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Wyatt Smith, Keegan Traveling Fellow

Wyatt Smith

2010-2011 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Vanderbilt University

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Apr '11

Encountering Heartbreak and Hope: First Impressions in Haiti

Haiti represents a number of concurrent, conflicting realities. On one dimension, its people are proud members of the oldest republic in Latin America, and the first black republic in the world. On another, they are citizens of a failed state, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and lack a functional government to provide infrastructure, education, and opportunity. Some blame Western exploitation for the roots of Haiti’s poverty, as imperial powers instituted neo-liberal economic institutions under the threat of a gun and the lie of enrichment. Others point to the practice of voudou as evidence of an alleged “pact with the devil,” leading to the country’s prolonged suffering. Still more decry years of Duvalier dictatorship and despotism, which disenfranchised the lower classes of opportunity while promising them justice. Some impressions are accurate, others are misinformed, all are insufficient explanations by themselves. No matter the angle, the complexity remains: Haiti is proud and poverty-stricken, mysterious and mortifying, culture-rich and capital-poor, all at the same time.

And that’s before even accounting for the earthquake.

Since capturing my attention in the spring of my senior year, when I led a Vanderbilt effort to raise money for the emergency response effort and build awareness of the vast cultural story in the Antilles, Haiti has intrigued me as a country of great hardship and history. It is only fitting, therefore, that my journey through Latin America and the Caribbean ends with an exploration of the island nation’s tortured past, current challenges, and future prospects regarding democratic institution building and citizenship.

My journey to Haiti originates on the opposite side of Hispaniola, as I board a Carib Tours bus in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. The bus company sales agent and I have a difficult time communicating, which makes it even more unsettling when she takes my passport for safekeeping upon departure. Although other travelers have warned me about the practice, I can’t shake the discomfort of being separated from my travel documents on the way out of the DR.

As we rumble out of the Dominican capital and head west, other passengers onboard the bus chatter in a steady stream of Creole. My skin color denotes my foreigner status among the 40 travelers, but no one pays me much attention. A woman in front of me launches into a loud sermon, commanding the attention of the entire bus as she admonishes us all to pray for a safe journey. For a moment, it feels like I have been transported back in time to my first bus ride in South Africa, some nine months ago, when I sat quietly while an old woman led our bus in prayer on the way out of Johannesburg. I am much more comfortable in the crowd at this point.

I strike a quick friendship with my seatmate, a Haitian woman in her late 20s named Maria, by offering a smile and a broken French greeting. We communicate in a mix of Spanish and French monosyllables as we fill out Haitian customs forms and eat our onboard boxed lunch of rice and beans. I learn that she has been working in Santo Domingo for one year—ostensibly since the earthquake struck—and now she is returning home for a bit. Maybe for Easter, maybe for good. My foreign language skills still aren’t advanced enough to tell.

Arriving at the Haitian border community of Jimani (more market space than town), we all pile out of the bus and encounter an expansive pool of shallow, muddy water separating us from the immigration building. Gingerly, we step across a row of stones, strategically protruding one after another out of the muck, before entering the cinderblock building and receiving our passports back from the bus company attendant. After receiving my exit stamp, the border agent waves me away without returning the passport. Looks like they are still keeping it safe.

We climb back aboard the bus and slowly inch our way through the informal economic zone that divides the DR from its impoverished neighbor. Rows of wooden lean-to’s comprise the market space, which is populated by vendors selling an array of liquors, second hand shoes, and bags of grain conspicuously labeled with the American flag, thanks to USAID’s branding campaign on relief efforts.

At the Haitian immigration post, moneychangers and Digicell SIM card touts hang tight to the building, all raising their hopes upon sight of me. It’s my standard practice to move as quickly as possible through immigration zones, so I demure and step inside, taking note of the plain concrete floor and temporary nature of the service windows, set behind plywood walls. Maria, my seatmate, squeals at the sight of a familiar face at the immigration desk, flings open the puny door fit within the plywood walls, and hugs the agent before disappearing in a different room.

I join the line for a few minutes, until Maria runs back out, asking for my passport. I hand it over and she disappears again, returning a few minutes later with my approved customs declaration form and an entry card to complete. When I reach for a pen proffered by one of the nearby money changers, he grabs the card and my passport and begins filling out the information for me. He forges my signature in five capital letters, “SMITH,” then hands it back to me, smiling. I know it disappoints him when I have no tip to offer, but he is still smiling as I slip a Quaker oats granola bar in his front shirt pocket.

Back on the bus, however, the mood is less jovial as we drive into Haiti. We move along the coastline of Étang Saumâtre, a lake abutting the highway where men fish in small boats as women and children wait on shore amidst shoddy tent encampments. As we drive, we pass rows of cinder block houses, guarded by iron spikes or pieces of broken glass mortared into tops of the surrounding walls. Others live less protected, taking shelter under blue tarpaulin held up by wooden poles. A neat grid of pre-fabricated homes, erected in the past several months by an unseen aid agency, occasionally jumps out of the squalor. But for the most part, the living situation seems dire.

As Port-au-Prince nears, evidence of the massive international effort to rebuild Haiti takes shape. A thousand-tent complex bearing the Yele Haiti logo of pop star Wyclef Jean’s foundation emerges on my left. Another temporary housing facility of tents bearing the flags of the People’s Republic of China appears on my right. I pass signs of Korean, French, U.S., German, and other international humanitarian efforts. A massive, one story UN complex of tents, humvees, supply trucks, and helicoptors under a MINUSTAH banner (Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haïti), is by far the largest.

