By Lane Hartill
In Port au Prince, a few weeks after the earthquake, on a side street next to the collapsed presidential palace, a squat man wearing a fishing vest, a floppy hat, and a scowl, patrolled the crowd. He looked like a grandfatherly trout fisherman, who hadn’t caught anything in a while.
This was the Champ de Mars neighborhood where Haitians were known to rush humanitarian workers and throw rocks at police. But this man wasn’t afraid of going into the belly of the beast, this 60-something Frenchman with a curious British accent and a slight hitch in his walk.
But if you knew Jacques Montouroy, you’d know this was par for the course.
Jacques had cast-iron nerves. And in 41 years with CRS, he’d seen things that most humanitarian workers who sit in offices will never know.
With the help of the US military in Haiti, he blocked off the side streets; nobody got in if they didn’t have a CRS ticket. He told trucks precisely where to deposit the aid kits. He showed people how to file in and out. In this explosive neighborhood where no humanitarian group wanted to work, Jacques had Haitians lined up, like kids ready for recess, as calm as lambs.
You could learn a lot by watching Jacques. And I did..
I was, to be honest with you, kind of in awe of the man.
This guy, whose life I hold up as the gold standard of humanitarianism, died yesterday.
And those who knew him, which was most people in Sierra Leone, are mourning.
* * *
“Jacques wasn’t the dying kind,” a friend of his told me. “He was,” he said, “Ram Tough.”
I liked Jacques. I liked how he lived his life, the old-school approach, the take-no-guff attitude. I loved the fact he was a little raw, a little rough around the edges.
Jacques kept his cards close to his chest. But he’d occasionally lower them and let people see into his life. He told me that, in his salad days, he could run the 100 meter dash in 11 seconds flat. And during those savage days in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, he’d pass many of the country’s worst rebel commanders in the street. He’d coached them and their sons years before. “Jacques,” they’d say when they passed him, “How da bodi?” and Jacques would smile and wave and wonder how many bad deeds they’d done that day.
Jacques’s life was a best seller waiting to happen. But he would hear nothing of it.
He hated publicity, but he probably deserved more than anyone I’ve ever met. He didn’t like having his picture taken. And if he sensed even a sliver of limelight, he shuffled to the corner, hoping that it found someone else. Jacques also had no patience for bureaucracy. And when it gummed up his work, out came that sneer.
“There are thinkers and then there are doers,” he told me once. “The thinkers get in the way of the doers.”
Doers are the people who sit on stools with villagers and eat local rice and ask how the kids are doing in school. They can tell you about the place where, during the war, 7,000 people who hadn’t eaten in days poured out of the forest, ravished with hunger. They’ll explain how they sat them down in rows and handed each one a poker chip which they redeemed for food.
Jacques, it was safe to say, was a doer.
Over the course of four decades working with CRS, Jacques helped hundreds of thousands of people. The people he influenced most were young men.
Jacques was never married, but he had several hundred boys. They were soccer players. From Angola to Mauritania, he coached hundreds of them. They were the boys most other coaches ignored until they were old enough to show talent and make money.
He called them “his boys” and they called him “Papa Jacques”. In the slums of Freetown, where many parents are barely-there, Papa Jacques was a constant, someone who cared about them.
“He encourages us,” one boy on his under-12 team told me. “He helps us.” And that help extended beyond the field. He told the boys to stay away from drugs and sex, the two things that could ruin the career of any young man.
Some of these boys sold bread and fish to help their parents. None of them had running water, a shower or a toilet. Jacques would make trips to Murray Town, a neighborhood of Freetown, and he’d sit in humid shacks and tell fathers and mothers to be careful about the agents coming from Europe who were trying to sign their sons to contracts. They trusted Jacques, because they knew him; he’d been living in Sierra Leone for more than 12 years. Stop any taxi driver in Freetown and ask them if they know Papa Jacques.
I guarantee you they will.
Jacques was such a good soccer coach, there were whispers that he should coach the Leone Stars, the national soccer team. But he was committed to his boys.
Jacques bought them shoes and flew them to tournaments and taught them how to move the ball up the side of the field. His teams routinely beat teams of older and more experienced boys. Unlike most people, he devoted himself to his boys.
* * *
If you were lucky, Jacques would scatter the gold coins of his life throughout conversations. He told me why Angola’s UNITA rebels never attacked his trucks; or the time the French President Francois Mitterand sent someone looking for him in Liberia; then there was the bald-faced lie he told soldiers in Haiti so they wouldn’t execute Haitians; or the time he defended the CRS warehouse in Port au Prince from an angry mob.
Maybe that’s why I liked Jacques so much. He spoke his mind. He didn’t care who you were. He was also a private man, who wasn’t interested in plumping about his life or Facebooking his adventures. He had his heart in the right place. He knew sports could help people just as much as any humanitarian project.
But above all, he loved CRS.
In the months before his death, he was contemplating retirement or moving to another agency. He wanted to stay in Sierra Leone and continue to coach. But, he said, he wanted to go out, “without much fanfare”. But leaving he said, would “break my heart.”
“He was a truly selfless humanitarian,” said a friend who knew him well. “He not only was giving his life for others in conflict situations, but he never spent anything on himself.” Following his death, when CRS staff went to his house, it was almost empty. Just his beloved cats and turtles.
You weren’t supposed to go yet, Jacques. I was going to come back to Sierra Leone. I was going to write stories and you were going to drop by my desk and we’d eat Skittles together, like last time. We were going to leave work early and go to soccer practice together. You promised me you were going to show me the 10 year-old phenom you’d discovered. I was going to tell you about the wheelchair basketball team I help coach. I was going to tell you how you’d inspired me.
Wherever you are, Jacques, I hope there’s some cassava leaf stew nearby.
And a football pitch with plenty of boys to coach.
I have no doubt that those boys, like everyone else, will come to love Papa Jacques.
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