Haiti: Resilience against Hopelessness

Esther Kreider-Verhalle, a contributing editor at DC, recently went to Haiti to teach a course on media ethics as part of the curriculum at the film and journalism school, Haiti Reporters, in Port-au-Prince. Here she presents her first report. -Jeff

As Philippe Girard has lamented in his history of Haiti writing about the country can be depressing. “One must consult the thesaurus regularly to find synonyms for cruelty, poverty, and thug, while looking in vain for an opportunity to mention hope and success unaccompanied by lack of.”

It is a mess here in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. Walking the streets of Port-au-Prince, one cannot ignore the squalor. The local market in the neighborhood where I am staying consists of mostly older women – marchandes – selling their produce and merchandise next to little piles of filth and omnipresent burning heaps of trash. Hens are running around, dogs are lying around. Pick up trucks honk their horns when passing through the small, unpaved streets, causing the sand and dust to sweep through the air. Sometimes, the women can only barely move their baskets with produce in time to avoid being hit by aggressively fast moving cars. Somewhere in a building that only has a few remaining standing walls, a religious service of some kind is going on. There is music, singing, clapping. Next to collapsed houses, one can spot impressive houses behind high fences that are rebuilt or seem untouched by natural disaster. The differences between rich and poor are stark. But everywhere, the air is hot, grimy, and dry.

Haiti’s recent history is a somber tale of man-made disasters and natural catastrophes: political ineptitude, economic collapse, racial strife,  hurricanes, tropical storms, and earthquakes. After the foreign interference of the past, in the form of colonialism and slavery, the modern day and well intended international aid-industry comes with its own list of drawbacks, encouraging a never ending dependency on foreign aid. Ills such as the plague of corruption and the enormous disparities between the large group of the poor and the small group of the rich, have been preventing Haitian society from evolving into a safe, transparent, and decent society.

Most intriguing for me is finding within the mess a certain level of organization. In a very different place and time, I remember a story of endurance, of the staying power by inhabitants of a small town. After a series of bombardments, men and women simply returned and lined up at a spot where a bus stop used to be. All that was left was a crater in a destroyed road, but the people figured that some vehicle would stop as had been the custom for years. They still needed transport from point A to point B. And indeed, every now and then a bus would appear seemingly out of nowhere, and stop to pick up commuters.

Now, in Port-au-Prince, I’m seeing how people have not deserted the space where once stood their house. Although a massive earthquake has destroyed the (often poor) construction of steel and cement, life has gone on in the same place that had been their home or their place of work. Home or work is now in a tent, or just under a tarpaulin sheet, without electricity or running water. But it surely beats living in one of the many camp villages that were put up after the January 2010 earthquake, where living conditions are considerably worse and chances of improvement are not encouraging. Of course, even  before the devastating earthquake, the lives of the majority of urban dwellers and, especially, of those out in the countryside, were lived in extreme poverty.

It is intriguing to see how the people here organize their lives against all odds, how they manage in a hopeless situation. It is interesting to observe the organization within the current state of disorder. Life has its own rhythm, not in the least slowed down by the dusty heat. Although the majority of people do not have jobs, or at least no steady ones, there are still tasks that need to be done during the course of the day, like cleaning, cooking, repairing, worshiping. People will come together, meet, talk and socialize. Kids will go to school, even though too many won’t. There is merchandise and food to be bought and sold. The day before my arrival a big soccer game attracted hundreds of people in the neighborhood who all surrounded one small television screen to pick up some glances of the game.

Given the sweeping differences between life in New York City and Port-au-Prince, my first impression is a realization that human beings are by far the most resilient creatures when it comes to making things work. The problem of course is that “making it work” is not good enough. People organize their lives, but in the absence of viable government and private Haitian institutions, and the lack of institutionalization of initiatives in general, life becomes dependent on chance, on luck. There is so much room for improvement on so many levels, but a solid structure to put the development in place seems eerily absent, as does an agreement among any possible interested parties on how to lift the country out of its current status.