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Posts Tagged ‘Willa Shalit’

Whistles and Flashlights

In Danica's Heart of Haiti Adventures on March 6, 2011 at 2:56 am

Our visit to KOFAVIV may have been the most emotionally challenging stop on our Haiti tour. Willa explained that KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victimes) is a center for young women who have experienced sexual assault in the camps.  When Willa said “young women” I did not imagine that center would have girls as young as 10.

The girls were waiting for us in the courtyard, doing afternoon activities of arts and crafts. The center is hoping to develop some basic products, beaded necklaces or painted frames, that the girls can turn into a trade as a way to earn an income and avoid the transactional sex that is rife in the camps.  The items they are creating now are trinkets, rudimentary, plastic beads strung on pieces of elastic and tie-dyed t-shirts.  Fairwinds Trading is eager to work with KOFAVIV to develop products that both reflect Haiti’s culture and could be marketed to a retailer in the states. It’s clear that funding is needed both for the center and these girls.

Truth?  I am a very white person in a very dark country.  I tend to attract stares in rural areas.  One young girl, we’ll call Lol (names and photos of the girls cannot be revealed in this blog post to protect their identity) kept narrowly circling me, shyly glancing and trying to make eye contact. When I reach out to Lol, she touches my hand and stands next to me, quietly. While I do not speak Creole, I am able to use my rusty French in this former colony.  Most Haitians who have had some level of schooling can communicate with me.  Lol and I chat about her age, her hair and her t-shirt.  She’s wearing a pink shirt with three popsicles appliquéd on the front.  She’s pretty, and all of 11 years with perfectly braided hair.  When I open my arms to hug Lol, she falls into my chest.  I suspect correctly that she needs a mother. . Josie, the organizer of KOFAVIV approaches me and says, “This girl is very sick.  She had trauma after the earthquake and kept trying to go back in and find her Mother.  Now with the assault…”  Indeed, a few minutes later Lol tells me, “My mere is morte.” (Her mother is dead.)

KOFAVIV desperately needs help for girls like Lol. While there are no firm statistics available post-quake, the incidence of rape is frighteningly high in the camps.  News reports describe the camps as “rape epicenters.”  Doctors in tent cities report treating girls as young as two. When the sun goes down in the camp, young girls have no protection from roaming gangs looking for prey.  Imagine a girl like Lol who has no mother to protect her and no way to get food. Some rapists demand sexual favors in exchange for food coupons.  Added to all this risk is the fact that there is simply no tradition of reporting rape to the authorities in Haiti, party because of the stigma and shame, but also because nothing is done about it.  KOFAVIV has actively pursued 459 rape cases last year alone. Of those,only 11 of the perpetrators are in jail and one convicted.  A group called Digital Democracy is working with KOFAVIV to create a database to track the number of rapes in hopes that the accurate reporting of the sheer numbers will instigate action and world attention.

In addition to providing a safe haven for girls like Lol, KOFAVIV provides whistles and flashlights for young girls in the camp.  Girls who have to get up in the middle of the night, have no choice but to go outside to find a lavatory.  It is hoped that the whistles and flashlights might provide some protection.  I don’t know Lol’s full history, but no doubt she has suffered from serious sustained assault. She may be one of the many young orphans in Haiti who are taken in as a domestic helper   KOFAVIV reports that far too many of these scenarios result in forced slavery with young girls indentured to their owners and bandied about as a sexual play toy for all the male members of the family.

For the moment, Lol is safe in KOFAVIV. It’s obvious KOFAVIV and organizations like it, are doing all they can with limited funding to help young women in the camp.  That day, we saw a dozen girls –though KOFAVIV treats many more.  I give Lol one last hug and leave hopeful but far from assured that the thousands of girls like her will find the safety and security to make it through these next months and years.

Carnival in Jacmel

In Danica's Heart of Haiti Adventures on March 6, 2011 at 2:29 am

You travel to Haiti, this country that is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. A country without a stable government and has just experienced a natural disaster of unspeakable proportions.  The last thing you expect to find is a place thriving with art, culture and joyful exuberance.   Such is the case in Jacmel.

Yesterday, we left Port-au-Prince and traveled over the Karate Mountain range.  We only had two close calls, one where we almost hit a tap tap (a brightly colored passenger bus with travelers mounted on the roof) and another, where we narrowly missed a dog darting across the narrow road.  Our driver, Robert, deserves an induction in the Indy Hall of Fame.

We arrived in Jacmel, typically a lazy tourist city by the sea on the south side of the island of Haiti, to witness a torrent of activity in preparation for Carnival.  This is the first carnival to be held in Haiti since the Earthquake.  While most relief efforts were focused on Port-au-Prince, Jacmel suffered greatly during the earthquake, sustaining a tremor that measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. The devastation in this seaside villa is profound.  Rubble and burned out cars line the street.  Rose colored New Orleans style buildings have huge chunks where their facades have crumbled.  There are tent cities here too, just not as vast as Port-au-Prince.  Despite all of this, it’s carnival time and the artists who live in this city have been hard at work for months on end preparing elaborate huge papier-mâché masks and puppet-like structures to feature in the parade.  When I say artists in Jacmel, think nearly everyone you meet. Every neighborhood and every street has an artisan who specializes in making papier-mâché creatures, bowls and masks.  It’s as if everybody who lives in Jacmel is an “artist in residence.”

