Haiti, in retrospect

I lived in Haiti for some months after college. And now, years later, this earthquake strikes, and I see all the familiar places again in the news, but now devastated, strewn with bodies and swarming with the grieving and newly homeless. So I thought I would write down a few random thoughts in an attempt to give those of you who haven’t been to Haiti a kind of feel for it, or at least a feel for my own memories as they intersect with current events. I figure if you feel connected, even imperfectly, you’ll be more inclined to donate to the relief effort – which is why I’ve pasted links of good ways to give. (If you decide to give, please also consider making a long-term commitment to the organization, as it is difficult for organizations to operate effectively in crisis-based feast-and-famine funding cycles.

I went to Haiti knowing almost nothing about the place. I had been a philosophy major and a francophone literature minor. I was interested in foundational ideas, epistemology, thought histories, concepts of societal progress – topics, in short, that would cause Lotus to claw her own eyeballs out in aggravation and boredom. I had read Aimé Césaire, Jean Anouilh, Joseph Zobel, Franz Fanon, Jacques Roumain. I was fascinated with the forging of post-colonial identity, but had a distaste for – or perhaps was willfully ignorant of – politics and had an aversion to economics (a field I would come, tentatively, to embrace). I had no appreciable skills aside from French – a language that wasn’t really spoken there. Like I said, I knew nothing.

From the plane, my eyes wandered over the crumbled landscape below: up steep, terraced mountainsides; across trickling green washes; down the muddy Artibonite River pumping like an artery; and along the red estuarine branches reaching, dendritic, into the shallows of the Caribbean. Red and blue. Like the colors of the flag. A line of lush forest clearly demarcated the Dominican frontier. The Haitian side was stripped bare as a skinned animal, and bony outcroppings of rock protruded from the soil like exposed ribs. I thought: it is bled only slowly, to be kept barely alive, a semi-coagulated slurry of hemoglobin-red silt dribbling from a thousand shallow wounds.

Haiti was rough. It challenged me in ways I could not have predicted. For one, the daily realities there – and especially in Port-au-Prince – seemed to make philosophy an effete and useless pastime. Haiti seemed not to tolerate theory with no immediately practical and material applications. When a gunfight erupts out of nowhere, you either save yourself instinctively or you don’t; no time for meditation on ethical dilemmas. When you see an angry mob brutally kill a would-be robber, you either watch or choose not to – but you certainly don’t intervene in some foolhardy attempt to impose morality.

The landscape was stunning and the people were unbelievably friendly and welcoming toward me. But the place was also dangerous. Random gunfights, bombings, riots, political assassinations, urban warfare between drug gangs and UN peacekeepers… In retrospect, I think that I felt less personally secure in Haiti on a daily basis than I have in almost any other place. And that’s coming from someone who has since – and not coincidentally – gone on to study economic development in conflict-affected and post-war countries.

A friend told me there that “Life is cheap in Haiti,” and I knew what he meant. It’s not that people don’t value their lives or those of their family or other people – quite the contrary. It’s that there is an inescapable stochasticity to it all: there’s some unknown probability that you’ll find yourself killed one day. Of course, that’s life everywhere, but in Haiti, that probability is higher, and the circumstances under which the probability is highest are themselves somewhat unpredictable. That gets to be stressful and takes a toll on you. Take the 16-year-old Lebanese kid, Tony, who lived upstairs from me in the same apartment building. He came to Haiti to be near his big brother a little while before I arrived, and got a job at his brother’s grocery store as a checkout cashier. It was a place with security guards, catering to rich, mostly foreign customers, in the richest enclave in the country. A few months later, a gang came in, took all the money in the tills, and took Tony hostage in case the police caught up with them – which they did. In the ensuing gunfight, all the gang members managed to escape, but Tony was somehow shot and killed. His father arrived from Lebanon to get justice for his boy, since the police story was obviously fishy, but after three months of frustration and official obfuscation, he devolved into a chronically depressed, whoring, alcoholic and disheveled wreck.

