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Doing Good in Haiti

This sweet young thing is all excited to be getting a pair of Giving Shoes.

This sweet young thing is all excited to be getting a pair of Giving Shoes.

Several weeks ago, I got a new Toms catalogue in the mail. Haiti was featured in the photo shoot of their new spring fashion collection. Needless to say, I was intrigued and paged through with more than casual interest.
Toms, you may know, is a fashion company with a penchant for philanthropy. They have a “One for One” program that began with shoes in 2006. For every pair of shoes purchased, Toms gives a pair of shoes to a child in need. I really liked the idea in the beginning, and supported it by buying quite a few pairs of shoes for myself and as gifts for my family. I liked it, that is, until I did some reading about the effects of charitable donations of clothing in underdeveloped countries. I learned to my horror that in the spirit of giving, countries of the First World have wreaked havoc on the clothing and textile industries of the Third World. There are so many tons of free clothing given out that home grown industry has been, in some cases, nearly wiped out. This includes shoes, and Toms was, unfortunately, implicated. I confess that my enthusiasm for the company and their products crashed and burned, though I never quite got around to withdrawing my name from their mailing list.
Saving trees notwithstanding, this turned out to be a good thing. In reading the new catalogue I discovered that Toms was not oblivious to the criticism being levied against it and in fact, set about to respond in a hugely positive way. Toms committed itself to producing 1/3 of all of their “Giving Shoes” locally by the end of 2015. In Haiti, this commitment has resulted in the opening of a factory outside Port-au-Prince that now employs 40 Haitians, nearly half of whom are women. To date, they have produced over 500,000 shoes for distribution throughout the island country.
And, to coin our own phrase, Toms is “Fighting Poverty with Art.” The Haiti Artist Collective employs 30 Haitians to create a line of hand-

Looking through photos of the children of our artists in Croix-des-Bouquets, I noticed that alot of them did have shoes.  Like to think that our fair trade practices have something to do with that.

Looking through photos of the children of our artists in Croix-des-Bouquets, I noticed that alot of them did have shoes. Like to think that our fair trade practices have something to do with that.

painted footwear, sold exclusively through Toms. Inspiration for the designs comes from the artist’s themselves, who offer up unique perspectives on Haitian life, of love and peace, and of music and culture. (Sounds a little like It’s Cactus artists too…)
I am happy to report that my enthusiasm for Toms has been revived – big time. Hat’s off! Hip-hip-hooray! What a wonderful things they are accomplishing. Marvelous! I would continue to wax superlative, but I gotta go. It’s time to order shoes.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Unexpected: Polo in Haiti

"Animals Garden," by Salomon Jean Belony.  An alternate title could be "Polo Ponies off to Play."  Could be, right?

“Animals Garden,” by Salomon Jean Belony. An alternate title could be “Polo Ponies off to Play.” Could be, right?

Every once in a while, Haiti makes the news for something that is completely unexpected. Today it came to me in the form of a recent article by Carine Fabius in The Huffington Post entitled, “Playing Polo in Haiti.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carine-fabius/playing-polo-in-haiti_b_6419634.html ) And not just playing; the Haitians are winning hardware, having brought home titles from the likes of the San Francisco International Polo Classic in the U.S., the China Open Polo Tournament in Shanghai, China, and the International Master’s Cup in Pilar, Argentina.

Apparently, global participation in the sport is on a meteoric rise, according to the polo-dedicated periodical, “Sideline,” so why not in Haiti? Haitian Polo Team Captain AND President Michel Martely’s recent appointee as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Claude Alix Bertrand is spear-heading the effort revitalize the sport in Haiti. It had reportedly enjoyed some popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, but lost ground to football (soccer) in the ensuing decades. Bertrand is hoping to change all of that by leading the Haitian national polo team and winning big. So far, so good on that score.

