It’s probably not the first time it’s been said, but it’s the first thing you need to know: Haiti will either steal or break your heart. Or both. If it steals your heart, you may find yourself trying to figure out ways to get back to find it again. You’ll keep remembering moments of magic among the madness, beauty amidst the squalor, and smiles in spite of great sadness; and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams. If it breaks your heart, you will either return home and try to forget about the whole thing, hoping that eventually you can go about your life like everything is still the same; or you will find yourself trying to figure out ways to get back, and hope that you can do something to assist in the healing, thereby healing your own heart. If your heart is already broken, you have nothing to fear. No one wants to steal a broken heart anyway, and you will be right at home in a nation full of broken hearts, broken promises, broken buildings, a broken government, and a broken economic system.
Don’t misunderstand me; not everything in Haiti is broken. The resolve of the Haitian people to survive is strong. The soul of Africa runs deep within its borders, and the heart of the world’s first free black republic still beats out rhythms that reach far back into the mists of human history, as the ancient vodou drums sing from the tent cities and rubble-strewn townships. There is laughter and dancing amidst the painful memories and ubiquitous reminders of January’s tremblement de terre. There is dignity, there is faith, and there is a getting on with things. As Richard Morse, my host at the Hotel Oloffson and leader of the band RAM, often says, Haiti is a country of survivors, surviving.
And yet. And yet. The problems of Haiti are so deep, and corruption and poverty are so entrenched, that one wonders if things will ever turn around for the Haitian people. My editor at the Times, who was in Haiti 15 years ago on assignment, muses that it seems almost impossible for a people who have been locked in survival mode for so long to think or plan for a better future when it’s all they can do to get through each day, every day.
Americans like to fix things. We like to make things right; we like to show our magnanimity to the world. So we provide “aid” to Haiti, and a lot of it. We raise funds; we send missionaries, military units, food, and doctors; we set up camps. We sacrifice ourselves, our money, and our time, in hopes of doing good for a place that needs a lot of help. Some of it does indeed help, at least for a while. Some of our “aid”, however, comes with strings attached that serve to further erode the brittle economy and vulnerable cultural/religious heritage that keeps the country alive. Consider Bill Clinton’s dramatic restoration of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide back in the 90’s, with all the might of the US Military pointing its guns at the former militiamen of an earlier dark regime, who had attempted to re-take the country. Clinton put the popular priest-president back in power, to the great joy of the Haitian people. But Clinton had conditions: Haiti had to do away with all of its tariffs and trade restrictions and become a part of his pet project, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Suddenly America was exporting US government-subsidized rice and other agricultural products to Haiti, at prices that dramatically undercut domestic produce. Haitian peasant farmers, unable to compete with US agribusiness, fled their small plots in the provinces to seek work in Port-au-Prince. And within years, as the provinces emptied out due to economic depression, a small stately city of some 700,000 became a sprawling slum of over 4 million, most of them jobless.
Things in Haiti seem to have gone from bad to worse, to a different kind of bad, to a different kind of worse, since, well, since the beginning. This January’s earthquake gave the ultimate insult to injury, as if the terrible hurricane of 2007 was not bad enough; as if a nation ever struggling to lift itself out from under tyrannical regimes, civil wars and a brutal and bloody history didn’t have enough to deal with. The country lies in rubble, large mounds of concrete lying over top of smaller bits of rocky soil which form the surface of a once-rich land which has been scraped dry of topsoil from three centuries of intensive sugar and rice farming. And in the process, the country has fallen into a cycle of dependency, relying on foreign aid and money sent home from family members of the ever-growing Haitian diaspora which has taken up roots in New York, Miami, and Santo Domingo.
It’s an overwhelming situation. But it’s not necessarily an impossible situation. Change in Haiti will require huge vision, great leadership, honest and dedicated diplomacy, long-term dedication, and aid which focuses on developing Haitian independence and self-determination. I spoke to a mission worker who was working on a number of projects to help Haitians gain control of their housing situations and learn to become better entrepreneurs. When I cited the oft-used adage, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime,” he added, “Yes, but you can also show a man how to own the pond.”
