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This week was the second anniversary of the Haitian earthquake and I came across a few picture essays about the country. I wish I could work out how to get some of the pics up here but I can’t so I am going to post links. (The pics shown here are mine.)
Two of the essays are from Foreign Policy, a magazine more used to publishing longer written works than photos. But hey, Haiti is so photogenic (as I posted here in my amateur slideshow in December) so it makes sense.
Here are a couple of links from the professionals.
The first is startling for its subject matter, the 1 per cent of richest Haitians. Startling not just because of their wealth, but because they are so unembarrassed about posing for pictures in a country where up to 80 % of the people live on less than $2 a day.
There’s something obscene about being so rich when so many around you are so poor. The subjects in these pictures might contribute in many ways (one of them is the new president) and they might not be responsible for the state Haiti is in.
But one of them bought the land around his house so poor people wouldn’t squat on it and sully his views and that tells its own story. It all makes me a bit uncomfortable. All credit to the photographer for making it happen.
The second essay compares Port-au-Prince today with the day after the earthquake and tries to show where progress has been made and where things haven’t changed (or worsened). Ben Depp, who took the pics for my Chronicle of Higher Education piece, took the new pics for this one: Ben’s website is here.
There are a couple of written pieces too. Foreign Policy has a piece urging the US to help Haiti recover by accepting more Haitian immigrants. (Brazil recently closed its door to the influx of Haitians but agreed to help out the several thousand already here.) The piece says:
“As we approach the second anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake, which killed around 150,000 people and destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, there has been mixed progress. About half of the rubble has been cleared (if that sounds slow, consider it took five years to remove far less rubble in Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). About half a million people are still living in camps in Haiti — but that is down from closer to 1.5 million two years ago. Meanwhile cholera, introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops, killed over 7,000 people in the aftermath of the crisis — the infection rate has abated but the disease remains endemic.
Progress after a disaster is always slower than hoped. For all the benefits that the donor community has provided in reconstruction, one reason for the lack of progress is the often snail-like pace of heavily bureaucratized assistance efforts in the chaotic post-catastrophe conditions of weakly governed states. For example, only about half of the cash promised by donors to Haiti for 2010-2011 had been disbursed by last month — and the figure for U.S.-given aid is only about 30 percent. There is still a huge gap between donor disbursement and impact on the ground; a lot of the resources have been disbursed only as far as implementing agencies like NGOs and international agencies, many of whom have yet to spend the cash.”
And here’s an excellent piece in Rolling Stone from August based around Sean Penn’s role and the convoluted decisions taken by aid workers and authorities.
Penn didn’t like it one bit, and wrote this long response. But I think the story is detailed and well researched and well worth a read if you have the time.
My Haiti story came out last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education and although it’s only available to subscribers, I’m uploading the front page of the paper so that anyone interested can get a sneak preview.
Anyone who truly wants to know more about higher education in the world and is willing to invest in a subscription can learn more here.
For me, it’s now back to Brazil. The two stories of the moment are Mulheres Ricas, the sensational reality show on band.tv (see a great piece on it here in The Guardian) and the inexplicable success of Michael Teló’s song ‘Ai Se Eu Te Pego.’
The former offers an insight into the lives of Brazil’s shallow and clueless super rich madams and is (unintentionally) hilarious. The latter is just inexplicable, even though this guy does a valiant job of trying.
Decide for yourself in this youtube clip.
Haiti doesn’t lead the world in many positive indicators, but it is surely a global leader when it comes to life and atmosphere.
It is one of the most photogenic places on the planet, a riot of colour, noise and vibrancy.
I took pics everywhere I went over the last week, sometimes jumping out the car to snap a shot and often just lifting the camera to the car window as we sped by.
I particularly love the hand-painted signs that adorn doors and buildings.
Here are some of the best pics in a slideshow, with apologies for the quality.
I got robbed last night.
Someone grabbed my camera as I was taking pictures on the road into Petionville. It was dark and a hand flew into the car and snatched the camera. It was over in a split second and the thief disappeared before I could see him. There aren’t many street lights in Port-au-Prince.
It was another reminder how things have changed here. Perversely, Haiti was much safer under the military governments of the early 1990s. The generals killed their countrymen at will and everyone knew to keep their heads down. Few people went out at night.
The return of democracy means that the average Haitian has much more freedom. They are still afraid. Policing is poor, street lighting minimal and security is a constant worry. But it’s a small step forward.
The downside is that Port-au-Prince has much more of a Wild West feel to it. There’s a dangerous edge I never encountered before.
Getting mugged won’t stop me doing what I was doing. I still believe getting out and about is the best way, and the most fun way, to get to know a place.
