March 9, 2015 / Praxis
On geography, state fairs, and deep-fried nostalgia.
May 19, 2010
In March of 2003, I returned to Haiti for the first time in two decades. I was aching from hours of stooped sitting in the minivan from Cap Haitian to Papay in the Central Plateau. For the past few days, members and supporters of the Papay Peasants Movement (MPP) had come on foot and mules, on the colorful tap tap buses with names like “God Come to My Rescue.” They came carrying sleeping mats of straw and neat bundles tied with rope as their sole possessions, and they slept anywhere there was space: on the dining room floor, on the patio outside our guesthouse, in this very meeting room. Yet they never seemed tired. At three in the morning, they awoke for breakfast, and remained wide-awake for dance shows, concerts, political theater, and all-night vigils.
It was the worst drought in years, but the rumor of lavalas was in the air. These floods were as violent as Haiti’s politics. They sent people scurrying for shelter, destroying crops and sweeping away the dirt roads that linked mountain villages. Despite the possibility of rain, over a thousand people peered out from under the corrugated tin roof of the MPP meeting hall and murmured in anticipation.
I scraped my metal chair along the floor, dragging myself closer to the bobbing plastic fan near the podium. Onstage, a colorful mural depicted a man in a white straw hat drawn low over his eyes, saluting us with a machete, and seated next to him, a smiling woman cradling a basket of fruit. A Roman Catholic bishop gave us a short blessing. Behind him hung a giant banner that read “Thirty Years of Resistance: MPP Against the Plan of Death.”
An electric bass guitarist casually plucked his strings and then without warning, the room exploded with sound. We jumped to our feet. The beat of the two-step meringue, created by slaves as an adaptation of the French minuet, was led by the congas. The marimbas, wooden xylophones from Africa, chimed out their melody and were quickly supported by a powerful bass. A choir seemed to spring up from nowhere. “We ask for justice, Amwe!” the crowd sang in Kreyol. “Save us!”
After countless refrains, the singing and dancing stopped, and I sat down to catch my breath. Onstage, two men pulled aside a burlap cover to reveal the outline of Haiti drawn in chalk, with some lumps of charcoal, a few kernels of corn, and a handful of millet spread on the dusty gray floor. A man at the microphone cleared his throat.
“Haiti was once a lush, green land, a paradise, a Garden of Eden,” he said. “But now Haiti is a fallen paradise.” His voice changed from elegiac lament to angry defiance: “We’re tired of having our hopes dashed on the rocks of poverty and insecurity.” His voice rose: “It’s time to stop complaining; it’s time to get up and clean up Haiti!”
With these words, someone blew a conch shell from the back of the room. Rebelling slaves had used the lambi, or conch, as a signal during the Haitian revolution, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave who took the French Revolution’s motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” to heart. In 1804, several years after the successful American Revolution, the Haitians founded the second republic in the New World. The first nation borne of a slave revolt, Haiti directly influenced Simon Bolivar’s struggles for independence in South America, while the United States and other slaveholding countries quarantined it to prevent the spread of similar revolts. The MPP gathering was one more notch on the timeline of Haiti’s history, a history of revolt and struggle.
The scene onstage had changed again. Thick, brown bamboo stalks crisscrossed the floor. Stacked next to them were plump yellow papayas, green plantains and mounds of tangerines, all encircled by leafy potted plants. The heavy smell of sweat and dust mingled with the tangy scent of fruit. At the center of this Garden of Eden was a pintade, a brown guinea hen native to Haiti. It ducked its red head, confused, and tried to slip the rope tied to his foot. “We dream of eating our own food,” the man cried. “The way Haiti used to be!”
“Fok Nou Goumen,” we sang together. “We have to struggle to make a change, to protect this nation!” I wondered about the wisdom of carrying this broadcast live on the radio, considering that at the previous MPP Congress, someone had been caught with a hand grenade, and last year, a member had been shot and left for dead. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the head of the MPP, had himself been arrested and interrogated.
I could see that Chavannes, who would later be awarded the 2005 Goldman Prize for his environmental activism, was clearly adored by this crowd. At one point, he was asked if he would consider running for president. “My place,” he said, “is not in the Presidential Palace, but with you.” Chavannes told us there were alternatives to the Plan of Death; just as two hundred years ago Haiti had inspired the world with its slave revolution, Haiti could again be an inspiration for the world.
Haitians had managed to wrest their independence from France. They had done this largely with their bare hands and little else, wielding machetes and burning down houses, spreading so much terror that slavery no longer made sense. They had managed to keep Napoleon at bay when he wanted to recapture Haiti, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” whose sugar and rum made it France’s richest colony. Haitians had managed, despite the demands of reparations payments by France and the economic sanctions by slaveholding countries, to remain a nation—though one in which an elite exploited the peasants, repeating colonization’s pattern, a domination by the few over the majority.
With all its flaws, Haiti was not owned or run by outsiders, and most Haitians were extremely proud of this independence. When U.S. Marines invaded in 1915 to “end political chaos,” and then occupied the country until 1935, Haitians yet again banded together in resistance. They fought to drive out the occupiers who controlled the national bank. They fought back against the military enforced segregation the U.S. Marines had known back home and against a system of forced labor that looked too much like slavery.
