May 21, 2012

Sexual Violence & the History of Haiti.

OTM Global Seva Challenge 2012 Haiti: Bearing Witness

By Hafiz

A day of Silence
Can be a pilgrimage in itself.
A day of Silence
Can help you listen
To the Soul play
Its marvelous lute and drum.
Is not most talking
A crazed defense of a crumbling fort?
I thought we came here
To surrender in Silence,
To yield to Light and Happiness,
To Dance within
In celebration of Love’s Victory!

These words remind us that when we close our mouths and practice silence, we open our ears to listen, rather than try to fix a situation or fill the silence. We open our eyes to see what is actually before us, not simply an idea of something we have seen before in another time or place. We open our palms to lend a hand or to accept help from others when it is too difficult for us to ask. Most of all, we open our hearts to feel the joys and sorrows of those who bear their souls before us. Those who have much to teach us about love and survival in the face of unimaginable suffering and adversity.

Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM) traveled to Haiti this month for our fourth annual Global Seva Challenge Bare Witness Humanitarian Tour, the culmination of a year-long campaign in which yogis around the world mobilized their communities to raise funds and awareness for relief, reconstruction, and humanitarian efforts in this small island nation. The Bare Witness Tour is aptly named for the experience of witnessing another culture in a way that can be best described as raw, exposed, and utterly bare.

This year, 13 participants from the United States, Canada, and Australia reached their goal of raising $20,000 each, and joined OTM co-founders Seane Corn and Suzanne Sterling on a two-week trip to visit our Haitian partners and projects, and to bear witness to some of the beneficiaries of our funds (for a full list of Off the Mat’s partners and projects, click here). Some trip participants came with the expectation of helping to change the world in some small way. Others came with the knowledge that their own lives would never be the same. I’m the Global Seva manager for Off the Mat, and I joined Seane, Suzanne, and these 13 fantastic men and women for the trip of a lifetime.

In Haiti there is a saying: the mountain behind the mountain, which means things are often not as they seem. On the one hand, we came to Haiti as part of a global effort to address immediate needs and create long-term solutions toward a more equitable and sustainable future. On the other hand, I could not help but feel a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that perhaps there was a mountain behind the mountain that we had not yet seen or fully understood: who were we—foreigners—to come into this country and say that we possessed the silver bullet that would make it all right? Everywhere we went, people seemed to look at us with a mixture of hope that we might somehow ease their troubles and help solve their problems, and a proud resentment of the fact that they had to take the world’s handouts.

It was inspiring, infuriating, and humbling to witness all at the same time, and quickly became a topic of discussion around when it is necessary to stand up for what you believe in, and when it is appropriate to close your mouth and practice silence. As Seane and Suzanne said to us at the beginning of our trip: “Our job is not to understand or manage the mystery. Our job is simply to listen, see, feel, and bear witness.”

Upon our arrival in Port au Prince, if truth be told, most of us were left speechless as we stared out from our bus window at the endless piles of rubble and trash littering the streets, the unhygienic conditions, and the thousands of people still living in tent cities, more than two years after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that brought the capital city to its knees.

A resident of San Francisco, I have felt my share of earthquakes, the strongest of which was a 4.6. It was strong enough to rattle my nerves for several days but did not cause any real structural damage to the city. I can only imagine being in Haiti during that 7.0 earthquake in January 2010, and watching entire buildings turn to dust all around me, many with living people—friends, family, neighbors—still inside.

On that first day of our arrival in Haiti, as we drove through the streets of Port au Prince, our bus abruptly pulled off the pavement and turned down a dusty road into the heart of a tent city. We were driving into Camp Adokin, one of 800 tent cities in Port au Prince which provide shelter for an estimated 500,000 Haitians still living without homes, the majority of whom are women and children.

As our bus meandered slowly over bumps and ruts, women watched us with curiosity, walking slowly in pairs while carrying large buckets of water on their heads. Excited swarms of children ran alongside the moving vehicle, and every now and then one of the bolder boys would hop onto our back bumper and offer great big toothy grins through the window, to the delight of our mostly-female group. He would then be promptly scolded down from his perch. Teenage girls stood off to the side, holding hands and whispering, shy as any adolescent I’ve ever seen.

There are no bathrooms, running water, health care, street lights, or organized trash collection. We were told that to relieve themselves, people have to walk back toward the paved road (where our bus had just come from) and squat in the bushes on the other side. For water, they have to get up early and walk to the central camp daily, wait in line to fill up their bucket, and carry it back home to their tent. These circumstances, while inconvenient during the daytime, can be life-threatening at night.