He also hopes to make polo more accessible to Haiti’s (generally underprivileged) youth. He proposes to do that by helping to develop a world-class polo resort. The five-star 8,000 acre vision for Cote de Fer on Haiti’s southeast coast includes a polo grounds and school, golf courses, a marina for sailing, and a track for Formula One racing.The resort project is favored by some impressive financial backers includ Audi Sportscar Experience, Duty Free America and Digicel; it also has a healthy working relationship with the Ministry of Tourism in Haiti. (This was the same office that brought ice skating to Port-au-Prince in 2014. See blog https://www.itscactus.com/blog/2013/08/30/port-au-prince-the-chill-factor/ ) “Haitian youth will have access to polo like never before, says Bertrand, “because they will not be required to have club memberships to learn and play. All they’ll have to do is pay for their lessons, which will include instruction, gear,

This cenotaur would be SOME polo player!  "Man and Horse" by Edward Dieudonne.

This centaur would be SOME polo player! “Man and Horse” by Edward Dieudonne.

horses, and time on the practice grounds.”

In a Bay Area news telecast in October, Bertrand told the interviewer that a single polo lesson in San Francisco costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $120. Now, I am sure there is a certain price adjustment to be made from the Bay Area to southeastern Haiti, but in a country where the minimum daily wage is right around $5 and forty percent or the workforce is not employed at all, that seems like a bit of a financial stretch.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. Bertrand should certainly be applauded for bringing pride and success home to Haiti. His sport is a great one, combining outdoor exercise, spirit of teamwork, competition and camaraderie, and working with animals. All positives, to be sure. Why not polo in Haiti? Maybe it will work, who knows?  It’s just a little unexpected.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Rhythm of Life in Haiti is Jazz






Dave Brubeck, an accomplished jazz pianist of international acclaim was quoted once as saying, “Jazz is the voice of freedom.” What a great analogy. Jazz is free-form. Jazz is listening, attention, and focus; it is the creation of musical opportunity, allowing each musician to enrich the sound of the whole.

It’s a little bit like Haiti, actually. Very free-form. There is a certain way in which things fit together but it’s not rigidly written, as notes on a score. While visitors to Haiti often give in to despair at their sense of chaos, Haitians watch, listen, sense, and create a space for themselves in their society. They hear their note. They find their harmony. The rhythm of their lives is jazz.


"Angel Boy With Drum" SM174 by Winzor Gouin

“Angel Boy With Drum” SM174 by Winzor Gouin

How appropriate, then, that this Saturday marks the beginning of the 8th Annual Jazz Festival in the

"Angel with Saxaphone REC277"

“Angel with Saxaphone REC277”

Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. For the next seven days, in venues across the city, jazz musicians from 14 different countries will be performing in concerts, many of which are free. Additionally, there will be “after hours” jam sessions as well as jazz workshops for aspiring young Haitian artists. (A full schedule of events is available here.) http://papjazzhaiti.com/

One of the local headline artists is Thurgot Theodat, who, according the Festival website, plays “voodoo jazz. (Listen here.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhHnDi6O9jA Just as an entire line of our recycled metal sculpture at It’s Cactus is “Voodoo Inspired” https://www.itscactus.com/catalog/VOODOO_INSPIRED-121-1.html Haitian jazz music can be too. And whyever not?

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

New water pumps – big improvement

IMG_6201Nearly five years have passed since the January 2010 earthquake rocked Haiti, and the entire world has been frustrated to the nth degree by the seeming lack of progress in the country’s recovery.  None are more frustrated though, than the Haitians themselves.  Yet, on our visit to Haiti in September, there was evidence that recovery is, at long last taking place.  I could tell you about the paved roads – three where there were none before –  the absence of the tent cities, and the presence of recycling bins and maybe I will in another blog one day.  But the thing that especially caught my eye, and the thing that crept back into my thoughts again and again both during our trip and afterwards were the water pumps.  Three where there was one before in the heart of Croix-des-Bouquets.

I was told that the pumps were a project of the Haitian government.  The government not only installed the pumps, but also is paying someone to collect 1 goude per fill so that the pumps can be maintained.  At first, I was concerned that a goude might be tough to come by for some, but I was told by a lifelong resident of the village that it’s no problem.  “Everyone has a goude,” he assured me. “And that way, when the pump needs to be fixed, the money is available.  It’s a good thing, really.”