Thousands of these Haitian resistance fighters, the cacos, were massacred, including several of my great-uncles. One leader’s mutilated corpse was displayed in public, lashed to a door, like the victims of lynchings left hanging from southern trees. But if brutal French colonialism couldn’t crush the Haitians, neither would the first American occupiers.
Emigration among the small but vibrant middle-class and intelligentsia was almost unheard of before the notorious regimes of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”), who received support from the United States. As Chavannes spoke, he managed to touch on all these parts of Haiti’s dramatic history. He knew how Haitians live willfully with one foot in the past. They honor the ancestors and talk to the dead, never doubting that the spirit is as substantial as the flesh.
As Chavannes spoke, I could see all around me the visible effects of economic policies implemented by bureaucrats in far away air-conditioned offices. I thought of the old woman we had passed yesterday on our way here, begging on the side of the road, and the children calling out for money at the airport. Each and every one of them had a painful story of surviving in the margins of a global economy.
Haiti’s other story was more difficult to articulate, though it shimmered all around us—in the painted mural onstage, in the starched white shirts and neatly pressed trousers of the men, in the bright dresses of the women who balanced precarious bundles on their head with seemingly little effort, in the improvised songs that greeted us. The cabins lining the dusty roads might not have had any frills, but their surfaces were painted, often in joyous blues, yellows, and pinks. The wood planks that made up their siding were scalloped and carefully sculpted. The artistry of ordinary Haitians surrounded us.
Everywhere we turned, there was evidence of things unseen. Where there were no paints or pots or instruments, there were jokes, proverbs, and prayers. Wherever color could be applied to the dull harsh surface of poverty, it was. There was a reason why American artists such as author Zora Neale Hurston, choreographer Katherine Dunham, filmmaker Maya Deren, and painter Lois Mailou Jones had considered Haiti their muse.
At dinner, I noticed how at every small moment, the greatest care and pride was taken in craft and appearance. Even the carrot and beet salad had its variations. At one meal, the purple beets were arranged in a cross-shape; at another, the beets lay in an oval, framed by carrots. The songs and sculptures, colors and food, the folktales and proverbs: all of this from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. No one who has been to Haiti can say that Haitians are poor in spirit. Yet the material poverty of the majority was clearly grim, and it has only deepened since then.
* * *
On the final day of the congress, the rain came. There had been no real rain for two years, and even the brief rainy seasons were now more dangerous because the rampant deforestation had worsened the frequency of flash floods and mudslides. And with those drops of rain, the songs of thanks in the meeting hall grew louder and continued into the night.
From the window of my room, I watched a father and son sawing wood to make signs for the march the next day. We were leaving that morning, before the march, where violence was a distinct possibility. As an American of Haitian descent, I was of course an outsider, but I could also see and hear things differently than those in the center. And it rained, and they sang, and I sat outside of myself as if in a dream.
But this was no dream. Chavannes announced that the United States had invaded Iraq. We had only one radio from which to gather the scanty details. The Haitians were sure that now they’d be forgotten. They could never have predicted that in seven years, a devastating earthquake would bring them the attention of the world.
During a restless night, I listened to the vigil from the main hall. First the Mass, with the nuns in sky-blue habits who I’d seen earlier that day. Then the chanting, a mix of African and Gregorian, pained, yet also defiant. Suddenly the music sped up as if to rouse us all from our dreams and remind us of the battle ahead. “Fok Nou Goumen!” We might fight on.
At around five in the morning, when bombs might have fallen on Baghdad, there came the sound of soft guitar and marimbas. I thought I might be dreaming when I heard the same song I’d danced to the day before, a song played by the troubadours, about not having enough money for a house, and not having love.
But this was another song. In the distance, I heard gospel music, but it took me a minute to figure out why it sounded so strange to me—it was because the lyrics were in Kreyol. We need to love each other, the woman sang, her voice drifting across a land that was fast becoming desert.
* * *
Haiti is a land where proverbs tell the truth. The most famous Haitian proverb is, “Deye mon gen mon,” there are mountains beyond the mountains. Now that the television cameras are gone, many people have forgotten the struggle Haiti faces. If we are serious about helping Haitians rebuild their nation, we must move beyond the language of charity to the language of justice. It’s time to speak of solidarity instead of relief. In the words of Dr. Jacky Lumarque, Rector of Université Quisqueya, Port-au-Prince, “The hardest time is still to come, when we have to rebuild and spontaneous solidarity fades away. It is up to Haitians to get organized with the help of a network of friends acting out of solidarity rather than out of the search for media visibility only.”
I once read about a Haitian man on crutches at a demonstration protesting human rights abuses. When the journalist asked the man why he was there, he replied, “Deye mon gen mon.” My father interprets this to mean that life always gives you more opportunities. My mother says it means life always brings you more sorrow. Haitians live with the wisdom that both are always true.
Nadine Pinède earned her PhD at Indiana University and is an Elizabeth George Foundation Scholar in the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Twin Cities Reader, Radcliffe Quarterly, Literary Newsmakers, the Matrix Anthology of Literary and Visual Arts, and Soundings Review.