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 bum rush humanitarian workers and throw rocks at police. But this man wasn’t afraid of going into the belly of the beast, which was a little strange given that he was a 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: He could sense when a crowd was about to turn on him. And he took the proper precautions.
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; they were as calm as lambs.
You could learn a lot by watching Jacques. And I did. In just a few weeks observing him, I learned more than most people do in two-year, Ivy League Master’s programs.
I was, to be honest with you, kind of in awe of the man.
This guy, whose life I held up as the gold standard of humanitarianism, died last week.
And those who knew him, which was most of Sierra Leone, are mourning.
* * *
“Jacques wasn’t the dying kind,” one of his friends told me. “He was,” he said, “Ram Tough.”
Jacques had sipped tea in a gun battle in Somalia, as bullets cracked by his head. In Haiti, years earlier when the country was in the throes of violent conflict, he picked up bodies on the street because, he said, nobody else would do it. In Liberia’s worst years, a hopped-up rebel leader looking for publicity had pointed an AK-47 between his eyebrows and asked him why he’d stole his rice. Jacques was calm. The rebel decided against shooting him.
But it was in Sierra Leone, the country he loved, where he was really tested. During the bloodiest days of the war in Sierra Leone, when all the other expats left, Jacques stayed in Freetown. But he couldn’t stomach the fact innocent men were being handcuffed and thrown off Aberdeen Bridge. So in his attic, he hid four young men who were in danger. For weeks, they stayed inside. They lived on 30 pounds of beef a neighbor had asked Jacques to store in his freezer. Those boys never forgot how Jacques saved their lives.
Frustrated with the poor coverage of the conflict, Jacques called the BBC and told them they were getting the story all wrong. They were shocked to hear a civilian expatriate was still in Freetown. Jacques set them straight on what was happening.
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 rogue, a little rough around the edges.
But he also had a softer, more refined side. Known for his flip flops and slouchy African print shirts, he once showed up to a French Embassy function in a black suit, his mad-scientist hair slicked back, with a pretty Swiss woman on his arm. They sipped gin and tonics on the terrace. He looked like a debonair movie star from the 1960s.
Jacques kept his cards close to his chest. But he’d occasionally lower them and let people see into his life. Jacques told me touching stories about his mom. He told me about his youth, when he could run the 100 meter dash in 11 seconds flat. And during those savage days in Freetown during the war, he’d pass many of Sierra Leone’s worst human rights offenders 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 bestseller 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 and he would get into his car, muttering under his breath, and head “up-country” where he was happy as a clam eating cassava leaf stew and visiting old friends.
On Sunday’s, if you were at the right beach and happened to see a solitary swinging a fishing rod, casting the line toward the horizon, that was Jacques. This was how he spent his free time: alone, trying to hook a big one.
* * *
“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 in Sierra Leone, 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 that they redeemed for food.
Jacques, it is safe to say, was a doer.
Over the course of four decades working with CRS, Jacques helped hundreds of thousands of people. But the people he influenced the most, had nothing to do with CRS.
Jacques was never married, but he had several hundred of boys. They were football 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 earn them money.
He called them “his boys” and they called him “Papa Jacques”. He changed their lives more than any humanitarian project could. In the slums of Freetown, where 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 pitch. 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 son’s 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 football coach, there were whispers that he should coach the Leone Stars, the national football 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 pitch. His teams routinely beat teams of older and more experienced boys. Unlike the rest of the country, he gave them the time of day.
A typical day for Jacques went something like this: He arrived at the office at 6:00 a.m. He worked in a cramped ground floor in the CRS building. Like a caged bird, Jacques never taken to confined spaces. But he much preferred the unpretentious surrounding of dog-eared files and stained tiles than a corner office over-looking Freetown. He was most happy when he was at the port, overseeing a shipment of food being offloaded into a warehouse. Or when he was futzing around the office, checking in on his colleagues; he knew everyone’s interests, and made sure to chat about them.
At lunch, even though Jacques wasn’t hurting for money, he preferred to eat oily noodles and greasy chicken prepared by a woman who hauled it into the office in a bucket. (But you can take the Frenchman out of France, but the gourmand never leaves: Jacques smuggled saucisson into Haiti and we enjoyed it together after long days in the field.)
By 3:00 pm, when Jacques arrived at the football pitch, he was a new man. That caged bird had been released. He joked with his players in that pinched British accent, which he acquired after working abroad for so many years. The boys responded in pigeon English, which Jacques understood. He roamed around the pitch aimlessly—tossing out random bits of advice, shouting out pointer—while telling you in intricate details about the life of each player.
Jacques was finally in his element.
* * *
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; the bald faced lie he told soldiers in Haiti so they wouldn't execute Haitians; the time he defended the CRS warehouse in Port au Prince from an angry mob.
He's been reprimanded before for his outspoken manner. In Haiti, during a tense moment during the conflict, a CRS staffer thought Jacques's approach was dangerous. "Don't say that Jacques; they'll shoot you," she said. "I don't care," Jacques snapped. "I'll say what I want."
Maybe that’s why I liked Jacques so much. He spoke his mind. He didn’t care who you were. He was 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.”
Following his death, when CRS staff went to his house, it was nearly empty. Just his beloved cats and turtles. “He was a truly selfless humanitarian,” said a friend who knew him well. “He not only gave his life for others in conflict situations, but he never spent anything on himself.”
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 candy together, like last time. We were going to leave work early and go to football 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 boys to coach.
I have no doubt that those boys, like everyone else, will come to love Papa Jacques.
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© Copyright by Awareness Times
Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.