From Québec to Cap-Haïtien
How are you doing?
I'm fine and my first weeks have gone quite well. I am one of seven Canadians posted in Cap-Haïtien, which is in the northern part of the country. Here in Cap, things are much better than in Port-au-Prince. It seems that in the capital there are security problems and the situation is tense. I am a technical advisor, so I work in collaboration with the Haitian police. There are also some other duties, like escorting food shipments, providing security for foreign delegations and other types of patrols.
What is a typical day like?
I get up at 5:35 a.m. I exercise a bit and then I have breakfast with the gang, since I'm staying at a hotel with about 20 other UN people. Then, there's a hazardous 25-minute drive on bad roads to get to work. I'm not an investigator but sometimes there are investigations, mostly related to human rights. The role of the technical advisor mainly involves visiting police stations to talk to the local police and go on patrols with them. We're there to help and advise them if necessary. We prepare reports on how they can improve their facilities, equipment, etc. When we do community policing, people like to greet us and talk to us. They are very polite but it's not always easy when we're conducting an investigation because we're "Blancs" and don't speak Creole. They don't always want to open up to us.
What do you do after work?
When I'm not working, I mainly stay at the hotel. I don't go out in the evening and go clubbing because it's not my thing. So I'm mostly among internationals. Sometimes Haitians come to the hotel but they're rich people who aren't at all typical of the local population. Sometimes, we have supper with the Chilean soldiers at their base. It gives us a chance to socialize a bit.
We've also organized community activities in the course of our work, such as a basketball game with young adults, as well as the distribution of school supplies in the schools and clothing to the underprivileged. That's mostly where we come into contact with Haitians from the community. Obviously, we have local colleagues who work with us and we sometimes organize get-togethers after work at the office of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
Tell us a bit about what you expected of the job before you left and how it compares with reality.
My expectations were shaped by my first CIVPOL mission in Kosovo. I realized circumstances would be different in Haiti, but I thought the UN ran its missions the same way regardless of the location. I soon realized that experience from one mission can't necessarily be carried over to another. What worked on one mission might not work here. The turnover among UN staff is high and that doesn't help either. But I'm not running down the UN. This is my second mission and I love it.
The function here is training more than action on the ground. People like me, who came when MINUSTAH started, had a chance to participate in operations and work on the ground, but the mission is gradually moving into new phases and we'll be doing only technical consulting from now on.
I knew the economic situation in Haiti was difficult but I didn't realize to what extent. I would say the culture shock is greater here than in Kosovo or other countries I've been to because of the poverty, the population density, the hot, humid climate and the way people live, the social mores, and so on. It's so different from home!
Is it hard to adjust to the different culture and the different reality?
As a Canadian, I find things move very slowly here. At the bank, in restaurants, the traffic on the roads, and so forth. At the beginning of my posting, I was always in a rush. Now, I tell myself that I'll eat when the food comes and I'll get there when I get there. Otherwise, you get aggressive. Short-tempered people have trouble adjusting here.
The Haitians are very nice. There are many children and they're always chasing after us. They shout "Blancs-Blancs-Blancs…." when we drive by in a UN vehicle. Most of the women, who are often pregnant, work very hard. They prepare meals for the family, often without electricity and without easy access to drinking water. And then there's washing to do by the river, many children to care for, and so forth.
There are many unemployed people here, so they wander the streets with no particular destination in mind. When we make an arrest, there are often protests, so we have to be careful. People are curious and quickly gather around us. It doesn't take much for people to start throwing stones and bottles. A rumour can get them fired up. On the roads, it's survival of the fittest! Even if drivers don't have the right of way, they go anyway. There are no traffic lights here, no road signs, so you get the picture. But I wonder what Quebec City would be like without street signs. Maybe worse!
You work on a team with members from several countries. What are the challenges?
Working in a multinational group isn't always easy. Sometimes, I hear comments that make my hair stand on end. I work with a number of Africans and of course their customs and mores are very different from ours. You have to make adjustments when it comes to punctuality and attendance. But we all have things to learn from each other. You have to be open-minded and patient, and it's very important to keep a cheerful attitude. You discover some extraordinary people among your colleagues from overseas.
Do you think that you're making a difference in Haiti?
To be frank, I'm not going to be presumptuous and say that I'm changing things here in Haiti! I'm just a grain of sand in the overall mission. However, as a women, it's pretty obvious to me that the women and young girls here are watching me closely. That might be a positive influence for them and a potential path to improving their situation.
My way of contributing to the objective of the stabilization mission is to do my best. If I take a step forward and others also take a step forward – all of us in the same direction – we can achieve something real, something tangible. From this perspective, yes my presence here is important because the overall result of all these individual efforts will be the accomplishment of the mission. On any given day, the sweetest sound to my ears is to have someone tell me: "You work hard, don't you?" I will come home after this mission with my head held high even though there will still be lots of work to do in Haiti.