Our guide for the next few days is Pascale Faublas, an acclaimed papier-mâché artist who lives in Jacmel and helps manage the collective of artisans for Fairwinds Trading, the organization behind the Heart of Haiti program.  Pascale is boho style stunning and completely game  to show us how to get the most out of carnival and meet her fellow artist friends.

We first visited the studio of Bezelle Osnel.  He’s an amazing artist who makes trays out of papier-mâché for sale at Macys.com.  During the earthquake, Osnel’s studio completely collapsed.  He had no place to work, no place to earn a living.  Nothing.  The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund stepped forward and provided funding so he could rebuild his studio specifically so he could continue making products for sale at Macy’s.  It was like old home week with the Fairwinds Trading team with hugs and kisses all around.  We stayed only briefly as the drums were beginning to beat, commotion all around as everyone in Jacmel was getting ready for carnival.

We visited the ateliers of a few more artisans. Willa and the design team led by Juliana Um of Fairwinds Trading, admiring the work and products being prepared for shipment to Macy’s. Everywhere we went we saw huge masks, giant puppet like structures of animals, sea creatures, devils, and two-headed humans — hundreds and hundreds of giant masks.

We rushed ahead to the main street of Jacmel, which Pascale explained would soon be impassable once the parade begins.  Think the Haiti version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  The sun was beating down on us, the crowds were beginning to gather, little children darted up to us wearing masks both fun and freaky, encouraging us to take their photos.  We had to get undercover and find a spot to watch the parade.  And we had to get there fast.

Pascale led us to a venue that might best be described as a “pop-up restaurant.”  A clever entrepreneur, a Haitian-American, we came to know as “Dady” recently returned to Haiti and literally as we arrived was putting the finishing nails into the deck on his storefront.  We paid a cover charge of $12, clamored up the rickety stairs as his grown kids and wife carted up tables, put together a make-ship bar and penciled the menu on a torn piece of cardboard.   Within half an hour, the place was packed and the rum and platters of conch were flowing.  The “poulet grillé” sold out before we even had a chance to order.  Over the next hour, we heard workers below putting finishing touches on the deck, adding a beam here and a nail there as more people arrived. We prayed for our lives and accepted our fate. After all, this was Haiti, Jacmel and carnival and the worst that could happen is that we plunged into the throngs of people below. Surely the papier-mâché masks would cushion our fall.

The parade was a wild loud, extraordinary combination of brightly colored costumes, music, and elation. Not exactly what you’d expect from a country that is still in serious recovery mode after the earthquake.  Somebody told me that one in four people in Haiti considers themselves an artist.  Nowhere is this truer than in Jacmel.  Despite the crushing poverty, every child, every grandmother and nearly every person on the street was either clad in a mask, dancing or adding some creative element to the parade.  I would hesitate to guess that as many people participated in the parade as actually “watched” the parade.

At various times, we’d venture out into the street with our flipcams and cameras.  One didn’t dare venture far, lest you got swept away by the crowds pulsing forward, each wave of people and masks more elaborate and packed together than before.  I’ve been to parades before and when the parade finishes, typically the crowds disperse. Not so in Jacmel.  When the groups of masks ended, it was simply replaced by crowds of people dancing in the street.  Such may be the nature of Haiti…one wildly extraordinary experience, followed by another.

A blogger friend remarked, “This is the Haiti they don’t show you on TV.”  Indeed, we scanned the crowds for a glimpse of a news crew. Surely some news outlet would want to cover the jubilation and communal hope of one of Haiti’s major cities.  Aside from an aid worker here or there, we appeared to be the only foreigners in the place.  Later, two members of our blogging team posted CNN ireports. At least, in addition to spending a spectacular day in Haiti, we were able to share a story you don’t normally see or hear about carnival, post-earthquake style.

Lunch with the Sisters

In Danica's Heart of Haiti Adventures on March 6, 2011 at 2:07 am

You have to laugh because Ananda Leeke, the Ambassador for the Heart of Haiti program keeps talking about the “Digital Sisterhood.”  While in Haiti we lunched with the sisters, but this time, it was actual Sisters at the College Marie Reine Emmaculee.  We’re in Lilavois with a group called the Peace Quilters. They are making quilted items for Macys.com, potholders and small totes, as a way to provide sustainable income for these young women who would otherwise have no way to earn a living.

We arrive and Sister Rosemarie greets us and offers to give us a tour. We’re exhausted from a day driving through tent cities and visiting the ateliers of metal artisans in Croix-des-Bouquets. We’re hungry and dusty but rinse our hands at an outdoor faucet and are quickly revived by the cold stone walls and peacefulness of this enclave.  Lilavois serves both as a school and center for the Peace Quilters.  Groups of young women are waiting for the Fairwinds Trading team, shyly eager to show off their handiwork. Each one has a quilt in her lap of their own design.  Among the design motifs, animals are popular along with vegetables and pieces of fruit with borders of vines and colorful prints.  Two young women have created elaborate quilts featuring scenes from the earthquake with buildings folded in half and people at the borders of the quilt with their arms raised.  One of the bloggers among us tweets the following, “They are using the art of quilting to honor both their personal histories and quake.”  We visit for a while and then Sister Rosemarie announces that lunch is ready.

