Archive for the ‘Haiti’ Category

So it is one year since the earthquake- goudou-goudou as the Haitians refer to the catastrophic event, an onomatopoeia, the sound of earth moving, buildings shaking.

Despite an outpouring of support from all over the world, from governments, from non-governmental organisations and from individuals, daily life for too many remains bleak.

The estimates are that less than 10% of the rubble has been cleared. Many, many people are  living in tents. Try to imagine what that must be like- every day, day after day, being under tarpaulin, plastic sheets, no running water, no toilets, no refrigeration, no furniture, no privacy, little security. Think of how those conditions eat away at one’s sense of control. Imagine the levels and layers of depression of the Haitian population in Port-au-Prince. Even for those in houses, what must it be like to see so many others living in 360 degree squalor? I wonder about feelings of being overwhelmed and helplessness.

To say that this is a complex humanitarian crisis is an under-statement. On top of pre-existing dire poverty is added the homelessness of the earthquake, the cholera of the post-earthquake world and the political turmoil.

And yet, Haitians stay for the most part, contained. Their’s  must be the definition of fortitude

I recently attended the Cuba National Day commemoration at which George Lamming said a little ‘something’ about the pre- and post- 1959 Cuba. He used the language of the ‘miracle of mobilisation’, how, for example, hundreds of thousands were mobilised to get involved in community literacy projects.

This mobilisation, Lamming asserts, realised gains for Cuba’s population, many of whom like Haitians today had little access to what we all would say are rudimentary to self-development-education, water, sanitation, health care.

A miracle of mobilisation. What would that look like in Haiti?


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A persevering people

Recently, an email has been making the virtual rounds, entitled ‘the Haiti we never see’ to which is attached pictures of lovely gingerbread houses as well as some river and beach scenery. The pictures are pre-earthquake but of recent vintage.

It disturbs me, though I understood the sentiment behind it. Like  Chimamanda Adichie speaking to the danger of a single story,we  want to say that the Haiti is complex, that it is diverse, that there are other dimensions to the reality besides dire poverty and depredation. 

But the pictures did not do that for me. Rather they accentuated another defining reality, that  people who are poor in Haiti live in economic isolation side by side with people of significant privilege. The pictures of the gingerbread houses are tightly focused. Had the photographers widened their angle, we would have seen a more complete picture, more of the story. There is poverty, terrible poverty all around those lovely houses.

I stayed in one such gracious building. It is full of gorgeous Caribbean detailing, stone and wood and well preserved. And it is located on a main thoroughfare, across from a small square, Place St. Pierre, secured from the public only a small and quaint gate.








But in every direction and in particular the square opposite, people are living in squalid conditions. There are hundreds of people there; set up in what should be temporary shelter. But shelter does not describe the situation neither does camp, which brings to mind a certain coziness and comfort. Light comes from the street lights around the square. Inside, darkness. There is of course no running water, facilities, no school for children.

What the people have is determination to get through this. I am puzzled, to be truthful, by the absence of more obvious and expressed turmoil. Because surely, people persevering in these camps are distressed out of their minds about their absence of control of so many facets of their lives. Yet or as yet, little disturbance as they wait on plans and more action.

This reserve, this forbearance, may be expressive of resignation, of feelings of defeat. But I do think not so, or at least this would not be the whole of it. Haitians rather may understand that turmoil is not guaranteed to take them forward. I take the quiet as resolve, as regrouping. Accustomed to relying on themselves, Haitians are proud and genteel people. They are also deeply religious. But times are desperate.

This sign seen:

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Hard Living

Port au Prince is cold. Stand in front an open fridge cold. It is damp. It is damp and cold. And so many people are living on the streets- women, men, children, the elderly, the sick. And I mean literally, on the streets. Some are in tents, some are in makeshift structures covered by tarpaulin, some are in huts constructed from salvaged materials. But a great many are sleeping under sheets. Fabric. In the cold and damp. Without privacy. The ground underneath soggy, muddy and stenchy. It is rainy in Haiti.

This is wretched. Yet there is no time for mourning or moaning. Survival is a twenty four hour attention activity. Life is exhausting in so many dimensions beyond our experience.