But it was a bit of a fright.
In my week here I’ve been veering between delight at being back and depression at how Haiti (and the international community) has done so little to rebuild the nation.
It can be done. This New York Times story shows how the Iron Market, one of Haiti’s oldest and best-known landmarks, can be rebuilt in double quick time with nominal amounts of investment, hard work and determination.
As home of the government and symbol of the nation, the palace should have been the first thing they targeted, to give a highly visible example of how the government was working to get Haiti back on its feet again.
I’ll get into the reconstruction efforts, or the lack of them, when I sit down to write stories for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But it’s clear to anyone and everyone that Haiti hasn’t done a fraction of what it needs to do. It’s desperately sad.
An interview cancelled on me at the last minute yesterday and I had two hours to kill.
I grabbed the chance to take a walk by some of my old haunts, in front of the Holiday Inn where I spent nights on the balcony hunkered down recording the firefights outside; past the now destroyed Palace Hotel, where I spent my first nights in Haiti wondering why the lights wouldn’t work (the answer was there was no electricity); and along rue Capois, past the also demolished French Embassy, the Museum of Haitian Art and up towards the Oloffson, the legendary old gingerbread hotel featured in Graham Green’s novel The Comedians.
That mid afternoon stroll reminded me of a fascinating thing about Haiti; people look you in the eye. In most countries people are petrified to look at a stranger. Here they engage you, hold your gaze, almost willing you to say something.
Kids will often make a comment, or smile. I’m sure that’s because I am white. I obviously stand out in this overwhelmingly black nation. But it’s not just that I am white, it’s also that I am walking. In Haiti, to be white is to be rich and to be rich is to stay off the streets, away from the heat, the poverty, the dust and the danger.
Many of the foreigners who live here now don’t walk. Some are not even allowed to walk. Their NGO bosses forbid them because they think it’s too dangerous.
I think they’re missing out on a fundamental part of Haiti. OK, there are rarely any pavements and when there are they are covered in vendors or cars or smouldering garbage. It’s mercilessly hot. It’s painfully noisy. And there’s that lingering smell of dust, exhaust fumes and garbage.
But it’s eye-wateringly fascinating and getting in among it is vital if you want to properly understand the country and its people.
I love walking in Port-au-Prince and one of the reasons is that you never know what’s going to happen.
As I walked along rue Capois yesterday, a small kid came up to me and held out his hand looking for money. I smiled and slapped his hand in a high five (or low five in this case). I kept on walking but held out my palm behind me for him to give me a low five back. Instead, he grabbed my hand and started to walk along beside me.
I ruffled his hair and told him I didn’t have anything for him and we both smiled and he ran back to where he was standing. I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else.
A few blocks further on, there were two guys sitting alongside a truck parked on the pavement. They were wearing purple robes and shaking maracas. One had two razor blades in his mouth that he kept flicking out with his tongue. The other had a pile of broken glass in front of him. I had no idea what they were doing. I gestured if I could take their picture and they nodded yes (see the pic above).
Some of the things you come across on Haiti’s streets are pretty memorable. Yesterday’s walk reminded me of an old saying that I thought summed up the mystery of the country just perfectly.
“When in Haiti, believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”
Few foreigners resided permanently in Port-au-Prince when I lived there from 1993 to 1995. There were four or five full-time journalists, numerous priests and pastors (few of whom I saw, much less knew), and the odd aid worker.
That changed when the UN Human Rights Mission came into town and scores of young and eager diplomats arrived.
But still, those numbers pale into insignificance compared to the thousands of foreigners, largely aid workers, who are living in Haiti today.
Whole industries and businesses have been built on ensuring their lives are less Haitian and more comfortable. There is a lot of resentment over what they are doing (or not doing) and how much they are getting paid for it.
Back in the 1990s, Port-au-Prince was in my mind divided into two parts. The downtown area was distinct from the rest. It was the political and commercial area, where the shops and businesses were, and where the embassies and parliament were, too. It was a manic cacophony of sound and fury by day and deadly silent by night.
Up the hill in the cooler air, away from the chaos, the slums and the garbage that washed down the mountainsides when it rained, was Petionville.
Petionville was where the rich stayed and it was much more sedate. There was one road up to the main plaza, with its Caribbean style hotel and old church, and another road down. Both of them were lined with restaurants and art galleries.
Today, the situation has been inverted. Petionville is unrecognizable from the quiet relation it once was. The downtown area was among the worst hit in the earthquake and so businesses and incoming NGOs have set up shop in Petionville. (Apparently the exodus began a few years earlier when crime and insecurity hit their peak, sending merchants fleeing.)
