All You Need to Know about MINUSTAH
December 3, 2010
Joegodson and Paul
In early October, MINUSTAH troops came calling on the camps of Cite Soleil. In PCS-Simon, the local people led them to Jhony, recognized as the spokesperson for the community. Jhony is the brother of Joegodson. They were both raised in this neighbourhood.
“Are you the leader of the camp?” asked the MINUSTAH soldiers through an interpreter.
They invited Jhony to participate in a MINUSTAH initiative. The United Nations troops were organizing classes for the local children at their base in Simon. Would Jhony choose some children to participate? There would be classes in Portuguese and music. Jhony would have to name an adult to be responsible for bringing the children to the military base and returning them to PCS-Simon.
Although Joegodson has not lived in Simon for years, he is still an integral part of the community. Jhony called Joegodson in Delmas 33 and asked if he would do it. Joegodson agreed. He loves kids and he was curious to penetrate the world of MINUSTAH.
The project was funded in part by UNICEF. The idea was that soldiers would teach Haitian children. It wasn’t obvious to Joegodson what qualifications the Brazilian soldiers brought to the job. It soon became clear: the Brazilians spoke Portuguese and one of them had a guitar. Consequently, they were eminently qualified to teach Haitians.
The classes were scheduled for a period of three months, one afternoon a week for two hours. At first, there was talk that the MINUSTAH troops would also install a large screen and project films. That caused considerable interest among the Haitians who love movies but almost never have the chance to watch them. However, that promise died a quiet death. The language and music classes continued, however, on Wednesday afternoons inside the local military base.
So, Joegodson brought some local kids to the military base for their first class in Portuguese. Who are these kids? They came from all around Cite Soleil: the troops had approached other camp leaders as they had spoken to Jhony. There were thirty kids in all. Some of them have become used to hanging out at the gate of the MINUSTAH base in Simon every morning. They ask the soldiers for something to eat. Sometimes the soldiers give the kids something; sometimes not. For the kids, it is a daily ritual. You go to the MINUSTAH base and you harass the foreign soldiers. Before the earthquake, it was the kokorats or street kids who came. Now, any local kid could beg the MINUSTAH troops for food. As a result, the kids have learned to speak rudimentary Portuguese. The MINUSTAH troops, on the other hand, have not learned Creole and speak through interpreters.
The MINUSTAH troops, as will become clear, live inside the bubble of their military bases. Haitians – diseased, poor, and starving – surround them. The soldiers do not identify with them. They have been sent to Haiti because Haitians are incapable of organizing their own country. Joegodson describes how they look upon Haitians: “We are savages to them. They don’t want to know us because they have to convince themselves that they are superior to us.”
Joegodson watched after delivering the Simon children for their first lesson in Portuguese. Each kid was given a notebook, a pencil, and a t-shirt that now identified him or her as belonging to the Brazilian ministry of sport. They sat uncomfortably inside the foreign world of the military base.
A MINUSTAH soldier presented himself before them to put them at ease. That was difficult for everyone since he didn’t speak Creole. In any case, he was able to use a Haitian as translator. However, the Haitian was not comfortable in Portuguese. Progress was slow.
As it happens, some of the kids who were sitting in their seats waiting for their lessons were already far more adept than the ‘translator’ as a result of having begged for food outside the MINUSTAH doors. One of them explained to the other kids in Creole what the teacher/soldier was saying in Portuguese. The Brazilian educator did not accept that intrusion graciously. He shot a look at the Haitian child who illicitly understood Portuguese before the lessons had begun. The child kept quiet and suffered through the farce of the official simulacrum of education. Hunger and need had already motivated the kids to learn this language. The Brazilian soldier, obviously, had found no reason to learn Creole.
In any case, the soldiers/teachers carried on with their project. The children got more interested when another soldier arrived with juice and candies. Each kid got a small paper cup of juice, but it was at least more interesting than listening to the soldier/teacher. The first class ended.
Joegodson continued to accompany the kids each Wednesday. They had reached their apogee during the first session when the juice arrived. After that, things deteriorated. They didn’t want to go anymore. The MINUSTAH soldiers never offered them anything to eat again – even juice. What was worse, they refused to admit that the Haitian kids could already speak rudimentary Portuguese. Joegodson, watching from the sidelines, saw it as an exercise in arrogance. The soldiers were in Haiti to impart information. They were not there for an exchange. They were set on ‘send.’ The ‘receive’ button had been disabled before they left Brazil.
But soon, the Haitians understood the plan behind the largesse of MINUSTAH and UNICEF.
The music lessons were no different; only the language changed. The MINUSTAH troops told the Haitian kids that they were going to teach them a song that the students would then sing at a big celebration. The great celebration did actually take place, as scheduled, Wednesday of this week. The MINUSTAH troops patted themselves on the back at their main military base in Tabarre. Some officers pinned medals on the chests of several MINUSTAH soldiers for something. Scheduled for three days after the election, it is probable that the MINUSTAH authorities had been planning the event to bolster the morale of the troops after whatever might happen on Election Day.