Of course, having to pump water is still not the equivalent of turning a faucet at the kitchen sink.  Few if any homes in Croix-des-Bouquets have that luxury. But not having to carry water as FAR is certainly an improvement. If you’re like me, you’ve read time and again about women and children carrying water in developing countries and how the necessity of their labor precludes them from earning a wage, attending school and other fruitful activities which might enable them to increase their standard of living.IMG_6459

And I got to thinking:  How careful with my water usage would I be if I had to carry all that I used? Statistics to that effect are telling, to say the least.  According to the US Geological Survey website, the average American uses between 80-100 gallons of water  per capita per day.  The average Haitian uses 4 gallons per capita per day.  This, according to the United Nations is well under the recommended daily average of 5-13 gallons of clean water per day. The UN goes further to point out that if, as is typical, a young Haitian girl carries water to satisfy the needs of her entire family (average of seven persons) for a day, she will  be carrying at least six 5-gallon buckets of water, weighing at least 240 pounds.

As I watched the activity around one of the community pumps late one afternoon, I observed an elderly man with a young girl by his side approaching the pump.  Between them, they were carrying three empty 5-gallon plastic buckets.  At that moment, I decided to jump in.  I couldn’t provide them with indoor plumbing right then and there, but I could certainly pump a little water.

IMG_6556Let me tell you.  It’s hard work. I pumped out two buckets in quick succession but my sweat-soaked shirt and heavy breathing were clear evidence that if I was harboring any further gallant notions, they were about to expire – or I would. Thinking fast, I offered the pump handle to Casey and said, “I hate to steal all of the glory.  You can do the last one.” And the thing is, neither of us carried the water back to their house when we were done. But it made us both think twice about leaving a last little swallow of water in the bottom of the glass as we got up from dinner at the restaurant that night.  We drank every drop.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


Vetiver: The earthy, aromatic smell of success

The grassy roots are blended with floral tones to create many of today's most expensive perfumes.

The grassy roots of vetiver are blended with floral tones to create many of today’s most expensive perfumes.

Who knew?

A grassy plant known as vetiver- originally introduced in the 1940s as a soil anchor to reduce erosion on the steep, dry, denuded mountainsides of southwestern Haiti – has become the premium cash crop of the region.  The Haitians appreciated it for its quick-growing density and began cutting it seasonally for thatch, but its real value, as it turns out, is in its roots.  When harvested and boiled down, the root oil becomes a primary ingredient for the world’s perfume industry, which demands 100-120 tons of vetiver annually.  Haiti is now the largest producer, raising over half of the world’s total, with smaller quantities grown in Java, China, Madagascar, Brazil and Paraguay. Pierre, a Dutch-trained Haitian agronomist calls vetiver, “a miracle plant. You dig it up, cut off the roots, plant it right back and it produces again next year. It needs no irrigation or fertilizer.”

Vetiver oil is the major ingredient in some 36% of all western perfumes, Caleche, Chanel No. 5, Dioressence, Parure, Opium, to name a few.  (For a comprehensive list, click here: http://www.fragrantica.com/notes/Vetiver-2.html) It’s value lies in the fact that it blends easily with other aromatic oils and because its fixative properties promote lasting fragrance. In the words of Dr. Chandra Shekhar Gupta, Senior Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resourses in New Delhi, vertiver possess, “aromatic verdancy, fragrant rootiness, subtle, refreshing citrusiness, enjoyable earthiness, a wonderful hint of woodiness, and a certain Guerlainesque leathery-ambery darkness in the drydown.”

In addition to its direct perfumery applications, vetiver oil in its diluted form is extensively used in after-shave lotions, cosmetics, air fresheners and bathing products, as well as flavoring syrups, ice cream, and acting as a food preservative. It is used in cool drinks, incense sticks, and (I love this part!) for reducing pungency of chewing tobacco preparations, thereby providing a sweet note to other masticatories.  Additionally, roots have been used for making screens, mats, hand fans and baskets. In Java, screens are hung like curtains in the houses and when sprinkled water, imparting a fragrant coolness to the air.

