Until a few short weeks ago, Haiti was a country rarely mentioned in the international press, except in annual rankings of the world’s economies, where it ineluctably squirmed at the bottom. Now it’s a story that writes itself; a bonanza to foreign correspondents and non-governmental organizations everywhere.
In the face of the disaster there, the typical departure points for a personal essay seem oddly trivial. The scale of the destruction, the pull of the human tragedy, and the naked fact that the world’s attention is a Johnny-come-lately to the morbid party in Port-au-Prince halt conventional approaches to journalism. Of course, the unique position of Haiti is that nature’s wrath has made an already dire humanitarian situation even worse, thus practically writing the script for the stream of news coverage. But it has also made Haiti, a place many reporters were visiting for the first time after the earthquake, a perfect storm of high-pitched clichés about people living on $1 a day and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Since my first experience of Haiti, I’ve wanted to avoid writing about the clichés.
Bougainvillea drape over countless fences, walls, and gardens in Haiti.
I visited this ramshackle one-third of an island for the first time in the summer of 2005. I was a graduate student at New York University, and when I first moved to New York, my first hosts in the city were Haitian. I decided to return the favor by writing about the lives Haitian immigrants face when they immigrate to America. As I began talking to journalists, preachers, nurses, and street vendors who shared stories about their previous lives on the island, I wondered why, in the face of such Third World-realities that existed in Haiti — a mere 700 miles from the United States — the country was contractually spurned by cable networks and newspapers. I flew into Port-au-Prince with the vague ambition to find an explanation.
Mischievous, twisting beauty
Even before the earthquake pulverized the already crumbling city and crushed the living breath out of its people, and long before the cameras swooped in on the scene, the sporadic news out of Haiti was reliably grim. Reflecting the well-worn, though true, dictum that Haiti is a failed state, the stories again seemed to write themselves: dysfunctional government, urban blight, environmental degradation, unrivaled rates of illiteracy, hunger, violence, disease. The tender but more shielded beauty of the place seemed to escape notice — and even when it did impress itself, the news rarely got out.
The immediate, most vivid image of Haiti’s beauty to me is the clusters of bougainvillea wrapping the facades and fences of houses like some kind of jubilant pink ivy. From their perches on stone walls, their outrageously bright flowers seem to wink at visitors and whisper that looks are deceiving. That beneath all the misery and sadness, there’s actually a tradition of pride, humor, and a lust for life that puzzles and enchants.
It is not easy to put a finger on what exactly makes Haiti a country that anyone would want to visit, return to, or let alone live in. But if you ask the people who do live there, it is a very special place. Haitians often refer to their homeland as Ayiti cherie — dear Haiti — as if it were an abandoned child left in their care by abusive parents. The dictators, demagogues, and military despots that have governed it in bad faith for decades invite the easy allegory. Still, that a people should speak so fondly of a place that, to an outsider’s eye, gives back so little lends new meaning to the phrase “love of the land.”
A boy looks at passersby near his makeshift home in Port-au-Prince (before the earthquake).
In the Haiti I saw, cynicism is rare, but a mischievous sense of self-deprecating irony is plentiful. It is born out of a tradition of hardship that has taught people to pat misery on the back and shake its hand for being a trustworthy companion. Ask a Haitian person how they’re doing, and you’re likely to hear a double entendre: “N’ap boule” — everything’s good — which literally means “we’re burning,” presumably because of the tropical climate there, but also due to an existence seared by an unceasing struggle for survival.
What I discovered during that summer in Haiti and when I went back a few months later — beyond the disheartening realities of life and the people’s openhearted acceptance of them — was something I was completely unprepared for. In spite of the vast differences between the geopolitical, ethnic, temporal, and spiritual coordinates of this tiny Caribbean country and those of my only slightly larger European homeland, incredibly — almost illicitly — I felt that I’d come home.
In the uncomfortable period of Bulgaria’s transition from socialism to democracy in the ’90s, many of us inhabited the same survivalist reality Haitians have faced for years: young men half-worked, half-loitered, selling contraband car radios and cell phone chargers out of makeshift stores; grandmothers bought inexpensive Maggi chicken bouillon cubes to season a pot of soup; jitney drivers fastened the rickety doors of their vehicles with bits of linen rope while standing passengers doubled over to avoid bumping heads into the low ceiling. I am just old enough to remember the darker era of breadlines and coupons, which was also the time of two hours on, two hours off for electricity, home-brewed alcohol, and special shipments of bananas and oranges (only for New Year’s).
These experiences were not only humbling but also laughable, and thus the inconveniences, insufficiencies, and improvisations of our daily lives gave us a whole new language: the vernacular of making do and doing without, a treasure trove of practical jokes that the whole country would share. Bulgaria’s first post-socialist late-night talk show host, Slavi Trifonov, built his early career partly on making people find humor in scrimping, at once lampooning and lauding their learned instincts to reuse the aluminum lids from jars of homemade preserve season after season or spend a day “at the beach” under the laundry lines on a sunny balcony.
Street art of startling high-precision brush strokes — as if poised to deliver a view of life unmuddled by the grind of getting by — adorns many a roadside painter's corner.
In Haiti, as in Bulgaria, people alter, adjust, and adapt. In Cap Haitien, on the northern coast, the upkeep of horses is costly, so tour guides use petite donkeys to lead tourists up a winding dirt road to the top of the Citadelle Laferrière, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site and a symbol of the country’s erstwhile independence. In Port-au-Prince, people without running water but who can afford to get it delivered store it in cisterns in their yards, where the sun warms it just enough for a nightly shower. And on the half-hour stifling flight between these two cities, the pilots of the low-flying charter planes compensate for the lack of air conditioning by opening the cockpit windows and cracking jokes with their passengers.
The long traditions of self-reliance in the former French colony and that of stern, necessary resourcefulness in the former socialist republic are both legacies of debased, nepotistic, tyrannical, and sometimes barbaric governance. But the nations forced to make resilience and inventiveness part of their collective characters could not be any more different, culturally as well as organizationally. Clearly Bulgaria’s economic and political transition cannot compare with Haiti’s unbroken agony. And yet, the two countries seem to travel on strangely parallel paths.
Courage, the thread that holds together the fabric of life in Haiti.
To embark on the path to political and economic liberation after decades of Cold War psycho-tyranny, Bulgaria needed an event no less cataclysmic than the fall of the Berlin Wall. More than 20 years later, it is still bumping along, unsteadily but determinedly, on the road to honest and progressive governance. Like a faint transcultural echo, the shattering of the ground in Haiti too may have begun extricating it from the morass of economic calamity and international obscurity. And so, to begin clearing its past of the wounds of brutish dictatorial regimes that robbed its coffers and set in motion a wheel of unending misery, Haiti just may have needed the clean slate afforded by the earthquake — however perverse that may sound — to start rebuilding its own ailing organism, brick by brick, dream by dream. Ironically, this extravagantly insensitive proposal is one of the oft-repeated clichés about Haiti after the earthquake, but when spoken in earnest and not with the glib ease of punditry, it is a cliché I hope will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Click here for a glimpse of the author’s earlier experience in Haiti.