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)

City of Many Faces

MV Logos berthed in river Hooghly, Calcutta.

There are many great world cities each with their own character and peculiarities. All shaped by its history and people. To spend several weeks or months in any metropolis leaves a lasting impression from the particular time visited. One such place for me is Calcutta (now named Kolkata) in West Bengal, India. 

My first visit was for a few weeks on board the vessel MV Logos in Feb/Mar 1978 (see my bio or another post here for more background if interested). I was working as a seaman and our ship was berthed at the ‘man-of war’ jetty on the river Hooghly which runs through the city. The river as an arm of the Ganges has religious importance to Hindus. It was a strange experience to watch garlanded dead bodies on rafts floating up and down the river on the fast flowing tides. The crows sitting on them were doing more than hitching a lift. On one occasion a body got wedged by our vessel. As a deckhand it was not a nice experience to dislodge. 

My second time in the city was to prepare for a visit of the said MV Logos for about 3 months at end of 1981. The work involved getting permissions from government and port authorities for the public to visit what was then the ‘world’s largest bookship’. It also included publicising and organising many types of events both on board and on shore such as conferences and meetings with churches and civic organisations. With the ship’s crew of 140 from about 25 nations there also were a lot supplies also to arrange. It called for interaction with a wide range of people at all levels of society.

Actually living in the city instead of on board a ship meant you experienced life as a local. My accommodation was in the grounds of the Carey Baptist church and Calcutta Bible College. Both were in the same compound in the heart of the city. Initially I stayed in the church manse and later got a room in the Bible college. The church was named after William Carey, said to be ‘the father of modern Protestant missions’. A one time shoemaker from England he went to West Bengal in 1793 where he had enormous influence as a Bible translator, educator and social reformist. His life example subsequently inspired many missionaries to go to far flung places. In the Carey church is a plaque stating that Adoniram Judson was baptised here on his way to Burma (Myanmar). Like Carey he was a pioneer, one of the first American Protestant missionaries. Anyhow enough church history. Suffice to say that living there almost 200 years later impacted on me. 

The church pastor and his wife were very hospitable. As well as leading a busy church with many programmes and outreaches they also hosted a constant stream of visitors to the city for both meals and accommodation. In addition they had a radio programme broadcasting in Bengali which generated interest in Bible correspondence courses.  

In my Bible College accommodation the principal asked if I would do Bible studies with a Thai Buddhist monk named Pariyat. Thus began several weeks of studies in the gospel of John with this man who was on a pilgrimage to find the truth. It was a special time exploring the Bible with our very different backgrounds and worldviews. There was something very challenging and sincere to me about his forsaking everything to travel in search of the truth. I pray he found the ‘Word made flesh’. 

When I moved out of the manse of the Carey church I had to fend for myself much more as far as meals were concerned. My favourite was a Tibetan restaurant a short walk away from the compound. Not too spicy and with more Chinese type food it suited me. At times I was the only customer in this small restaurant which also appeared to be home for the family who ran it. It made for familiarity. Having a fixed menu and becoming a regular customer for evening meals helped both the family and me.

Aside from buses the main public transport around the city was the trams. I don’t recall using trains in the city, only out of town. The trams were a carryover from colonial times. In ramshackle condition it was amazing that they lasted so long in a bustling city of then 9 million. During my time there a metro underground was being built. It took many years before completion. It was disconcerting to see major infrastructure projects like that where the excavation was being done by hand. A human chain of women carrying soil in baskets on their heads.

If needing private transport it was either by taxi or by rickshaw. India’s economy at the time was quite closed to the rest of the world. This included cars and so taxis were nearly always of one type, the ubiquitous Ambassador car. Indian made and based on a 1950s style Morris Oxford. In Calcutta there were no cycle rickshaws which was common elsewhere in India. Instead it was men running barefoot pulling the rickshaw by hand. Sometimes with two passengers and trips could be for several miles. The rickshaw pullers who did this gruelling work through the choking fumes of grid locked traffic did not live long. The cost for taxi or rickshaw was roughly the same. Due to that I preferred to give custom to the rickshaw wallah as thought they were the neediest. After a while I was convicted when one fellow couldn’t pull me over the long Howrah bridge that crossed the river. Hopping off I walked alongside and didn’t take them any longer.

The tension of living with the injustices of poverty was not easy to adjust to. I would carry coins and give to the continuous stream of beggars that a foreigner attracted. The margins between life and death for many were wafer thin. At times the sheer desperation of people affected me. The following is an extract from a letter I wrote at the time…