There is no synthetic substitute available, making vertiver a crop with excellent value and staying power.  Approximately 150 pounds of vetiver roots are required to produce a scant 1 lb of oil.  The roots are cut, cleaned, delivered and sold by the farmers to distilleries which produce the oil. From there, it is transported to major distributers of essential oils who in turn, sell to the perfume industry in 55 gallon drums, (sound familiar?!) the contents of which being worth between $30,000 – $40,000 each.

Unfortunately, the vetiver farmers of Haiti don’t currently collect their fair share of that princely sum, but that is changing.  Following the 2010 earthquake, both perfumers and distillation companies became (suddenly and curiously) overcome with the desire to engage in fair trading and sustainability practices.  Schools were built, roads were excavated, wells were dug, and farming cooperatives were formed.  To date, approximately half of all Haitian vetiver producers are participating in co-ops which protect their prices, teach good conservation practices, and provide incentives for superlative crops.  As a result, the farmers’ daily earnings have increased dramatically; up almost 30% since 2010. This is an astronomical growth in earnings, but bear in mind, the average daily wage back then was $2.  In other words, there’s still a long ways to go, but the trend is both important and encouraging.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It;s Cactus

Creating a buzz: Beekeeping on the upswing in Haiti

Bring home the honey, Honey! LE3602 "Bees on a Vine" by Jean Sylvionel Brutus

Bring home the honey, Honey! LE3602 “Bees on a Vine” by Jean Sylvionel Brutus

Honey has always been in great demand in Haiti and there was a time when the island country’s needs were met by local beekeeping.  However, political upheaval, environmental degradation, and a bee blight combined for a triple whammy that nearly killed Haitian production.  Those beekeepers that continued to struggle on did not have access to information or tools which would allow them to maximize production and in fact, it is something of a miracle that they were able to harvest honey at all under the circumstances.  Most beekeepers were reduced to not using hives, but rather tending to the bees wherever they happened to build their nests. Others were managing their bees in traditional hollow log hives, harvesting the honey by smoking the bees out and then removing the honey after the bees left. Though that method is inexpensive for the beekeeper, the honey retains a smoky taste  and the farmer is unable to check brood health without damaging the comb. A sorry state of affairs no matter how you slice it.

Enter Farmer to Farmer, a program administered by Partners of the Americas and Funded by USAID.  Farmer to Farmer set out to reestablish the once thriving beekeeping industry in the country by sending successful beekeepers and agriculturists from the United States to Haiti. Their goals were simple: train young Haitians to work in the industry; help transition old hives to more modern ones; and educate beekeepers about disease, production and processing. As a result of their efforts, many Haitians are producing enough honey for their own communities with plenty of extra to sell to others. Just one year after the Farmer to Farmer program began its work, more than 1,000 beekeepers returned to raising bees and more than 300 hives were restructured. Honey production has increased from three to seven gallons per hive, generating significant income for Haitian beekeepers. In addition, beekeepers are now communicating with each another and forming beekeeping associations, recognizing the need to organize in order to increase profits and reduce costs.

The amber liquid along with other hive products like propolis hold countless health benefits, which make producing it an ideal industry for impoverished nations. It has antibacterial properties that make it an effective topical agent for wounds. It is used as a skin care product, a sweetener for foods and beverages, and as a treatment to take the sting out of sore throats. The honey business has also provided micro-enterprise opportunities for women in Haiti who use the beeswax to make candles and crafts for sale.

Meghan Oliver, a program officer of the Farmer to Farmer Beekeeping Project believes that revitalizing local enterprise is a key ingredient in eliminating the cycle of poverty in countries such as Haiti. In the case of reviving honey production, she says, “Increasing cash in the hands of poor farmers is going to empower them immeasurably. The money they earn can be spent on their most important needs, whether it’s a generator for electricity, for repairs to their home or school fees for their kids. The best thing is that THEY earn and THEY decide.”


