Monday, April 23, 2012

A Sort of Homecoming

I drove all night to come home. My estimated time of arrival was 3am – not a reasonable hour to invade a friend’s home but my temp job didn’t let me off until 5pm and the traffic around Washington DC is like a big snarled ball of yarn and I inched through it for hours.  There were no mobile phones in those days and it was expensive to make long distance calls so all you could do is drive like hell and hope to make it in time.

As I finally escaped the urban sprawl and suburban traffic, I rolled down the windows in the car and in oozed the Carolina spring that had not yet penetrated above the Mason-Dixon line. The smell of pine tree pollen, kudzu creeping through warm soil, and sweet humidity made me drive faster – singing along to the classic rock on the radio, stopping only for gas and for caffeine. As it got warmer, my musical taste became more Southern - Lynyrd Skynyrd turned into swamp rock and evolved into what we used to call “college rock”.

Six years before, I rode with a stranger in the opposite direction up through the Carolinas to meet my lover in the North. Driving through the dark listening to REM and Tom Waits – my first exposure to the grown up music that my teen years had denied me. My desire to see my beloved mixed with the thrill of taking my first road trip… “Radio Free Europe” and lust mixed with the exhilaration of getting in a car and just going where I wanted. “Just Drive She Said” was the name of my mix tape.

Now I was driving in the opposite direction – driven by homesickness and a desire for warmth and spring and adventure. Driving to visit an old lover and eat shrimp and soak up the southern spring. 

I had never felt like a Southerner. I arrived in the South when I was 8 and had been tortured by the fact I never fit in. I had a British accent, my mother braided my hair, I didn’t know to say ma’am and sir, and I said hello not hey. I was labeled conceited and weird and spent my youth plotting my escape from the South. Yet here I was, anxious to return. Craving the smell of plough mud and swamps and the taste of salty air and brackish water. Yearning for the friendliness that radiates from Southern people and the slower pace of life. My heart raced from the Mountain Dew and desire as I turned off I-95 and headed to the upcountry of South Carolina.

Driving through old back roads, passing lonely country churches, and listening now to Poi Dog Pondering  -“Elizabeth would you come down? With your wood guitar now”. Feeling the connection inside me to the odd quirky nature of Southern college music and the artist-writers I had left behind in South Carolina to join the world leaders of Washington DC. Letting my creative energy start to surge and letting the striving ambitious policy wonk sleep. Putting on my bangles, tying ribbons in my hair, taking off my shoes… the y’all crept back into my speech. I flirted with the gas station attendant who smiled indulgently at me. It was the first smile I had gotten from a stranger since I left home six months before.

I turned off the rural route towards his house. There was a light burning in the upstairs room. I pulled up in the driveway and ran up the stairs. He opened the door, shirtless in jeans. “Welcome home, darlin’, ” he said with a smile as he handed the bourbon on the rocks to me, “I’ve been waiting for you.”  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Post Earthquake Haiti and gender-based violence

A censored post from March 2010 when I visited Haiti after the earthquake there. I was reprimanded for publishing this on my private blog. Now that I no longer work there, I've decided to re-publish it.

March 2010

I went out near Cite de Soliel today to visit an obstetric hospital that we have been working in for three weeks. I was completely dismayed at the conditions! I walked in and saw a woman delivering her child in front of me (no curtain, no cloths, she was naked and her “privates” were on display) and the baby was dead so the staff had to put it on the floor, I was told. Another woman right next to our office was lying there moaning covered in blood and gore and no one was around her. I felt like I had walked into hell. The government staff here don't give a shit about the women. The agency I work for is desperately trying to motivate them, improve the quality, and try to prevent some maternal and natal deaths. I can’t imagine recommending that we try to even set up a sexual violence program in a hostile setting like this. Our medical coordinator told me that if they put up curtains to screen the privacy of the women delivering, they’d be in worse trouble because they staff would ignore them and not even see them.

Then I went across the street to the displaced camp across the road from the hospital in the old airport- there were young girls bathing naked outside, horrible gangster types swaggering around the camps sexually harrassing our female water/Sanitation engineer. There was a prison break in Haiti during the earthquake and thousands of extremely violent prisoners busted out and headed back to their old haunts. There are daily battles for turfs in the new camps. Our brave Italian woman goes into the camps almost every day – walking around supervising our staff digging latrines and putting in showers. But the gangsters threaten our staff and collapse the latrines at night so we’ll have to pay them to rebuild it. She said she saw a lack of women around and she thought there might be a police action going down that afternoon and the women and children hide to keep from getting caught in the crossfire between the gangsters and the police.

Someone has to get rid of those thugs but the Haitian police are almost as corrupt as the gangsters. We actually had police come into our tent distribution and steal tents from the women and children that we were distributing them to. Our current strategy is to try to encourage the community to resist them. – But they are the victims and victims, by definition are powerless – how can they be expected to resist? We’ll see what we can do – we don’t want to try to push the police to come in there because innocent women and children will be shot. I guess we'll find a way but I think this is where we should be – these people had nothing before the earthquake and they have less now.

I truly believe the adolescent girls are the most at risk in this setting - it's not Darfur where they are raping any woman that goes out to gather firewood. They are yanking young women out of the tents at night if they get "strange ideas in their head from watching them bathe" as the women put it. We're trying like hell to do good Water and Sanitation projects because this issue impacts women the most. I like the idea of a woman's health clinic. If we could focus on family planning, reproductive health, STIs, mental health, and SGBV, we could make a difference. Where we've had mental health programs in similar settings, we've successfully identified SGBV victims- they often show up from the "stress" of dealing with their children or husbands. Even if we're unable to overcome their fear of disclosing that they've been raped or unable to see the numbers everyone thinks is out there, slowly they might come to trust us and seek help. And the rapes aren't going to go away in Haiti. They were there before the earthquake and will be there afterward.