I left for Haiti on the 26th of December 2004 to spend two weeks helping out and teaching English at a small but well-established mission. The mission has been in Haiti for over twenty-years. It established a co-op consisting of seven villages, which has proven successful thus far. It also boasts the only work-exchange program in all of the country.
When I wasn’t busy teaching English, I spoke to and interviewed as many people as possible, trying to make sense of Haiti’s woes. I talked politics with UN peacekeepers, traveled up and down the Haitian coastline, spent time in Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, and Cabaret (formerly Duvalierville, which the former dictator modestly named after himself); and listened to what people had to say. The problem is, everyone has his or her own idea about what’s going on. Some tell the truth but most don’t want you to know the truth. These are the Haitians and the Haiti I know.
While in Port-au-Prince I stayed at Wall’s International Guesthouse in Delmas 19. There, I met Luke, a soft-spoken 23-year-old resident of Gonaives who was in the capital with two missionaries from Indiana. We spoke about Haitian politics, gang leaders Billy and Tupac, and Hurricane Jeane, which devastated the provincial city of Gonaives.
I asked Luke to tell me about himself, and learned that he grew up in Gonaives and was raised by his father, a fisherman, and his mother, who has “faith in [the] Lord”. He grew up with four brothers and three sisters. It is not at all unusual for a Haitian family to have nine members in a family. His family was “very, very poor”. Education in Haiti is not free and his parents spent all their money on education. His eldest brother is a preacher; he studied in the U.S. at Central Christian College of the Bible and received his masters in theology.
Deeply religious, he told me, “The problem of Haiti is not government; it is spiritual.” Taken aback, I asked, “Spiritual?” He took the pen out of my hand and brought my notepad closer to himself. He wrote “Spiritual problem” and circled it. Underneath he drew an arrow pointing to the word “Jesus” which he had also inscribed in my notepad. I looked up at him. He explained that if more Haitians had faith in Jesus Christ then Haiti would be free of many of the problems that now plague the country.
It was not an explanation I had yet heard, nor one I had ever thought of. Accustomed to reading and hearing of Western complicity, namely US, in Haiti’s internal politics, I was caught off-guard. The statement is revealing on many levels. It is an insightful look into the mindset of many Haitians that I believe many do not understand.
While conversing, something exploded in the background. “What was that?” I asked. He seemed uninterested and said, “A flying tire”. Upon seeing the blank look on my face he smiled, “You know the tires?”
Haitians often use burning tires as roadblocks, however, in this instance that is not the case. On what seems to be nearly every street corner in Port, tires burn and around them congregate a group of unemployed Haitians hanging out. “Yeah…” I respond. It suddenly hits me, “Ah, they explode!” He laughs and nods his head in agreement.
Luke teaches Spanish at Christophanie College, and Bible at Living Water Christian Church. Like many in Haiti, he buys only what he needs and saves the remainder for his college education. He is fluent in four languages – Creole, French, Spanish and English. It is also common for many in Haiti, especially those educated in the cities to speak three or four languages, whereas in the mountains and countryside, many speak Creole only.
I asked Luke about Hurricane Jeane, the storm that dumped huge amounts of rain on the region and caused part of the mountain above Gonaives to collapse into the city, killing not 3,000 people as was widely reported by the mainstream media, but over 6,000. Haiti is over 99% deforested. Trees are cut down to make charcoal; the majority of which ends up in Port-au-Prince for cooking. As such, the mountain above Gonaives is completely deforested and consequently could not hold the amount of water left by Jeane, and collapsed. The city is still rebuilding and its citizens are still digging lost friends and family members out of the ground (reminder: this is months after Jeane).
Luke was there for Hurricane Jeane. He retold his story with vivid detail; often causing me to flinch, grimace and shake my head in disbelief.
I recorded his story with my tape-recorder. “The water was eight feet deep”, he recounts, (the water marks on houses are still clearly visible) “and the streets became rivers; many drowned in the raging torrents”. Luke tells of the time he stepped out the front of his church to see a small boy drowning in the street. He swam feverishly for the boy, having great difficulty, himself, navigating the fast moving water. He grabbed the boy and took him to his cousin’s house where they rested on the floor above the water. The boy survived.
After the waters had receded, he went back to his church. His books, which he had collected over many years, were all destroyed. Books in Haiti are rare, and they are not cheap. He told me he had “five-hundred” but I wonder if he meant fifty.
His church has a small backyard, which he visits. One day, he found a small child, washed up dead near the edge of the backyard. He broke down in tears. Later that day, the father of the child came to find his son. He found him, held his body in his hands and wept, and then left him there.
