Poignant, Hopeful, Maybe Even Joyful

Hibiscus, national flower of Haiti.

In February 1986 Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was deposed as President of Haiti and went to live in exile in France. Ordinary people were no doubt hoping that the near 30 year brutal rule of his and ‘Papa Doc’ (his father) would come to an end. However the general chaos remained with a military junta in control. Their will was enforced by the ‘Tonton Macoutes’, a sinister legacy of the Duvaliers which lived on. Their name was Creole for ‘bogeymen’. The populace feared them and the main thing was to avoid their attention. They would race round the capital in open jeeps and armed with guns. 

It was with this background that in the November of that same year (1986) I visited Haiti. My reason for going was to initiate preparations (known as ‘line up’) for the visit of MV Logos to the country. Make a brief survey of the situation for others to follow up later. Arriving at the airport in the capital Port au Prince I was immediately struck by a sense of chaos. Exiting the arrivals hall I was accosted by many wanting me to use their taxi services. In a more benign situation the scene would be reminiscent of some film star being mobbed by fans. Not so for me, it felt scary. Eventually I settled on one driver. Tip for using a taxi in a poor land. Always sit in the back with your luggage and just have the driver in front. Never allow a ‘hanger on’ person, either in the front or back.

As we left the airport it was unnerving that crowds were thronging around the car and banging on it. A big relief to get away. My destination was the compound of a Christian organisation in the capital. Upon arrival I began to understand the angry scenes at the airport. Greeted by my host he was shocked to see me. Did I not know there was a general strike on? How had I managed to travel in such circumstances?  I had arrived on one of the worst days of demonstrations and riots since the deposing of ‘Baby Doc’. The other greeting has also remained with me. It helped to cement my overall feeling of being in a place where law and order were in short supply… “welcome to the last kleptocratic country in the world”.

The compound was a haven of safety where a number of mission families lived. The whole area was walled in. Outwith the gates were people who seemed to live in hope of some economic benefit from those inside the wall. In my imagination it felt like being in some medieval fort or Biblical walled city. My misplaced sense of identifying with people made me question why those who were there to serve others were so insulated. In fact a concern at the time for the compound community was for one family that had decided to live in a house in the city. However my appreciation grew for having the safety of a walled compound. I recall being wakened at night by the sound of machine gun fire. 

Mission compound, Port au Prince, Haiti

My survey visit was only for a mere 6 days. The people I was with would not go downtown for the first 2 days of my stay because of the instability. Much of that time was spent sneaking around back roads to get from A to B. I had great respect for those who chose to live in these difficult, dangerous circumstances for years. I took seriously the counsel that when out and about to wear no watches, rings or jewellery. Another tip. Have small amounts of money in several places including in your socks or shoes.

One category of locals allowed into the compound were shoe shine people. I engaged someone to work cleaning my footwear. Definitely more of a salve to my conscience than any perceived need of clean shoes. Those I was ‘helping’ seemed desperately poor. Apparently the income the shoe shine people received enabled them to employ other people. Seemed there was a hierarchy of poverty. 

I don’t remember any tourist sights in the capital though am sure there were. My only ‘sightseeing’ memory was seeing the desecrated grave of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Given his and his son’s legacy of terror it was understandable why there would be some pride in my being shown this.

The dilemma for me in this anarchic situation was where would I get ‘permissions’ etc for the MV Logos to visit the country? I had been given the name of a potential useful contact who agreed to meet with me. Linked by family with the leadership of the junta it seemed this person could be a help. The address for the meeting was on the outskirts of the capital. I made my way there to a well to do part of the capital. My contact managed one of the country’s most luxurious hotels and I was to meet him there. It was all a bit surreal as most seemed to carry guns. Not your normal hotel environment. Turned out my contact had 24 bodyguards. If anything happened to his relative in power he was prepared to go into siege. Again my overactive imagination made it all feel like the set at the ending of many Bond films. 007 meeting his archenemy holed up in his lair. Ushered in to meet my ‘contact’ my bizarre musings were fuelled further. He was in a dimly lit room covered in piles of animal skins and surrounded by several men armed to the teeth. Not sure how dangerous I appeared to warrant such. 

Now to the business of the meeting. It was obvious from the start that my presence was of little consequence. My contact was glued to a ‘walkie talkie’ radio most of the time. For short periods in between his intense radio communications he would address me. It was clear that what I was saying was of no interest. What was transpiring on the radio was where the real drama was. My reason for being there became irrelevant as I too was drawn in as he repeated everything he was hearing. 

