Haiti: It is only out of our hands if we donate and want to pick it up*
It’s been just over three weeks and I am finally getting a sense of the destruction to the people and the city of Port-au-Prince. My original plan to meet with women organising in the community has fallen short of what I had hoped due to family crisis, cholera, election protests and now petrol shortages. This is my final week and we have a bunch of meetings planned from the past 3 weeks to fit in before I leave .Still I feel I have met sufficient community activists to get a sense of the truly amazing work they are doing and I will write of these in my final piece, but the story has changed and that in itself is a Haitian story and in this year, more so than usual. The earthquake is unavoidable and the intensity of the destruction is overwhelming. There is a randomness about the destruction. Whole streets destroyed except for one building and in others the whole street standing with one structure collapsed.
All over there is rubble which in parts occupies half the street and often in competition with the “Preval’s International Filth” – the huge mass of refuse which threatens everyone’s existence except the pigs which grow fat from endless munching. No one should be forced to live in such an environment and no matter how much you try to clean your own patch, and people do this all the time in an almost continuous motion, its going to make very little difference if there is no where for the rubbish to go.
The issue of large amounts of street refuse and unsanitary conditions is not peculiar to Haiti by any means. But here it is compounded by the earthquake devastation, the IDP camps and now cholera. And neither here nor in Nigeria or most other places is sanitation given the priority it requires. Rea tells me refuse collection and sanitation is used by political opponents to discredit one another for example in 2002 she was in charge of a cleaning crew in. They would go out at night clean the streets but the next day the streets would be full of refuse again. One particular day they hid and were able to catch the rubbish dumpers who were working for a political opponent in the area.
I call it “Preval’s International Filth” because its a reflection of their disdain and disrespect for the Haitian people. Why should cleaning the city be left to a few men and women of the Yele Corps when it is the responsibility of the government and all those driving around in trucks with “humanitarian” signs painted neatly on the side and who control the means to clean up the city. Especially now in the time of cholera.
The great white stomping tanks and trucks guzzle the streets. Young men with brown and black faces, their blue helmets bobbing up and down – Brazil, Guatemala, Nepal, Nigeria – holding the grey steel of their weapons in one hand and their crutches in the other, they gaze blankly at the streets below their high top perch. In her 2004 novel, Memories of an Amnesiac describes the 1915 invasion by and subsequent occupation by the US until 1934 as “the boots” – “the boots” returned in 2004 and remain today….
“The first to have seen them. Who was the first? The one who received the first slap? They should have known, or at least foreseen the end, to worry that person. Leaving her house? Or rather strolling down the street, looking at the interior of stores not knowing that no one would remember that first day. What was she thinking of? What went on in her head, in her heart? What happened to her body in front of all these foreign beings? She closes her eyes, opens them; was she blind? Her ears perceive the sound of footsteps, this dull sound of boots on the beaten path. She tries to count. One, twenty-five, ten thousand. What does it matter. They are here. Within earshot, the sound gets closer. Motionless, she sense their approach. She wants to run away. But where? The boots walk past her without noticing the presence of the only witness. Anonymous. The boots could care less about this lone blind person, petrified at the corner of a street. The boots could care less about this country. The boots know nothing. They have been sent, they have been given orders, they have embarked on gigantic boats. The boots have left their wives and children behind. Perhaps the boots felt like crying. One must not feel sorry for them. One must remember everything, all of it. For the blind man, they will remain the boots of the first day. Later on, he will no longer hear the sound of the footsteps. His ears will fill up with the noise of guns and shots. Later on, he will understand that his ears had not fooled him. These boots on the damp soil [it was raining that day], the boots were the Other. Maybe on that very same day, did the boots become canons and guns? It is only necessary to determine the exact moment the blind man became aware of the change. At the moment when faking a smile was no longer needed? The day when what had been for so long took place.” [Memoir of an Amnesiac by Jan J Dominique]
Six weeks ago the international media was full of reports on the outbreak of cholera now it has largely been forgotten but for the people of Haiti it remains a daily reality. The second week I was here, a neighbour, an elderly woman died and the other family members were all sick but fortunately they have recovered. Last Monday I walked just 10 meters across the path to buy some soft drinks from a young man and his wife and of course we exchanged money. 24 hours later he was in hospital with cholera and now no one will buy drinks from his wife so in addition to the illness the family have lost their very meagre income. I had exchanged money with him and could not remember whether I washed my hands before touching my mouth. Someone gives a kiss – the passing of affection becomes the passing of infection as few days later she discovers the woman has cholera. The young children all play together so of course they are especially vulnerable even if they wash their hands before eating. So the cholera is passing from person to person and is very very real for all of us. On Wednesday and Thursday last week I visited a family member in hospital and on both occasions whilst waiting outside someone arrived with a cholera victim. In the early hours of Friday people were seen in Martissant 25 running with wheel barrows carrying cholera victims. More of the women from Bobin who I was supposed to meet my first week have fallen ill together with their families and there is no doubt in my mind that these stories are replicated throughout the country. Everyone is at risk. Outside of Port-au-Prince the problem is worse. In JÃ©rÃ©mie the hospitals can no longer cope and for those small villages with no hospital or clinic people just die.