And then there is the geographical proximity. You can be in Haiti in 90 minutes from Miami. No 22-hour, multi-leg trip via some European hub to a war-torn West African nation. It’s right there. I could, I think, legitimately bring up this point in an attempt to dispel the myth of the “Third World” as being unrelated to the existence of a developed “First World”. Or perhaps as some sort of moral goad, questioning such plenty persisting alongside deprivation. But that’s not the point. The point is much more personal than that. It’s about the emotional capacity of any one person to hold those extremes in their consciousness at one time. The point is that when I finally left Haiti, 20 pounds lighter than when I arrived, I still had the smell of burning trash in my nose, the sounds of musical Creole popping in my ears, the crackling edge of street awareness in my nerves. I stepped off the plane in Miami to the sight of a sleek, muzak-infused modern terminal populated by just a few, calm people sipping coffee and flipping through magazines. I sat down and just breathed for a while, staring at the row of croissant sandwiches in an Au Bon Pain across the corridor. I won’t say I cried exactly, but for a few minutes, my eyes watered. Then I got up, and made my way to my connection.

Haitians have a particular and stoic attitude in the face of mortal stochasticity. It was a common belief among African slaves being transported to the New World that those who died – and whose bodies were thrown overboard – would ride an ocean current back to Africa and there be reunited with their ancestors. I heard more than once in Haiti the description of the island as one giant slave ship that never quite reached the New World, anchoring just off shore in the Caribbean – and those who die onboard still go back to Africa, home of the original, paternal Vaudoun gods, the Rada, and so leave behind the angry, unpredictable New World gods, the Petwo. The following is an embellished version of one of those stories I heard from a Haitian, which I wrote down years afterward.

My grandmother was a mambo; she had powerful vaudoun. When her ti-bon-ange, her little angel, ceded its post to another, her eyeballs smoldered and flashed in her skull like charcoal in strong wind. Red-eyed (jé-wouj) Erzulie whipped flesh, as one might whip egg whites, into frothy magma, mixed blood with lust, bile with remorse, saliva with acquisitiveness. At these moments, the human heart cannot be contained in the chest and spills its contents upon the ground, where drums pump it coursing through dusty delirium. She lived 175 years and then one night waded into the sea. There, Agwe welcomed her as a loa, wrapped her in his streaming mantle, doused her coal-fire eyes with brine, and cleansed her of her Petwo anger. Her hair flowed about her like sea grasses.`

In a great irony, my own island-dwelling people can no more swim than breathe underwater. In death, however, my grandmother faced the open ocean alone after long generations of estrangement from it. Just as we must all pass alone through the crossroads of death, whose gatekeeper is Legba, keeper of the Po-Mitan, after lives shared in community. It is well-known that on the surface of the ocean, a current runs like a perennial river from the coasts of slaves, gold, ivory, grain to the New World. It regurgitates its silty sediment of lives and ships and religions in the alluvial fan of the Caribbean. What is less well known—but equally true—is that this river sinks as it nears our archipelago, plummeting slow, dark fathoms before, almost imperceptibly at first, it begins to gather momentum eastward. By the time this corollary deep-water river reaches open ocean, it’s swelled to a roiling, undeniable force, carrying bones and souls back to the continent. In this river, my grandmother drifted—piecemeal or head-over-heals, who knows? The darkness there is nearly absolute, with just a few shards of shattered moonlight tinkling as they filter down. I imagine, though, that after a shapeless while, the daylight grew steadily to a diffuse, palm-wine-hued effervescence, and she felt, through a sense known only to those who have crossed the doorways Legba guards, the soothing rush and vastness of the land of the eternal Rada.

The beneficent Rada are the elders; they have already seen it all. They have no use for the raging power of the revolutionary Petwo gods that can wrack a man possessed, literally break his bones, lacerate his body, pulverize his flesh. Theirs is an incontestable force, a rumbling of the earth, an elephant stampede, the thundering of Congo Savanne.

In the wake of the earthquake, Senegal’s president offered land to Haitians who want to come “home” to West Africa – an act that takes on ironic overtones in light of the repatriation myth. As though the whole country were already dead and will now be brought back on ocean currents to the land of the ancestors. Needless to say, I have some serious mixed feelings about this proposition.

I’ve been to a lot of poor countries since my stint in Haiti, many of which were considered worse-off. I’ve never yet been back to Haiti, though I think of it often and would not be the person I am today, personally or professionally, without it. Nor would any of us, by the way. Haiti’s revolution ushered in the modern age in some ways. It was the first and only successful slave rebellion – a strong statement in fact and not just in theory of the equality of all. Again, Haiti’s intolerance for insubstantial, unconnected theory shines through, putting the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen into practice.

I still have the feeling that I’ll return to Haiti someday. In the meantime, here are some links to *good* relief efforts there.www.pih.org/homehttp://www.grassrootsonline.org/news/press-releases/grassroots-international-establishes-earthquake-emergency-relief-fund-haiti

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