Gen san nan tè a an Ayiti |Il y a du sang dans le sol d’Haïti | There is blood in the soil of Haiti
My body is of the earth.
It is ether, it is water.
It is fire, it is starlight.
My body is magic.
The red life within me
ties me to my ancestors.
This body is as much theirs as it is my own.
My skin is not the same colour as my mother’s mother,
yet I wield the magic she has gifted to me.
With my every breath, she lives.
- This poem and this post are dedicated to my grandmother who blesses me still.
On my second day in Haiti, I walked out of the hotel (the locally-owned Royal Oasis, I recommend it highly) on the search for food. I felt a light touch on my arm and turned to find a young girl about 10 years old, dressed in a school uniform and ribbons in her hair. She spoke to me in Creole, and I didn’t understand her. I asked her in French to repeat. She did. After about the 4th or 5th time, I realised she was asking me to help her cross the street. Without hesitation, I held her little hand and took her across to the other side of the intersection. Her sweetness, politeness and innocence left an impression on me. She was my first interaction with the regular people of Ayiti, people outside of the hotel who I was not paying to perform some service for me. After the arduous journey to get there (another long story), I had put up a wall, vowing to go directly from my hotel to the conference hotel and back, and just leave when the conference was over. But this girl immediately broke down that barrier I had put up and allowed me to open myself up to experiencing Ayiti.
And I regret nothing.
From 1781 to 1804, the estimated death toll of the Haitian Revolution, the enslaved African’s fight for freedom, was 162,000; some bleeding for liberty, and others for the continued opportunity to oppress. I learned about this revolution at secondary school. It was part of the syllabus for Caribbean History. We learned about it in as abstract a way as we learn about everything else that has happened in the past and been recorded in texts. It was just names and dates. And everything else that was learned outside of school was steeped in a Western narrative of impoverishment, civil unrest, the incompetence of African/black leadership, black magic and Voodoo. Haiti was scary. It was a place to dread.
But this not the Haiti I have seen.
While attending the Caribbean Studies Association’s 2016 Conference in Port-au-Prince, I witnessed the multiple and varied material and social circumstances of Haitian people, the tensions of race and social class that persist like everywhere else. There was impoverishment and beggars living on the streets and in holes on the side of the mountains around Port-au-Prince, a stark contrast to the mansions with indoor swimming pools and ornate architecture found in Petionville and higher up the mountain. There were the nightly blackouts in the Delmas, while the hotels were powered by generators. We were purchasing meals for 10 to 30US dollars, the equivalent of about 1800 Haitian Gourde, or a loaf of bread, a few cans of sausages, sardines, fresh chicken, rice and other essentials that can feed a family for a week.
We lived in luxury for a week, and I was pleased that we did, because I did not want to live any other way. But even with my grad-student-and-unpaid-employee-dry bank account, I was still in a position of privilege, living a life that most people would never be able to see and experience for themselves. We went to bars that could have easily been on Trinidad’s Ariapita Avenue or Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. If you were conferencing all day, you could easily have thought you were in Miami or Panama; a Marriott is a Marriott. Yet we were each in our own way confronting our privilege, of being there, of having material lives that are very different from the majority of people living in that city.
It’s taken me weeks to put my own thoughts together, because I was not sure how I wanted to frame this experience, what I wanted to share, and what I felt was the most ethical and respectful things to report on. In classrooms, I have discussed and taught about neo-imperialism, structural adjustment, NGO-capitalism and the global aid industrial complex, and about the destructive powers of the dominant Western narrative that continues to denigrate blackness. This was visible everywhere; from big corporations to the everyday institutionalised violence still committed against the Haitian people, including exorbitant school fees that limit access to education or the ongoing deportation of Haitians from the US, Dominican Republic and elsewhere. Despite this, the pride and resilience of Haitian people shone through, much like the relentless sun over the island.
Everywhere on the streets, one could see paintings, carving, iron works, and handmade furniture, among other skilled craftsmen and artisans, and women selling everything from fresh fruit and cooked food, to pharmaceuticals and small appliances. Everyone was working, selling something, offering their time and their skill. They were people with hardened skin but a gentle touch and generous spirit.
I struggle to figure out how I want to end this post, because this experience of Ayiti has not yet ended in my mind, in my body and in my spirit. I feel like there is so much unfinished business I have with that place. #Ayiticherie