Positive change in Haiti will also require that those who help understand that Haiti has its own soul, its own culture, its own religion, and its own family values. Not everything that works in America will work in Haiti, and the country will eventually come to resent any attempts to steal its soul in exchange for economic prosperity.
I asked Richard Morse if there was anyone running for president right now in Haiti who had a real vision for Haiti’s future. He replied simply, “No, there’s nobody”. Then I asked him if he had a vision for Haiti’s future. “Sure, I have a vision. It’s simple. Rebuild the provinces. Forget Port-au-Prince. They’ll figure it out.” Morse’s picture of a new Haiti imagines the peasant class repatriating their farmland, setting up strong community centers within the provinces where people learn to read and write, have access to the internet, and are free to practice their own cultural and family traditions. He sees Haiti rebuilding strong rural communities in a 21st-century style. “Give them back the sickle and the hoe, because that’s what they know how to use. It’s a tradition they learned from their fathers, which they learned from their fathers, all the way back to the dawn of time. Bring that back.” Morse envisions these communities reconnecting with their African roots, and developing modern agricultural lives that are both attuned to the modern world and yet satisfying and sustainable for the people who live there. “The only way you’re going to get people to stop leaving the country is to give them a reason to stay.”
Morse’s strategy runs in direct opposition to the Clinton Initiative, which basically involves giving money to the Haitian elite to build textile factories, which will create jobs for the lower class. In other words, more third-world sweatshops, based on the “trickle down” theory of Industrial Capitalism 101. For its efforts, the US will benefit from a new source of cheap foreign labor, and we will soon be wearing the Gap’s new “Made in Haiti” line, feeling we are doing something good for Haiti. Clinton’s Initiative, whether well-intended or not, is a typically American response to the problems of a foreign country: make them more like us. It boggles the mind to think that after more than two centuries of such Manifest Destiny diplomacy, US politicians still don’t see the arrogance, ineffectiveness, and ultimate detriment of such policies. Of course, it is in our own best self-interest–at least in the short term–to ignore the pitfalls of such policy. Imperial powers have always relied on cheaper goods and labor from foreign lands to fuel their prosperity.
But then again, who knows? There are a lot of people in Haiti who want to work. A LOT of people. I’m sure that if given the choice they’d gladly take a job sewing jeans for Banana Republic. Still, I prefer Morse’s vision. I prefer the idea of a Haiti full of small, sustainable entrepreneurs, who control their own destiny and the means of production in their country. But then, it’s not for me to decide.
I didn’t go to Haiti to gawk at the rubble, or to further ponder the issues of Haiti’s current predicament and future prospects. That’s just a necessary by-product of being slapped in the face with the reality of the situation. I found myself in Haiti by way of a conversation I had in a Dominican bar in Manhattan with Ned Sublette, a writer and musician whose work on the African diaspora in the Americas fuses music, culture, politics, history, race, and religion into tomes that are thoughtful, authoritative, and provocative. His book Cuba and its Music is probably one of the most ambitious and thorough (not to mention fascinating) works on a country’s musical history; and his book The World That Made New Orleans. published two years ago, is already required reading for history students at Tulane and other schools with New Orleans curricula. I had approached Ned some months earlier via email about collaborating on a magazine article on a particular indigenous New Orleans tradition. He was interested enough to write back, and our conversation went from there.
The a/c in the Dominican Bar, appropriately, was broken, and so in the muggy June air we sat in the back and riffed on everything from Cuban Santeria to Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans to American foreign policy. Ned showed me incredible photos he had taken of Cuban music and ritual, and better-resolution version of photos I had seen in his book The Year Before the Flood. At some point I mentioned Haiti, I’m not sure how or why; the only thing I can remember, three or four Coronas into the conversation, was that before I was able to finish the sentence, Ned’s eyes got real wide and he interjected, “I want to go to Haiti. This summer!”
