It is a perfect tropical night. Warm, soft and inky black, you feel like you could dive into it. Far off, a preacher is bellowing into a microphone in some stucco church or revival tent. Closer to where I am, the gorgeous young Haitian girls who tend the nearly deserted bar are playing Buena Vista Social Club, and salsa-ing from place to place instead of swanning around like they usually do. I’m checking the Radio-Canada news, which is announcing a cold snap in the Quebec City area and wind chills of -25 to -30 through Saturday. I’m wearing shorts, a t-shirt and leather sandals, drinking a cold soda on an open terrasse. Not the kind of conditions which encourage a person to pack her bags quickly. But pack them I must, because tomorrow we leave.
On our second full day in Port-au-Prince, we drove a short ways out of the city with Jean-Marie, up and up and up and up to a lookout point where we could get fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice (fantastic) and see the whole city. I had a nice chat with Alex, the driver, who is just as friendly and unflappable as Jean-Marie. We had to dodge a few souvenir touts, who were (sadly) probably desperate for a few dollars, and aggressively hawking overpriced painted boxes and carved rocks. “You don’ wan’ souvenir Haiti? Aw come on…”
My mother was looking for the holy grail of Haitian artwork, and it was not on that trip that we found it. More on that later.
The guys took us next to a Baptist mission in the area, the “Conservative Baptist Church”, the very name of which sent shivers down my spine. The Baptists are conservative enough, so “Conservative Baptists” ? They sold a lot of relatively inexpensive art and cooking supplies, and we had filled up a nice basket before I picked up a flyer detailing the mission’s work. According to the information which the American-founded project hands out to potential donors, Haiti was “consecrated to Satan in 1804.”
“Although over 96% of Haitians are nominal Christians, over 40% still practice voodoo (sic, the name of the belief system is vodou), and a much higher percentage are influenced by the fear that voodoo brings.”
The solution, of course, is for people to turn their backs on their own religion and culture and join these folks’ church, where they are given a workshop job and a small salary and “encouraged to tithe regularly, so the Gospel moves forward.”
Think about it for a minute. It’s not actually garnishment, but what Western employer would dare try to tell its employees what to do with their wages?! Let alone the uninformed, bigoted, narrowminded attitude toward the cultural and religious beliefs of the people they claim to work with and for. Back in Quebec, I recently had a long talk with a First Nations (Wendat) guy who was helping me with a cross-cultural communication project. He said that in their view, the Creator intended for people to worship him in different ways, so anyone who tries to change another person’s religion is being disrespectful and accomplishing nothing. I wish all spiritual people thought like the Wendat did.
From small slights like Danielle (who is definitely in good faith) being here out of a grudging sense of duty, to the syrupy religious colonialism of the Baptists, to screw-ups like Bill Clinton’s dumping of Arkansas rice to feed hungry Haitians which ended up choking out the Haitian rice industry, to the cholera epidemic itself, which has killed more than 8000 Haitians. Nepalese UN peacekeepers accidentally contaminated a river, which led to the epidemic (cholera spreads in tainted water). At the time, Haiti had 99 problems but a public health crisis wasn’t one– probably the one problem they did not have. Haitian doctors interviewed at the time said there had been no cholera in Haiti for 100 years before the cholera incident, which further rattled a country trying to bounce back from the effects of extreme poverty and the earthquake. The UN formally refused to compensate the victims and, to add insult to injury, continues to blame the epidemic on some kind of ingrained Haitian cultural resistance to hand washing (Note also that they do not expect the problem to go away until 2022 at the earliest). The gall…
I ask you, with friends like that, who needs enemies?!
On a lighter note, as Alex was driving down the mountain, we heard a high-pitched, insistent squeal. We had no idea what it could possibly be. It was Mom who spotted the squealer…a pig, who a bunch of young men were trying to tie to a motorcycle! Dinner, or roadkill? Choose Your Own Adventure…
I spent the latter part of the afternoon interviewing a few members of a sculptors’ collective, which I’ll detail in a (near) future entry. On the way back, we drove through the overwhelming dust and noise of Port-au-Prince. “Look!” Mom said. I looked. In front of a crumbling shop front, next to an enormous pile of rubbish, on top of a dusty wooden wheelbarrow was…an immaculate white coffin. In life, filth, dust and noise, poverty and danger, in death, a calm place to rest. Makes you think of an English euphemism for dying, “to go to one’s reward.”
Working-class Haitians, like working-class people everywhere, often work two or three jobs to make ends meet or to give their kids a better education than they themselves had. If I’m not mistaken, Alex has two kids in university. He’s a chauffeur by day but in the evening he’s the co-manager of a Créole restaurant. Or so he told us. At his invitation, we stopped by Chez Alex, which was not far from the hotel. No sooner had we started enjoying our grilled fish and lager than the lights went out. The click of high heels as someone walked past us. Then the light went on again.
“In the back we have a guest house,” explained Alex. “We rent rooms, to women, by the hour.”
I saw the steady, glowing, red neon light in the corner of the room and a light began to dawn in my brain.
“What if someone saw their husband, or their daughter, or their sister in here! That’s why we turn off the lights.”
The lights went off and on again, except for the red neon one. I finished my fried fish. We had just eaten in the front room of the Best Little Whorehouse in Haiti.