Haiti Six Months After The Earthquake


Haiti during the World Cup is much like my hometown of New Orleans was during the Superbowl. Don’t try to make plans with anyone to do anything during a game. (In the more cash-rich New Orleans, the ban on non-game-related activity stretched back a day or two before a game, because there was food and alcohol to be purchased and a feast to be cooked.) I make the mistake of trying to go to a cell phone office during that time; employees sit hypnotized in front of the big-screen TV, unwilling to be distracted by clients.

When Argentina, a favorite in Haiti, loses the soccer match, I can finally conduct my business and leave the store. People are pouring out from their tents and houses with a thing or two to express about Argentina’s loss. A group of skinny men parades in bikinis and wigs. Noontime drunks shout nonsense at each other. Throngs of mourners dance through the streets of Port-au-Prince, waving Argentine flags and palm fronds. Among them, loyalists still smarting from Brazil’s loss wrap cloths with that country’s flag around their heads.

“Thank God it’s almost over,” my friend Maryse, director of a special education school, said this morning. “Argentina’s the last team in the competition that anyone here really cares about, so all this madness will have to stop.” Four Haitians died in arguments after the loss of the Brazilian team some days prior.

“Soon,” a young construction worker on break from hammering outside my window said, “the [political] demonstrations can resume.” They stopped at the start of the World Cup; people suddenly had more important things to do. Once the World Cup is over, too, the popular educator Ricardo assured me, the electricity that has been guaranteed during the past month will go back to its standard state of irregularity. It’s the same every four years, he said. “We’ll be back in a blakawout, black-out.”

From the cell phone store I catch a taxi to a women’s meeting. Collective taxicabs are identified in two ways: the red ribbon hanging from the rearview mirror, and the decrepit state of the vehicle. They are usually the oldest and most beat-up cars on the road, and it’s not uncommon that a key part gives out or a many-times-repatched tire blows definitively while en route. When that happens, the customers simply patiently climb out and pay the driver, then catch another cab.

I establish up front that I’m not going to be ripped off. “Listen, I know it’s one zone. I’m just paying a fare for one zone.”

“It’s two zones,” the taxi driver replies.

“No, cheri. To Avenue Lamartinière it’s one zone, 25 gourdes. Don’t give me the price you make up for blan, foreigners.

He gives me a circumspect look. “But aren’t you a blan?

As usual, everyone in the cab is sharing stories about evenman la, the event. You hear the word all day long. (In New Orleans, four and half years later, the same is true of ‘Katrina.’ My friend Grant, a writer, said that his dream is to go just one day without hearing the word.) Six months later, with a little distance and a lot of moxie, many of the stories of misery have evolved into dramatic tales, complete with humor. The driver and the four other passengers wedged into the little Nissan are laughing loudly at one such account.

I tell them I am amazed that they can laugh. The man against whom my thigh is jammed says, “If you stay traumatized all the time, it’s not good for you. You have to find joy to diminish it.”

In some ways, everything has changed since the earthquake. Almost one in seven are living in streets or camps in wretched conditions. No comprehensive, or even piecemeal, plan for addressing homelessness has been revealed by anyone in power, except to move them from one tent city to another. Hurricane season is underway, but no preparations have been made to protect those living under bed sheets or pieces of nylon.

Food aid has been suspended except as “food for work.” Water aid is soon to be suspended, too, since Haitian businessmen have complained that it is undermining their profits. Many of the free clinics that were created in the humanitarian outpouring after the disaster have closed up shop.

Imagine that six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians were still trapped in the Superdome and the Arena. Imagine that they were not given food or even, usually, drinking water. That they shared filthy port-o-potties with thousands and that they had to stand in long lines in the hot sun to get buckets of water for bathing. That they had no electricity or lighting to speak of, not even flash lights. That the government had never announced a plan to get them out of there and back into homes, or even checked to see how they were doing.

Normal conversations are markedly different after the earthquake, so many of them reflecting the loss of hundreds of thousands of friends and family members, and of an even higher number of homes. For example, in a clinic, a little girl I’d never seen before approached me and said, a propos of nothing, “My mother died. My little sister’s name is Timarie. Did your house get crushed?” No. “My house got crushed.”

And this: I was sitting in on a meeting in a refugee camp – the only blan present – when an elderly woman planted herself in front of me. In a flat voice resounding with loss, she said, “I have one son, a strong young man of ten. He lost his foot in the earthquake. What are he and I supposed to do? A ten-year-old with a stump.” Before I could compose myself enough to respond, she turned and walked away.

