Haiti

Beautiful Voice Rises Over Haiti Camp Squalor

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By Lane Hartill

Inside a hovel made from rosebud bedsheets and curling pharmaceutical boxes, Exeline Belcombe, one of Haiti’s best singers, is having a problem:  Christline, her 4-month-old, is squirming.

That means it’s time for Liberer.

Haiti singer

Exeline Belcombe cares for her 4-month-old daughter, Christline. Exeline, an aspiring singer, now lives in a makeshift shelter with 12 members of her family at the Petionville Club golf course. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Exeline smiles, clears her throat, pauses, and out comes a voice that will send a serious case of the tingles straight down your back.

You protected my salvation;

With your grand sacrifice;

Oh, Jesus, what wonderful love

The tent falls silent. When Exeline (pronounced ESS-leen) sings, people listen.

Liberer (free me) is her go-to song, the one that soothes everyone at night, the one that takes their minds off the unemployment, lack of diapers and flattened house.

Escio Belcombe, Exeline’s father, and Richard, her brother, listen to Exeline from outside the tent. They take turns guarding their shelter at night. Exeline says two of the biggest problems here in the displaced persons camp are bandits and people relieving themselves in the shadows of their tent. Not enough latrines have been built yet. So when they see someone in the shadows of the tent looking to answer nature’s call, they throw rocks at them.


– Voice of Exeline Belcombe

***

Haiti camp

Exeline Belcombe’s family’s house was completely destroyed in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince on January 12. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Pre-quake, Exeline was a woman on the rise, studying vocals under a well-known French director, a finalist on Haiti’s version of American Idol. Some people in the camp still recognize her.  Now she spends her days in the dust and heat, thinking about how to get her life back on track.

The Petionville golf course, on which Exeline now sleeps, was once frequented by Haiti’s upper crust and newly arrived expatriates. Wednesday night was happy hour, and you could sip a rum sour, listen to Top 40 music and look out over the nine-hole course. Now the fairways flutter with the sheets of make-shift shelters. It looks like a few football fields covered in drying laundry.  A market has sprung up where you can buy grilled hot dogs and laundry detergent. Nobody knows how many Haitians are there. Some say close to 50,000 during the day, and at night, closer to 100,000.

***

Exeline came to the golf course two days after the earthquake. The US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division arrived two days later. When they started handing out ready-to-eat meals and water, the numbers in the camp started to explode.

Haiti camp

Makeshift tents fill a section of the golf course at the Petionville Club in Port-au-Prince. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

Thank goodness, only Exeline and Christline were at home when the quake hit. She was washing clothes when things started to shake.

“I thought it was a truck going by,” she says. “But then realized it was an earthquake.”

She grabbed Christline and ran into the street and watched the family house collapse.

“I yelled, Jesus! Then I tried to call Mom,” Exeline says. “But I couldn’t reach her. Then I got through to her, thank God!”

“I’m still afraid,” she says, referring to the aftershocks and living in a cinderblock house, as many people here do.

Now she says she kills time staring at her family members in a shelter her brother Richard calls a big joke.

***

Pull back the curtain on Exeline’s shelter, and it reveals the life of many post-earthquake Haitians: Exeline’s 5-year-old niece, Made Michelange, plays with Exeline’s compact, smirking into the mirror, pretending to smear foundation on her cheeks.

The sheets that form the front door blow up when the wind kicks up and dust blows in, along with aluminum foil and a plastic bag.

“This is not a normal life,” says Exeline. “There are mosquitoes, dust, flies are everywhere.”

In the corner of the tent, Exeline’s mother, Pierrilia is wearing a faded housecoat and bouncing Christline. She’s leaning on a bank of suitcases that are overflowing with clothes.

Pierrilia is also the cook. She was one of more than 30,000 Haitians at the golf course who received a two week ration of food from CRS. The next morning, Exeline had already polished off  two bowls of bulgur wheat. It’s a decidedly un-diva-esque meal, but that’s all they have.

***

Exeline will tell you she owes her success to Pierrilia. She used to be a madamsara, the Creole term for a trader who goes to the countryside and buys food cheap and sells it in Port-au-Prince for a profit. After selling all day, Pierrilia would sit on the edge of Exeline’s bed and sing her the hymns she learned on Sunday at House of Refuge Church. They practiced one stanza a night, until Exeline got the song. Then the next day, Exeline practiced them under her breath all day.

She was hooked on the hymns. She soon moved onto pop music, artists like Celine Dion and the Haitian/Canadian Maggi Blanchard. That led to school competitions, a Miss Haiti contest and gigs at funerals and marriages.

Word got out. Exeline Belcombe could sing. Really sing.

***

In the days after the quake, Exeline took money she earned from selling water on the street from an ice chest and paid men to dig items out of her house: a suitcase with Christline’s clothes in it, her passport, and some of her personal items.

Today she’s laying on the carpet in the shelter, thumbing through a bunch of recovered business cards, a stack as thick as a good sandwich. There are cards from production companies and artists. It’s her former life, one she misses. Exeline says she’s a mom now, and things are different.

“This was my life before,” Exeline says, coming across a picture of herself in the stack of business cards.  “I used to always be on the move.” In the picture she has long soft hair, her wrists are heavy with faux gold bracelets and she wears a shy smile glistening with lip gloss.

She talks about singing back up to Wil-N-G at the refined La Reserve Hotel. And the Star Academy, where she was an adviser. She says she helped set up the school for aspiring actors and poets, a place where talent scouts could find the next star.

But she was also a top student, at the top of her class for years—the laureate, as they say in French. She wrote a dramatic monologue denouncing violence against women and won a partial scholarship to the university. She studied accounting for three months, but when the money ran out, so did her college career.

***

She hands me her business card decorated with doves and a Santa Claus.  It was her business card for her catering service. She would go into people’s kitchens and make her signature dish: rice and lalo, a green leaf used in Haitian cooking.

“When people ate the food I cooked, they thanked, me,” she says. “Now, there are no more thank yous.”

“You have to do this in Haiti,” she says, you have to have your hands in a lot of things. You never know what will pan out.

But she had her sights on music, not cooking. That hasn’t changed.

One day, she hopes, she’ll get out of this tent, back on the stage, in front of the mic.

But she’s not sure how she’s going to do it.

Until then, her talent stays hidden behind the rose bed sheets. Only at night when the camp is dark and the only sounds are the distant choppers and Christline’s cries, does she reveal those golden vocal cords.

Those hymns start to flow, her voice shot through with genuine emotion.

And her audience, the 12 people packed in her shelter and eavesdropping neighbors within earshot, forget for a minute the lives they are trapped in.

Lane Hartill is CRS regional information officer for central and western Africa, reporting from Haiti

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One Response to “Beautiful Voice Rises Over Haiti Camp Squalor”

  1. Vicky Pennacchia Says:

    Enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

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