And yet, Haitians are persevering. Over 70% of Haitians are ‘independent workers’. Self-employed. Many are in micro-scale marketing or production. The hustle and bustle never stops. Haitians are a people accustomed to depending on themselves.  But now, surely, they must be at their limit, at wit and will’s end.

Many families need tents, need cots. They will be in this situation for the foreseeable future. The other structural problem- the majority of householders in Port au Prince are renters or squatters and not in control of the land needed for rebuilding, for reconstruction. Temporary shelters may well become far from temporary as solutions are sought for re-siting the hundreds of thousands of unhomed persons.

Organisations working with people in ‘spontaneous temporary shelters’ in their neighbourhoods need our ongoing help.

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Here are a few pictures of the physical damage. Port au Prince is a huge city by Caribbean standards. In some parts (like downtown PaP) the destruction of buildings seems almost complete, and  in others, rather less. This might have something to do with economics, the more well off neighbourhoods with better constructed buildings able to withstand the force of the earthquake better.  But also it seems that the earth movements were stronger in some places.


And here is the famous Hotel Oloffson, of Graham Greene fame: Still standing in all its gingerbread glory:

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What can be kept

You know them when you see them. These older Caribbean women, perhaps wearing their wide-brimmed hats, neatly but indifferently dressed (lots of brown and gray, florals matched with stripes maybe). They carry a knowingness in their gaze, weary but clear-eyed, firm. Hard work, physical labour, frames the picture of their lives, in the home and in the work place. Faith is their armor, their antidote to pessimism, confusion, despair.

I met one of these women in the airport on my way to Haiti. Annette. And in the Caribbean way, we were off and running with the talk after the first small ice-breaking joke. She lives between Haiti and New York. But really she has lived in New York for 40 years. You can take me out of Haiti, but you can’t take Haiti out of me. She is going to see her house, ‘the fruit of my life’. All gone. The house was destroyed in the earthquake but she must see it for herself. She needs to walk around the collapsed house to absorb the reality.

And she needs to see all else that has been lost. Annette was orphaned at 5 and taken in by an older woman in her community. Her lifelong and closest friend she met at 7 and this friend became a nun. She describes their friendship, and her voice breaks. We are no longer just passing time in the airport.  Her friend died in one of the collapsed churches.

And all the markers of her fragile childhood stability without parents are now gone. Her friend, her church, her school. She is heartbroken, an orphan again.

And through the story, tears coursing down her face, she is speaking about the children who lost their parents in the earthquake. ‘I know them, they are like me’. She thinks that if she were younger, less sick, she would adopt some children. But this is not to be and she feels powerless to comfort the children or herself right now.

Reaching into faith, she says that the earthquake is a message- people matter, not things. “What you have inside, you keep with you. The memories are more important than my house.”

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A recommended blog on Haiti


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Politics unusual

It did not take long for the politics around Haiti to break out. Is there a grand and ulterior design animating some of the efforts? Should the deposed past president be brought back? To what extent is the media coverage of Haiti premised on stereotypes? And in the Caribbean, inevitably the slew of articles drawing down on the theme of David Rudder’s Haiti I’m Sorry.

Much of this cynicism is rooted in history. I understand that. Yet still, I find some of it not useful right now. It seems removed from the desperate reality of Haitian people living in this very moment, which, whatever history’s contribution to vulnerability, has its own specificity.

And then there is the dialogue that leads to some practical relief for Haitians. For example, in response to the advocacy of debt relief activists, the IMF has just clarified that the 100 million to Haiti will be an interest free loan and that it is moving towards canceling the entirety of Haiti’s debt to the fund.

Haitians now are focused, absolutely focused on getting through the day, getting others through the day, because in front of them is an unimaginably long and rough road.

We all want to know what we can do. Many of us feel helpless. Don’t. This work has now begun and there will be need for people across all disciplines to make a contribution. What we need to do is to think practically (like the debt relief activists) and make our resources matter. This might mean making connections with an NGO or with a community and committing to support in practical and needed ways over a period of time, targeting the support. And those ways can be contributions to social services as well as to the micro-business sector.

We have a lot to think about and much more to do.

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