Rea and I discussed the idea of giving out rubber gloves to the traders in this community to protect them and their customers but we only have a limited supply of gloves for the moment. During my first week I was down by a river on the edge of town and spoke to groups of women who were washing clothes about how they were managing to get clean water. All said they were buying purifying tablets from the market and one woman said she used bleach. This again is a problem as one has to be careful that the right quantities of bleach and water are used and the question remains as to the long term medical consequences of using these methods.
Tents are everywhere from huge camps of ten thousand, to medium ones, small ones and the occasional single tent alone. Blue and grey tarps [USAID gifts from the American people reminding us of their omnipresence] together with tents of all shapes, sizes and colours are woven into the ruins of buildings, perched on top of buildings and attached to buildings. Recently I received an email from a tent spammer who must have picked up I was in Haiti and sent me a list of tarps and tents at discount prices. This is not how people should be forced to live even for a short period let alone a year and there is no hope of change on the horizon. I think of other refugee camps like the Palestinian camps in Beirut and the Saharawi’s of Tinduff in the southern Algerian Sahara both of which have been in existence for thirty odd years. What passes through your mind passes mine…. It cannot be possible.
And there are the wounds – amputees with arms, legs, feet and hands missing, scared faces and bodies. Many of the wounds are not visible like the woman who stands alone on a street by a food vendor. She stands mouthing words silently to herself and waving her arms in gentle movements almost as it they are being pushed into motion by the gentle sea breeze of the night.
Its easy to forget PAP is by the sea. I only spot the occasional glimpse of the grey green waters far away. These are deceptive. The channels in the city which lead to the sea are full of refuse and sewage. Last time I was here we ate a lots of fish and seafood. One day we were in a supermarket where there were packets of frozen fish. I asked Rea if there was a fresh fish market in the city. She replied she no longer buys fresh Haitian fish because of the sewage which flows into the sea and the danger of Kolera. Two days later she cooked me fish. That is the nature of this wonderful family. In my own silence like a voyeur of the mind, I wonder what tragedy lies behind the faces of the people who survived. Whose homes survived? Whose didn’t. Who lost loved ones, neighbours and friends. Who are those that face a lifetime of injury and loss. At the school I meet a young girl who was lifted from the rubble after two days. Another whose family home collapsed and they lost everything. Another whose father died and another and another. Some are living in camps, some with family, some far from their destroyed homes, some have gone to the country and never returned.
In Champ Mars lies the remains of the crushed palace looking like a broken wedding cake along side which there are thousands and thousands of tents. The ones on the outer parameters facing the main boulevard have set up shop providing, barbers, beauty salons, seamstresses, vendors of food and other necessities. Rising above the devastation of Port-au-Prince in twisted irony, the three heros of the revolution remain standing – Toussaint L’Overture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. Do they speak of a fallen people or to a people on the verge of rising once again? The weirdest structure still standing is the “2004” cone tower soaring above the whole city and built by President Aristide. No one seems to know what exactly it represents but I take it to be a symbol of the “2nd Haitian revolution” – the flood of Lavalas. It speaks, you are trying to kill us but we are not dead yet, there is a 3rd revolution to come. In the now infamous recitation of Toussaint L’ Ouverture on his forced exile to France, Aristide spoke on his similar forced exile in January 2004
“In overthrowing me they have only felled the tree of Negro liberty…..It’ll shoot up again, for it is deeply rooted and its roots are many” [quoted from “Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat]
All we have to do is struggle and wait for that moment which in turn will become a history of this great Black country.
* Taken from a James Baldwin quote on the myth of helplessness
“I do not believe in the twentieth century myth that we are all helpless, that it’s out of our hands. It’s only out of our hands if we don’t want to pick it up”. [James Baldwin “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve – A Forum” published in “The Cross of Redemption”]