It turned out that a major riot was taking place in the city centre. My contact was following the event as it happened. It was clear he was speaking to some key informant in whatever was going on. It seemed the mob had now arrived at the offices of a world famous (now defunct) American airline. They had smashed their way in and were now trying to break into the safe where airline tickets were stored. In those days air tickets were often written by hand on blank triplicate (or quadruplicate?) forms. Blank tickets, it would appear, would be very valuable. I leave the reader to decide what kind of interest my contact had in this live account of looting. 

For my part the intermittent, inconsequential conversation with my contact was becoming embarrassing. It was clear that all I was doing was interrupting more exciting things going on. I suggested I leave. At this point my contact became interested and engaged. He must have been listening to me after all! He could help me with anything and introduced me to his partner. Apparently all it needed was a $2,500 up front ‘service fee’. I sensed the whole thing was opportunistic. Suddenly all that mattered to me was to get away. As politely and firmly as possible I got out of the place. It is at times like that that knowing the prayers of many for my protection became real. 

It came time for me to leave the country and travel to the ship which was then in Puerto Rico. As if to cement my kleptocratic understanding a ‘departure tax’ was levied at the airport. I was told it was not destined for any government coffers but some individual.

Some weeks later it worked out to return on board the ship MV Logos. We had an encouraging 10 day stay in Port au Prince as well as 5 days in the town of Cap Haitien on the country’s north coast where thousands visited. No space to relate the activities involved. If interested to know more you can click ‘Logos‘ on the tags cloud.

Haiti’s history is a blot on our shared humanity. A toxic legacy of gross injustices, African slavery, greedy colonialism, despotic leaders and extreme poverty. The suffering of its people being further compounded in recent years by natural disasters. The huge earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 200,000. Add regular tropical storms, further earthquakes and ongoing political instability and it would seem there is no end to ordinary citizens suffering. Environmentally even in 1986 large swathes of the land had been denuded of its hardwood trees such as mahogany.

I appreciate relating my Haiti experience may not be uplifting to the reader. My desire though is that our common humanity would engender love and compassion for the plight of this country’s hard pressed people. When words fail, sometimes nature and music can step in.

Haiti’s national flower is the hibiscus. A thing of beauty yet delicate, like the Haitians whom God loves.

“So much of what music can do most beautifully is humanize things that have become dehumanized,”

Laurent Dubois, Duke University professor and historian on Haiti.

While wondering how to finish this blog I happened to go to a musical concert. To my surprise among the featured musicians was the Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla. She sang a folk song in Haitian Creole. You can hear her sing Mèci Bon Dié on YouTube here. It’s a song of hope, even joy, for a land of resilient people in sore need of healing. The translated lyrics are below.

Thank you, God,

Look at all that nature has brought us.

Thank you, God,

Look how misery has ended for us.

The rain has fallen,

The corn has grown,

All the children that were hungry are going to eat.

Let’s dance the Congo,

Let’s dance the Petro,

God said in Heaven

That misery has ended for us.

“Merci Bon Dieu (Mèci Bon Dié In Haitian Creole)” (Harry Belafonte Lyrics)

A Thread Runs Through It

From 1990-92 my wife Elisabeth and I lived in Sweden. We moved from the UK and ‘the idea’ was to be settled for a while in my wife’s homeland. By living in the country I would hopefully improve on my Swedish and get to know her family and background. With over 30 years of hindsight ‘the idea’ looks to us like something that fitted into place. A part of some pre-planned progressive journey through life. In reality at the time we didn’t know where this was leading. We had no idea that it would be for 2 years, we didn’t know that this would subsequently lead on to us going to Japan for 2 years. Maybe it is an illusion to look back and think we can see life fitting together like some sort of jigsaw. It is a comfort to me to know that Abraham, a man of faith, when called from the familiar “went without knowing where he was going”. Hebrews 11 vs 8.

My wife’s family had a business that was in its 3rd generation of making shirts. Her grandmother had started the business in her kitchen. I was amazed to discover how family chats with Elisabeth’s siblings could go on for hours where they would passionately discuss the finer points of shirt collars, cuffs and various types of fabric. Cotton and linen most definitely in and nylon or polyester totally out of the picture. The family took great care and pride in the quality of its product. A company motto was ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten’. It challenged my more pragmatic and pseudo utilitarian approach to things. Their approach bore fruit and the firm had an international distribution network selling to the most prestigious retailers. 

