On Saturday, I found myself doing something I had not done in a long time: I sat in a living room full of Haitians eating du riz ak pwa, speaking Kreyol and plotting with others to help create real change in Haiti. I had known these Haitians (and Friends of Haiti) no more than a few minutes, but the formalities of the "getting to know you" dance seemed insignificant; we were family. Crisis has a way of bringing people together, ready or not.
(image of the Haitian National Palace 2006 credit)
On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, at 04:53:10 pm, a category 7 earthquake hit the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, changing the lives of millions of Haitians instantaneously. Countless thousands died, and hundreds of thousands more are homeless and displaced. Across the wall of the world, in every corner in which a Haitian could be found, time stopped. First came denial: It couldn't really be as bad as all that, could it? You know how the media loves to exaggerate and sensationalize things. When the reports became too horrific to minimize, the frantic phone calls to friends and family and the endless search for contact began. Where is Cousin Leon? Where is this sister? That brother? That child? Auntie Kettley, who had long become just a photo on the mantle you dusted from time to time, once again was a cherished member of the family who must be accounted for. (Image of Palace after the quake credit)
Those terrible first moments of confronting loss are gone. We have some idea of the extent of the devastation, even if we still cannot comprehend it. Now, the question becomes "What Next?" How does Haiti move out of the rubble? Like many other Haitian-Americans (and hyphenated Haitians the world over), I have been pondering that question for weeks. Is this truly the moment in which everything changes for Haiti? After all, life as we knew it has ceased to exist. Is it possible to create something anew? I hope so. The last thing Haiti needs is one more disaffected cynic mired in conventional, status quo thinking. But optimism untethered to reality and history is also is not helpful.
I have been listening with some interest--and much trepidation--to the international community's calls for change. The idea of a revival of the United Nation's mandate system has gotten some traction. Some call it a "takeover" of Haiti, while others frame it as a way to help Haiti "get back on her feet." However it is framed, I understand the sentiment. It has been frustrating to watch the singular lack of leadership displayed by Haiti's government officials. Sure, the institutions of government were lost in the quake, but a government is not its buildings. The Haitian people deserve a government that can give voice to their pain while visioning a new way forward and mobilizing resources to get us there. This government simply has not done any of those things effectively. But I do not hang my hopes on a UN mandate. History has taught me that Haiti has not fared well under the leadership of outsiders. Instead, I would like to see a focus on empowering Haitians to create their own future.
First and foremost, the Haitian economy must be revitalized. Long before the earthquake, Haiti had lost her economic footing. It had become a country that produces little and imports much. Haiti had become a land of mere consumers living off the fat of remittances sent from family living abroad and international loans. That must end. Haiti has a nascent textiles industry that must be revitalized, its agricultural capacity must be restored so that the land is once more capable of feeding her people. Ports and roads must be rebuilt to create the infrastructure for trade and commerce to flow. New industries suitable for the twenty-first century must be identified and cultivated. Do I have the answers? Of course not, but I understand that if the international community truly wants to help it must first learn to listen. The effort to rebuild Haiti must be led by the Haitian people themselves with the rest of us playing a supporting role. (photo credit)
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, every expat Haitian family I knew listened with tears in their eyes to one song: "Memories of Haiti" by Dr. Othello Bayard. As I sat around that room full of Haitians on Saturday, I could remember the faint strain of lyrics that do a much better job explaining the responsibility we as Haitian Americans feel to truly contribute to Haiti's rebirth:
Ayiti cheri pi bon peyi pase ou nanpwen
Fòk mwen te kite w pou mwen te kap konprann valè w
Fòk mwen te manke w pou m te kap apresye w
Pou m santi vreman tout sa ou te ye pou mwen
(Haiti darling, there is no better country than you
I had to leave you in order to understand your value
I had to miss you to appreciate you
For me to really feel all that you were for me).