A commission, half-composed of foreigners, today has formal oversight over Haiti and its reconstruction. (See “Foreign-Led Commission Now Governs Haiti.) It was elected by no one and accountable to no one. It issues no reports, gives no State of the Union address. There is no number to call to learn its position on a given topic or to register one’s opposition. I’ve heard numerous people here bitterly refer to U.N. Special Envoy Bill Clinton, co-director of this Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, as ‘president of Haiti.’

But in many ways, Haiti is the same as it ever was. The elected government and its associates – what is sometimes referred to here as the political class – are, as always, apathetic in the face of desperate citizens’ needs. One young woman said to me “the Haitian government is deaf, dumb, and mute.” Ricardo commented, “From the first second after the earthquake, the government fled. Not the first minute, the first second.”

As they’ve been for many decades, demonstrations are (excepting, as mentioned, during the World Cup) one outlet for the anger of marginalized Haitian citizens, who have no other advocacy options within the formal system. Citizens regularly take to the streets to demand housing for the displaced, good education, and support of national agricultural production. They have recently protested violence by the U.N. security mission, non-payment of wages to state workers and teachers, and the introduction of toxic Monsanto seeds, among other complaints.

Grassroots organizations still meet regularly to develop their strategies for political change, as they have throughout history. Across the country on any given day, small groups perch on broken chairs under tarps in refugee camps, huddle amidst rubble in the courtyards of earthquake-destroyed schools, or sweat under thatched-roof gazebos. Despite all, they remain convinced that, as the slogan adapted from the World Social Forum says, another Haiti is possible – or at least that they can win more justice than they currently have. They are developing pressure points for housing rights and protection against rape for those in camps. Some plan information campaigns aimed at sweatshop workers, others programs to politicize youth. The agendas are seemingly endless.

Haiti is the same in much more plebeian ways, too. No one on the block where I’m staying can breathe for two days because of the thick and putrid smoke from wood charcoal being made up the ravine. Flies and the mosquitoes change shifts at sunset and sunrise, while sweat pulls 24-hour shifts. Pigs forage in garbage piles downtown. For a few cents, people purchase from street vendors meals of sugar cane, or fried bananas, or cassava bread and peanut butter with cayenne. They wear shoes cracked down the middle of the sole that, most anywhere else, would have been thrown away long ago.

Boys fly homemade kites and girls carry water. Motorcycles zip by with as many as five people on them. Salesmen stand at the front of buses and display jars of dark liquid which they tell their audience will cure fibroids, high blood pressure, and eczema. Little boys stand facing out from the walls to urinate, men stand facing towards the walls to urinate. Women pull thin flowered handkerchiefs from their bras and slowly unwrap them to produce crumpled gourd notes.

People insist on giving you a cup of coffee as though they had nothing else to do in the world. Women walk through the streets with baskets on their head, chanting in loud voices, “I got peas, I got carrots, I got cabbage.” Pedestrians pause on the sidewalk to wipe the thick dust off their shoes with a little scrap of toilet paper, though the shoes will become filthy again momentarily. Men sit on chairs in sidewalk barber shops, getting shaves. Girls flap down the streets in backless sandals, swinging their behinds. Neighbors break up coupling cats, because who needs more kittens?

As always, to disarm hostile situations, many make their voices supplicatory and call each other cheri. In crowded streets, people anger easily and laugh easily. They engage in gestures of great tenderness and harsh meanness. They show impressive generosity and rip off the most vulnerable.

Now it’s Saturday night, and neighbors do what they do everywhere that is big on community and short on funds: gather on stoops and curbs to talk. Mirlene, who used to cook for a friend of mine, walks up the street to meet me. We haven’t seen each other since the earthquake, so we arrange ourselves on a curb, tuck the excess cloth of our skirts under our knees, and begin with the only possible topic: the event.

While we’re talking, a couple of men come join us. I offer them my condolences for the loss of Argentina. One lifts his hands heavenward and says, “We’re resigned.” Then: “We’ve lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war.”

“Spoken like a true Haitian,” I tell him.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Photo: An image from lost days in Haiti. What was left of this house, which bore the sign “bienvenue” or “welcome” over its front door, collapsed shortly after the photo was taken.  Photo: Tory Field.