To pay the bills I got a job in the shirt factory as a warehouseman. It certainly was a steep learning curve learning the many variations of shirt. This was in the days of not so much automation. Every order hand picked from shelves and packed in boxes. To avoid time and effort roaming around the aisles of shirts you needed to remember where things were. The latest seasonal collection, the various collar types, sizes and colour ranges. Short arm, long arm, business, recreational etc. I was helped by two long term staff who had decades of experience. None of the staff spoke English so I was immersed in Swedish. To add to the linguistic intensity Swedish national radio was played factory wide all day. All good you might say. One of my work colleagues however had a very strong local dialect and she was given to using slang words. I was duly corrected by Elisabeth if too much influenced. I also needed to be careful when a certain delivery driver would call to pick up consignments. Every second word it seemed was a swear word. He wasn’t the best tutor.

There was a very stable workforce and a few had even worked there 50 years. Living in the surrounding villages most also knew one another outside of work. Whether it was in church, community or sports clubs people’s lives seemed integrated with one another. I now live in a large city where anonymity is prevalent. There is an attraction to the idea of community that village or small town life appear to engender. Perhaps that is another illusion!

The factory work routine was similar most days. Occasionally though there was a need for an urgent delivery of shirts. The job would involve driving a car or van load of shirts north to somewhere in central Sweden. It was an adventure to take off into what for me were unexplored parts of this large and scarcely populated country. Especially in the cold of winter it was special to traverse great swathes of forest. The stark, still beauty of a winter wonderland. The wonderful pallet of deepening blue as the weak sun sets through the trees. And yes the solitude. Stopping for coffee in a remote countryside café and practicing my fledgling Swedish was the ‘icing on the cake’. No pun intended but coffee usually goes with cake in Sweden and is called ‘fika’. 

Sunset over Lake Sämsjön

These journeys were not all serene as also needed to keep an eye out for elk (moose) crossing the road. There was the danger of maiming or killing the animals. Their large weight and size could also do serious damage to a vehicle.

Swedish employment laws were generous so as a foreigner I had the right to some paid time off each week to study Swedish formally. My learning included attending an adult education centre in the town. The people in my class of about 20 consisted mainly of political refugees from lands that most other western countries did not give asylum to. A second category were people of Finnish descent whose families had migrated after the 2nd World War. Despite many years in Sweden or even being born there some spoke poor Swedish and wanted to improve. And then there was me, an outlier. I seemed to be the only one who hadn’t experienced political oppression or family migration through war. 

What struck me most about the class was how small the world can seem to be at times. One lady remembered me visiting her town in the southern Philippines several years earlier. Another Sudanese woman knew a family I knew when I stayed in Khartoum in 1982. Two connections in a random class of 20! It is said that if we could trace through all our relationships we would only be 5 or 7 people away from anyone in the world.

Day’s end.

Once Upon a Time There Was… 

In the following story I have not indicated places, names or dates.

Once upon a time there was a young ‘line up man’, hereafter known as ‘line up man’. He was ‘lining up’ for the world’s first floating bookship. The job involved preparing for all aspects of an upcoming ship visit to a port. Arranging official permissions for public to visit the onboard ship exhibition, customs, immigration, appointing shipping agent, organising concerts, conferences, and all kinds of meetings onboard and onshore. In addition all manner of things that what was home for 140 crew from 25 nations might be needing.

Usually those who did line up went in small teams of 2 or 3 for mutual support. However on this occasion said line up man went alone. He was excited. It was a small, remote island nation the population of many mid-sized towns in the UK. Line up man arrived and found accommodation with some young people from another Christian organisation. One of his first tasks was to find and set up an office. Upon being introduced to the Crown Court Interpreter (hereafter CCI) he kindly said line up man could use his office facilities. The office also seemed part of the Ministry of Information. The arrangement proved fortuitous as the CCI was a mine of information. Anybody who was anybody he knew and could fix or arrange most things. 

The CCI was also a Christian and decided that one of the most important things would be to get line up man to speak at a Bible study he was involved with. This was quite normal as line up man would usually seek spiritual and material support from the churches in whatever port or country the ship was planning to visit. So it was that at appointed time line up man went along to the meeting. As was the custom everyone sat cross legged around the edge of a large room. What was not normal was that the Bible study was in the home of the prime minister of the country (hereafter called PM). It could be said that line up people should be ready for anything. This was such a case. Young line up man said his piece in front of the PM and rest of the gathering. Line up man had been urging the importance of prayer and that there was a ‘spiritual battle’ involved in bringing the ship into the country. Line up man was very surprised at the response. Those attending took the message to heart in an unexpected way. A spokesman for the meeting said that not only would they pray. They would also partially fast for the next 3 or so weeks before the ship arrived! Everyone appeared in agreement including the people line up man was staying with. Whether it was the immaturity of youth, potential embarrassment in front of the PM or more likely pride the line up man felt obligated to join in this proposal.

