Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Forgetting Haiti

''Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it's unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this.''--Edwige Danticat (via Tayari)

It’s easy to forget about Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is so hard to think about—even before this latest castatrophe—that, unless there is a hurricane or a new novel by Danticat, it’s easier to focus elsewhere.

Eight years ago this month, I spent three weeks on a service-learning trip to the Dominican Republic. We had been scheduled to go to Haiti, but the events of 9/11/01 worldwide and a coup d’etat in Haiti led my university at the time to prudently shift the trip to the more stable DR, the Eastern and more prosperous half of the island of Hispaniola.

It was one of the hardest times of my life: my husband and I read and studied Michele Wucker’s amazing book about the island, Why the Cock Fights; we read Edwidge Danticat’s stories of Haiti and Haitian-Americans, we read In the Time of Butterflies. We longed to lead our students on a trip about social justice. Instead, we worked with an orphanage in Monte Cristi, on the Haitian border, to build a wall. 

That wall became a metaphor for the barrier between the kind of aid work I believe in and the corrupt, self-congratulatory, neo-imperialist mission excursion that I found myself on, but not able to lead.

For all that was hard, I must admit that I was not sorry that we didn’t go to Haiti. My husband’s scouting trip to Haiti, in the summer of 2001 (before plans changed) had been intense and life-changing for him, but his stories of the rural mission in Northern Haiti that would host us, of the drums at night, of the village that was little more than a collection of shanties, made me painfully aware of how ill-equipped I am to comprehend the gap between the poorest in the world and myself. 

In 1804, Haiti became a free nation. The second democracy in the Western Hemisphere. In the two centuries since, it has failed—and we have failed it. I don’t want to make a catastrophe—or a nation—into a metaphor. I hope and pray for better days for Haiti. I texted “Yele” to 501501 twice this morning, sending my $5 two times to Wyclef Jean’s nonprofit. But when I see the Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. on television last night, mainly concerned with reassuring us that the first lady is fine, I boil with outrage at the intractability of a problem—theirs and ours—that I do not begin to know how to think about solving.

My college friend, the brilliant Annie Seaton (now a Dean at Bard College) suggests that this catastrophe—the earthquake and all the things (poverty, deforestation, buildings without re-bar in the concrete, political instability, racism) that make this earthquake so horrifying—is a result of the Enlightenment. I think that maybe she’s right. Maybe, as she suggests, we should all read Susan Buck-Morss on Hegel and Haiti and, while we pray for the victims, the survivors and all who help them, we should also try to think our way to a more just world, one in which Haiti would not always and forever suffer.

1 comment:

showhank said...


Are you saying that the Haitians would have been better off without the freedom that the Enlightenment brought? That they would be better off under the benevolent tutelage of the French?