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Clowning for Joy in Haiti
Sarah Foster is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist who wanted to make the world a better place while doing something that she loved. What she loved was performing and making others laugh, so she became a clown. As a professional clown with Clowns Without Borders, Sarah has traveled to Haiti, Swaziland and South Africa. Clowns Without Borders sends professional clowns to areas of the world with children who have experienced more conflict and injustice than any child should have to endure. "Laughter is a critical way to heal trauma," Sarah said. "Kids need to laugh and play. And all kids deserve joy. All kids. Everywhere."
Friday, August 21, 2009: Sarah's Journal
To get to our first show of the day, we are to parade for half an hour up an enormous hill. When we climb out of the car and into the heat of the sun at the bottom of the hill, a group of kids starts to form around us. I look at them, look away, and quickly look back again with wide eyes. They smile. I do it again and they laugh. I walk with a funny walk around to the back of the car and the women across the street laugh. They watch me put together my trombone, piece by piece. Tim hangs his battered bucket drum around his neck. Suzanne has the bubble-making bear. The rest of our gear goes up ahead us of in the car. We are off!
Today, we are going into Martissant, one of the most dangerous areas of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, rated by the UN as a "red zone" because of the lack of control their peace-keeping troops have here. As Tim noted, over 100,000 people live in houses made of cement blocks, tarps and rusty tin stacked up the hill as high as we can see.
In town there are two water pumps — two. Two pumps for over 100,000 people. When we got into the region we saw children playing all around the streets. In their hands were no toys, but water jugs. Each child had a water jug proportionate to his or her size and it was clear that people here rely on these children to do work and carry water for themselves and their families. A trek to the public wells is no simple task. We hardly encountered any level ground in all of Martissant—the community is nothing but steep hills dropping to sea level.
The high levels of poverty and violence here make it feel more important than ever that we do a fantastic show today: mainly because the kids here deserve a bang-up, hands-down hilarious show. Also because, although we do not feel in immediate danger, making people laugh keeps potential violence at bay.
Kids pile around us as we parade up the hill. They pop out of doorways and join the crowd. Some women dance to the music as we go by. When I dance they laugh. It seems important to look people in the eye and greet them as we go by, so that they feel a personal connection beyond just seeing a ragtag troop of weird sweaty white people parading past. I alternate between playing the trombone, greeting people, dancing, singing, and catching my breath. We are climbing the hot hill in a tide of kids now. They attach themselves, holding onto my elbows and the sides and back of my skirt. I feel like I am half pulling a pile of kids up a giant hill, half being supported up the hill by them.
"Ou bouke? (oo boo-kay)" says the girl who has attached herself to my right elbow. I just learned this creole word yesterday. One of the most common graffiti phrases on the walls of Port-au-Prince is "NOU BOUKE (new boo-kay)." It means "we are exhausted," or "we are fed up." When the words are spray-painted on walls it means that Haitian people are fed up with the way things are, with their ineffective government, with the lack of food and water. When this girl says "ou bouke? (oo boo-kay)" she is asking me if I am tired from the climb. "Mwen bouke! (mwe-ge (like the end of gara-ge) boo-kay)" I say, wiping the sweat from my face and pretending to lean on a little boy's head for support. Then I take a deep breath and look around. "No, m'pa bouke (mmpah boo-kay)" (I am not tired), I say. "Nou bouke? (new boo-kay)" (are you all tired?) "No!" they say. "Nou pa bouke! (new pa boo-kay)" (we are not tired!) I say. "Nou pa bouke! (new pa boo-kay)" they reply. We keep climbing. I start a new trombone riff to the beat of Tim's bucket drum.
More and more kids join in as we climb our way up. "Bon jou," I greet them. "Bon jou!" they reply to the beat of Tim's drum. Again, in rhythm, "bon jou!" I say, and "bon jou" they reply.
"Bon swa!" I say, which is the greeting for the afternoon and evening, and the wrong one to say for the morning.
"No, bon jou!" I shout.
"Bon swa!" they say.
We continue this absurd call and response chant for a while, then more music and more dancing, all the while climbing. One of brightest rays of hope that I see in this country where so much is wrong is the way that people are so ready to laugh and to play. So, so often the joy is there, right under the surface. The smallest hint of a game becomes a massive game. Three clowns and a bucket and bubbles and a trombone becomes a parade. Women dance in the street.
Maybe a lot of people in Haiti are bouke a lot of the time. But right now we are on our way up a hill to a show, and despite all odds we are not bouke at all.