So the Haiti chapter of my life and career has reached a conclusion, two weeks ago in fact on the day I flew out and had a small farewell gathering with my colleagues in the coordination office — cake to thank them for all their hard and continuing work, also to sweeten my own sense of parting. Indeed it’s bittersweet to leave an assignment where I worked with such great people on ambitions which feel productive and purposeful. That said – it’s also nice then to have some down time with family and friends, and a chance to gain a bit of perspective after what were certainly 23 full and busy months!
These are the last of my photos from Haiti: colleagues and friends at that farewell gathering; some kids and their parents (teachers?) at a neighborhood daytime pre-carnaval parade in early February (eek! time flies!), some of my favorite views and panoramas from PaP. Plus a little gallery of the flowers I focused on in these recent months, when events in the world and my work life sometimes got just a bit too heavy. In the end it’s all good – I trust we’ll manage to remain optimistic and hope for a bit more peace and friendship in this fractured world, eh? Over and out, for now…
Also, if you’re interested and understand some French, here are links to two interviews I did on the radio, in Canada just after departing PaP. To hear my part of the first link, click ahead to 8:19 in the program which starts at 6:00.
So it’s 2017, and I’m approaching two years working here in Port au Prince. One of the things I’ve always loved about this city is the views from the mountains out over the plain which is the core of the city; also, the views of the mountains, from when you’re on a rooftop in the city. This post is lots of individual shots I’ve taken over the past couple months – walking to work on a weekend morning, hanging out on the terrace of the Olofson Hotel, which is the grand old victorian-style institution in the heart of old town where it’s fun to have a relaxed breakfast every now and then. The earthquake affected the city itself — heart of town, where Olofson is — more than most of the other parts of town, and afterwards many businesses, NGO’s and other offices moved higher up into Petion-Ville and surrounding areas. Slowly the old city is rebuilding, and that’s great because more of the beautiful old houses are there, and that’s where the city’s historic core is — see some of my earlier posts , such as the about numbers in Haiti, with a few photos of the monuments to the first constitution and some of the early heroes of Haitian independence. (For example, https://somuchworldsolittletime.com/2016/10/09/41-26-23-and-other-numbers-from-haitis-history/)
In the middle of downtown Port au Prince sit quite a few monuments to Haiti’s early history: statues commemorating founders of the nation such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe; an unfinished tower which was meant to commemorate the country’s liberation from slavery at the 200th anniversary of the nation’s founding (1804); the marble-fronted three-sided column with texts from Haiti’s first constitution, drafted in 1801 by Toussaint Louverture, who is my personal most-want-to-meet person from history, along with Queen Elizabeth the first.
Also in the heart of town is the MUPANAH, musee du pantheon national d’Haiti. (It’s the building with the tiled mosaic features – the museum is underneath those unique skylights.) This fantastic site is both a truly interesting museum with displays on Haiti’s history from the native-American era to the present — and also a symbolic pantheon (guides tell us the actual earthly remains aren’t there, more sort of symbols or something – I haven’t asked for specifics) to four of the most important early leaders and founders: Tousaint, Dessalines, and Christophe, along with Alexandre Petion. Which bring us to the numbers game.
On a wall at the end are photos or paintings of nearly all the heads of state in Haiti’s history. Having now led groups of
international staff on downtown tours several times, always ending at the museum, I’m digging into more of the details. Last time, I read all the details under some of the presidents’ photos, such as when the Palais Nationale was built — the 1880s if I recall right. (That’s the president’s palace, which was badly damaged in 2010 and not yet functional again.) I also did some counting, looking for other ways to frame this nation’s complex, impressive and at times rather depressing history. How many elected presidents has Haiti had? 41. How many unelected heads of state and interim government councils or military juntas or councils of ministers has it had? 26.
Toussaint’s constitution was the first, in 1801. I’m sure it’s unique in human history as the very first time any constitution stated that slavery shall not exist. After all, Napoleon’s reaction when Toussaint sent him the draft for approval was to send hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of soldiers. Not hard to understand that the 400,000 or so self-liberated slaves here pretty much reacted to that with a “fuck you very much.” How many other constitutions? The total number of constitutions this country has known, starting with that 1801 version, is 23.