It’s  10pm  as  I  sit  here  in  my  room  in  Calcutta  Bible  College  –  all  day  it  has  been  raining causing  the  streets  to  become  more  chaotic  than  usual.  If  one  wants  to  study  humanity  or 
different  social  conditions  then  Calcutta  must  be  an  ideal  place. The  other  day  a  small  boy and  his  mother  were  crying  out  in  the street  and I was moved  to  give  them  something. I hesitated and  when  eventually I  reached  their  area, they  had  gone. The  Lord  seemed  to  say true  charity  must  be  spontaneous, without  reasoning.  Who  should  one  give  to  if  confronted by a dozen beggars daily  from  the  deformed  and  limbless  to  tiny  children?  My  observation  is that  most  foreigners, myself  included, after  a  few  months  develop  an  insensitivity  to  our environment. The  majority  of  us  live  our  own  lives  oblivious  to  the  real  needs  of  those around.  In  many  evangelical  circles  social  action  is  not  a  very  popular  word  but it  seems  to be  a  desperately  needed  element  in  our  gospel  message  and  witness. These  issues  I  share  with you  as  they  weigh  on  my  heart  at  the  moment.  (How  do  you  respond  to  a  ragged  man  with one  arm  and  no  legs  rolling  along  the  street?).”  10 Dec 1981

The city’s needy has inspired many works of compassion with the best known being Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity. During my time there I also encountered some less famous but just as worthy charitable works. Years later I found reading ‘City of Joy’ (by Dominique Lapierre)** helpful in describing the city’s economic and social conditions.

During the day I was based in the magnificent offices of the esteemed shipping agent Mackinnon, Mackenzie & Co. It was built on a grand scale with cavernous high ceilings. It felt like working in St. Paul’s cathedral. One of many beautiful buildings in the city that were a legacy of fine, yet usually crumbling, colonial architecture. Calcutta was the capital of British India till 1911.

I had a big desk in the open plan ‘cathedral’ area as it was deemed to be safer from theft. Without my arranging I seemed to have been appointed a dedicated ‘chai’ (tea) wallah. Unlike the normal sellers of chai on the streets these men were dressed in finery appropriate to the office surroundings. Elaborate turbans and bright uniforms with lots of braid. My appointed man stood at a distance along with others but would often be looking my way. It made me nervous as the slightest expression on my part would instigate action. He would then appear with a tray to serve chai. If I had visitors that of course necessitated chai without any prompting on my part. His aim was to wrestle as much tips from me in the day as possible. That was his job and I had mine. 

Preparing a visit of MV Logos to a port or country was at times high profile. To gain maximum publicity we would try and invite some VIP to officially inaugurate our visit at an opening ceremony. To this end one of our local committee arranged for he and I to have a half hour audience with the governor of West Bengal. It felt intimidating being escorted in a golden lift by another resplendently dressed individual. The governor put us at ease in the sumptuous surroundings and was happy to officiate at our opening on board ship.

It was not all work and it was good to find places to relax. One such was the Maidan. A large green park space near the river where cricket mad inhabitants would practice and others like myself stroll. Away from the heaving humanity of the built up areas. To watch cricket as the day cooled provided a haven. 

Kolkata, city of many faces.

** There is also a film of same name, based on the book.

*** If on Instagram you can see more of Elisabeth’s work at elisabethgrant.art

I see men like trees walking!

MV Logos crew and staff. Dec 1979, Honiara, Solomon Is. Can you spot me?

For several months from late 1979 till early 1980 I had the wonderful experience of travelling in the South Pacific. I was travelling ahead off the LOGOS ship (see ‘bio’). This was to prepare for the vessel to visit various islands with advance publicity and government permissions. There was much to organise with staff and crew of 140 to stay for 1-2 weeks. Chandler supplies, on board and on shore conferences and concerts to organise, a book exhibition, church and school visits etc. Also going there was exciting, pioneer work as our vessel had never visited that region of the world before. It was a priviledge to go ahead of the ship and because the area was so vast there was plenty of flying which I loved! Remote, sparsely populated islands with little happening in the conventional sense but the people were rich in culture and generous in hospitality. Usually I stayed with local families or missionaries.

One such stay was in Kieta on the island of Bougainville* in Papua New Guinea. I was stationed there for a few days with a colleague at the end of December 1979. It was the 31st and we had gone to a church meeting with the intention of seeing the New Year and new decade in there. However I was feeling really tired and decided to return early by myself to our accommodation before midnight arrived. 

The family house we were staying at was on stilts with open windows covered in wooden slats. I settled down on my own to enjoy the peace. It wasn’t long before I heard loud noises and banging all around the house. Upon gingerly looking out I saw the weird sight (at least for me) of figures running around and under the house dressed like trees. Thankfully they seemed to have no interest in coming inside. 

The above commotion was soon followed by the local police who began chasing these figures with batons. I was relieved that what seemed like a riot below and around the house was being sorted out. However the next thing was the police started using tear gas. The gas started to come in through the slatted windows. I had never experienced tear gas before. So 1980 and a new decade was memorably celebrated under a bed with a wet towel round my head.

After a while things settled down and the police came to the door. They were cheerfully looking for liquid refreshments to aid their exertions. My fear contrasted with the joyous cameraderie of the police. They were clearly not averse to having a good, old fashioned fight. It turned out that their adversaries were members of a tribe who had come down from the mountains into town. I got the sense that this kind of thing had happened before.

*A sobering postscript to the above was that Bougainville experienced a secessionist uprising in 1988 with no peace agreement until 2001.