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Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Joyride Of Doing Good–The Romance Of Nasty Places

Cite de Joie was a rotten, pestilential slum in Port-au-Prince, one of the worst slums in Haiti, and its misery, abject poverty, trash, and incivility matched the worst of Africa.  Bill Thornton was on assignment there, contracted by a major foundation to improve the area’s health services, a misnomer because there were no health services at all; but because of the good will and generous financing of the sponsoring agency, Bill would design a project which would at least appear to make inroads into the abysmal rates of mortality and morbidity there.

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Bill had been to Haiti before and knew what to expect.  The Minister of Health was a delightful woman from Kenscoff where her father had been a successful businessman with real estate in Miami, investments in Paris, and a lucrative avocation in the trans-Caribbean drug trade.  Her father’s generous contributions to Jean-Claude Duvalier, Papa Doc’s son and faithful executor of his last will and testament and heir to the wealth of the shining Pearl of the Antilles were enough to assure her appointment; and the President knew that with the promise of continued American goodwill, an alluring beauty as Minister would guarantee millions in foreign aid.

Bill Thornton was in Haiti to design a plan for the generous grant promised by the  Hartfield Foundation.  According to government directives, infrastructure was particularly needed in Cite de Joie, and the Minister had already drawn up plans for a hospital complex there.  “It will be state of the art”, the Minister told him, “a jewel in the crown, a model for the Caribbean”.

Thornton knew from prior experience that Cite de Joie would never see a shovel-full of earth turned, and the grant monies would be gone within two years.  A good consultant, on call to serve both his American and Haitian masters, Bill looked carefully at the plans and suggested that during the construction period, the Minister might consider some mobile clinics, vaccination centers, and the distribution of preventive medicines.

“Indeed”, replied the Minister, but additional funds would be required, and if the consultant would be so kind as to prepare the paperwork, she would be happy to submit the request to his foundation.

Little Paris, the pearl of the Antilles - Atawane

Thornton knew that the foundation would willingly and happily fund the pre-project activities.  These investments in ‘human capital’ were exactly what the board was looking for – immediate solutions for the miserably affected; and within a month, the check had been cut and delivered to Dr. Jean-Pierre. 

Thornton knew that these funds, like the far more substantial monies set aside for infrastructure, would disappear within months.  The Hartfield Foundation, like its sister organizations, believed in development, a slow but important process of improving the delivery of social services to the poor in benighted countries like Haiti.  The foundation knew that this would take time and patience, and inefficiencies would occur; but once these supply issues were identified and remedies found for them, additional funds would be justified.  These too would be misspent or disappear, new requests would be prepared and submitted, new grants approved, and the cycle would continue. 

The Minister of Health had become a whiz at devising development shell games – masterful schemes that admitted mistakes, developed creative ways to rectify them, and drew up plans and budgets for implementation.  

There was of course nothing behind the plans and schemes, but it was never hard to fool a donor organization that wanted to give away money more than corrupt governments wanted to receive it – and that was saying something.

So Thornton and the Minister took a field trip to Cite de Joie.  “There”, the Minister said in a virtual reprise of The Comedians and pointing to a rubble- and trash-filled lot next to a nail salon and a store-front church, “is where we will break ground for the new Duvalier Health Complex”.

Thornton smiled, and thanked the Minister for her time and interest.  He took her marvelously well-tailored lies and deceptions in stride.  After all, he had seen far worse in Africa.  There where race-sensitive Americans had something to prove – improving the homeland of African Americans and showing the dedication and propriety of African leaders – money was no object, accountability an unnecessary codicil, and supervision unnecessary.  

In each country, Bill performed well, did his job, was dutiful in presenting his sponsors’ wishes and preliminary project designs, and was attentive to the needs and wishes of government.

Idi Amin (1925-2003) •

He put in enough oversight in the proposals to satisfy donor auditors and more than enough participatory engagement to please the young women all in for American-style community organization. It was a participatory, inclusive era of development when particular attention was paid to the expressed needs of the community.  Even if the project had inherent flaws and diversion of funds was a certainty, no donor should ever apply top-down, siloed, stovepipe approaches.

So community participation featured in the project and scads of numbers, targets, and projected outcomes to satisfy strategic planners were included as annexes.  

As his plane took off from one blighted airport after another, he was pleased.  He would be asked back. It mattered not that his five-star home office evaluation was part of the shell game.  That was for his handlers to sort out.

Now, why, one might ask, would he want to return to such penitential places?  Because they were wonderful places to be – five star hotels, French cuisine, and best of all a free-and-easy crowd who had left wives, husbands, children, and domestic responsibilities thousands of miles behind.  The bars at the Amitié, the Grand, the Royale, and the Oriental were the places to be; the watering holes of expatriates and short-termers and the best and the brightest of the African upper classes.  

In the heady atmosphere of African intrigue, adventure, danger, and possibility, life in the Washington suburbs was tame, irrelevant, and forgotten.  Best of all, liaisons in foreign places were, like consultant assignments, temporary.  No one would come knocking after an African affair.

No love affair is incidental, and an affair in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service. The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”,  Paul Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

Bill and his Canadian lover had been brought together by Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in his balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.  If it hadn’t been for Haiti itself. 

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

HOTEL OLOFFSON $95 ($̶1̶0̶0̶) - Prices & Reviews - Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Foreign travel is a welcome release from family, mores, and responsibility.  For the traveler on the plane to Niamey, wife, children, church, and community quickly fade and disappear.  It is not that Niger – or Chad, Burkina, or Nigeria – have any real promise.  All are developing, poorly-governed, and inchoate; but for the foreign traveler they represent chance, opportunity, and romance.  

Insecurity, disease, heat, dust, and bad food mean little in the context of romance – not necessarily a sexual romance, but a storybook one.  Temples, sacred rivers, holy shrines, seedy hotels, surprising friendships are all part of the particular exoticism of foreign places.  If actual romance and sexual intimacy are part of the algorithm, so much the better.  Not expected, always hoped for, and prized better than any if found.

Of course he went back.

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