I have a link with Haiti. 21 years ago I spent a few weeks in the country, after being invited by Jan Hoet who has lived, and devoted much of his life, in support of the country and it’s people. I spent most of my time there in the capital city of Port-au-Prince but also went into the heart of the country, Mobin Crochu, which left me quite overwhelmed. Getting there first of all but also witnessing local living and working conditions was a total shock to a young, white, privileged woman at the age of 23. When I returned I wrote a thesis on the subject of US interventions towards Latin America, focusing mainly on Haiti. For quite some years now I have a foster son in Haiti, through Cunina, which is what I consider to be my small contribution to at least one young human being’s future. That is how connected we are, Haiti and me. At least that is what I thought.
Watching a program about Haiti on Belgian National Television recently made me realize I am still greatly touched by what is going on there, and more specifically what is not going on there. In the course of these 21 years the country has seen political turmoil, hurricanes and 2 earthquakes. Through all sorts of aid and relief programs, money was transferred to rebuild the devastated homes and infrastructure. Based on what I saw on television the country is still in the exact same dreary situation like it was 21 years ago. Buildings were constructed and went down again, similar to governments and economy.
People in Haiti are not worried about climate change or rising populism and couldn’t care less about international Women’s day. They want to survive and they dream about a better life, a better world is too far out of reach. They are not used to turning to either government or neighbours to solve their problems, they will try to fix things themselves. Only God and the lottery can be of useful assistance. They live in the moment – mindful as we would say – not caring about what comes the day after. Give them a dollar and they spend it.
People were constantly approaching me and touching my white skin when I was walking the streets of Port-au-Prince. They wanted money “Hé Blanc, give me one dollar” and by looking at them I could see they assumed I had plenty of it. Little did they know about my life and financial situation as a student but insignificant were my issues as a student compared to their everyday struggles. It made me feel uncomfortable, I felt threatened and misunderstood. I was not there to enjoy a cheap vacation, I was there to figure out and appreciate Haiti but they couldn’t be bothered about that. I was also appalled by the tons of dirt and litter I saw and stepped on throughout the entire city. But mostly it was the stomach-upsetting smell which was horrendous. I can still recall the smell and how if left me nauseous.
In the heartland there was a completely different vibe. But first we had to get there. We had to cover 150km to Mobin Crochu which took us 2 days. We started off on a paved road, heading all the way up to Cap-Haitiën in the North of the country. We drove along the beautiful coastline, with white sandy beaches and no-one on it. On our way we had to deal with holes in the tarmac, trees in the middle of the road, and car wrecks – or rather bus wrecks – blocking our way. I was wondering about the death toll on this road but didn’t pop the question for fear of knowing the answer. From Cap-Haitïen to Mobin Crochu was a bumpy off-road ride which did cause some uneasiness and bruises. We arrived in the tiny village featuring some houses, a school, a hospital and a church. The place looked desolate but peaceful. People were away working on the fields or selling whatever the fields gave back. Children were playing. The atmosphere was less hostile, probably because they were used to seeing strange Belgian people around. I talked with the locals, played volleyball, had a drink, bought some of their local ‘art’ and went to church. I saw people living a simple life, without too much hardship and more closely together.
Numerous blows and setbacks have forced the people in Haiti to adopt a survival mode and to focus on the short term. Despite heavy fund raising through numerous NGOs – no other country has more NGO organisations per capita as Haiti – there still is no infrastructure or solid democracy, despite heavy but not exactly altruistic promotion by the US government over the past decades. I ended my trip 21 years ago with a dinner on the shady terrace of the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a French Victorian-style hotel in the middle of Port-au-Prince but completely hidden away in a quite street. it was a magical place, like a sanctuary in the middle of complete and utter chaos. The hotel is famous as it was the inspiration for Graham Greene’s novel the Comedians. It is also a known place for journalists and writers to come together at the most critical times in Haitian history. I felt greatly inspired when I was there at the time and was glad to see that the hotel is still operational and reservations are welcome. Not on Booking.com though but hey, this is Haiti !