Mutual Aid Film

A Media Platform for Social & Environmental Justice

Mutual Aid Film is a creative, educational media platform for social & environmental justice through intercultural collaboration and unity.

A Brief, Personal Reflection on The Journey

This time last year I left Rochester, NY for a hamlet in rural Haiti.

I can't really articulate what it felt like to endure as a stranger in a strange land; however, when I could connect with someone on a deeper level: whether embracing the kindred spirit of an artist in Jacmel, or swapping stories with a new friend from across the world, or sitting with a Buddhist nun, or finally opening up and dancing in the main hut to a drum -- I felt more alive, more grateful for the beauty in life.

But that glowing ember of love was always in the clutches of a charred and loveless creature that taunted and threatened to consume everything that made me whole with the same chiseling fear, "You are nothing. This is out of your control. You're not good enough."

Today, as I work on the business plan for Mutual Aid Film, with the aspiration to establish it as a platform organization for future documentaries, I feel compelled to embrace that charred creature with the fear-chisel and nourish it as only love can. Not to smother it, but to let it speak so that I can listen like an old friend, and document the story that lies there as well.

The Boat to Jacmel

We walk through the dark night along dirt paths illuminated by the near-full moon. It is February and the air has cooled off to a balmy 80 degrees. My backpack is more than slightly crooked on my back, and I’ve fallen behind the group; at the last minute, someone mentioned the likelihood of the  boat  capsizing. Now ,with the laptop wrapped in two plastic bags inside the tilted, heavy backpack, I totter over to Rob.

“I don’t know if it’s wise to bring the laptop, I hear the boat might sink.” I mutter.

“The boat might sink and you’re worried about the computer? Stop spreading propaganda!” He says

“It’s not propaganda, its hearsay” I tell him.

“Yeah, well that’s worse. Anyway there’s a lot more to be concerned with if the boat sinks.”

Like what. I think. Oh…!

My instincts are generally good, but sometimes I lose perspective. I’ve been called a survivalist before, but that was during my time at Occupy Wall St. Survivalism looks a lot different in a deforested landscape in Haiti: in a place where the people speak a language you barely know, where a fire has to be built in order cook your meals. I am no mountaineer, but when it comes to survival in unknown territory, my ability to connect with others keeps me afloat. Except right now I am feeling more and more isolated, with the bitter flavors of frustration and confusion.

We reach the port where dark masses of moving bodies are collecting at the edge of the waves. Tough men lift passengers on their shoulders and carry them through the waves to a wooden boat a few hundred yards away. It will be an eight hour boat ride to Marigot. My eyes are bugging out of my head. I had no concept with which to have formed an expectation. I am sure anyone could see them reflecting the beach bonfire with fear and awe.

At the edge of the water, a man hoists me up by my ankles. Balancing me on his shoulders, he takes a step. I immediately lurch and wrap my feet around his armpits for balance. He stops moving and slaps my shin with more and more agitation until I uncoil. I stretch my legs forward and lean over his head with my arms out like a zombie to counterbalance against the oncoming waves. Halfway there the water laps up to his chest and he has to stop. I sway, feeling our fragility as a temporary statue. At the boat, two men pull me onto the deck and I try to stand, but the backpack wins. I crumble under the weight of my bearings. This is all too real.

(I'll tell you something, on the boat back to Anse A Pitre two days later, when I stepped onto the boat I did a great job. Then I took two steps and fell into a pit. From across the boat you would have seen my silhouette drop out of view in perfect slapstick.)

I couldn’t see it from the shore, but the boat is packed. I stumble over legs and bodies I can’t discern from blankets and bags.  I head toward the back where I hear someone calling my name. I set down my sack not fully understanding that I will have to lie on it all night. Somehow between me, Feli, Meredith, and James, we manage some comfort. I am not well versed in meditation, but for the sanctity of my sanity, to protect my mind  from splintering with wild fears and anxieties, I go on a psycho-nautical journey for inner-peace.

In the meantime, my legs are outstretched in a pool of other legs. It’s a raw, intense game of “footsie” as we all juggle and compete for a comfortable position. There is so much yelling in Creole, my head aches. It’s as if all sound is magnified in the open water. My white legs openly offend one particular woman. Eventually two women position my feet for me by their hips, and it’s not such a bad spot. Then, something strange takes place: my legs begin to energetically blend with all the many legs. I feel us merging into one spiritual body.