There are an estimated 100 rapes each day in Port au Prince, and displaced women and children living in tent cities are up to 10 times more likely to be assaulted. Anyone who has to make that long walk to the other side of the road to relieve themselves or fetch fresh drinking water from the other side of the camp, especially at night, is at high risk of sexual violence. Anyone who dares to stand up against the attackers is likely to be victimized as well, or killed.

Modern day Haitian culture is built on centuries of violent enslavement, heroic revolution, and proud Caribbean culture. The mountain behind the mountain exists in many aspects of Haitian society. Although our group was not going to reverse hundreds of years of oppression and violent history, we could do something to help protect today’s women and children from being caught up in the cycle of violence.

With funds generated though the 2011 Global Seva Challenge, OTM donated six solar-powered lampposts to Camp Adokin, purchased from the Haitian renewable energy company ENERSA. The installation of these lampposts in tent cities all over Port au Prince is intended to help address the security crisis that plagues the tent cities and prevent the brutal rapes and other violence that are perpetrated against women and children after the sun goes down.

The solar panels are all manufactured locally by Haitians, and once installed, they charge during the daytime and provide light during the night to help protect the community’s women and children. The LED lights have a lifetime guarantee, and each steel lamppost (which took about 20 strong men and women to lift off the ground) is securely mounted in five feet of concrete.

We were there to witness the installation of the last two solar powered lamps that we had donated. A few members of our group were invited to grab a shovel and lend a hand. When our guide, Genesis, asked if anyone would like to take a personalized tour through the tent city, we jumped at the opportunity to get to connect more fully to how people live.

Camp Adokin is home to 35,000 thousand people. The tents are all about 10’x15’ (roughly the size of a medium-sized bedroom in San Francisco), and they are all made of the same light grey canvas material bearing the ubiquitous stamp of USAID. There are 5,500 tents in Camp Adokin, and each houses an average of six to eight people.

As we walked in between tent rows and were greeted with cheery Bonjours by the people we passed, we witnessed a Haitian culture that is vibrant and proud, infused with a determination to live life with dignity and self-respect despite adversity. Women gathered together in the sun beneath open tent flaps, giggling as they washed and braided each other’s hair or gave each other manicures and pedicures. Men wearing freshly-starched collared shirts sat in makeshift barber’s chairs on the side of the road, while the local barber gave him a clean shave.

Children ran together in bands of 10 or more, screeching and hollering wildly as they clapped their hands and stomped their feet, unhindered by the fact that their trumpet was a piece of long tubing with half a soda can taped on the end, or that their drum was a tin can or discarded plastic bucket. It seemed to me that certain aspects of life in Haiti was not that different, after all, from many of the other places I’ve been (in fact I can recall marching around my own home as a child, banging on pots and pans and whatever other noisemakers I could get my hands on).

Later that night, once again I found myself thinking about the mountain behind the mountain. I had heard much about the squalor and violence in the tent cities before coming to Haiti, and I didn’t quite know how to reconcile that preconception with the warm and vibrant society that I had witnessed walking in between the tents.

Yet I also felt confident that long after our group returned home to our respective countries, these six solar-powered lampposts that our group contributed will stand as a public acknowledgement of the violence and suffering that is being inflicted on women and children every day in the tent cities, and will have a small but hopefully meaningful impact on helping to reduce the number of rapes occurring in Camp Adokin. Our small contribution to this community would stand proudly as part of a larger effort to bear witness to the violence being perpetrated against women throughout the city and all over the world.

True to Seane and Suzanne’s words, it was not our job to understand the mystery or to judge, fix or dramatically alter the lives of people here in Haiti…. but we could do what we came here to do, which was to bear witness. We could offer our ears to those who have suffered great trauma and listen to their stories.

We could open our eyes to see the strong bonds of community and the creative spirit that thrives amidst the rubble, destruction, and trash. We could offer our hands to help dig the ditches for lampposts. And we could open our hearts to feel the joie de vivre and immense love that the Haitian people exude in the face of unimaginable suffering and adversity.

Most of all, we could hold up a light to the violence being perpetrated under the shadow of darkness, and through this simple action stand up and say “I will be silent no more.”

By Rebecca F. Rogers

Rebecca is Global Seva Manager with Off the Mat, Into the World.  The Global Seva Challenge is a transformational journey that builds community, provokes awareness and action around global issues, and raises significant funds to support communities in crisis.  Since 2007, Off the Mat, Into the World has raised over two million dollars for projects in Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa and Haiti.  OTM’s 2012 Global Seva Challenge aims to raise awareness around the issue of sex trafficking in India and worldwide. Click here to learn more.


Hafiz poems and excerpts are from Daniel Ladinsky’s  Penguin publications The Gift, Poems by Hafiz © copyright 1999, and I Heard God Laughing, Poems of Hope and Joy © copyright 1996 & 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.



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Editor: Brianna Bemel


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