Now, Petionville is every bit as bustling and chaotic as the downtown was. The streets in and out are jammed with traffic. There are stores on every corner. Gyms, supermarkets, patisseries, and beauty salons proliferate. Much of the commerce has sprung up to meet the needs of the NGOs and their workforce.
Traffic was so bad today that I had to take a mototaxi to one interview. The driver said he was the first blan, or foreigner, he’d ever given a ride to. The sun was merciless and needless to say there were no helmets.
The ride took five minutes but it was hair raising and my Creole came flooding back to me. Or at least one word did. Dousman, Dousman, I shouted in the driver’s ear as he revved away from one stalled traffic jam after another. Slowly, slowly.
Not a word you’d associate with today’s Petionville.
Monday was my first day in Haiti for 16 years and what an experience it was. It felt like everything and nothing has changed.
What was most disconcerting was that I recognized almost nothing. I lived in Port-au-Prince for two years but I could have been coming into a whole different city on that half-hour ride from the airport.
That could be down to my failing memory, but it could also be that the city has changed so radically.
I was surprised how little earthquake damage is visible. I don’t know if that is because most of the worse-hit buildings have been torn down or if it’s because I just haven’t seen enough of the city yet. But I thought it would be worse.
A friend suggested – with typical Haitian black humor – that I never noticed the difference because when I lived there in the early 1990s the city was so dilapidated it already looked like an earthquake had hit it.
What was familiar was the heat and the dust and the chaos. Ninety degrees feels much hotter and the dust seems to form layer upon layer on your skin as the day goes on.
The roads are madness, with more cars and trucks and everyone challenging everyone else in a deadly game of vehicular chicken. I saw two accidents on my first day.
There seems to be much more commerce now, but that’s natural in today’s globalized and commercialized world. Cell phones are everywhere, as are billboards.
Haiti is much more expensive than I thought it would be. The small pension where I am staying is trying to charge me more than it cost for a night in the Sheraton Miami on Saturday. It has a toilet three feet from the bed, with no door between them. Most hotels are full because of an IDB conference here this week.
Apart from that, it feels good to be back. Haitians are some of the sweetest people I have ever met and they remain utterly charming.
I sat on the kerb outside my pension yesterday morning waiting for my ride. Just down the street, three or four people were talking. After about 15 minutes two of them, both young men, walked past me on the other side of the street. They gave me big smiles and a “Bon jour, monsieur!”
It was a beautiful start to my day and a lovely welcome back to my old home.
Here’s my piece from Time on her election and what her government might be like.
And here’s another one of my offerings with a bit more analysis on the Christian Science Monitor website.
I was flipping through the papers today and saw two quotes that I feel are worth sharing here.
The first is a fairly straightforward quote that sums up the problems facing Haiti as it seeks to reforest. Deforestation has been a chronic problem for Haiti and the country now only has about 2 percent of its original tree cover left. The quote was in Andres Oppenheimer’s column in the Miami Herald.
“If you calculate realistic planting activities by year, if they had a good forestry department it would take 44 years to reach a forest cover of 10 percent of the country,” said FAO forestry expert Walter Kollert. “That tells you something about the magnitude of the problem.”
The second relates to Brazil and how Brazilians see the US. The quote comes from Jose Geraldo Couto and is in Mais, a weekly supplement of Folha de Sao Paulo that is supposed to be the place for longer and more thoughtful pieces. But he says this (and the translation is mine):
“As everyone knows, many Americans, perhaps the majority, think that to like sex is to have some kind of disease.”
Couto writes about football and cinema and is usually a fairly thoughtful kind of commentator. But this is pretty unbelievable. It is graphic proof of just how little even intelligent Brazilians know and understand the US.
Come on, people!
Only one bid so far for this beautiful painting. It’s worth way more than $1000 so I am asking you once again to pass this on to rich friends, arty types, anyone who might be interested or anyone who knows someone who might be interested in owning true Haitian art.
Let’s get the bidding going at $1250.
Jackie Onassis bought Haitian art. Iggy Pop loves it and has many pieces. Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme is a huge collector and a keen backer of young Haitian artists.
This painting is by Prospere Pierre-Louis, one of the great naïf painters of recent times. Pierre-Louis’s father was a houngan or voodoo priest and voodoo has greatly influenced his work.
He is so highly rated that a painting of his adorns the cover of Selden Rodman’s wonderful book Where Art is Joy, the definitive guide to Haitian painting.
Remember, Prospere Pierre-Louis died in 1997 so the value of this painting can only rise.
Send emails with bids to: email@example.com.
I will not take a penny from this sale. All proceeds to go the Haiti relief fund.