On a more physical level, my teeth are grinding to the loud booming of a man shouting nonsense for hours. I clench my mind into a vice of emergency meditation. I look up. The stars are brilliant, and I spy a shooting star just before the motor kicks on and we leave the port.

IOff the side of the boat, bioluminescent creatures glow in the water. Around three in the morning, clouds pass overhead, the waves get rocky, and rain falls hard and fast. From one side of the boat to another, people send over a massive tarp that vaguely smells of piss. I didn't realize how comfortable my situation had been until that moment.

Feli pushes my head off her lap as she heads for the edge and calls for air. When the rain does stop and the tarp is taken away, everyone erupts into song. Feli vomits behind me into a zip-lock bag. From then on my head is in my knees, and my spine cries out in agony for all the strange positions I’ve been posing all night. I focus my gaze on the moon, praying I don’t fall seasick.

Before I know it, we’ve reached the next port and people are disembarking. I know the drill by now, and when a man sets me down from his shoulders onto the beach, I smile and laugh with tremors of relief.

Looking up to the Night Sky

            We are two of maybe thirty volunteers sitting around the main hut eating dinner. The first night in Sadhana Forest Haiti, Anse-A-Pitre is a mixture of lonely isolation and deep connection for me. We are all so far removed from our lives back home, and I am just beginning to warm up to the crowd.

            I strike up a fleeting conversation with Rosie, a woman about my age from Scotland, that truncates as I look up -- all my words are lost for the stars in a shout of awe. The night sky is lit up like a field of fireflies after a rain-storm. I could see further into the depths and vastness of the cosmos than ever in my life.

            My heart leaps out to them as if to be with them. But for as clustered as the stars appear, I know they are light years from each other, from me. I watch the stars curve around the horizon and send my thoughts out into the universe, reflecting on the times my father would tuck me in at night and we’d have a benevolent battle:

            “I love you” he’d say.

            “I love you, too” I’d say.

            “I love you three”

            Then I was the variable: confused at first, then frustrated that he kept doing this every night, and then I’d play along.

            “I love you four”

            And so on…

            “I love you all the odd numbers, and there are more odd numbers than even, so there. Beat that.” He’d say like a child himself. And that’s when I learned about infinity.

            Then one night I opened up:

            “I love you all the times it goes day and night, times infinity to the infinitieth power.” I began. “I love you all the stars in the sky times infinity to the infinitieth power. I love you all the blades of grass times infinity to the infinitieth power… and that’s it! I win!” I said, even though essentially there was no contest.

            I am not three going on four years old any more, I am twenty-three going on twenty-four. Nor am I covered in warm blankets in the lush hills of southwest Pennsylvania, I am on the frontier of a "waste-land" at the edge of the sea. Yet for all the experience and insight I’ve gained in those twenty years, I wonder if I was wiser as a child. 

            I focus my gaze on the stars, all I can feel in the moment is gratitude.

Crossing In

 The road to the border is a straight shot. Closer and closer towards the fence the pavement turns dusty. There is a thin cement bridge that can barely handle two-way traffic, not-withstanding motorcycles and wheelbarrows, which carry huge bundles of clothes and items for sale on market days. The bridge connects two banks of a shallow river, whose source is in the mountains and whose mouth touches the sea.

             It is not difficult to get stamped into Haiti and out of the D.R. nor is it a challenge find a motorcycle taxi. What is challenging upon arrival is socially navigating tricksters who don’t speak your language, and are looking to squeeze your wallet dry. Since landing in Santo Domingo we’ve had to shake off at least one man who was looking for some gratuity for walking us through streets -- a service we did not require nor request. I was warned that that would be part of the experience.

            Passing quickly through this small town in Haiti for the first time, moving quickly off of paved roads and onto dirt paths, I take in its charm: some of the cement buildings and huts are colorful, there are a few murals, and everyone is outside with their families, noticing you noticing them. Children wave, grandmothers sit nearby their grandkids. The air is warm with affection, curiosity, mystery, and possibility.

            Finally being there was relieving, it cast the sense of arrival, and of staying. Yet from this place and within me was deeper sense of unease, like an open wound.

Bordering

         I wake up in Pedernales, held together by bare threads. I am both repulsed by the air-conditioning, and grateful for it.  My body doesn’t take well to the heat. I am tired in ways that more sleep won’t cure, and the sun is so brilliant outside it is impossible to sleep any more. With all that aside, we still have to cross the border and be in Sadhana Forest Haiti before it reaches 4pm.

