When I think if Haiti, the first image that comes to mind is my son Andy and me sitting in our folding chairs wedged against the chain link wrapped boulders that form a sea wall along the beach at Grand Goave. It is sunset, the tail of a steamy August day that we spent building transitional housing to get families out of tents, followed by a murky swim in the Gulf of Gonave, stroking through the silty grey-green water created by the constant erosion of the Haitian hillsides, to reach the line where the water turns grey-blue. The transition is crisp; the grey-blue water is both cooler and sweeter then the muddy stuff closer to shore, but hardly refreshing against the pressing heat. Dinner at the Mission House will not be for another hour or so and we have adopted the habit of cocktail hour to watch the sunset.
The scene is worthy of a resort in any idyllic tropical island. Except, of course, there are no cocktails at the Mission House, so we have nothing to lubricate the imagination. Except, of course, that we sit in folding chairs propped against boulders instead of in sleek chaises bordering a pool deck. Except, of course, that the ornamental buoys bobbing on the sea are really empty plastic bottles bunched together to mark the locations of rickety traps below. Except, of course, that the logs hewn into canoes are not charming set pieces but are the actual boats that Haitians ply out to sea each morning and night in their attempt to eek out a living in this pre-industrial country. Except, of course, that you have to squint through the detritus washed up on the beach, past the laundry drying on rocks and the squabbling crowd at the mouth of the Grand Goave River, where people wash their clothing, their motorcycles, and their bodies in the same muddy water. Except, of course, that this scene will never be confused for St. John or Tortola or Martinique, because, after all this is Haiti, where resorts exist only in our heads.
As we sit a young man strolls along the beach. He swaggers with the casual air of nowhere to go, nothing to do. He moves towards the sun, falling fast towards the line of the sea, just north of where the cliffs of Petit Goave crash into the sea. A moment before his lithe form blocks our view he jumps up, spikes his fist to the sky and lets out the exuberant shout “Haiti!”
Andy and I exchange a glance. He raises his eyebrow and says, “You’d never see that in the United States.”
Americans are a proud people, patriotic boosters of a beautiful, bountiful country, a political system rooted in equal opportunity and the material benefits that flow directly from our obvious goodness. It is a chauvinistic pride, drenched in the certainly of American Exceptionalism and the belief that if fortune shines more brightly on us, it is because we are more deserving.
Haitian pride springs from a completely different source. It is the pride of the survivor, the underdog; the black sheep of nations. Corrupt, backwards, poor beyond comparison, yet vibrant in its identity, resilient to absorb the shocks of politics, economics, and nature that never seem to cease in this fragile, eroding country.
At one level our countries can be viewed as similar. In the eighteenth century Americans overthrew an oppressive monarchy and formed a Republic of most noble intentions. Forty years later Haiti did the same thing, throwing out the French Plantation owners who had turned Haiti into both the most productive Caribbean nation as well as the most oppressed. At the time of the 1815 revolution, Haiti had the highest proportion of black slaves in the New World.
But the similarities cease upon achieving independence. Americans in 1781 represented the full range of a society. We were well-educated, had robust resources and the transition from being a colony to being a nation was a smooth one. At the time of the American Revolution, the standard of living for the average American was greater than that of our counterpart in England. Is there another case in history where the rebel was more affluent than his ruler? Is it any wonder that once independence was achieved we were able to build on its success almost without pause?
Toussaint L’Ouverture led the slaves to overthrow the French in 1815, but once the French were gone, there was no underlying structure upon which to build a nation. No institutions, no economy, no way to translate the wealth that colonizers extracted from the Haitians to use for their own purposes. The people were poor and uneducated and no one in the world would recognize, let alone assist, the world’s first Black Republic. They were on their own, and even if they did not flourish, they survived. Haiti remained insular, creating such introverted policies as denying foreign land ownership, policies that keep Haiti apart from the greater world but also preserve its independence. Haiti has been racked with corruption and malevolent dictators, but aside from a pesky invasion by the US through the 1920’s, Haiti has remained independent.
It is almost 200 years since Haiti became an independent country, and by any measure, it is a mess. Yet when I am there, when I see the young man jump for joy against the August sunset, I intuit the great value that Haiti has to offer – to me and the entire world. The value of Haiti is not in its success, but in its perseverance. The value of Haiti is not in being proud of plenty, but in being proud in its meagerness. The value of Haiti is in understanding that life has worth, even joy, without accoutrements.
I often say the people in Haiti are poor but not unhappy. In the United States poverty is seen as a weakness, a character deficiency. Poor people are ascribed as lazy, difficult, or stupid. In Haiti poverty is a fact of life. Almost everyone is poor, it the standard condition and therefore does not carry negative connotations. When Thomas Hobbes wrote that ‘the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish’ he could not had Haiti in mind. For although life in Haiti is always poor, relatively short, and sometimes nasty, it is not brutish and never solitary. Haiti is a society rich in community, rich in the understanding that we cannot survive this alone, nor would we want to. In many ways, I find the values espoused in Haiti exact antitheses of those in America.
On January 12, 2010 Haiti shook with a 7.0 earthquake. Three percent of the population died that day (that would be nine million Americans), 22 % lost their homes (66 million equivalent Americans) and 33% of the citizens needed emergency aid (100 million Americans). I often say, only partly in jest, thank god the earthquake struck Haiti because if it had happened here, we Americans could never have borne it so well. In our society of entitlement, we are up in arms if the trains are delayed or the overnight snow is not plowed before the morning commute. We have lost our ability to persevere, to accept nature’s vagaries as beyond our control. We expect emergency declarations, government aid, and restitution to anyone damaged.
I am not justifying the horrors of the earthquake in Haiti. In truth, it was a mild earthquake and if Haiti practiced contemporary buildings practices, the loss of life and property would have been much less. That is why I work in Haiti, trying to establish better standards for ‘the next time’. I don’t suggest that passive perseverance is a better strategy for coping with life than the rampant drive to ‘fix’ things that is the hallmark of America. I only suggest that each strategy has its limits and we have much to learn, to value, in how Haitians make peace with, and even celebrate, a world most of us would find unbearable.