Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny
Published on 27 December 2010
Why bother mentioning Hurricane Tomas, which caused deadly floods but killed only handfuls? To talk Haiti is to abbreviate discussion of smaller disasters
Since an earthquake launched Haiti from a nation whose dire poverty was old news into a nation the entire world wanted to hear about and heal -- a Haiti I visited and wrote about and grieved for -- I knew I wanted to go back. How would a Haiti that accumulates small catastrophes like odd socks do in the wake of massive destruction and breathtaking humanitarian aid? I hoped to tell stories of her unlikely success. But hard as it is to believe, despite epic fundraising and prime-time pleas from world leaders and Hollywood glitterati, in spite of a new version of "We Are the World" meant entirely for Haiti, by most measures the nation crowded on the western third of the island of Hispaniola is in worse shape than it was right after the 7.0 magnitude quake killed 220,000 residents, leveled its capital and displaced more than 1.3 million survivors.
Well, there's the government corruption, of course. And many countries that promised money haven't delivered. Crisis triaging continues 11 months later. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians will greet the new year in overcrowded tent cities where food, water and sanitation are wretched. Cholera has killed more than 2,500 in 60 days, a scourge medical aid workers and humanitarian groups tersely forewarned in a shaken country where huge numbers of people share and befoul limited water resources.
Why bother mentioning Hurricane Tomas, which caused deadly floods but killed only handfuls? To talk Haiti is to abbreviate discussion of smaller disasters. You have probably heard the most morbid statistics, how most people live on less per day than a U.S. adult spends on soda pop. How the growth of nearly 30 percent of children under age 5 is stunted. How only 30 percent of urban residents and 20 percent of their rural kin use "improved sanitation facilities." You know, toilets.
Twitter is made for describing Haiti, because, really, how many characters do you need to say life is improbably hard? Grammy Award winner and philanthropist Wyclef Jean said it all last year, with 81 characters to spare, when he told the St. Petersburg Times, "Animals in the U.S. live better than most people in Haiti."
Radio newsman Carel Pedre is known as the Ryan Seacrest of the Haitian airwaves and new media. His use of tweets and digital photos to inform the world about the earthquake that ravaged his homeland won him a 2010 Shorty Award. In the midst of recent demonstrations marked by automatic weapon fire and burning road blockades, he tweeted three words that were retweeted by 28 others and then others and so on and so forth: "I love Haiti." I can understand why. Maybe it's the resilience. Or the flare for the dramatic.
Trucks drive slowly through slums in Saint-Marc and Port-au-Prince, blasting sanitation jingles put to kompa dance music. At the airport, porters ask for tips in the form of hand sanitizer. Haiti might seem without resources but its people are the very definition of resourcefulness.
Cité Bob, Pétionville, Haiti - 12/7/2010 - Residents of the Cité Bob tent camp, who have fashioned huts from tarps and sheet metal, receive vouchers for 10 gallons of water a day. Cité Bob is one of the smallest of 25 camps in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where Mercy Corps oversees sanitation and water safety (Bruce Ely / The Oregonian)
It certainly isn't on the roads; barely a quarter of the 4,000 miles of surface roads are paved. Drives of 60 miles take hours; a cross-country journey from southernmost to northernmost tip, more than a day. And two-thirds of the mountainous island isn't accessible by four-wheel-drive at all, geographically isolated to all but hikers or donkeys. Trucks fail even in the face of suburban hills in Pétionville, above the capital, where on one winter evening a vehicle carrying aid workers and journalists made five attempts up and especially steep face before sliding back down.
Rivera admits to being an uneasy veteran of two kidnappings in Haiti. He wanted out of Haiti earlier this month to avoid a third abduction. Because of the violent protests, the country's main airport closed and all flights were canceled. Blockades put a stop to traffic around the city for days. On the third day, Rivera negotiated with a driver to attempt a run to the Dominican border. Nearby, at the front desk, a manager listened to radio reports of looting and destruction. Faraway gunshots sounded like firecrackers. Drums pounded without interruption. The hotel's basic kitchen was down to two meal choices -- spaghetti bolognese or a pair of thin hamburger patties, with rice once the buns ran out.
The hotelier's eyes filled with frustration. "We're still trying to bounce back from the earthquake," she says. Rivera was trying to leave, and photographer Bruce Ely and I joined him when he managed to hire Pierre, a videographer/driver/fixer to speed us from the hills over Haiti's capital to Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, five hours and several world tiers away. On the desperate drive through Carrefour Beauge, a slip of a town on the way to the border crossing at Malpasse, our car struck and killed a little yellow dog. One more victim of unrelenting chaos.
In January, we left Haiti to the sounds of Creole lullabies, sung to soothe orphans setting out for hopeful lives with their new American families. Nearly a year later, we fled to the stench of burning things and the thrum of our hearts, which echoed in turn the Vodou drums, the desperate grief and the smoldering, electric discontent.
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