Most Haitians I’ve spoken with will explain that the US has invaded twice. The first was in 1915, an invasion which lasted until 1934. Like the more-recent US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Haiti continued to have presidents and a government formally its own…but with a bunch of American soldiers toting guns around, you can imagine how empowered that government and its citizens felt, eh? (And let’s be honest about white American soldiers occupying a black republic in 1915 and how respectful they likely were?) In the 48 years prior to that first invasion, Haiti saw 22 heads of state. The second US invasion was 1994, when the marines marched in to restore an elected president (Bertrand Aristide) to power and remove a military government. In the years between 1986 and 1994, Haiti had seen 10 heads of state and provisional ruling councils. Progress is hard to build and continue, when governance can’t be stable and transition reliably, and when outside powers and groups wield such influence, or invade at will.
Obviously the nation, its people and its history are more than numbers. Obviously there are human families, individual human stories of success and frustration, failure and achievement woven into the 225 years since the only successful slave revolt in human history rose and burned down the first colonial plantations on the Plaine du Nord in 1791. The numbers are but one way in – an invitation for those wanting to explore more deeply to do so. At this time, in these weeks and months to come following Matthew’s unwelcome visit, I for one am trying to remember this.
Sunday afternoon in Port au Prince. There’s a great big mass of clouds, wind and rain named Hurricane Matthew, currently a few hundred miles south of us in the Caribbean and slowly working its way north. Seems that tomorrow, parts of Haiti will see massive rain, probably flooding, and very likely substantial risks to homes and lives and communities. For now, not much to do but wait: hasn’t yet started raining. My tennis buddy is taking a weekend in the mountains, so I’m at loose ends while also behind on both sleep and de-stressing recreation.
So I started thinking about all the clouds I’ve looked at from airplane windows the past two months. Figured I’d share some of them with you.
Trip one: late July (all the files are named yymmdd so you can tell which flight it was, and numbered in sequence, so if you think of the plane’s route, you can guess as I do roughly what we’re looking at – some landforms are obvious, others less so), the first time on a flight from PaP to Maimi that we went as far east as we did. Usually, the flights have passed just west of Ile la Tortue; this time the plane clearly diverted to the east, and I think it must have been to avoid a storm system: I think the first photo you see above is that storm system. Nothing like Matthew…but certainly on that day, flights were delayed all across North America due to storm systems, and we here had our little flight adjustments as well.
Trip two: the return leg from Miami to PaP, from the same vacation trip, in later August. I just love looking down at the islands, sandy bottoms and coral formations of the Bahamas. Then watching the shores of Haiti creep slowly closer and become landforms, towns and cities that I recognize and can place on a map.
Trip three: from JFK down to PaP this time, leaving quite early in the morning on a clear Sunday. Saw the moon rise; saw rainbows in clouds as we approached a somewhat cloudy Haiti. Saw deforestation runoff coming into the bay near Port au Prince, and the bump of the Commune de Carrefour just west of downtown PaP. Saw the mountains to the south of downtown PaP, which I’ve explored a bit by car and on foot. Again – numbered in sequence from sitting on the runway at JFK, to a view at Jamaica Bay as we took off…and all the miles of ocean, clouds, moon and rainbows and bays and islands between.
I’ve gotten off for another bit of a vacation at home in California, which has given me time to comb through my camera and folders for shots I’ve not yet done anything with. These are just a few bits and pieces of miscellany — from a ride-along I did earlier in the year when our outreach team did some sensitization work on services for survivors of sexual violence at a town on the northeastern side of PaP; plus a few other bits and pieces such as the lady with her little mobile copier set up on the square in Petion-Ville by the Mairie, police station, church, etc.