Now one thing line up man liked was his food and line up was not a relaxing or easy going job. A lot of energy was involved in going round government offices getting permissions, church visits, arranging publicity, dealing with port authorities, ship chandlery etc. etc. Cutting back on food for 3 weeks seemed a bleak prospect. After a few days of eating very little line up man was getting quite faint. He recalls sheepishly going to others fasting to ask if he could break fast and start eating breakfast. It was no problem. However line up man felt a bit shameful when others were not doing this. A few more days passed on this one meal a day regime. Yes you’ve guessed it, line up man was still feeling very weak. Anticipating further embarrassment he then asked if he could also eat evening meal. This was again no problem but did nothing for his sense of letting people down. Nevertheless line up man did enjoy low key visits to a local hamburger place. The two meal a day arrangement proved sustainable (just) till the ship arrived. 

One day while the above was going on line up man got a message from the PM. He wanted to see him and was waiting outside line up man’s office in his chauffeur driven government car. Line up man wondered somewhat anxiously what issue of import would cause the PM to personally come and see him. Had he caused offence in some way? Duly going out he joined PM in the car. There was no problem, rather the opposite. The PM wanted to have a time of prayer with him. The PM was a man of faith and left an impression on line up man. Despite wielding authority he was humble. At other times it became known to line up man that his wife (a princess) and two of his daughters shared his faith. Indeed his wife helped with line up by creating an invitation list for the opening reception of the ship when she arrived. 

On another occasion during this line up time the king of the country had to go overseas to represent his country. Now the PM was of royal lineage and a close relative of the king. When the king was out of the country the PM became the acting king. 

One day line up man got another message from the PM during the time he was acting king. Would line up man like to visit him while he sat on the throne? Not a normal invitation but an offer he was excited to take up! In retrospect it was probably an offer he would be ill advised to refuse. As it was had he not met the PM on several occasions. The offer almost felt like from a friend so this should not be that different. So the time arrived and line up man duly turned up for the appointment. He felt quite grand signing visitors book while waiting. The person ahead of him on the list was the Canadian ambassador.

The time came for the meeting and he was ushered in to the Throne room. The acting king (PM to me) was enthroned at the end of a very long table. Line up man sat at other end of table unsure of what the protocol should be. Impression was his chair was at an angle so there was no direct ‘face to face’. The natural focus was the view from a big window looking out to the ocean. A single tanker ship lay at anchor a few km offshore. They appeared to be alone but there may well have been inconspicuous aides nearby. Exact details of conversation are somewhat lost to line up man’s memory. He does though recall his feelings. The king spoke of his country and its needs. The challenge of representing a small country in a big world. Not really feeling he could relate to such matters line up man responded with what he did know. He began to speak of how they had met previously at meetings and thanked him for this interest and enthusiasm for the upcoming ship visit. At that point line up man was reprimanded for becoming too personal. Did line up man not know that when on the throne the king (or PM, line up man was confused) would only speak of matters of state? Line up man had not shown respect to the office. At that point it was good to be able to focus out to sea and try and forget where line up man was. Why had he not been trained in the art of speaking to kings on thrones?

The time in this small country was not all drama. There was also the mundane. One need was for line up man to have a haircut. Without much thought he went along to a local barber. What he didn’t see before it was too late was the use of the trimmer on top of his head instead of scissors. He was now almost a ‘skinhead’. More humiliation! 

So the great day came when the ship sailed into port. Standing on the quayside to welcome the vessel’s arrival into port line up man’s lack of calorie intake and shaven appearance shocked his fellow crew. One even thought he had spent time in jail. 

Despite what seemed blunders by line up man the ship visit went well. Many visitors from all sectors of society were welcomed on board. Friendships made and people were touched. The international crew had many opportunities to share their lives with the people. An opportunity in part made possible by a man with authority yet who was humble. At end of the visit the PM felt the time had been a great blessing to his people. He assured the ship crew of his prayers and was on the quayside to say goodbye as the ship departed. As for line up man he flew off to his next adventure.