May 2012, Haïti: “île à vache”

Haïti, East Coast: Île à Vache, Bay Ferret

Ile à Vache was for us a milestone of our trip and immersed us all in long reflections, questions or misunderstandings.

comité d'accueilWhen you arrive at Île à Vache by boat you are first greeted by numerous canoes with young people, often too young, who come to offer multiple services in exchange of a small fee (hull, stainless steel cleaning, “guide services” for shore excursions, fruits, vegetables, fish, conch Lambi (big local shells, delicious), do our laundry etc). So far nothing unexpected and this first contact is even fun. While dropping the anchor quickly becomes an exercise in style, between the anchorage that does not work very well, all these canoes knocking on the hull hanging around the boat and all their occupants speak to us at the same time to propose their services. You can’t hear yourself think in here! But kids are happy thinking they will finally have some company.
Soon as is customary here (and the only way to free PlanetOcean from the 10 canoes moored with us), we choose the services of two guys to clean the hull ( largely needed) and do a bit of polish on the bridge. At Île à Vache labor market responds to the law of demand not supply, and if you don’t have jobs to offer then why coming to Île à Vache wonder the locals. Unless you had a load of donations to deliver on land?

To go to the market, you have to go to the neighboring village a few kilometers from here. The best and only means of transportation to get there are our legs and feet, as the locals. It will take 1 1/2 hours to walk there, and about the same for the return. Probably less if mosquitoes are part of the journey and make you speed up.

We were only 4 or 5 boats in the bay or we learned that 10, 15 years ago, dozens of boats used to arrive every day at Île à Vache who then looked like a shipyard.

The village consists of beautiful small houses always very well kept, arranged and decorated and it never felt poor. Even if there is no running water (there is a well in the village) or furniture, if the beds are very spartan (a mat per person) and no electricity. The kitchen comes down to a small braziers, dishes are done in a bowl and the shower at the beach in the sea. By cons there were two posts with sockets for charging cell phones (equipped with solar panel) and sponsored by Digicel (local mobile operator)!
Until then, you’d probably say: “nothing too disturbing”. And yet …

“Give me, give me, give me but especially to me, not my neighbor”

We met Philbert (a boy of 9 years) thanks to the boat Begonia, an American family who had fallen in love with this young boy. Since they didn’t speak French, they had come to ask me to act as an interpreter with Philbert father. They wished to help Philbert to return to school because that’s what he was asking for. Well … He asked for money to go to school. So I advised them to meet with the school principal first to discuss it all and see if money would help and was the only problem. If that was really the case, then it would be safer to give the money to the school rather than to Philbert dad. Yes I admit, in this strange atmosphere I began to see evil intention a bit everywhere.

While I went to the school with Philbert and the American family, a fisherman mending his net calls me and asks me for money for his net. I explain that I’ve decided to help this child by paying his school books, uniform and a tutor to get back to level by the next school year so he could return to school. He then raised his eyes and told me that I’d better give him the money. Why did I bother helping these “destitute children.”!!

Another day, while we were moving heaven and earth to organize a cinema screening, we were only missing gas for the one generator we managed to find. The man in charge of buying us gas on the main island of Haiti (in exchange for a large tip for the fare) returned to the boat 2 hours before the screening with … Diesel! We explained that we needed gas, no diesel … He sighed, swore that we asked him diesel then concludes by asking a surplus tip. We opposed adding that apart from the mistake we were doing all this for the film projection for children and the inhabitants of the island. “I don’t give a damn about the children of Île à Vache, these are not my children, give me an extra tip.”
Thankfully we dug up a few gallons of gasoline on a neighboring boat, and our projection may have occurred to the delight of young and old. This screening session was all the more rewarding because for once there was no money involved. We simply shared our laughter, our emotions and had a good time together. We were finally all equal, no more social, color or age differences.!

We had heard that we could also give old sails to the “Association des Voiles d’île à vache”. We were about to do so when  fishermen explained us that the famous Wagner who was collecting the sails for the association was then solding them to fishermen, and we had to help stopping this traffic. The same Wagner had also installed an internet cafe in what should have been the village library (funded by a Canadian association!).

Everything is like that in bay Ferret. It’s every man for himself. Human relationships are so distorted at the end I felt that all played a role to always get a little bit more. But often I wondered how I would behave if I was in the same situation. Would I always show the same generosity? Would I always be well-disposed towards others or like them would I succumb and try to save my skin before the other? It is easy to be generous when you still have something to offer or eat in your plate every night.

During our stay a very large sailboat moored in the bay, fully loaded with gifts and donations for the orphanage of Île à Vache (overflowing with children since the last earthquake), for the association of sails of Île à Vache and the health dispensary. For 5 days they emptied their loads and distributed the surplus to the canoes docked at their hull (with onboard children, women or men). That’s when a group of fishermen returning from their fishing shouted to the canoes “Haitians remain worthy, stop begging”!
I then realized that my questions, my doubts, my paranoia was not the only fruit of my imagination. We were indeed witnesses the repercussions of humanitarian aid, here dehumanizing and alienating the population. We brutally lost our naive vision of charity often removing guilt feeling of the rich towards the poor.

The following days we wanted to continue to help Philbert but without giving him donations. Always giving things creates more needs, dependencies and begging. And anyway, all that we could offer Philbert was then collected by his father (as the toothbrush and toothpaste that we had given him the first day). So, until he finds his tutor, we set up a kind of “chain school” to teach him reading and writing in French (the oficial language although he hardly spoke it). The principle is simple: give an hour of our time to Philbert everyday to school him and then pass him to the next French ship before leaving Île à Vache, to take over and so on. This will only work if Philbert is motivated. At the same time if he really wants to go back to school it will take a lot of motivation. To help we offered him a method of learning to read with a note explaining our initiative.
During these daily lessons Noé and Camille fell in love with Philbert who had become a sort of big brother. Separations were painful. I hope with all my heart that this “chain school” works. We will keep you posted as soon as I can get news.
The presence of this young boy on board raised many questions from Noé that we could not always answers.
Where are Philbert’s mum and dad?
Dad is fishing.
Why does he stay all day long on his “floating board” with no food or drink and without playing? (one night I got Philbert onboard who had had nothing to drink or eat all day and was suffuring from dehydration with violent headaches!)
Because he did not go to school?
Why doesn’ he go to school?
Perhaps because he is a little left on his own, that nobody tells him to go to school.
But why does he not go fishing with his dad?
Perhaps also because from boats to boats he manages to collect gifts, food for his family. Etc. …..

I often wanted to leave the bay Ferret out of cowardice. Quickly weigh anchor and escape the role that is imposed on us: the white good Samaritan. Escape the delusions and questionings that this place gave rise to.

Fortunately there were still few encounters, such as Philbert, or even that of JeanJean and Rose Mina, a couple who ran the only local “restaurant”: the Kaliko Bar… With whom we shared recipes and with whom I learned to prepare Lambi conch.

Also Kiki who proudly took us for a tour of his village (without asking anything in return!), and took Noé for tours on his canoe. But it was very difficult to get out of that role imposed on us and that distorted our relationships with people.


The true human encounter, the real human exchange we witnessed was among children who despite culture and language barriers (haitiens children speak Creole), were able to play and laugh together, simply, naturally, without ulterior thoughts and unbiased.


The bay of Ferret in Île à Vache is undoubtedly very different from the rest of the island and from Haiti mainland.Thanks to the many boats anchored in the bay, the villagers receive lot of aids but perhaps at the expense of real human interactions and real encounters.

We left Île à Vache with the impression that we never found our place or have always refused that they wanted to assign us to.
To see more picture click here: Foto Album

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