Sugar cane has a long and mostly painful history here in Haiti. Before it became the Republic of Haiti, this part of the island generated huge profits for the slave-holding French colonists. So it was with a mix of interest and discomfort that I took in all the sugar-making implements and buildings at the Sugar Cane Historic Park (Parc Historique de la Canne a Sucre), a private park, meeting space, restaurant and tourist site on the eastern edge of PaP. I was there for a full-day meeting but enjoyed the breaks and the end of day to explore the site a bit, and as you’ll see it’s rather picturesque. Given its incredible and utterly unique history, its mix of rugged mountains and beaches, its quite unique and rich culture and art — Haiti by rights should be the biggest tourist magnet in the Caribbean in my opinion.The mix of poor infrastructure, weak security and health care baselines, and other obstacles make it more of an adventure-tourist or even “humanitarian tourist,” especially for all the one-week teen-aged missionary visitors that fill the planes from Atlanta in their shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops). But I know the government certainly hopes tourism can grow and I for one hopethat the baseline infrastructure and other conditions improve sufficiently that Haiti’s manifest attractions for tourism can be more evident to the masses of North Americans who seek a safe, interesting and warm escape from cold winters :-). It’s been months since I last posted, and I apologize. Given the long delay, I’ve thrown in a few other random shots from around PaP, mostly views of houses on the hills. Every photo file should have a name which will tell you roughly what it is. Hope you enjoy!
The year’s gotten off to a busy start – lots of work, long days and weeks, not quite the amount of free time that gives much chance to get out and about with a camera, or sort & post the photos once I’ve gotten out. Still and all, I did manage another hiking weekend back to the lovely Auberge la Visite, at Seguin. This really is a lovely if challenging hike. (Because it’s rolling, very steep ups and downs, and almost all in blazing sun unless you start really early or get a cloudy day…without rain: you would NOT want rain on this road). This time I walked again with a few work colleagues. We started really early, and in late January so the sun rose above the mountains too the east a bit later, and we actually walked in shade much of the time.
The stars at night were wonderfully clear and abundant – we spent time studying the milky way & deciding which were planets, which stars, and which satellites. On the way back we were actually surprised when we reached the end: if you look in some of these shots below, you’ll notice one can see the road most of the way – and we thought we had yet another village, and another down & up road segment, to cover before reaching our end-point. The end point, if you’re curious, is the last village that any regular 4-wheeled vehicles come to from the north. From the south, you can get to about where we spent the night and even a bit further – but the middle chunk of this road is so steep and rocky that it’s foot, mule, and motorbikes only. I, for one, would not have any wish at all to be on those motorbikes: it’s how I felt backpacking the grand canyon; I trust my own feet more than the mules (in the canyon) or the motorcycles.
There are mules here but mostly as pack animals: very few were being ridden by people, though I suppose after they drop off their carrots or scallions at the market or transport towns, the folks may ride them back home… (I’m sort of assuming there are brokers or agents in the village where we start, who buy up what all these folks are carrying, then shuttle it the rest of the way into the PaP metro area…but I haven’t investigated further.) The only real downside to this time of year for a visit is that the waterfall is more of a lovely water trickle, not much of a fall. Oh well. Enjoy the shots, even though they’re probably quite repetitive with the ones I put up last summer…haven’t checked but I suppose I will shortly, just to see how repetitive I’m getting! Happy spring, to those of you in northern climes where spring has sprung.
In this shot below, plus the one at the very end and a few others scattered through the post, you’ll see these rock-strewn hillsides. My current suspicion is that this is the result of erosion — deforestation, as we know, has led to a lot of Haiti’s topsoil being washed into the ocean. I figure these rocks may have become more and more exposed, as the topsoil has washed away…but again it’s something I’ve not checked into. They make for an interesting sight, though, eh?
Mostly when I’ve flown out of the Toussaint Louverture PaP Int’l Airport, we’ve taken off toward the east, then circled around north-westward until the airplane has climbed to its altitude and established its flight pattern toward whatever US airport it’s aiming for. On my last trip, I had a window seat and I took full advantage: friends and followers may remember how much I loved staring out the window and capturing the views in PNG and over the Coral Sea between PNG & Australia…well, the views on this route are equally wonderful. All photos in this post were taken during one flight, following that trajectory up and over Haiti and on to Miami Int’l Airport. Two highlight full-size shots are kicking it off here, out of order, but the gallery below is strictly in order as the plane advanced along its course. I’ve named each photo and hope if you run your cursor over it, you’ll see which was when; where I knew I was looking at xx or yy geographic feature, I cited it. I find the contrasts between Haiti, the other islands and the finally Miami very interesting. And many of the shots nearly modern-art-like in their beauty. Hope you agree!
