An inevitable traveler’s illness sidelined me for the past few days so I’m posting snapshots of some of what I’ve seen, heard and thought about over the last two weeks.
Helping Haiti is over-rated “Are you going down there to help?” — Back home, that’s the main and often, very excited, response I received when I said I was going to Haiti. And I’d think, Why would I do that? What on earth could I do that Haitians can’t? But I’d reply, “No, I’m going to report.” Then I’d change the conversation because, how to explain that I’m more interested in covering whether and how Americans (including Haitian-Americans) are helping Haiti to develop, less so, which Haitian lived a particularly miserable life this week.
Resilience is over-rated As we’re coming up on the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, Haiti will find good traction in mainstream media; summer is a slow news time. The outlets will describe in detail the suffering and misery of orphans and camp dwellers. They will express shock, horror, dismay that six months on, rubble still covers many parts of Pótoprens. Of course Haitian women will have broken new ground or are muscling through horrid circumstances. The horridererer, the better. Near their end though, all of these stories will plug “Haitian resilience.” And somewhere, someone who is not a Haitian currently making do without running and potable water, electricity or medicine for their diarrheatic and/or rash-covered child will be happy that someone, somewhere thinks Haitians are strong.
Doing God’s work I see missionaries. They wear matching T-shirts, the bold-colored lime green or electric blue kind that schools make children wear so they’re easy to find if misplaced while on a class trip. Other than Times Square, this is probably the only time in my life I’ve ever been around so many people from the global Bible Belt.
People are everywhere On all of Pótoprens’ sidewalks, as in any other city in the world, people are on the move. The most noticeable however–besides women plodding through while balancing plastic basins of sale items on their heads–are those who don’t move at all. Giuliani would go bananas if he saw the number of people “loitering” on these streets. Imagine dudes leaning up on the wall at the entrance to the corner store except that here there is no corner store. Now add their mothers and sisters. Clear a space on the ground for sitting and in front of each, place a few trinkets or food (roasted corn, small stacks of mangoes, toiletries, plastic slippers, jeans) to sell. Now, repeat the same–dudes, mothers, sisters, trinkets, food–every two steps for five miles. Judging by the lax posture and aimless gaze of many, hardly anyone buys their goods. Either that or each sale amounts to very, very little (consider the competition along this imaginary five miles). This is a typical sidewalk in Pótoprens. Nearly 3 million people live in a city that supposedly, was built for 500,000.
Never forget Driving along the outskirts of Pótoprens the other day I saw children bathing, by the side of the road, in black gutter water. Along the same stretch of road I saw a sow pig and her piglets, snouts well into another pile of garbage. They were covered, head to tail to hoof, in black gutter water.
All the foreigners are white, all the blacks are Haitian I finally realized that, here, as an English-speaking black person, I’m an anomaly. Even after they realize that I don’t speak kreyól, Haitians still assume I’m Haitian, i.e. of Haitian descent. I’ve spent some time explaining and repeating that no, not my mother, father, grandfather—no one in my family is from Haiti. And the other day, an American commented on how well I spoke English. To be fair, I was on the Haitian, i.e. black, side of the room.
Big house, toilet doesn’t flush Some seemingly middle-class homes—brick-walled with decorative curlicued wrought iron window work fortified by impregnable 10-foot cement walls—have no running water or a working toilet. I think about that whenever I hear complaints that the more than a million people living in tent cities, three-four-six months after the quake, still don’t have regular or any access to (regularly cleaned) latrines or comfortable shelter. Something fundamental broke in this city and the earthquake didn’t do it.
I’m supposed to end this post by mentioning Haitian resilience. But so much of this popular effort to either remind the world that Haitians are not victims or, pump Haitians up (as if they asked), strikes me as dangerous. It reminds me of the “strong black woman” meme that is also popular in the United States and was used during slavery to justify, for example, working pregnant women in the fields. Unlike my wife and daughter, the owner rationalized, these black women are extra hardy. They can take it. But, really, can they? Should they have to? Ultimately, what does the Haitian government, its elite and business class, as well as the international community, believe ordinary Haitians deserve? I look at the people I’m driven by (I share a ride with three other journalists and a driver, E.) and wonder about their internal lives. Resilience is great but even better? Running water and sanitation pou tout moun.