoît residence with submachine guns, and killed his father, his mother, a family friend, their servants, and their dogs, before setting fire to the house. Benoît’s baby son, Gérard, perished in his cradle.

(Barbot, as it turned out, had been the shooter. Not Benoît.)

This was followed by an aggressive stand-off at the Dominican embassy, flaring tempers in Santo Domingo, and plans for a sped-up U.S. invasion. Explanatory leaflets were printed in preparation, and American, Canadian and British warships convened in the Gulf of Gonâve. The OAS sent a team of investigators, and Duvalier ordered a carnival parade be hurried together to entertain them. To them he turned and asked, “If the OAS claims the right to intervene because of repressive internal conditions, why don’t they land troops in Alabama?”

There was no intervention, of course. Papa Doc carried on, and when he invited a group of journalists to the palace some weeks later, a group forever prone to promoting negative stereotypes about Haiti, he assured them: “The country is calm and peaceful.”

if the bear starts eating you, it is no longer being defensive

sleepingbuffalo

I saw an elk for the first time a few weeks ago. We were both out in the rain, a cool layer of mist hiding the mountain peaks from view, darkness creeping up close behind. Wandering along the trees and lost in conversation, I didn’t notice her at first, but nearly dropped my phone when I did. She was so close. Long neck bent toward the grass, her thick coat carrying the honey of a spring that still seemed shy in coming to the Rockies.

I spent part of the past while nestled high in the mountains as a resident of the Banff Centre, where the days stretched out forever and the first grizzlies and black bears were just beginning to stir from their long slumber. I drank in that air like I’d never taken breath before. Before that, it was the Toronto Island for days and nights of writing, listening to the crash and lull of Lake Ontario, and a massive cleansing equinox bonfire. I’d follow coywolf prints on long walks along the beach, and some nights I swear I could hear them yipping demurely in the distance. Thick ice gave way to grassy fields and flowers, and red-winged blackbirds played host to my first vernal welcome in years. I’m lucky to have access to this kind of gentle exile.

Other luxuries: wading through thick snowfalls on soft sand; the intimacy of tall firs and spruces and pines; admiring high tide’s red earth designs along the shore; a hike up Sleeping Buffalo Mountain before sunset; watching storms crawl in and daylight fade away beyond the peaks, beyond the horizon, a disappearing act. It was stunning, in icy shades of blue and grey, but it all felt utterly unreal to me at the time. Beautiful, uncomplicated fictions that demanded nothing.

(I was wrong, of course.)

I’m now back home in Port-au-Prince, where the days grow warmer and the evenings are sticky with rains. There is no other word for PAP right now but home; I haven’t hung around any where this long for at least the past decade. But, familiar as it may be, the city still challenges me. Port-au-Prince is an all-consuming place, the churning centre of a country that extends far beyond its borders, but that can still be difficult to grasp from inside. The Haiti peanut gallery is vast and opinionated, and the daily barrage of radio rumour, political gossip and packaged press releases can only be tuned out while in exile — and even then, much too much noise seeps through. Too many different versions of the same place, and they are all alive and true. I think. While at a distance, the various Haitis changed size, shape and temperature in my mind. Many of the conversations I had about them did not.

“Oh, Haiti?” said Old or New Acquaintance. “You don’t hear much from there these days…” With those last two words, trailing, I’d see their gaze shift and dissolve, mirroring the struggle of an imagination that couldn’t call up any current, concrete vision of this far-off place. There’s a lot going on, I understand. And for many, it is Haiti that’s unreal.

Dark, formless, incomplete pictures of suffering, violence, something vague about a natural disaster. Was it an earthquake? (It was.) Have people recovered? (Not quite.) I take this to heart, as a Port-au-Prince-based journalist, that I’m not doing my job well enough. (Perhaps I’m not.) But even with the wealth of stories already out there — fiction and documentary, earnest and self-serving, saccharine PR and nightmarish condemnation — it remains difficult to break this other hollow, malformed mould. It is a challenge to absorb new visions and versions in a space that’s already occupied by shadow-casting stereotypes, and to know which one of them to trust. When asked, I hardly know where to begin. Even long-time residents may only ever live in one Haiti, tucked away on the mountain or in a dusty compound, confined to a world of VIPs or pats on the back. Seeking and digesting multiplicity requires some faith.

(And, you know, I’m cool with it. Growing up between worlds, between languages, a cultural and class go-between, has served me well. But my own forever-shifting identity, in the context of a place where I’m an “expat” and not an immigrant or diaspora, and the baggage and privilege and strange social circles that come with that, is a separate conversation.)

This is why, in part, I’ve stuck around. Though these places try my patience and break my heart again and again, there are still more to see and meet and taste and berate and dance with and be confounded by. There are ones that have not yet deceived me, charmed me, or beat me at dominoes. There are places and stories that take their time to emerge. They unravel, fleck by fleck, moment by moment, even as they take care to unravel you.

groundhog days

A decade of concentrated assistance and hundreds of millions of dollars of international investment on the part of the United Nations, international development banks, and bilateral donors, does not ensure the successful installation of ______ ______ and ___ ____ _____ in a poor country with fragile democratic institutions while in the process of nation re-building. The international donors bear significant responsibility for this failure as a result of their overly optimistic presumption that huge external resources and concentrated international expertise, with little consideration of absorptive capacity or measure of the true interest in change, could quickly transform a nation. Haiti provides a textbook case of the difficulties that can follow naïve and unrealistic levels of intervention.

This paragraph is nearly ten years old. Specifics blanked out by me, as this can apply to rule of law, justice, land tenure, agriculture, infrastructure, water, sanitation, housing, etc. Its original heading, “Lessons Learned,” seems rather impolite.

Speaking of which — please forgive my six month silence on this thing. I’ve been occupied with a Canada Council-funded project (she’s still finding her legs) and a new-ish gig, but am still here. Still in Haiti. Still watching, smelling, waiting, breathing, tasting, smiling, listening.