My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
There will be 54 candidates on the ballot when Haitians vote for president on Sunday. Driving through the streets along one of Port au Prince’s wealthier neighborhoods recently, I commented to a Haitian colleague on a trend I’d noticed: no posters visible anywhere around for the Lavalas party. By contrast, in other more crowded parts of town I’d noticed plenty of posters. I figured I knew why – and my colleague’s response put it clearly: Lavalas’ supporters are the children of Dessalines, and the wealthy neighborhood is the children of Petion. Indeed, the wealthier neighborhood is named Petion-Ville, and in the poorer parts of P-V you will find a few Lavalas posters, but not higher on the hills where the big houses are.
Haiti’s founding, as anyone who’s followed my blog knows, inspires me with awe. That several hundred thousand slaves could rise up and free themselves, in the process pushing back the armies first of Spain and Britain, then finally being the first army in the world to defeat the concentrated attempt of Napoleon Bonaparte to force their submission, is a simply unique event in human history. Unfortunately that early history held the roots of a rich-poor, powerful-powerless divide that remains present in Haiti today. Describing the wealthy as children of Petion refers to his ancestry as mixed-race son of a wealthy white plantation holder, compared to Dessalines’ (& Henri Christophe’s) purely-African ex-slave background. But it’s worth noting Petion made himself president in the republic that governed the south of the country, after Henri Christophe made himself king in the north…after both he and Petion were among those in the government conspired to kill Dessalines shortly after Dessalines crowned himself emperor for life. So things got complicated fast, and it’s not always purely about power, wealth, or ethnic background.
On Sunday, Haiti holds the first election since 2010. Races for parliament and for municipal posts have been successively postponed by the current government, the last several years. In January, parliament was dissolved and the current president, elected five years ago and in office since February 2011, has been ruling by decree since. He stated that he’d use his power of decree only to ensure that elections did happen this year for all offices. On Sunday Haitians will vote not only for the next president, but also for all municipal offices around the country, all deputies and most senators. There will almost certainly be a run-off for president at the end of December, and many of the coming weeks will doubtless be absorbed with arguments over which two candidates will be on that final ballot.
Americans of my generation remember Bertrand Aristide and his election as president in 1990. Many then lost sight of him, and got lost in the details of Haitian politics fairly soon after, but to recap, Aristide was ousted seven months after taking office (military coup), returned in 1994 to finish out his term; was succeeded by Rene Preval (presidents can’t serve two terms in a row, and can’t serve more than two total, under the post-Duvalier constitution); was re-elected in 2000 and held office from early 2001 until forced out of office by an organized and armed opposition movement in 2004; was then succeded after the 2005 election again by Preval, who was succeeded after the 2010 election by the current president, Martelly. The party Aristide founded, Lavalas, is being permitted to run candidates for the first time 2004 – and though the party has lost some of its shine since the idealistic days of the late 1980s and 1990-91, it seems to me that for many they still represent hope. For many others, it seems they call up fear of a return to violence and strife. I’m hoping for a reasonably peaceful weekend and an electoral result that most Haitians feel is fair enough. Either way, I have to admit I find the all the posters fun, seeing how politicians all over the world promise the same things, do the same things…a pothole on our street just got fixed last weekend! Just like NYC during election season, eh? Above all I join many friends and colleagues in hoping for a maximally non-violent weekend and subsequent counting period…
It’s been a busy several weeks here at smw, slt — busy enough that I’ve barely brought out the camera lately. I did manage a long-delayed walk around our neighborhood last weekend with the intention to collect many shots of the plethora of campaign posters, signs and graffiti which have proliferated in recent weeks as the country prepares for the biggest day of voting in, I think, its history: on the 25th of October there will a chance to vote for all three levels of government (president, legislature, and municipal posts all in one day). In the past, I believe these different levels have usually been elected in different years. Before then, I’m sure I’ll put a large collage of electoral miscellany up here, but for the moment I’m missing a few things I’d like to find, photograph, and add before I post for my much-appreciated, loyal and lovely readers. As it is, I’ll give you a wee appetizer of a sort – in the photo above you will see some posters if you look a bit, and in one of the other shots they’re there but you have to look harder to see them. 🙂 Hope you enjoy these little snaps ’til the larger selection’s ready.