         Our goal is to cross the border by 2pm. I have a difficult time comprehending, like my brain has shutdown from the sensory overload while still swimming in it.  So, when a young boy of about eleven years age approaches us as we're about to embark on our final errand-run before crossing the border, my mind was barely processing .

 

         The boy speaks in Spanish. I don't understand everything he says, but from what I gather, he is from Port au Prince. His parents were killed in the earthquake. His grandmother’s legs were crushed under fallen rubble – he saw many people lose their limbs. He says that his brother was without an arm, that he lost his brothers along the way, that he sleeps on the beach where the mosquitos find him.  He shows me his arm, there isn’t an inch of his body that isn’t covered in dried up mosquito bites. His eyes, lost and hurting, speak louder than his words, and I feel it from deep within.

         I listen intently, he talks quite slowly with the raw edges of emotion. With my awakening vocabulary on-call, I scramble for the right words to say to him. I ask about his hand, which is bandaged. He says he got hurt protecting a girl from a group of guys.

         I’m speechless. Rob calls my attention, “What is he saying?”… “We really don’t have time, we have to keep going.” My brain is slow and my heart is a mess. Rob reaches in his pocket and gives me some pesos to give to the boy who pushes his hand out to refuse. The boy repeats that he gets eaten by mosquitos on the beach. I ask if he’s hungry, he nods just slightly. I tell him…. I can’t tell him what I want to.

         I want to give him a bottle of bug spray, but the only bug spray we could offer him, without putting ourselves at risk, is full of D.E.E.T. and I don't feel comfortable handing off poison. I want to give him some food, and let him feel safe somewhere where he can sleep with a mattress and pillows under a roof, but I feel as helpless as he does. He stands there like gravity, he doesn’t want to be touched and he doesn’t want to be moved. He just tugs at his shirt and looks down. So I tell him it is possible, it is possible. Because that’s the only thing I know how to say in Kreole.

         As we walk on, I remember Rob saying that we will probably be seeing a lot more like this, and we’ll have to be tough because we can’t help everyone, even though we may want to.

         To be sure, I am not the most reasonable person, and sometimes I resent even my own leadership. Perhaps it is the anarchist in me. In the tropical sunshine, Rob and I sit on the roadside and share a mango, the messiest food we could have chosen. I am miserable in the heat –frustrated for not knowing how to work with the boy’s needs, nor how to communicate my compassion. What was I expecting? I’m at a loss, and caught between moral and ethical decisions that I hadn’t fully considered theoretically. So in the moment, I fester and bruise from the inside. 

 

Going

            In the summer of 2012, the idea behind Mutual Aid Film was just taking shape. A few months later, a crew of passionate individuals would meet for the first time in a small living-room to discuss our visions for this project, traveling to Haiti, and what we would do there.  Throughout the process of our growth and development, there has yet to be a more potent emotional whirl-wind for me than that of physically getting to Haiti.

 Moments blur together between rising tides of chaotic thought. I carry deep affections and seeds of doubt, both the size of my backpack, which is roughly the size of me. My backpack holds the weight of my bearings, and I struggle to even lift it without the threat of toppling over – which happens on occasion. My eyes are huge saucers of wonder and fear. My heart pulses loudly as every human emotion courses through my body in jolts and waves. My mind oscillates between profound humility and bumbling illusions-of-grandeur. Inside, I am like a storm.

            The “Seatbelt” sign flashes on and I’m gnawing on a pen. Everything feels imminent, but I keep my awareness just above the cerebral water. Then the plane takes off and Time shrinks. When we land we are thrown into foreign territory. We navigate through it all, but underneath I am swimming in a torrential inner-violence of strong winds and crashing ocean waves on some delicate shore; two elemental worlds colliding on the shore of another and everything from pebble to plant is whipping around, caught in winds and thrown rapidly in all directions

            Every landscape is moving outside of every window: subway train, airplane, taxi, bus, motorcycle – mountains, trees, oceans, fields, litter, kids playing, business suits. My heart is caught between my teeth and stomach. It rises and falls between the two in heavy beats – in sync with the tropical rhythms blaring from the Gwa-gwa Bus’s stereo on the ten-hour ride from Santo Domingo to Pedernales.