So, MINUSTAH decided that the music teacher, who could play the guitar, would orchestrate a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” in English. Some of the kids knew the song and could sing it. However, the Brazilian music teacher was just as displeased at the spectre of Haitians who already knew something as had been the language teacher/soldier. However, he had a terrible time with English and the sounds were all garbled. So, the kids who had never heard it had to learn ‘We Are the World’ by way of Brazil.
On Wednesday, Joegodson was planning to take the kids to the big military base in Tabarre for the official celebration and their song. Meanwhile, he received a call from a journalist asking him to join him at the protests against the elections. Several of the candidates were still trying to arouse the population to rise up to refuse the elections. Joegodson wasn’t particularly interested in the protests. He had been protesting the elections for months, since it had been clear that they were, in Aristide’s words, a ‘selection, not an election.’ If there had not been obvious fraud on Sunday, the elections would still have been illegitimate. To protest now implied that the problem was with instances of fraud. The problem remains far deeper than that.
In any case, he followed the protest as it climbed up to the CEP office. He was glad to see that some of the candidates were not averse to walking with the stinky crowd. However, the main question remained: why did you present yourself as candidate in the first place?
Joegodson needed to leave the protest because the great MINUSTAH celebration was scheduled for two o’clock. In any case, the protest was breaking up. He walked down the hill with some of the protesters when they spotted a MINUSTAH vehicle and several soldiers. The protesters started to throw stones at them. The soldiers protected themselves with their plastic shields. But the shields didn’t seem sufficient to stop the force of the rocks. Joegodson could see the fear in the soldiers’ eyes as the protesters advanced. He supposed that they were on their way to the same military base as him. It didn’t seem the right time to ask for a lift. The soldiers who were separated from the vehicle ran to it. It screamed off in time to evade the wrath of the Haitians.
Joegodson calmly made his way to the main military base in Tabarre and entered it for the first time. It was enormous! He was flabbergasted. His first thought was, “They don’t intend ever to leave Haiti.” There were basketball courts and playing fields. It was not Haiti. It was another country inside of Haiti, hiding from Haitians behind walls.
Soldiers marched the way that soldiers march. He was offended at the violence of their feet pounding on Haitian soil. Dessalines had declared more than two hundred years ago that Haitian soil belongs to Haitians. Joegodson thought how Dessalines would hear the pounding feet of these foreign soldiers. “They’re going to give Dessalines a headache.”
After the march past, the ceremony continued. The stand was full of foreign dignitaries. Several soldiers received their international medals. There was another group of Haitian toddlers and infants from an orphanage run by UNICEF.
Joegodson was standing with the children. They were fidgeting the way kids do when you tell them to stand still and not fidget. The Brazilian maestro motioned to the kids that they must not move, that they must not embarrass Haiti. They were the only representatives of Haiti that Joegodson could see: children taught by a unilingual Brazilian to sing a Michael Jackson song to foreign dignitaries occupying their country. Who could be ashamed of this?
Joegodson struck up a conversation with a soldier standing next to him. The soldier spoke English. He said that he was hopeful for Haiti. He said that he hoped that the MINUSTAH presence would help Haiti to change. Joegodson asked him what he thought Haiti needed to change from … and in what direction.
The soldier said that Haitians were lazy and didn’t work. They simply waited for help. Haitians would have to learn how to do things for themselves. For example, he said that it was fortunate that the MINUSTAH troops were present in order to teach the children. Otherwise, they would have no education at all.
Joegodson asked the soldier how much money he made. In fact, he already knew because the kids who hung out at the MINUSTAH gate and begged for food had told him: one thousand American dollars a month for a private with one stripe, 2,000 for two stripes, and 2,500 for three. Even the entry salary was ten times greater than a sixty-hour work week for a Haitian in the assembly plants. The soldier had assumed that, because Haitians are poor, they must not work. He didn’t understand that they are poor because they do work. Even the Haitian National Police that work next to the MINUSTAH troops make only a small percentage of the Brazilian salary. And they didn’t have room and board!
”You need to have something in order to build something. You need at least the rich to get out of the way. We have nothing. Working only makes us poorer,” Joegodson explained.
They spoke. The soldier came to see that the change that he was talking about was to the taste of the foreigners, not the Haitians. Joegodson said that if Haiti changes in the way that these MINUSTAH troops want, it would only be worse. The soldier conceded that perhaps the conversations that take place inside the military base were missing some important facts.
“Maybe that’s why you want Haiti to be represented here today by children that you have tried to teach. You can believe that you’re teaching them without having to learn anything yourselves.”
The celebration was over. It was late. The MINUSTAH troops put the kids in a truck and returned them to Simon. When they arrived, it was past nine o’clock. The streets are dangerous for a single pedestrian. Joegodson lives up in Delmas 33. He asked the troops if they would drive him home. They declined, saying they had to get back to the base.
Walking home, Joegodson shared the street with the stray dogs only. He was on the lookout for thieves. He was also worried that he might be taken for a thief. He imagined the MINUSTAH troops firing upon him to round out his day.