smw, slt has been on a bit of a holiday back home in northern California. Here in the US I’ve enjoyed the antics of the current republican presidential front-runner – ah, such inanity. Back in Haiti where my work remains, tomorrow will be the first round of elections in what bids to be a remarkable election year: the last time Haitians went to the polls was not long after the earthquake, in late 2010. A president was elected then in a second-round run-off, with substantial and documented influence from the US and the OAS to eliminate one candidate and include that eventual winner in the second round instead. The government led by that president has not managed to realize municipal or legislative elections since then. They’ve been scheduled more than once in past years, but always cancelled before happening. With no electoral mandate remaining, parliament was dismissed in January and the president is ruling by decree, with a stated goal of using that power to ensure elections happen this year before his own electoral mandate runs out. Tomorrow is the first round for 2/3 of the senate (1/3 of them apparently still have legitimate electoral mandates, or some kind of special deal), and all deputies. I’ll fly back on Tuesday, and am following this from a distance with interest.
If the schedule goes as planned, late October will be an even bigger day: second round for these candidates (where no one wins a clear majority), first round for president, and the only round for all the mayors and other municipal posts that have been filled by appointment rather than election since their own elected terms have run out in recent years. Campaign graffiti on walls has been omnipresent in Port au Prince for months already, but formal posters and billboards started springing up everywhere, about a month ago when the official campaign season started – I think July 9 was the date. I’ve really enjoyed watching all the many posters pop up, seeing all the graffiti, and realizing how similar the political slogans are to what I’ve seen in any country anywhere. (My favorite, not yet captured on camera but I’ll try when I get back, is the female candidate for a post in the Western Department of which PaP is part, whose slogan is “Les actions parlent plus fort que les mots ” — actions speak louder than words. I wonder what those actions will/would be if she’s elected!) I really hope that this big electoral season manages to happen fairly and without any major violence or problems, and thought maybe some of my readers would enjoy seeing signs of the season from Haiti, even though I didn’t get as many or as much variety as I’d have liked.
One thing many outsiders (especially in the US) know about Haiti is the popular refrain “mountains beyond mountains,” to describe the highly mountainous terrain most common here. Recently I’ve gotten out again a bit: up to Hinche in the Central Department here, driving through lovely green farming terrain along the way…and, indeed, getting a sense of the mountains which criss-cross this country, rank upon rank. These are mostly just shots taken during the drives, or in and around the hotel we stayed at in Hinche. There are also a few bits and pieces from here in Port-au-Prince and environs, just for fun.
It’s election season, with the first round due on August 9th; I’ve been trying to capture shots of the election posters and so on, and hope to put some of those up for your enjoyment in another post within the next few weeks. Right now, I’m about to take a short vacation back home in California, and I admit I’m excited for some down time. Hope everyone’s well, and enjoy the shots.
A thing I learned long ago is that Haiti is almost entirely deforested. In the last post I put up, from a short trip I took up the coast to Arcahaie (about an hour north of PaP), you could see evidence of this fact in the hills I showed. And PaP too is nearly treeless – and full of cars, people, and dust at this time of year. Last weekend four colleagues and I drove to a town about an hour south of PaP, beyond Kenscoff village high in the mountains at the southern base of PaP, to a point where even a good 4wd vehicle really won’t be able to cover the road any more. (As we learned in our onward walk, motorcycles DO make the onward journey, though it’s not one I’d relish making that way.) In any case, the point of being deposited in this little town is that one can – and every weekend some handful of expats living in the capital, and apparently some straight-up tourists as well – do get dropped off in that town and start the walk further south, aiming to end up (after four or five hours of walking in hot sun on mostly shade-free road) and spend the night at what turns out to be quite a lovely little guesthouse set inside what’s now Parc Nationale La Visite. One reads, in a lovely coffee-table book available for sale at the guest house, that the national park is recently created, and that less than 2% of Haiti’s forest is protected. During the visit we played cards and chatted a bit with another American guy who’s part of a program to pay landowners to not cut down their trees for firewood or to sell for making charcoal, construction, etc.