            Since touching down in Santo Domingo, we’ve made connections with patient, peaceful folk. And yet in any given moment, I am revealed to myself in ugly ways: distrusting, guarded, frustrated with my own broken Spanish…. I am challenged even in the smallest of encounters. Communication involves staring at someone’s face to read their meaning, and repeating back words that stand out –whether or not I know the definitions. By the grace of some-kind-of-God, it works well enough to get us where we need to go.

From the border-town, I anticipate our crossing into Haiti. I imagine we will discover perceptions and ways of life that will disrupt our habitual modes of thought, and challenge our own “formas de ser” (ways of being).  believe we share one world, divided by a third-world of perspective.

Cultivating Moments

I have borne witness to every sunrise since my arrival in Sadhana Forest Haiti. I have kept eye on the moon who welcomed our arrival with a rising crescent, Cheshire grin. She has continued to grow with me in her light, like a spotlight opening up her lens to the scene.

We are here: Haiti — feeling the history of the landscape and not wanting to believe it.

From the wounded landscape around me, barren and deprived, to the ever-present possibility that I too could become so changed by the influence of an exploitative economic system, so changed by the hands of greedy men. From my vulnerability, I am driven.

Here on the frontier of the bukara (wasteland) you feel how tender your skin is to the threat of cacti and hungry bugs.

Inside each of us is something… unseen, maybe neglected – something ripped of its origin. Humans, born animals, have been removed from the natural realms, taught to nest our minds between walls that travel with us, within us, for false security and protection. Even fully conscious of the internal oppression, there is much more to overcome. Within days of this new beginning, I have cried for the child I was, and in ways still am.

***

It is Wednesday January 16th and I walk to the beach to catch the dregs of sunset. I sit on the shore with Eddie, a Haitian man my age who just this hour revealed a profound sensitivity to me with trust and honesty. Synchronically, hours ago I was deep in an emotional breakdown that was much like crashing through brick wall after brick wall to reach the sunlight from a dark and haunted basement.

Are we so interconnected as this?

Then a sound--not unlike a motoconcho's wailing engine, not unlike an extended cry of a goat...I turned around searching for the source of distress.

A child runs half naked, crying loudly. His face held in Terror and he glances behind him with fear. As far as I can see, no threat is coming after him, and no person is coming to his aid either. I take my time observing before walking carefully and quickly to him just as his whole body sinks into emotional exhaustion on a rock by the orphanage gates.

We lock eyes – nothing more than immediacy between us. He lifts his arms to me; I lift him up without words.

His wailing quells the instant I feel his anguish pass through me. Eddie is there and the boy tells him in Creole that his mother is coming to beat him. He can’t go home. He wears a baggy shirt with no pants and no underwear. This is typical attire of young children here. I rock him and hum to him some impromptu tune, and put my cheek to his, collecting some of the tears.

A man from the orphanage taps my shoulder and takes the boy from my hands. I feel hollowed. A discussion breaks out between the man and Eddie. One that I understand but cannot comprehend, one in which I have no say. I want the boy to be safe. I do not know enough Creole to advocate for a young child.

The words move past me, over my head. I step away to the shore. Tears fall, many tears. My body shakes but I do not move more than that. I am consciously standing taller than I otherwise would, and I observe the picturesque scene of the sun descending into the ocean.

Taking in the paradoxes… the more I stare at the blue the more intense the colors transform.

I feel Eddy’s eyes before I feel him walk towards me. He stands off to the side, and together we are sensitive to the space and time of processing this sudden thrust of another’s crisis. I take few more deep breaths then wipe my face. We hug; I know no safer place than in the arms of a friend.

I didn't anticipate the mother would come looking for her child, that he would end up dragged by the arm through the dirt road roughly enough to suggest the snapping of bones. Or that personnel from the orphanage would surround him and his mother, that he would break free, that a woman I recognized from the day of face-painting would scoop up the child and stand by us, behind a motoconcho, holding him.

Eddy nudges me and we walk away, our roles are no longer needed here. Behind us, the woman screams and we here strange, funny noises. We look around (today it seems the whole world is changing behind our back) the mother is now thrashing horizontally in one man’s hands who carries her back the wey she came. In the fashion he gripped her arm and leg, it looked as though he just picked her up spontaneously, as she was mid-violence, and started walking. She was still so livid to get to the young boy and I don’t know why she wanted to hurt him so badly. Still I carry his pain with me, and in visceral ways, I know his fear as I cannot say: the firsthand knowledge of a cruel and unloving world.

