We were setting up to play a short acoustic set outside the clinic in Camp Dadadou—-a few acoustic guitars, an acoustic bass, accordion, a couple megaphones. Jeremy had a snare drum, but we had forgone packing a tom because we thought we’d just use a bucket whenever we played acoustically. You know, street corner styles.

But we’d kind of forgotten about it until right before we were gonna play. So there was a bit of a scramble—-“Does anyone have a bucket we can borrow?” Which, weirdly, nobody in earshot did.

I spotted two red plastic wastebaskets just inside the clinic gates. One was mostly empty, so I dumped it out into the other one and brought it over. I thumped it experimentally. Sounded fine. I handed it to Jeremy. He thumped it. Sounded fine.

Louise looked over. “I wouldn’t, um, I wouldn’t use that I don’t think,” she said. Jeremy looked at the bucket. It was very clearly labeled BIOHAZARD MEDICAL WASTE.

"Oh, goddamn it," he said.

"I guess I’ll put that back," I said, and, a little hesitantly, took it from him.


But that’s why hand sanitizer is so exciting.

Shortly thereafter someone who spoke Kreyol found us a bucket. Which we broke while playing Haiti. Oh, goddamn it.


Camp Dadadou was less mental than Parc Jean Marie Vincent. Only 12,000 or so living under tarps. Only. 

The PIH clinic at Dadadou has, in addition to the militaresque tents, a medium sized wooden building made of plywood nailed to two by fours. It’s the kind of structure that in an American suburb would get you a stern letter from the town council: “No unauthorized garages, sheds, or free standing structures. Let’s keep our town beautiful!” But here in Dadadou, even a whiff of permanence gets you a little high. Maybe Haiti can rebuild. 

We were met at the clinic by Dr. Anany Prospero and Genevieve Joubert, a nurse. A few days after we got home, the husband of Marika (our violist) saw this article about Genevieve.

And it’s like, holy shit. But I didn’t realize her whole history when we met her—-she was just another member of the PIH team. But it’s like, holy shit. 

She and Dr. Prospero and Dr. Ivers showed us around the camp a bit. They took us to the latrine and shower area. Genevieve talked about how for many months after the latrines were installed, they were never emptied. People used them until they were full. And then they went to the bathroom in bags or buckets, and dumped the refuse on any of the various garbage piles around the camp. But recently an organization had started emptying the latrines regularly. She said that the quality of life was much better. To put it mildly, I imagine.

Dr. Ivers (Louise, I think I’ll start calling her at this point) pointed out the separated groups of showers—-there were ten or twelve stalls grouped in one area (the stalls were made of tarps—-but they looked clean and crisp and strung up on a real structure), and a couple hundred yards away another group of stalls. The two groups were for men and for women. Louise talked about the horrific violence against women in the camps. She talked about how, now, these separate stalls weren’t a solution. But they were a little bit of a help. It was so small and simple, to have separate bathing areas for men and women. And it barely put a dent in the problem of violence. But it increased the dignity of life a little bit. Yet all over Port-au-Prince—-in Parc Jean Marie Vincent, for example—-these small dignities, these small measures of safety and protection: they aren’t being done. I can’t communicate the heavy sense of sorrow in the air. To be in a place where separate showers for men and women felt like some miracle. In a place where the united goodwill of almost the whole planet had been at work for more than a year. 


From February 2010

From a year after the quake, January 2011

From two weeks ago


Now, our trip to Haiti was not a sad trip. I did not leave the country despairing, overcome by tales of poverty and woe. There is massive suffering, yes, and poverty. But we spent the whole trip in the company of people who were active—-people who were either helping to rebuild Haiti, or healing the sick, or creating art and music, or educating themselves. It was exciting. I feel hopeful.

But the camps in Port-au-Prince were dark, there’s no denying.

We were originally going to spend more time in Parc Jean Marie Vincent, but tensions had been high in the camp recently. Violence had increased some. And the PIH staff thought that a group of our size (on all accounts—-we’ve got a 6’5” redhead with us for crying out loud. We tend to stick out)—-they thought it was probably wiser not to tour the camp.

A brief aside: PIH is not scared of poor people living in poor conditions. They don’t travel with security. They don’t carry guns. They go into places like the camps openly and serve the people. They are a bunch of doctors, and they tend to believe (and for the most part rightly) that people aren’t stupid enough to pick a fight with the people who will save you when you get cholera. But there’s no sense in tempting fate when the fate of so many Grammy winners is in your hands. Bwa hahh ah hahhaha ah. So we didn’t see most of the camp.

We did see the PIH clinic. It’s a collection of 8 or 9 large army green tents set up on a piece of graveled land just inside the border of the park. Dr. Louise Ivers was guiding us. It was pretty “M*A*S*H style,” she said. Except, we assumed, for the hilarious antics of Hawkeye and the gang. 

Dr. Ivers is an Irish doctor who’s been working in Haiti for PIH since 2003. She’s been working in Port-au-Prince since the earthquake. Things that would make a person laugh, she laughs at. Things that would make a person furious, she gets furious about. She is amazing and lovely. But then again, as a band, we are racist for Irish people. 

