Posted by: posthaiti | January 26, 2009

Local Volunteers: Solid, and Still There

as i finish up my laundry and cozy in to my warm, well-made bed (nice sheets, a down comforter reeking of fluffy washing detergent smell), i can’t help but feel…almost guilty. well, not guilty, but something like it. we had about 20 local volunteers who somehow discovered HODR and decided to give their time. i think the deal was, if you work, you eat. and, considering their likely circumstances (they probably weren’t in school, were waiting for it to start up again, or weren’t employed — there were no jobs in Haiti, really), it made sense for them to work if they could. eating, hanging out, getting to know Americans; it seemed better to me than wandering around the streets of Gonaives all day.

anyway, the point: the local volunteers, everyone down there who is living in poverty — they are still there. still sleeping on their cement floors. still waking up each and every day with one pair of clothes, no shoes, and worse, no work, no food, no money. monAY. currency. i was only there for two short weeks and felt a bit physically traumatized from the living conditions; i’m still recovering. but, i left. i could leave. they are still there.

the local volunteers, among others, really opened me up to giving again, to sharing. they embodied so much humanity, humaneness; and to think, in the midst of what one might consider complete inhumanity, i found the utmost in them. how? in the way they talked, acted, greeted me, taught me, hugged me, got close to me, allowed me wide access to themselves. they all seemed so simply interested in getting to know us. i’m not sure if it was because we were volunteering in their country or just because we were human beings and that’s just what other human beings deserve (imagine that, NYC?), but they honored us all the same.

Richardson, the buff one. Diji, the deejay with an incredibly articulate way of speaking, no matter if he was doing it in Creole, French, or English. ames, the massive digger, the MAN. Luco, the wild one i didn’t get to know. Cenat, the tall one who giggled and avoided hard work, and who laughed at me because i couldn’t move the wheelbarrows one day. Silex, the dancer, the rad movement artist who, if he wasn’t “trapped” in Gonaives, Haiti, would for sure by now be featured in someone’s video on MTV.

coming home, re-entering back into the usuals of work and play, has made me see, or has clarified what i already saw but chose to buy into anyway: concerns here on every level, professional, social, etc., are simply petty. that’s not to say that they are unimportant, to be very sure. it’s just, well, they seem insignificant. some of the locals had no home, no parents (died of HIV?), no bed, no clothes. no money, no way to get money, no way to leave and go to college…

put a different way: we almost ran out of gas for the generator due to a country-wide gas strike the last day i was in PAP, which would have meant no generator and no running shower or sink water. that would have been fun! and i say that with sincerity — showering; watching the sun set; drinking with new friends, people who were actually interested in getting to know you and themselves on a more primal level; pissing over a hole in the cement floor; watching men on the side of the road grind peanuts into peanut butter; bargaining at the local market over how much you’d pay for ten tomatoes, knowing that those tomatoes had to be good and cheap because they were the only base you’d have for the spaghetti sauce that you were going to make for six other people at camp that night. there was a beauty, a rhythm to life down there, and it was substantial enough and had enough of an impact for me to see it for something more, something almost necessary to live for. without a sense of community, i am — we are — dead.

the local volunteers were fun. Richardson was funny, screaming things like, ‘waterbreak!’ and ‘oh my god!’ as often and as loud as he could. he was very strong, and could outdue almost every foreign volunteer (aside from maybe the Finn, Seppo, who was a monster on the barrows). i remember getting into a mud fight with Cenat while at the house where i would eventually lose my camera to theft. Cenat was tall, gangly, and told me he was 21. i’m not sure if he was ever telling me the truth, though. Robertson was quiet, introverted, and absolutely reliable. he was very religious, too, and before long, he’d ask you if you were a Christian, invite you to a church service with him (which i did the Sunday before i left and which i’ll blog more about in another post), and give you scolding looks every time you ordered another beer. the funny thing was, Robertson himself was always out at the bars. one night, he and Richardson escorted me and a few other volunteers downtown to see a concert. it was teeming with people, vendors, crazy Haitian-ness all around. at times, our group would be surrounded by curious/greedy/opportunistic Haitians coming at us with every line in the book (is she taken?, can i talk to her?, do you have any money?, are you American?). then there was James, who was voted volunteer of the week the first week i was there. i actually took part in nominating him, mostly because he was the MAN when it came to shoveling: patient, persistent, strong, and always there doing what you needed him to do with the mud when you needed it done. if there was a partner to be had in shoveling mud, James was the perfect one (too bad he was not the perfect partner in life, but he tried asking me several times!). Diji was just plain rad; always had his head hooked into a walkman (yep, the old school kind that rolled CDs) and talked a lot about wanting to leave Haiti and become a DJ in the US. then there was Silex, the dance master, who led us on one of the best danceoffs, as Michelle called it, i’ve ever seen.

i want to feel not guilty, but that’s what i feel. and slightly afraid. fearful for them, a bit, but mostly fearful for myself. will i forget them? will i forget what they gave to me, which is a broader perspective, a deeper source of real empathy? will i do anything about it? will i keep my promise to them, to myself? or will i deny the truth? i know what it is like down there, and the only way i wouldn’t or wouldn’t be affected in one way or another is if i choose to deny my knowledge, my feelings, my almost obligation to help.

some pics, and thanks, Michelle for being a great photog!

Diji, chillin’
Me and Cenat on NYE at SpeakerMan
Richardson, posin’
Richardson, kickin’ it
Silex, doin’ Silex


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