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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti, Cherie

The earthquake in Haiti is too terrible to contemplate, much less discuss in a silly preacher's silly blog.  If you have not already given money to Lutheran World Relief, do it now.  You can come back here afterward.

No, we have nothing to say about the earthquake, or the stupefying death toll, or even the seminarian son of a Lutheran bishop who was killed there.  But we have to talk about Haiti, so we'll talk about something else entirely.

It was, I think, autumn of 1986.  I was about 18 months out of college; I had already done the customary quick tour of Italy, Spain and France, and worked as long as I could stand at my first "grown-up" job, tapping out Morse for the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.  I had as yet no sense of a vocation, religious or otherwise, but I had its first stirrings:  the little animal inside, biting and scratching to make me stop what I was doing and look around for something -- anything -- else.

So I gave up a cozy apartment by the Gowanus Canal, ditched my paltry few possessions, and bought a plane ticket for Port-au-Prince.  There was no do-gooderism involved here, mind you; I wasn't traveling with a school or an NGO or anything like that.  All I wanted was a warm place to spend the winter.  And I figured Haiti would be cheap.  After all, they were in the middle of a revolution.

After four months or rioting, Baby Doc had skipped town in January.  Since then, there had been chaos, as would-be tyrants seized and lost power, one after another.  The people, poor and oppressed as they had always been, were poorer and more oppressed than ever. 

I spent a month in Haiti, and another month in the Dominican Republic.  There are more stories than I could possibly tell here.  Some are funny, some frightening, many smack of Graham Greene or Joseph Conrad.  Some of my favorites are just gross:  A stream of goat piss, pouring down from the roof of a van, into the lap of the guy next to me.  The man underneath me in an open boat, where we were piled up like cordwood for an illegal border crossing, who vomited a seemingly ceaseless stream of yellowish fluid, and the woman on top of me, who looked down reflectively for a few moments and declared, "Bananas."

But here's one I think about a lot.  There was a fellow named Georges, about my own age, who showed me around the capitol occasionally, in exchange for hot-dogs and 7-Up at a little place near the Champs de Mars.  I realized dimly then, and realize more acutely now, that this tiny green-tiled diner, like something from the American 1940s, probably offered a level of luxury, not to say nutrition, that Georges could never hope for without somebody like me.

One day, after I had been there a week or less, we went to the Pantheon, a grandly-named museum, unremarkable except for air-conditioning and the anchor from one of Columbus's ships.  As we emerged into the miserable, swampy heat, we heard the sound of horns blaring, and then saw cars and trucks streaming out of the city center, followed by hundreds of people on foot.  All around us, the shutters of the shops were slammed shut and padlocked.

Georges grabbed one of the people running out of town, and spoke to him quickly in Kreyol.  Then the other man yanked himself free, and kept running.  George took me by the wrist, and began running straight into the crowd.

"So," I said, hurrying along.  "What's up?"

"He says there will be a manifestation -- a protest. He is running away because he says it will be dangerous.  He says there will be hitting and shooting.  But I say that's OK, I will be hitting and shooting back."

"Oh.  I -- uh -- I see."

"Wait," said Georges, barely hesitating.  "I forget, this is not your country.  I can take you back, back to your guest-house.  You want that?"

"Well," I said, "I don't know.  I kind of want to see what's happening ...."

"Then come on!  You will see what is happening, all right."

So in we plunged, swimming against the tide of smarter people, until after a while we found the buzzing swarm of protesters, and merged into them.  It was a big crowd -- press estimates ranged as high as 200,000, and I have heard (although this is probably untrue) that it was the largest protest in Haitian history.  For hours that day, we marched through the otherwise empty streets of Port-au-Prince, making our way slowly in a great curve back toward the are from which I had come -- the area near the Palais Nationale.

Oh, and there were cops -- in blue uniforms, marching and driving white pick-up trucks.  At one point, I was pressed tightly against the bumper of a truck, looking up at an officer wearing mirrored glasses and pointing a shotgun at my head.

"He wants to shoot us," Georges explained excitedly, adding, "And I hope he does!  I hope he does shoot.  Because then, after the first shot, the rest of the crowd will climb all over him, tear him to pieces."

"Ah," I said.  "Yes."  I didn't feel that I needed to point out the downside of this strategy, at least for the two of us.  

Later, a few of George's friends stuck a tape recorder into my face, as if they were journalists or historians.  I tried to sound like a freedom-loving American in support of a noble cause, but the truth is that I was a bit vague as to the cause at hand.  I gathered that the general momentarily in charge -- Namphy, perhaps, or maybe Joseph; who knows? -- was a dog.  But the more immediate object of the protest was the disappearance of Charlot Jacquelin, a reading teacher.  It seems that in the part of the world where "to disappear" is a passive verb (one does not disappear, but rather is disappeared), teaching people to read is a form of political activism.

"The government says they don't know where he is," Georges explained grimly.  "So we say, 'Give him to us alive, then.'"  And indeed we did -- signs all through the crowd read "Ban Nou Chalot Vivan," and we periodically raised a chant in the same words.

At last, we arrived at the wrought-iron gates of the Palais, the residence of the dictator du jour.  It was a big White-House style building, with a broad manicured lawn and a radar antenna sweeping back and forth on the roof.  I stood one one side of the gate, and on the other stood a team of soldiers in khaki uniforms, holding Uzis, or some other submachine gun.  I had seen guns like this before, but this was the first time one had ever been pointed at me.

From the crowd, somebody brought out the bicolor, the traditional red-and-blue Haitian flag.  ("It is the French flag, with the white part torn out," a guidebook had helpfully explained.)  This flag had been suppressed by the Duvaliers, but now it was back.  Ours was a large specimen, perhaps twenty feet on its long side, and protesters grabbed the corners and waved it up and down, while the rest of us danced underneath it.

I danced underneath it.

And here is the point to all  this.  The people in that crowd wanted, and deserved, a better country.  Their nation was the poorest in the hemisphere, and surely the most chronically ill-governed; the Duvaliers are in some ways a bright spot, a beacon of stability in Haiti's godawful history of coups and countercoups.  But they were dictators, and a popular uprising had driven them away; for a moment, it must have looked -- to Haitians, at least -- as though the country's fortunes were about to change.  It must have looked as though this was the beginning of a new and better time for their country.

One or two of the protesters started to climb the iron fence; I watched the soldiers with machine pistols swing their arms casually upward.  But they didn't shoot.  Even that small reprieve must have looked like a signal of hope.

It wasn't.  In all the years since, I have occasionally met travelers from Haiti -- most recently last summer, in Chicago -- and I ask them what they have seen.  Occasionally, somebody tries to put a pretty face on things -- "Signs of improvement," they say gingerly -- but usually they just shake their heads and say, "Worse than ever."  Of course, that was all before last Tuesday.

I wonder about the people I knew in those days -- Georges, and Chantal the waitress whom I later discovered leading a voodoo ceremony, and Charlie who took me to my first cockfight, and the small cluster of nearly deranged expatriates who still lived there then, apparently because they had no place else to go.  But mostly I wonder about the nation itself, and whether it is possible to go forever as it has gone so long.  And what will happen if it is. or if it is not.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, thank you!

mark said...

It scared the crap out of me when you went to Haiti. Now I know it should have!