I asked why the man did not take his child and Luke explained that he could not because he did not have enough money to bury him properly. This is also the reason why he did not claim the child as his own; had he done so, he would have had to bury the boy. It was the last time the man saw his son. When Luke’s neighbor was not home, Luke took the boy and buried him in his neighbor’s yard.
Luke was not the only Haitian I met who had a tale from the hurricane. Toto, the president of the co-op, lost twenty-three family members to the hurricane and its aftermath. One doesn’t have to go far or look very closely to see signs of suffering in Haiti. Aid organizations, NGOs, missionaries, and the UN are there to help (or, at least, try to help) ease some of their woes.
Part of Route Nationale 1 to Gonaives was washed out by Jeane and has not yet been repaired. It is unlikely to be repaired anytime soon due to an inept, corrupt, and all round useless, Western-backed, interim government. We were forced to take a detour through a desert village because of the washout.
The drive from Desaables (village in co-op. About six-miles into the mountains and around a mile north of Cabaret) to Gonaives lasts four and a half hours, from 5:00AM – 8:30AM. Cabaret to Gonaives is only a 120-mile trip, but when one factors in the condition of the “road”; accidents, traffic, roadblocks and other variables, the time of over four hours doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
Route Nationale 1, the principle road from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives, tooks us through St. Marc, and the Artibonite valley, Haiti’s “breadbasket”. As beautiful, green, and fertile as it is, it doesn’t produce nearly as much rice per hectare as say Spain or the US. The road is paved in places, and where it was, we traveled fast. It seemed like most of the road was sand and dirt, though.
The most dangerous thing in Haiti is the roads. There are no rules: no speed limits, no traffic signs. Even if there were, there isn’t anyone to enforce them. Still, life goes on and traffic more or less flows in a style uniquely Haitian.
Barely-living shrubs and cactus lined the road, and were covered in a thick layer of dust from the traffic. I put my handkerchief on over my face. My hair and sunglasses and every other part of my body were caked in a thick layer of sand. Through the early morning sunlight the landscape looked white, as the dust covered everything within 1,000 feet of the road. The traffic created a mini sandstorm, slowing traffic to what seemed like a standstill.
The stripped out shells of buses and cars line the road (Haitians are very resourceful, and scrap-metal is valuable), as do the remnants of destroyed vehicles. On the way back to Port-au-Prince that day, buses and cars that were not broken down in the morning filled the road, often making it difficult to navigate certain sections. On one stretch of narrow desert road, I counted three broken down cars, and one broken down bus. Their occupants simply had to walk the rest of the way. You didn’t expect a taxi to pick them up did you?
Much of Haiti is fast turning into desert, particularly in the north, around Cap Haitien and Gonaives, making life even more difficult for the average Haitian, who’s unfortunate enough to have to live there.
We set out to Gonaives to speak to the Well-Rigger. The co-op needs a well. As of now, the people of Desaables must walk seven-miles to Tima (another village in the co-op) to get water every day. Water is essential to life and success in the co-op.
At the hotel in Gonaives where the meeting with the Well-Rigger took place, I met a man who pulled up next to our truck on a scooter. We exchanged pleasantries in French and ended the conversation in English. He was unemployed, like so many other Haitians, and asked me several times if I had a job for him. I told him I didn’t but that I’d keep an eye out for one.
I didn’t partake in the meeting with the Well-Rigger but instead decided to see if I could get into a UN base in Gonaives where I’d just seen a helicopter take off from. UN copters fly to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, everyday to get supplies.
At one entrance to the base I came across a UN soldier. I asked if I could enter but the soldier said no. I motioned with my camera and pointed inside the base while taking a few steps further. The soldier was visibly nervous. He was wearing a flak jacket, a helmet, and every other conceivable piece of protection. He was carrying what looked to be an FNC assault rifle and I wondered if he was able to move quickly. He probably couldn’t but I decided not to press my luck and moved on.
We traveled to a small village just on the outskirts of Gonaives. The road there is horrendous. It too was washed out by Jeane and has not been repaired. Our driver and manager of Wall’s International Guesthouse, Gabrielle, had some business he needed to take care of at a relative’s home. A group of children huddled around each other, pointing at us. We were probably the first white people they’d ever seen.
Four boys found their way to just behind our truck. They looked nervous so we decided to give them some candy-cane to put them at ease. The boys smiled as we handed them the candy and allowed me to take a photograph of them
It will be a long time before Gonaives has fully recovered. Haiti is a fragile place, and Gonaives is a case in point. Until the problems in Gonaives, particularly the deforestation on the mountain above the city, are addressed, they will continue to happen, despite their predictability and needlessness. The world can’t look the other way forever . . . can it?