For each of us this is certain to me: we are responsible for our future, as well as the lives and livelihoods of others. We are as much the environment as the scenery. With every tree we plant and care for, with every child we connect with through games and art we are participating in a community-driven movement to shape an alternative way of living that nourishes new and existing life. A single shared moment of compassion can alter the course of our shared histories.

Soil, Soul.

  In a moment of absolute clarity, I can say that our time is devoted to working for the earth, and working from the heart. It has not been easy work, but our collective drive in the community of volunteers has allowed growth in new dimensions. For me, I feel stirrings in the place behind my lungs and heart, and under the shoulder blades where fear and sadness reside. There is an expansion here.

In the mornings I have planted trees along the canal, we start by creating a mound of dirt with a pick axe to break up the soil, which is thin above the bedrock. For centuries this land was rich and fertile, the soil was feet above where we now stand. Now the rains pull the soil into the ocean tides. 

Soil, soul.

As I collect leaves for mulch I walk under the green glowing shade of a small banana tree, one of very few. I imagin myself as a young girl, years from now, walking under the shade of the many trees we are planting today, paving her own path and letting her mind wander freely, knowing with confidence where her next meal will come from.

  After we build the mound beds for the young saplings, we dig a mote around it, to collect water. Then, we wet the soil and transplant the seedling Mayan Nut trees, one by one. We cover the mounds and motes with mulch made of broken up, dried brown leaves from mango trees, and cover that with clothing that litters the streets. So many clothes are donated to Haiti that it has no where to go, and creates more waste. Which in its abundance works out well for us as permaculture-ists because, when placed over the mulch around young trees, the clothes protect the nourishing water from evaporating in the scorching sunlight. 

As we work I can smell the fumes of burning plastic and motoconcho exhaust. There is no educational infrastructure in impoverished places that teaches the people environmental ways of waste management. It is all too common here to taste the toxic fumes in the morning. I did not expect to find so much pollution in the country-side.

Where we live is on the edge on the boukara, which translates as "wasteland". Here, in the arid desert, is a strangely beautiful landscape of cactus and bedrock. Further out into the hills are caves that I have yet to explore. 

I have cared for small growing trees in the dirt backyards of families, sometimes where community wells are shared. I took up the well-bucket rope from Nixon and learned the meditative practice of fishing for well water, which has proven to be a meditative experience: You unravel the cord carefully until the bucket touches the floor of the water's surface. Admire the ripples. Then pull back the rope until the bucket touches one side of the well's inner-circle,  whip it forward by the cord and let it slack. mindfully watch the bucket tilt on its side, and fill with water until it sinks below the surface. It all lasts about the same time it takes for a few deep breaths. Once the bucket's submerged you yank the cord back up, raveling it in a circle around your forearm and pour the fresh well water into a bucket to give to the sapling trees nearby.

Our work here is exploratory: into the community, into nature, and into ourselves.

 

 

Hello From Haiti!

Hello from Haiti!

Rob Carr and I have been working hard on a permaculture reforestry project, and connecting with locals. Just the other day our friend, Santhonax, drove us on his motoconcho (motorcycle) to meet his family and then to the orphanage where we played with the children and spoke in depth with the facilitators. On Saturday I will be facilitating a sewing workshop for the kids, teaching them how to make wish dolls out of colorful fabric that I found at the border market on Monday (quite the experience). Yesterday during work I shoveled "terra rouge" (red earth/clay) into bags with a team of others.

The truck ride was suspension-less. And, be circumstances as they were, the clutch gave out on our second trip. We spent the rest of the hour hitting the battery's contact points with rocks (I stood aside) then pushing the truck in neutral past running speed to start it. It worked the first time, but not the second, when we were out in the field... until a bus drove by, stopped, a Spanish-speaking mechanic hopped out to have a look, and finally the bus gave the truck a kick-start by pushing it from behind. Well worth it.

The days are hot, the sun is bright, the people are awesome, and the food is good. I look forward to the days ahead.

So Much Love

Did you know that we met some great people who have gone above and beyond to help us? We now have a working card reader, vitamin B12, a safe place to sleep, and options for guides and translators in Anse a Pitre and Jacmel. We are considering visiting Port au Prince for a few days if it works out. Already we have received a great deal of interest from locals about our project. So much love!

© 2014 Mutual Aid Film