Thursday, September 4, 2008

For Haiti’s Jobless, No Cost to Play. But Losers Pay.

Clothespins pinch Jean François’s face and arms, his penalty for losing at dominoes in Cité Soleil, a Port-au-Prince slum.


ORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — There was pain in Jean François’s eyes, real suffering, an awful look of woe.

It might have been that he had little to eat that day, or his lack of a job or any real hope of securing one. Perhaps it stemmed from the squalor in his neighborhood, a sprawling and rather depressing slum of tin-roofed houses.

Looking on, one wanted to help this desperate 29-year-old man, console him, somehow help him break out of what was clearly a deep funk.

But there was nothing to be done. It turns out that Mr. François’s life was not the immediate source of his desperation. It was his losing streak — and the dozens of clothespins clipped onto his face, arms and belly.

In marked contrast to Mr. François’s glum look, the other men crowding around a raucous domino game under way in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil neighborhood on a recent afternoon were smiling with glee. They doubled over in laughter every time they looked at Mr. François. A chorus of roars rang out each time he lost another game and more of the clips were attached to his ears, cheeks, chin, forearms and midriff.

The ears, everyone agreed, are particularly painful when clipped. Eventually, after losing and then losing some more, Mr. François could take no more. “It hurts so bad,” he said, rising from the rickety table and pulling off the clips one by one. Another player quickly moved in, nudging Mr. François aside and taking a turn. Everybody needs an escape, and in Haiti, where times are always tough and where food riots broke out across the country recently, dominoes offers just that.

“It kills time,” said Tousaint Chavane, 61, a father of seven children who was playing, and winning, on a recent afternoon. “It helps you forget.” Those who have some money to spend might go to cockfights or play the lottery, which uses the same winning numbers as the New York State Lottery just to avoid any claims of fixing.

But the beauty of dominoes is that it requires not even a single gourde, Haiti’s currency, to compete. That is not to say, however, that there is no price to pay.
Dominoes are played in two-person teams or with each player competing individually. Clothespins are merely one of many techniques Haitians employ to punish those who lose four games in a row.

Some approaches focus less on pain and more on ridicule, like forcing a losing player to wear an empty sugar sack over his head or a brightly colored oversized hat. Other losers might have powder wiped on their faces, turning their brown skin white, or be forced to wear a heavy coat so they suffer in the heat.

The particular method of suffering depends on the rules at a particular table that day, which vary widely across the country.

Losers are sometimes made to salute any person who approaches the table.

Or to drink a glass of water every time they lose a game, with no bathroom breaks.

Or to fetch any domino that another player tosses away from the table, even if it happens to land in a sewage ditch.

On any given day, the players say, anyone can end up a loser.

“You can’t really say who’s the best,” said Harry Degrave, 38, a father of six and regular at the domino tables of Cité Soleil. “One day it might be him. One day it’s that guy. Then it might be me. What we don’t like is someone who brags too much. We all want him to lose, and to suffer.”

At another game, in the Juvénat neighborhood, the players were throwing back homemade liquor, and the effects were clearly evident.

As a rather competitive match went on under a shade tree, Excellent Fontus, 67, was clowning around and talking about how good things were in the old days, before most of the young players had been born.

“You’re all playing dominoes, and when you get home you’ll still be hungry!” he taunted them.

Pulling a coin out of his pocket, he said: “Back in the day, you could buy so much with this. Now you need a bag of money, and even that doesn’t go so far.”

Everybody nodded, although the clank of the dominoes being slammed hard on the table did not let up as the old man spoke.

The clothespins in this particular match were affixed only to the losers’ forearms, a variation on the game. François Mondesir, 40, an occasional construction worker who plays dominoes during those many days that he cannot find work to do, had not won in a while.

“It makes the game fun,” he said, after he had been ousted from the table and was rubbing his sore arms. “The longer you have those things on, the more they hurt. It makes you forget all that’s bothering you.”

Over by the National Cemetery, the unemployed gravediggers and groundskeepers used a different technique to punish losing players. Metal weights — actually pieces of iron from the cemetery gate — were tied to a rope and then thrown over the loser’s shoulder. As time went on, the strain of the load was obvious.

“We don’t have any jobs,” complained Yves Beauvil, 58, a father of three who was losing that day. “If we weren’t playing dominoes, what would we do?”

As for the load on his left shoulder, Mr. Beauvil shrugged it off as a mere inconvenience. “I can handle it,” he said, prompting his fellow players to break out in smiles.

Source: NYT


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