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

No Sugar Added

SRS is helping to clean up the streets of Por-au-Prince by paying bottle collectors for plastic.

SRS is helping to clean up the streets of Port-au-Prince by paying bottle collectors for plastic.

Haiti is fascinating; an endlessly interesting place about which to research and write.  The challenge though, as in so many things, is to report with reasonable balance. Sharing good news and bad, resisting the urge to shine and sugar-coat or conversely, to paint a bleak picture in gloomy shades of black and blacker.

That having been said, the story of a company called SRS Haiti is one that can be told in balance.  SRS stands for Sustainable Recycling Solutions, the brain-child of Andrew MacCalla and Brett Williams, who got together with Mike Shinoda of the rock band Linkin Park, and Louis Blanchard, President and CEO of Haiti’s leading drinking water company to clean up the streets of Port-au-Prince under a for-profit business model of collecting plastic waste.   Their idea was to create a social business with a goal of establishing a lasting recycling industry in Haiti. They set out to provide job opportunities to Haitians and help protect the environment by cleaning up the streets. In 2012, the dream became a reality.  SRS opened for business and, in a society that depends largely on word-of-mouth communication, their collection enterprise soared immediately into the stratosphere.

But the blessing of SRS’s meteoric popularity quickly became a problem. Every person who brought in plastic needed to be paid for it, and as it became more well-known, the company simply couldn’t keep up the pay-out. Specifically, in its first month of operation, SRS received more than seven times the amount of plastic it had originally projected. After six months, SRS was completely swamped and had to shut the doors, under the very real threat of having to close down completely.

While the company was dangerously close to the edge, it didn’t fall over into the abyss.  SRS leadership put together business and marketing

This "trash truck" could become the "cash cab."

This “trash truck” could become the “cash cab.”

strategies which they presented to the Clinton Foundation in February of this year.  SRS was awarded a grant of $250,000 which has enabled the company to form partnerships and develop a market for their cleaned, sorted plastic for production of consumer goods. Since that infusion of funding, the future for the company and for Haiti, looks very promising.

According to the SRS website, collectors in Port-au-Prince have removed 4.5 million pounds of plastic from their streets.  Let’s say that the average 16 oz. plastic bottle weighs half an ounce.  (The actual weight varies from approximately .495 to .661 oz.) So some quick rough math reveals that the equivalent of 144 million 16 oz. plastic water bottles have been cleared from the streets and waterways of Port-au-Prince. Also, according to their website, SRS has paid out a little over half a million dollars to those collectors.  More quick math, that is approximately equal to 12 cents/pound. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot and in all honesty, it gives me pause, knowing that the price per pound elsewhere is MUCH higher.  That could be apples and oranges, though.  For now, let’s go with the fact that it IS payout, it IS sustainable, and it IS making a hugely positive environmental impact.

Co-founder Mike Shinoda initially was a something of a silent entity, but he has recently stepped out of the shadows to bring more visibility to the enterprise. Clothing manufacturer Eco Wear has partnered with SRS to buy plastic bottles to create a variety of consumer products, including merchandise for Linkin Park. That’s the fun and “sexy” aspect of the business.  More importantly, though somewhat less flashy, Giant Dragon has also become a major trading partner. With recycling operations in Hong Kong and the Dominican Republic, it announced that it has committed to purchasing a minimum of 4 million pounds of SRS plastic over the next year. To learn more about SRS and its operations, click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INPIIidauok

Four million pounds of plastic off the streets and out of waterways next year.  No need to sugar coat that.  That’s terrific!


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus


Listening to Jazz

Announcement of the International Jazz Festival held in Haiti last month.

Announcement of the International Jazz Festival held in Haiti last month.

