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 Harvest of Memories

In my summer break as a student in 1975 I took a job in Canada. Looking back it was doing something I am not now proud of. Picking tobacco. How doing this squared with my convictions at the time I don’t remember. I do know that smoking and tobacco was not seen as negatively back then as it is nowadays. Humbling to think how much I am influenced by the current values in society. I am no prophet but wonder if refined sugar will go the way of tobacco in the future.

Whatever my scruples or lack thereof the pay seemed very good. An odd comparison that stuck in my mind was that if you worked hard you could earn the same in a month as a British MP earned then.

So I flew from the UK to Toronto at the end of July on a chartered plane. Was headed for south west Ontario where the ‘tobacco belt’ was. The climate and soil there suited the crop. A bonus about being in this area was my aunt, uncle and family lived not too far away so was able to see them on several occasions that summer. 

After a few days at my aunt’s I made my way to a warehouse in Tillsonburg where along with others met with a bunch of farmers. We were then designated to work at individual farms. 

Despite what appeared to me attractive pay the workforce seemed to be drawn mainly from UK students. Were told that Trinidadian sugar farmers also were employed who came during the off season. No idea why. Maybe it was the collective I was with or perhaps there were better farm jobs available to citizens.  

Also don’t know what the criteria for assignment to a particular farm was. In any case I ended up working for a Hungarian farmer along with 5 others from England and Northern Ireland. At this point maybe I should be relating some joke about ‘a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman in a tobacco field’ However I don’t have any jokes!

Our host and his family were welcoming and very kind. They had come to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Accommodation was basic. Bunks in a converted henhouse. Amenities included an outside tap and a shower in a greenhouse with water from an oil drum heated by the sun. We were not complaining as our stay was only for the 6 or so weeks of the harvest. Working, eating and sleeping would take up most of our time.

The spartan accommodation was more than made up for by an abundance of food. Huge cooked breakfasts. The family fussing if you didn’t eat 4 eggs. Meals later in the day included plentiful chicken provided courtesy of granny who wrang their necks in the yard. 

Farmhouse eating was supplemented by a regular delivery to the fields of coffee and baking. A welcome picnic break. Of course all this generous feeding had a motive, keep picking.

The work itself was intensive in usually hot, very humid conditions. As said there were 6 of us. When picking with the harvester machine 5 of us sat in low slung seats. Each sat over a furrow and so the machine was 5 rows of plants wide. The 6th person as driver sat high up in the middle of the 5 rows moving the machine slowly along the field. Needless to say the driving was the cushiest work. It’s coveted position everyone got a turn of. For the 5 picking as each plant came you took off the bottom 3 leaves quickly by hand and put them in a bucket. It would take about a week to take 3 leaves off all the plants. We then went round the crop again taking the next lowest 3 leaves. This time the tobacco would be stronger as less leaves on plant. And so on each week for the 6-7 weeks of harvest until no more leaves left. Each pick had stronger and stronger tobacco destined for mild or medium strength cigarettes, cigars etc. 

Another technique for strengthening the tobacco was to remove the flowers on the top of the plant (known as topping). I see from my very brief diary entries of the time that this was done quite frequently throughout the harvest. The season was from beginning of August to mid-Sept. so a potential problem was frost. To offset this small fires in oil drums were lit at night, scattered throughout the fields. This raised the temp. enough whenever there was a risk. Plants were also protected by pesticides and at least once a crop spraying plane came. 

Each day the deal was the same. Fill one of the barns (kilns) with leaves which were hung to dry before taken to market. It was the farmer who oversaw this operation and decided when barn was full. One barn full was the piece work for the day and for which we were paid. Some days the barns seemed to have a huge capacity. It was team work and a day’s work depended on how much collectively the 6 of us picked and not what we individually gathered. A possible source of tension. I think the attractive pay rate kept us Brits sufficiently motivated to each pull our weight. Once the farmer called it a day this would signal a welcome shower and a big meal.

The main issue in the fields was the danger of lightning. We were told it would easily home in on a large metal harvesting machine in a vast field of rain drenched leaves. When there was a thunderstorm you vacated the harvester and got out of the field quickly. Although we avoided lightning in the fields our converted henhouse was struck one night. Fortunately we had a lightning conductor but the bang lifted us clear out of our beds. 

The other occupational hazard was nicotine poisoning. Not from smoking or inhaling but from handling the leaves and the sap. It gave a skin rash / allergic reaction. Our farmer, no doubt keen that we would stay fit and keep picking, took us all for steroid injections at a hospital.

We occasionally got a break from work and one time in particular stands out. A few of us decided to walk along the country roads and hitch a ride to the beach. The farm wasn’t far from the north shores of Lake Erie. A pick up truck stopped and the driver said we were welcome to hop into the back. His only query was ‘did we mind cats?’ No problem we thought. Climbing over the tailboard there was indeed a cat. The thing was it was a big one, a cougar. Fortunately it was tethered but had a generous range of most of the back. Our lift was spent leaning into the corners staying out of reach of the animal. Memories are very selective as 46 years later I recall nothing about the beach visit, only the fear of sharing a ride with a large feline. 

As with any harvest eventually the crop was picked and our job was done. Time to move on. We Brits must have bonded as some of us then spent hard earned cash on a car trip down the east coast of the US to Miami and back. 

I leave you to pick your own memories by recommending a listen to Barbara Striesand singing The Way We Were