The clinic was mostly empty when we were there. There was a Red Cross food disbursement going on elsewhere in the camp, so potential patients and much of the staff (many who live in the camps as well) were off waiting in line. 

Dr. Ivers pointed out the women’s health tent, and the closed tent within the women’s health tent—-facilities were minimal, but PIH wanted to provide privacy and dignity to patients. 

Out in front of the clinic were a couple of basketball courts, with kids playing on them (not basketball at the moment, but Dr. Ivers did say games occasionally went on). Across the basketball court, there were two large white tents labeled “British Red Cross”. That, Dr. Ivers said, was the school. Or rather, not the school, but a gathering place for children. Because there weren’t enough teachers to call it a school really, and it was hard to judge if the kids could be learning anything. But it was a space for children to gather during the day, a safe place, rather than wandering around aimlessly through the camp. But then again—-there was space for, what, 500 kids? From a town of 50,000?

Dr. Ivers never projected despair. She projected pride in the work the people around her were doing to help. She projected an intense determination to make life in the camps better. But that determination was colored by a full and painful consciousness of the suffering that her patients face; a sharp sorrow at the inhuman conditions that these people have to live in. That determination was intensified, too, by anger at ineffective help, from any sort of bureaucratic dithering or avoidance of the truth. 

The sense of tragedy piled upon tragedy came to me with the story of the schools in the camps. They weren’t exactly schools because of the lack of manpower and infrastructure. But additionally, there is pressure from outside sources and the government not to designate official schools in the camps. They don’t want to “incentivize” people to stay in the camps—-implying that the more permanent services that are installed, the less likely people are to leave. But people aren’t likely to leave no matter what. Because there’s nowhere to go.

Much of the international staff of PIH expressed deep frustration with the international funding situation. Emergency funding for projects in Port-au-Prince is drying up, so NGOs, unfunded, leave to go where the money is. Like a team of surgeons, partway through an emergency operation, leaving to check on other patients. The next phase of “development money” has yet to flow. Dr. Ivers described setting up with PIH in Parc Jean Marie Vincent along with the Red Cross, and being the only people providing services for essentially a whole city. After appeals for help, other organizations came and things began to get better—- logistics were improved, things began to get more organized. But now it’s back down again to just PIH and the British Red Cross.

Parc Jean Marie Vincent used to just be a sports park. A place for community basketball and soccer and the like. At the clinic, we talked briefly to the director of the—-still technically—-sports park. He was active—-visiting people, talking to his, well, the term now I guess would be constituents. Trying to find out the people in the most trouble, trying to help them. Trying to identify services that could be provided. He was a governmental officer, after all. He did have some measure of authority and responsibility. But he was really looking forward to someday just working on sports again. 


Here’s a video on Parc Jean Marie Vincent from January. Conditions are still largely the same as described:

This quote jumped out at me, from Jacky Coutier, a resident of the Parc:

For myself, I’m asking again for a proper sanitation plan. This isn’t something that can be done by a cash for work program in just 2 days. And I’d like to say Partners in Health could use a partner themselves. Partners in Health takes care of health, but health and sanitation go hand in hand.


The technical name for most of the tent cities and camps throughout Port-au-Prince is “spontaneous internally displaced person camps.” Which is a governmental mouthful, but it’s worth chewing over:

Spontaneous, because these camps formed quickly and on their own wherever there was space to put up shelter. No organization or government planned the layout of these places. No land was flattened or prepared. No space was set aside for basic services—-latrines, showers, schools, medical areas. Nobody checked the drainage; nobody planned where roads would go through. There’s no central authority.

Internally displaced just means that these aren’t foreign refugees. Now, when someone mentions a camp with 50,000 people living in it, I picture a space out on a plain somewhere on the outskirts of a city. I picture people driven from one place and waiting outside the gates of another, hoping to be let in. But that’s not the case in Port-au-Prince. These camps are all throughout the heart of the city. And the people living in the camps are Port-au-Princers. There’s no hope, however slim, of returning to some different home. This is their home. Now, there are camps on the outskirts as well, but they are largely comprised of people who were pushed out of earlier settlements because they were on private property. The only place they could find space was outside the city—-where if anything access to services and general organization is weaker. 

And “camp”. The word sounds deceptively temporary. A cynical view: if something sounds temporary, there’s less reason to make it better. Why build better infrastructure? It’s just a camp—-people will move on to real homes at some point. I suppose the other option would be “settlement.” But that’s too permanent, and sounds almost too purposeful. People are always on the move—-leaving to look for something better, returning when they don’t find it. “Tent city”? Too formal, organized. Most of these places only have names because they happen to coincide with some natural boundary. All around Parc Jean Marie Vincent are other camps that are exactly the same—they just happen to be across the street. So they have a different name. Or no name. There’s no perfect term for what these places are.

Now, I will never again use the term ”spontaneous internally displaced person camp”. Because it’s a cold, unwieldy phrase, and this isn’t a governmental report. But it’s a useful phrase, and for all it’s UN vibe, it does communicate something about these places.