Hosting what has become the largest cultural event of the year, the city of Port-au-Prince grooved to the beat of eighth annual International Jazz Festival last month.  Musicians from 12 countries arrived in Haiti to perform in both free and ticketed concerts and put on workshops for aspiring Haitian vocal and instrumental artists throughout the week-long event.  The Haitian Tourism Minister, Stephanie Villedrouin, called the Festival, “…. a golden opportunity for Haiti to welcome foreign artists on its land, who can immerse themselves in our culture, and let our special vibes inspire new melodies. Haiti is a country where the arts mingle with each other in great harmony.” (To view the scope and flavor of the Festival, click here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdsNR736DWA&autoplay=1 )

In support of the event, the United States Embassy sponsored performances by the New Orleans-based  band, “Soul Rebels,” whose eight-piece brass ensemble fuses soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop, rock and pop music. Additionally, Dr. Wesley J. Watkins, an academic from the San Francisco Bay area,

presented his theories of jazz and democracy in a series of workshops to the students of Holy Trinity Music School and Catts Pressoir.  In his

Playing jazz, maybe?  Jean Joseph Son's "Boys in the Band" RND459

Playing jazz, maybe? Jean Joseph Son’s “Boys in the Band” RND459

presentations, he used jazz music as a platform for the democratic process. Haitian students and youth were shown that active listening, cooperation, peaceful negotiation and participation are essential in the creation of both jazz music and democracy.  In his view, the two are mirror images of each other.

Maybe he’s got something there. Both jazz and democracy are inherently fluid and responsive. In each, individual contribution is integral to the workings of the whole. Trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis once observed that, “Jazz music is summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come.” Similarly, democracy works – whether in the US, or Haiti, or anywhere in the world – if we constantly evolve by listening, feeling, understanding, and challenging ourselves to become better than we are.


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Four Years Post-Quake: Signs of Progress


At the time of the 2010 earthquake, 1.4 million people were displaced and tent cities sprung up to provide temporary housing.

At the time of the 2010 earthquake, 1.4 million people were displaced and tent cities sprung up to provide temporary housing.



Rubble has been cleared and houses are being re-built, though 170,000 remain without permanent shelter.

Rubble has been cleared and houses are being re-built, though 170,000 remain without permanent shelter.






(Condensed version of an article written by Caitlin Klevorik for the Huffington Post that appeared Jan. 22, 2014 entitled, “4 Years Later:  Haiti’s Progress Not Always Visible To The Naked Eye”)

Sunday was the four year anniversary of the tragic Haiti earthquake that took the lives of hundreds of thousands, left so many more with serious injuries, and quite literally reduced much of the capitol city of Port-au-Prince to rubble. Thirty-five seconds was all it took.

So what has happened since the stories we saw four years ago of mind-boggling selflessness and unprecedented collaborations have faded? The work has continued and progress has been made, but it hasn’t always been easy to find.  It’s hard to take an impactful photograph of slowly rising GDP, but it, and other encouraging indications can and should be noted.

The Haitian government and assisting nations have jointly determined that investing in long-term development is the only way to create lasting systems that will help Haiti on a path to prosperity — and ultimately put foreign assistance organizations out of business. Today, we are seeing results of the investments the U.S. and other nations, the private sector, and NGOs have made. Here are just a few: GDP grew by 4 percent; inflation fell from 8 percent to 4.5 percent; 180 miles of new roads built; 90 percent of displaced population have returned to safer homes; 97 percent  of the more than 20 million cubic yards of rubble (enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome five times) has been cleared; seven new hospitals and 46 new health centers opened; crime is down substantially; school is now free; cholera cases cut in half; and opportunities continue to grow tourism.” (Linda interjecting here:  In fact, public education has always been free, but children need to wear uniforms and bring in supplies in order to attend.  These were requirements that parents often couldn’t afford before the earthquake and many still can’t today.  I don’t see how we can count this as progress, though Martelly’s government is currently working on assistance for poor families to overcome this obstacle.  Also, cholera cases have been cut in half, yes, but it was relief workers that brought cholera to Haiti in the first place.  So while it is true that the problem is being overcome, it is a problem that wasn’t there before. Not trying to put a damp blanket on sparking optimism, just applying a little counterpoint.)