And so we began to hatch a plan. Ned’s publisher was interested in doing a book on his writings about Haiti, and we figured we could pitch an article to a magazine and in so doing cobble together the funds for a short trip to Haiti, to explore the role of Vodou and music in the psychological survival of post-earthquake Haiti. We made some strong pitches, but nobody seemed interested in our angle. And then Wyclef Jean announced his intention to run for president of Haiti, and we knew we had lost our moment in the news cycle. Ned’s publisher got cold feet, and he got busy with other things. Haiti would have to wait.
Then I got a call from Lee Wilson, whom I had photographed in Louisiana as part of a Times profile written by Campbell Robertson. Lee works for a disaster relief contract0r called DRC, and he spent the summer in South Louisiana supervising vacuum barges in the cleanup effort in the Gulf. Before the BP disaster unfolded, Lee had been in Haiti, cleaning the rubble out of the streets and picking up bodies. We talked about Haiti on the way back from the barge. He had clearly been profoundly affected by his time in Haiti, but he told me flat out that he didn’t intend on going back. Four months was enough, he said; it was too much. A month later he called me to tell me he was heading back to Haiti, and wanted to meet up for lunch if I was in there. I told him that our plans had not come together for doing an article, but that I still wanted to go. He offered to hook me up with some work documenting DRC’s efforts in Haiti, which would help cover some of my expenses. He also offered to pick me up at the airport in an armored car, offered me a bed in the conference room of the Visa Lodge Hotel where he was staying, and basically told me that he could help me out with any logistics I needed help with if I wanted to make the trip. . I’m past the point in my life when I pay much attention to “signs”, but at the same time it seemed like the stars were aligning, and it was an opportunity I should jump on. I had the time, I had the money, I had the desire, and I had the support. Why not?
I was only in Haiti for a week. Just long enough to be completely overwhlemed by it all, just long enough to glimpse moments of a secret Haiti, lying underneath the rubble and the intensity of human activity (”survivors surviving”) going on everywhere. Long enough to meet a couple of rasin musicians playing guitar in a room at an arts center, rehearsing a cycling riff that sounded like something straight out of Mali. Long enough to catch an impromptu drum-and-dance session inside a tent city that seemed to reach back centuries in time to ancient Kongo. Long enough to have a vodouist read my fortune in a hotel room, in Kreyol. I didn’t understand a word he said as he slapped down playing cards and chanted out something about me traveling a great distance for love.
I traveled on the bus with the band, 15 of us in a minibus with drums, guitars, and amplifiers, me stuck in the booster seat right next to the gearshift. We traveled for an hour and a half to a beachfront resort and at no time was there a stretch of road without people walking, hanging out, buying and selling, going to church…The band played until 3 or 4 in the morning and we all crashed out in a conference room until 10 AM. Later that day–Sunday–back at the Oloffson, lounging about the hotel pool, I heard the sound of a brass band and rushed outside the gates to witness hundreds of people dancing, drinking, and marching through the streets behind the band. The scene was so much like a New Orleans Second Line parade it kind of blew my mind. I asked someone in the crowd what was going on, and they said, “somebody died, you know, so this is the way we celebrate them.” A Jazz Funeral, Haitian-style.
I saw much more, some of it from the backseat of a car, some of it alongside my guide and new friend Bendji, who walked me through the tent cities and took me on a municipal bus up to a church in Petionville. He asked me for some change to give to the poor. Here he was, my friend Bendji, without a dime to his name, living in a tent, asking me for some change so he could give alms to the poor at the church.
I’ll leave the rest for a second, and maybe a third, post. There’s plenty more to write about. I don’t know when I’ll be going back, but I hope it will be soon. I can still hear the drums beating when I close my eyes.