Many youth activities that once made summertime in Haiti a memorable period have been canceled, interrupted, or marred by violence
The climate of tension and violence around Port-au-Prince in particular has disrupted the vacation period so many youngsters look forward to enjoying
One bright spot, however, lies with the sports activities still taking place nationwide, albeit not at the same level of fan and sponsor support
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Ernest Casséus, of Jérèmie, remembers fondly how vacances, the summer break in Haiti, were among the best times in his life. Whether it is traveling to the countryside for horseback riding, swimming in the fresh rivers, climbing trees or participating in sports tournaments, summer meant a much-anticipated break from studying and a panoply of opportunities to unwind.
As a tradition, once the official state exams ended and the school doors shuttered, the summer season — les vacances — officially swung into full gear, with a myriad of patronal feasts, neighborhood sports championships, church-based camps, countryside retreats and music concerts, to name a few. The beaches featured festivals that drew residents, mostly young adults, from far and wide as school buddies invited one another to their unique hometowns.
“My brothers, sisters and I could not wait to go to Jérémie for summer, ” said Casséus, 67, who lived and attended school in Port-au-Prince during the 70s and 80s. “To bathe in the river, eat fruits right under the trees, to ride horses or donkeys, or [even] set up our own theatrical plays.”
And as the early days of July arrived, so did the buses along Grand-Rue in downtown Port-au-Prince to transport the urban dwellers to regional cities and rural towns for retreats. Common enough were scenes of families battling to find a good seat as bus drivers announced the last calls for treks went into the mountains, plains and beaches en dehors, as Haiti provinces are called. Morning and night, the queues stretched along the capital’s streets as eager families decamped to make new memories in their outdoorsy ancestral homes.
“There was no worry whatsoever,” Casséus, 67 added. “It’s unfortunate that generations today don’t get to experience that.”
Fear and violence disrupts summer fun
Today, the climate of fear and violence has disrupted the youth and summer activities that once brought a respite for so many Haitians. With gangs surrounding the capital and a fuel shortage that sent transportation costs skyrocketing, residents lament, the ability to enjoy the summer and to travel has been greatly reduced.
In 2021, refugee encampments sheltering displaced residents have become fixtures around the capital due to gang-led battles. A sports center in Carrefour now serves as a temporary shelter. So is another arena in the Delmas neighborhood. Absent are activities that once took place in such spaces.
At the Center Sportif Dadadou in Delmas, absent too are the 200 or so girls and boys welcomed there. Instead of the center’s usual soccer, basketball, volleyball, handball, dodgeball, checkers, arts and crafts workshops and civic courses funded by the Haitian government, this year, some public and international institutions tried to organize some of the activities.
With support from UNICEF and two national programs, the education ministry launched a vocational training program July 28.. The camp, called “Jwe pou Lavi,” Creole for Play for Life, is for children from 6 to 12 years old to participate in leisure, educational, and artistic activities.
However, only children of the area immediately around Lyceum Jean Marie Vincent in Caradeux will be able to attend.
In Pétion-Ville, a host of artistic and cultural championships in several locations where it is relatively safe. Nothing is planned for Pernier, for example, due to the high rate of violence and kidnapping in that area, said Staco Amazan, the town’s deputy mayor.
For what is available, he said, officials are pleased with the participation.
“Although we do not have much means, we do our best to allow young people to let off steam,” Amazan said.
Lights out on music and dances
In recent years, Port-au-Prince’s once vibrant nightlife has given way to darkened, eerie, often downright scary, streets once the sun sets. Devoid of nightime music clubs, and dances so integral to Haitian culture.
Instead of compound walls covered in posters advertising nighttime bals and day time festivals, such as Sumfest, and animated radio broadcasts about upcoming parties making konpa fans impatient, the sights and sounds are mainly about gangs and violence.
“There’s no lie about it, the summer period is the time when jazz bands play a lot,” Hervé “Shabba” Antenor, told The Haitian Times in a phone interview.
Antenor, a member of the now disbanded Djakout Mizik and founder of EKIP, said that no holidays will go well without performances by the likes of his band, in Haiti and abroad.
“The atmosphere provided by the jazz is essential in this kind of celebration,” Antenor added.
Dadju, a French-Cameroonian singer popular in Port-au-Prince, was among the musical highlights of the summer. His single performance attracted many people, most from the upper rungs of the social ladder.
“The tense climate, the fuel crisis and cost of living, are additional parameters for those who are already struggling. Three endpoints that kill everything,” Pascale Jaunay, an agent for several Haitian artists and a cultural promoter, said.
“We do our best to maintain the entertainment activities within this climate, theater, concerts, scenic reading,” Jaunay added. “Most of them are free, even though it’s hard for young people to get there.”
The few posters seen advertise the beach festivals this month, but many wonder how to get there. Even free or low cost events fail to draw participants many times.
Jessica Morestant, a recent high school graduate, worries about being assaulted.
“I have to think about the distance and worry about being raped,” Morestant said. “If I’m not with a group of friends, my mom panics so much.”
Summer rendez-vous kept on the football field
Despite the country’s social and political turbulence, soccer championships and other sports tournaments remain a bright spot in every part of the country. From Port-au-Prince, Delmas and Pétion-Ville in the capital to provincial cities such as Léogane, Cap-Haitien, Arcahaie and Port-de-Paix, Haitian football is going strong.
Acier Myrthil, a former football competition organizer in Port-au-Prince, said the sporting events not only showcase skillful play and great dribbling. Local championships nowadays draw large crowds with music, though there are fewer parades and dance performances during breaks and timeouts.
“It is no longer the raras who cheer on the championships, but rather the DJs who are called on to come and provide the atmosphere,” Myrthil said.
Despite fewer matches in some areas and less passion from younger fans whose interests may have shifted, fans still get excited about the fanfare and town clean-ups ahead of matches, Myrthil said.
Some see the level of support decline beyond just the number of spectators.
“In previous years, in the neighborhood, we used to find a lot of support, drinks, sneakers, jerseys for the finals,” said David Elie, 16, of Nazon. “This year, it’s very hard.”