As you’ll see in these shots, the deforested steep mountainsides can certainly be beautiful…but look closely and you’ll also see apparent evidence of erosion, and of rocks left behind in landslides. (Some of the rocks seemed to be eroded lava from more ancient flows, but I’m no geologist so I might be quite wrong.) We wondered how much longer before all the top soil washes into the sea…and without trees to rot and replace it, what will be left? Again, not my area of expertise, but when I consider the amount of agricultural products I saw being carried on people’s heads or panniers on mules, and which we ate during our short stay at the guest house, I hope enough is retained to keep providing PaP etc. with food to eat. (That handful of expats hiking the road weaves into a much larger stream of foot, mule and motorcycle traffic, much of which is clearly geared at getting nice fresh produce to market.) For us it was mainly a lovely 2 days of walking and enjoying beautiful vistas and some stretches of forest which, without realizing it, we’d all grown to miss during our weeks and months on the dusty, busy streets of PaP. I did edit the photos, but not enough, I acknowledge. Sorry – after weeks with little but buildings to look at, I got a bit shutter-happy.
You’ll notice these three shots in a row show the same things from different angles and perspectives. My attempt to give a sense of how things fit together in this steep mountainous zone of windy roads...
Arcahaie is a small city on the coast north of PaP, and the first place outside metropolitan PaP that I’ve been so far. This was a work trip, with the team to visit some of the locations where we’ve been supporting oral rehydration points for cholera patients (creating a spot where very sick people can get rehydrated fast, after traveling often quite long distances from even further into the hills you see here on bumpy roads by foot, motorcycle or animal of some sort). The idea is for the staff of these points to get patients well enough to be out of danger and then transfer them to a facility with full care until they’re really well. Anyhoo, though, since this is a personal not a work blog, and since this was the first view I got of those many mountains beyond mountains for which Haiti’s become so well known by so many who’ve never been here, I took my camera and made some photos. And yes, the hills are as sadly deforested as I’ve read…and yes, it was as hot as it looks. (It was brutal.) Still and all, great to get out and about, and the local neighbors we ran into were friendly and interested. One of the kids above took a few selfies and enjoyed looking in the screen after. The shot below, and two in the gallery of circles further down, are the only ones in this set from Port au Prince rather than Arcahaie: if you enlarge the shot below, and look closely, you’ll see that there’s a city below and behind the trees & the lovely red flame tree. I drive past this every day on my way to work — that’s the main part of the city of PaP as seen from Montagne Noir which lies directly to the south. I waited and waited and waited for a clearer day, but it’s been hazy and humid most of the time and I worried we’d lose the bright color of the flame tree which makes it so beautiful. Further down are a close up, and a bigger shot, of plants growing from one of the stone retaining & protective walls which surround so many compounds around Montagne Noir.
Napoleon Bonaparte wrote the following, in his memoirs from St. Helena: J’ai a me reprocher une tentative sur cette colonie, lors du consulat; c’était une grande faute que de vouloir la soumettre par la force; je devais me contenter de la gouverner par l’intermédiaire de Toussaint. (Thanks to Madison Smartt Bell in whose magnificent historical-fiction trilogy on the Haitian revolution I found that.) He’s basically saying that he made a big mistake trying to reconquer the self-liberated former slaves of this colony, instead of being content to rule the colony through their leader. I took the photos in this entry during a weekend morning exploring the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince, which is well-stocked with monuments to this country’s absolutely astounding history. So I’ll just give a quick and highly selective review of that history and ask a what-if or two.