As we move slowly uphill towards the Petion-Ville district, the Haitian marketplace spills into the street. Vendors sell t-shirts, televisions, and live chickens within ten feet of each other. The poultry pick amidst the garbage littering the curb, which includes empty Styrofoam boxes, discarded plastic bottles, and a smattering of crumpled papers. Apparently, garbage collection is not timely or regular. Or in existence.

People’s articles of clothing are inscribed with logos that reveal secondhand origins. “BCMS Football 2006,” “Support the Troops,” and my personal favorite, “You Can Tell a German, But You Can’t Tell Him Much,” are all slogans printed on the t-shirts of the Haitian masses below. At one road-side market stand, a hawker has hung a hefty number of such t-shirts, all available for sale. A gray shirt bearing a familiar “Alabama Crimson Tide Football” logo across the chest catches my eye.

Once we arrive at the bus station in Petion-Ville and clamor to claim our luggage, I find a taxi driver and click through a to-do list in my mind: Withdraw cash (Haitian Gourde), find a SIM card for my phone, and call my host Joanne, a 27 year old Swiss/Haitian NGO worker from the CouchSurfing community. The list proves difficult to complete, as the first two banks and supermarket I visit all lack functioning ATMs. Once I locate a working cash point, the sky is so dark that I cannot waste time looking in vain for a phone SIM card.

Luckily, the driver allows me to call Joanne from his phone, and she navigates him towards Delmas 45, a middling neighborhood downhill from my arrival point in Petion-Ville. We pass a flattened building, one concrete floor pressed against the next, and a pancaked car on the side of the road, but for the most part this area of the city seems rebuilt since the damaging earthquake.

Joanne greets me at her home with her boyfriend, a young Haitian named Jean Paul. The two give brief tour of her surprisingly large, yet sparsely furnished four room apartment. I have a room to myself, complete with a mattress on the floor, a candle, and a window view of Port-au-Prince. The electricity is not too reliable, they warn, but overall it’s a great place.

“The best part is upstairs,” Joanne says, leading me up a set of concrete steps to the rooftop, where the city of Port-au-Prince stretches below us in the hot, humid night air. Eerily, not a single light shows from the hundreds of houses immediately below us. “Electricity runs through some neighborhoods, some nights,” Joanne explains. “But not all neighborhoods, all nights.”

The three of us climb into Jean Paul’s SUV and head back towards Petion-Ville for dinner. As we ride, Joanne sits facing me from the front seat, explaining that she has lived in Haiti for four months, during which time she has worked at a number of different NGOs on issues of civic education and sustainable development. Jean Paul uses his BlackBerry to show me a number of commercial spots he has created for Haitian businesses and foundations in his advertising job.

Joanne warns me that I won’t see white people outside of Petion-Ville after nightfall. “The UN doesn’t authorize its people to leave the area after dark. It’s considered too dangerous. But you’re with us, so don’t worry.”

Dinner is at a no-frills Haitian restaurant. I order the poisson (fish), which comes with plantains and fried acra, a typical vegetable fare. Over dinner, I am given a crash course lesson in Creole, covering the basics like, “how are you” (koman ou ye), “where is the…” (ki kote…), “I want” (m’vle), and “Do you speak English” (Eske ou parle Angle?). If only I had paid closer attention in French II.

I ask Jean Paul about his experience during the earthquake. His shoulders slump and he looks down as Joanne repeats the question to him in French for clarification. I feel badly for asking about the topic. Then Jean Paul laughs, and says simply: “I am a survivor.”

He tells me that he was driving home from the office that horrible afternoon, just like any other day. He heard a deep rumbling sound that he describes as a “du, du, du, du, du.” The ground began to shake. And then the world fell down around him.

“Buildings collapsed, one after another, on both sides of the road,” he says calmly, without emotion. “For thirty-five seconds everything kept falling, floors crashing one on top of the other.” Then, he says, the rumbling stopped and a telephone pole fell across the highway, nearly hitting his car. People emerged from the dust, covered in blood and crying in agony.

Jean Paul raced home and found his mother standing outside a destroyed building. Like her son, she had fortuitously stepped outside only minutes before the quake hit, sparing her from a certain death. The two of them could not contact his brother in the city, as Haiti’s telecommunications network was no more. They spent two nights in his car, before finding his brother and relocating to the brother’s apartment, which had avoided major damage.

In the aftermath of the quake, Jean Paul tells me that he tried freeing people he heard trapped in the rubble, but it proved impossible. “So many dead bodies,” he says, shaking his head. “I will never forget that man. Never forget that.”

Fourteen months after this terrible natural disaster, Haiti is filled with survivors like Jean Paul. They found a way to escape the destruction that killed at least 220,000, found a way to avoid starvation in the wake of the tragedy, and found a way to persist once widespread cholera broke out amidst deteriorating water and health conditions. They are still surviving today. 

In the midst of all that survival, it seems a bit trite to talk in platitudes about democracy. But given the pain inflicted by autocratic rulers and unmerciful outsiders in the past, scars in Haitian society today run far deeper than a natural disaster can affect. Democratic reform and institution growth will be key to overcoming Haiti’s great challenges. Coming out of a recent presidential election and looking into the future, it’s one of the few things that keeps Haitians hopeful. With the help a number of gracious and open hosts, I hope to begin to understand those emotions more fully.

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