My fascination with Haiti dates back to 2007, when I read Tracy Kidderís excellent biography of Paul Farmer, "Mountains beyond Mountains". The book is not only beautifully written, it tells a heart warming story of the efforts of an amazing Harvard trained doctor to provide medical help to poor people in the "first independent black republic" which incidentally is the "poorest country in the hemisphere". That combination and the idiosyncrasies of the Haitian culture described in that book left me with a nagging desire to discover what I considered an enigma. That opportunity would not come until after the country had been further sunk into an even deeper abyss, following the devastating January 2010 earthquake.
My official mission was to organize workshops with the simple aim to create and designate safe spaces where the young people could use creative means including spoken word, music, drama etc to express themselves, share their stories, fears, concerns and challenges. The objective is that such Ďcircles of peaceí as we called them, would promote healing, cooperation and social change led by the young people in their communities. My partner in this venture was New York poet, Luke Nephew, a friend and brother with whom I had conducted similar workshops in other humanitarian settings around the world. A good friend of mine who works for a medical agency in Haiti, kindly agreed to host me and provide the initial contacts for our visit.
When I landed at the airport in Port-Au-Prince, the immigration officer looked at my passport, stamped it and dumped it on the table without looking at my face. I politely said thanks and ventured into the 100 degrees heat of the city. Like many airports in poor countries, there was a mob of people waiting outside with numerous offers to help or racket, for some gain. Some spoke to me in Haitian Creole, a word of which I did not understand. I enjoyed the attention, but guarded my pockets with the sort of vigilance that travelling to these contexts over time has taught me. I was finally in Haiti. It was like a dream come true for me and I had only a week to discover the beauty and heartbreak of this city, whose people identify as Africans (Haitiís famous son, Wyclef said such during one of the telecasts for aid after the earthquake).
I had lived in a displaced camp during Sierra Leoneís terrible civil war. Poverty, squalor and deprivation are not entirely new to me. I have visited or worked in Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Lebanon, and New Orleans among others. But there was something about what I was seeing in Haiti that still managed to shock me. For starters, the magnitude of the destruction is unlike any that I have ever seen. In war zones or humanitarian situations, you probably know where the camps are, usually in the outskirts of the city or in some designated area. There are usually relief agencies providing some form of humanitarian assistance in the camps. Six months after Haitiís earthquake, there seems to be a camp in every street corner; over a thousand by the official count and hundreds of these hardly see any assistance in any given month. The city is still covered in a huge pile of rubble, underneath which, my interpreters pointed out, are thousands of people whose remains are yet to be recovered. I expected to see huge machines working to clear all this rubble and restore this city to its former self, which was not exactly stellar. I only saw one tractor in my entire week of travelling around the city. Whole roads and neighbourhood are covered in rubble.
Understandably, when it rains, as it did twice when I was there, people are not running into the few remaining buildings for shelter. They prefer their tarps and shacks that they have put up to serve as their place of refuge. If there is a sign of trauma, it is the fact that people are noticeably scared of anything concrete. There is of course an outbreak of disease in many of the camps and the NGOs around are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Like in similar contexts that I am familiar with, coordination of relief and recovery activities is still relegated to meetings and finger pointing. The remains of the government seems more preoccupied with consolidating its power and continuing the kind of bureaucratic practices that fuel corruption, which unfortunately always seem to characterize impoverished countries. Many of the NGOs complain that their stock of medical supplies and equipments required to respond to the crisis have been stuck at the airport for over six months and counting, as they try to figure out the right set of people to bribe for custom clearance. The NGOs therefore have to rent the few half decent vehicles at exorbitant costs to carry out some of their activities while a bureaucrat somewhere is waiting for her/his grease to be oiled.
You would expect that after what has happened, the government and people of Haiti would be folding their sleeves and ready to do anything to rebuild their country. Disasters of this nature are terrible, but they present an opportunity; to rebuild and to say never again. I am afraid that opportunity is slowly slipping by in Haiti. People seem worryingly fatalistic, hoping that the all powerful Master was going to change stuff around. Many people pay tribute to the spirit of the Haitian which is a never down, go-happy attitude. In a weird way, that seems like the problem to me at this time. They need to be concerned; have a sense of urgency; a resolve to rebuild. I did not sense that.
And while we are on the negatives, every Haitian was rooting for Brazil against the Ivory Coast during their World Cup football match. Why does this matter, you wonder? Well why not? They should root for their African brothers! I pointed this out and I just got those bewildered smiles in return. The city, in typical Haitian style was adorned with Brazil colours, using plastics and used bottles. Creative and lively!
Of course, it was not all negatives. I mean, Brazil won against the Ivory Coast and there was a big party in the country with television cameras showing the excitement in all the street corners. And there are the young people that I encountered. Many are full of energy, creative and ready to grab any opportunity that opens up for them. Unfortunately these are few and far between. They are already doing a lot in their communities, helping to mobilize people for the few health services available, securing their neighbourhoods against the rampant crime in the city, conducting free educational classes for their peers and younger ones, working with agencies like UNFPA to distribute free condoms and a wide range of other activities. In all of the workshops that I conducted and the interactions I had with the young people, I was thrilled by their power and their promise; their stated desire for changing their country and their respective futures. This was not surprising. I know from working in these contexts that the young people are incredibly resilient, and constitute an amazing resource for recovery and positive social change. The familiar problem is that many of the decision makers come to this realization rather belatedly or sometimes, never.
As I said goodbye to one of the groups in the camps, a Haitian pastor tapped me and asked what sounded to me like a profound question. He was speaking in Creole and my interpreter and I listened attentively. The gentlemanís inquiry was why when everyone in the world was heading to Africa to witness the worldís biggest event in the world, FIFA World Cup 2010, that I had instead gone to Haiti to spend my entire day in camps with young people. I smiled and said the world cup was important, but I believed doing what I was doing in his country was way more important. Besides, I could watch the games on television, but the moment I just shared with him I could never get otherwise. I am not sure he was unsatisfied with my response, but he smiled back, hugged me tightly. Some may not understand the power of that moment, but itís exactly because of such, that I was in Haiti, to let them know that I was in solidarity with them and to create even one circle that might lead to one more smile, self belief or if we are lucky, a small change in one community.
Editorís note: Until recently, the writer worked with the UN in Liberia and now, pursuing an MA program at Notre Dame University, USA