Imagine that a man born into slavery, and without formal education, rises to a point where he organizes and leads a slave revolt which fights off the Spanish and British, restoring control of Hispaniola (the whole island, at one point) to the French Republic. Toussaint Louverture, spurred by Napoleon’s statement that the colony would need some new laws, then drafts a constitution which leaves the colony basically part of France but with a lot of home rule (some quotes are seen below in the three tall photos); and Napoleon basically responds by sending out a massive fleet, betraying and arresting Toussaint so he dies in prison in France…and then the former slaves of Saint Domingue get really mad, and with the help of yellow fever and the leadership of Dessalines and a few other key formerly-slave generals manage to permanently push the French out of the island, thereby defeating one of the world’s most powerful nations.
You could be forgiven for thinking such an interesting story would be widely known in the world. You might think the great democratic powers of the day – France and the U.S., eh? – would have welcomed this new republic & bastion of freedom, and developed warm ties of trade and friendship with it. (Especially if you consider that it was Napoleon’s grinding defeat here which forced him to sell the Louisiana territories to the US, step one of our gradual expansion to the Pacific.) You’d be wrong – France ran naval blockades and always threatened invasion until they forced the Haitians to buy themselves free with crippling debts that they were still paying well into the 1900s. (Thought experiment: what if Britain had done the same to us??) The US – with an economy in the south that depended on slave labor and continued to abduct people from West Africa and ship them across the ocean in chains for many more decades – didn’t choose to recognize Haiti’s independence until 1860. (Thought experiment: what if my own ancestors had crossed the ocean in chains and been sold in chains upon landing, rather than being given a homestead of redistributed formerly-Native American lands on the great plains?)
This country has an absolutely amazing history and I find it shocking, if sadly predictable, that its important place in history has rarely been appreciated beyond its shores. It has seemed to me since the 1980s that lots of people outside Haiti are free with opinions about what the country should or shouldn’t do, what’s right or wrong with its government or economic system, etc. – and I really wonder how many of those people with those opinions have taken time to think about (let alone interact respectfully with) the people of Haiti, their history, and their own desires as one of the earliest self-created nations in this hemisphere. Though it’s been shattered by the earthquake and battered by violent changes of government many times in recent decades, Port-au-Prince remains a great place to ponder this country’s rich history…and to hope for a brighter and more prosperous future with, might I add, a bit more external respect shown for this country and its people.
…immediately above is the monument to Dessalines. As you can tell, much of downtown is still under reconstruction but I’m told the pace seems to be picking up. Below is the eternal flame (to honor, I think, the original self-liberating revolutionary ex-slaves), with the new court house next to it; the big statue of the man blowing the conch shell in the Unknown Maroon – maroons being slaves who’d run away to the mountains during colonial times. Further down is a tap-tap with colorful paintings against sexual and domestic violence (which showed up at the opening to our new SGBV clinic), and the lovely old medical school building, which I guess either survived the quake or has been restored more rapidly than many others. The graffiti, I believe, expresses the hope that Haiti’s coming back into its strength again.
smw, slt is based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a while. I’ve been busy meeting new colleagues and partners, and probably won’t post much until I’ve settled down more. However I know a few friends back home wanted at least a view or two of me in my new home-for-a-time. Also, this second weekend here is a long weekend and so I’ve had some time to walk around at least a bit, and although the clouds have built and mugginess makes these views less spectacular than they’d otherwise be, I did catch a few views of the city of P-a-P spread along the plain. Also, the kids of some colleagues discovered a nest of baby tarantulas when they went to get some Malay (or Mountain) apples off the tree in the yard…and though I showed up too late to see the several dozen babies surging up out of the nest, I did snap this shot of a colleague holding two of them in plastic…
Today is jour du drapeau in Haiti, honoring the emblematic moment when Jean-Jacques Dessalines removed the white stripe from the flag of France in 1804 to acknowledge the creation of this new nation whose slave inhabitants had freed themselves from deadly forced labor in the sugar-cane plantations of the most lucrative colony (thanks to all that unpaid, forced labor, don’t ya know) of Europe’s mightiest nation at the time, then removed the remaining whites on the island as well as the white on their new flag. Anyone who hasn’t read up on Haiti’s history will find it well worth studying. And if you’re curious what we’re doing here, check out this from the 2013 annual report (I’d assume 2014’s will be out soon, but I’m only just back on the job and forget the timing of these things): http://www.msf.org/international-activity-report-2013-haiti. In the meantime, peace :-).