Realistically, Haiti still has a long way to go, just as it did before the earthquake. While more than 1.3 million people have moved out of camps, 170,000 remain. The country needs to continue to work to modernize business laws to attract private sector investment. Calls for calm by the many must be heard over the calls to violence by the few. And perhaps most importantly, Haiti needs the rest of the world to stay invested. We can do that first and foremost by listening to what the Haitians themselves have to say. And then dig further. Look for articles and interviews, such as this one with the Prime Minister and this piece from the World Bank. Then, share what you’ve learned.  Stay engaged, starting right now.

Prime minister interview link: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/01/11/3865391/lamothe-haiti-rebounding-from.html

World Bank article link: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2014/01/06/after-the-reconstruction-haitians-look-forward-to-a-brighter-future


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Dreams of winning the lottery

Lottery ticket boutiques are colloquially referred to as a "banks," because they will take "investment" wagers as small as a single goude.  This "bank" is on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets.

Lottery ticket boutiques are colloquially referred to as a “banks,” because they will take “investment” wagers as small as a single goude. This “bank” is on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets.

Last month, I was in North Carolina riding in the car with my friend Laura, when we passed “her 7-11″ convenience store.  I say “her 7-11” because every Friday, without fail, she goes in and buys a lottery ticket, expectations low, but hopes high.  Striking it rich would be a good way to end the week, after all.  She pointed it out as we buzzed by and she told me, “Do you know, I have a friend that actually won a million dollars there.  He did – ONE MILLION DOLLARS!  He never goes to my 7-11, but he did that day, and he won.  I hardly think that’s fair, do you?”  She laughs, “I actually kind of feel like he won MY million dollars, though I do try to be nice about it.”

So who among us has not fantasized about winning the lottery? Wouldn’t it be great?  Think of the possibilities, even after taxes! (Laura’s friend got $600K after the State of North Carolina took its cut.)  Hope springs eternal the world over and Haitians are no different from the rest of us in their love affair with the possible.  The dream persists – without regard for likelihood – that Lady Luck will smile, a jackpot will be won and luxury, comfort, and leisure will be delivered forthwith.

In Haiti, however, the dream seems somehow more desperate.  It is estimated that Haitians spend between $1.5- 2 billion on the lottery every year, amounting to nearly one-quarter of the impoverished country’s GNP, and it is the Haitian poor that “invest” the most heavily.  Starting at 1 goude/3 cents per number, it is often the only “investment” they can afford. However, because the Haitian State does not tax pay-offs, there is no tax revenue to put into state projects, such as infrastructure and educational development.  Thus, when a Haitian player loses, he really loses.  His goude is for naught.

Each lottery ticket comes with a set of three two-digit numbers.  The idea is to choose one, two, or all three numbers correctly, with the pay-off being 50-1 for the first number, 20-1 for the second, and 10-1 for the third. Rather than approaching the lottery as a game of chance, however, Haitians employ a rather complicated strategy of dream interpretation to increase their odds of winning.  Though the success rate is dubious, the reasoning flows somewhat logically.  If the ultimate dream is to win the lottery, then one’s nightly dreams, correctly interpreted, will point the way.

In accordance with this method, elements in a dream such as a child or a chair or a feather, or whatever, all

It is estimated that there are 200,000 lottery boutiques in Port-au-Prince alone.

It is estimated that there are 200,000 lottery boutiques in Port-au-Prince alone.

correspond to a specific number.  These numeric correlations are all documented in a book – available at every single borlette (Kreyol for lottery boutique) worth its salt – known as “tchala.” So, for example, if one observes a red feather prominently in a dream, one simply looks up the number assigned to red feathers in the tchala and there it is.  The first wager thus becomes clear.

To the casual observer, this dream interpretation strategy may not seem like it would make much difference to whatever lottery gods there be. Perhaps, though winning isn’t entirely the point.  As Pooja Bhatia put it so elegantly in her April 2010 article for myAiti.com, “The borlette allows Haitians to feel as though their dreams and ideas matter.  As long as they dream, they will play.”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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