The nuns have prepared a meal of roast chicken, carrots in mornay sauce, meat pie and potatoes.  Before we eat, the sisters break into prayer – a song that is so beautiful, it makes me want to weep.  We eat quietly and then prepare to leave.  Before we leave the nuns sing us another song.  A tune set to “Amazing Grace.”  I hear the words “Merci Dieu” and for what will not be the first time on this trip, cry.

First night in Haiti

In Danica's Heart of Haiti Adventures on March 2, 2011 at 3:33 am

Navigating your way out of the Port au Prince airport is no easy task.  First, you are attacked by the heat, a crowd of men all surging around you offering to take your bags, security and dust so thick it makes your eyes water. And that’s just on the pathway to the “non-secure” area where friends and family and cars are waiting.

We have all heard about the devastation of the Haiti earthquake. It’s real, unfathomable, and everywhere you look in Port au Prince. We had barely pulled out of the Port au Prince airport when we saw piled of rubble and mounds of trash. Driving in Haiti is almost a contact sport with with brightly colored Tap-Taps (the name for passenger buses – if you want one you tap) vying for a lane with construction vehicles.  When traffic is at a standstill, which it is often, pedestrians dart in between.  Three turns away from the airport and we saw one of the ill-famed tent cities, cobbled together with tarps, teaming with people and no discernible entrance or exit.  My first five minutes in Haiti,  I saw a ravenous dog rooting among the trash and a woman disrobing outside her tent. As she pulled off her pants, her underwear slipped revealing her shiny behind. She looked around to see if anyone saw and pulled her pants back up.

There’s more of course, but the shocking reality left us dumbfounded.  We finally arrived at our funky hotel, The Hotel Olaffson, an eclectic oasis on the top of the hill on Port au Prince.   The words “shabby chic” apply.  You have the sense that this was once an elegant grand hotel.  We’re happy here tonight our first night in Haiti and ready for grand adventures tomorrow.

Erzulie & Ananda

In Danica's Heart of Haiti Adventures on February 27, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Dateline:  Miami  I haven’t been to Miami since Blogalicious, my all-time favorite blogging conference celebrating the diversity of women bloggers.  For Blogalicious, I shacked up at the glam Ritz Carlton on South Beach.  This time I’m in Miami headed to Haiti.  Back in October, I was in Miami, at Blogalicious with my client Macy’s.  I had coordinated a sponsorship for their Heart of Haiti initiative.  Heart of Haiti is a “Trade not Aid” program where artisans in this earthquake devastated country make crafts for sale at Macy’s stores. It’s an initiative inspired in part by the Clinton Bush Haiti fund to bring much needed income to the region.  The Blogalicious organizers arranged for us to have 15 solid minutes of stage time in front of a room full of influential conference attendees. We were sandwiched between major bigger sponsors like Kellogg’s cereal and McDonald’s and their new line of smoothies.  The Haitian artisans took the stage. They explained how vital this program is to their communities.   Pascal, a Haitian papiere mache artist told the audience, “We want to work. We need to feed our families.  Every purchase at Macy’s makes a difference.” The metal artisan, Serge confessed, “When you talk about art in Haiti you have to talk about voodoo.” The audience was spellbound.  For once, conference attendees stopped milling about, took their eyes away from their iphones and blackberries and just listened.  A pin could drop. After the presentation, an intensely pretty, petite women marched right up to and blurted, “Do you know Erzulie?  She’s the Haitian Goddess of love and healing and femininity.  I know all about her. I think she brought these Haitian artists here today.  I need to talk to you.” And talk we did.

That petite woman was Ananda Leeke and little did I know that five short months later, we’d be headed to Haiti together to see the Heart of Haiti program first hand.  Ananda kept in touch with me via twitter, posted a video about Heart of Haiti and inducted me into her “digital sisterhood.”  Last November, she signed on with my firm, Everywhere,  to become an “Ambassador Blogger” for Heart of Haiti. Our Ambassador bloggers agreed to take on Heart of Haiti as a cause.  Ananda, along with 11 other bloggers, wrote frequent and heartfelt blog posts, they agreed to use their blogging voice to educate their readers about how Heart of Haiti is making a huge difference.  In turn, we agreed to sponsor one Ambassador blogger to go to Haiti on a voyage with us.  Ananda was chosen, by a panel of judges, as that blogger.   Want to know what I think? Maybe the panel did choose Ananda, but I really think it was Erzulie!

Haiti Tripsters

In Danica's Heart of Haiti Adventures on February 23, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I know this blog is called “Beirut or Bust” but as part of my life adventures I am headed to Haiti.  I’ll be going there with my phenomenal soul sister Willa Shalit and the Macy’s Heart of Haiti program. Stay tuned here for more adventures from my travels!