It was an early morning.
“We keep going, Don't stop running. They keep selling, We don't want it.
So close to it, Almost found a way. Two steps closer, They keep coming. We keep yelling, We don't want it.”
I awake for the last time in Haiti, at least for now.
Nick-Olson, the same driver who I first met when I landed in Haiti, was waiting for me downstairs on the couch. He greets me with a smile and a handshake-hug.
Its really dark out, but many people are up. It is Sunday after all. We pass a couple of churches on the way that are about to start their service.
He asks if I enjoyed my time, and what I will tell my friends about Haiti. I tell him, “Ayiti se bel (Haiti is beautiful).”
The airport is hectic and inefficient. We go through THREE different security checks: upon entry, to get into the gate, and right before getting on the plane.
I’ll miss it, though. There is a simple beauty here. Mwen we ou pita, Ayiti.
I’ve been trying to think through the sociological significance of my trip…
One thing that has stuck with me is how to think about environmental inequality in Haiti. When we use the concept of environmental inequality in the United States is means something very specific, but this changes from between contexts (between environments). Given that environmental inequalities are spatial, different spaces yields different forms of environmental inequality. We also have to think about scale. To say that the global south is more vulnerable to climate change is true, but it also false. As I’ve argued, to speak of the global south we must already be speaking of the global north, think of the Taiji symbol, or Ying and Yang. In more sociological terms, we need to think relationally. The Global North does not exist without the Global South and vice versa. Additionally, the global north is almost always embedded within the global south and vice versa. This is the nature of the modern world with the flow of people, things, and ideas. So when it comes to the environmental inequality, I think we get a more nuanced picture when we look subnationally, where we are able to see the North in the South, and the South in the North. Sadly, I haven’t come across this type of thinking in the work on development in the social sciences.
Pellow and Brehm (2013) define environmental inequality as the “uneven exposure to environmental risks and hazards, often coupled with the systematic exclusion of people from environmental decision-making processes, is called environmental racism or environmental inequality” (Pellow and Brehm 2013).
What does environmental inequality look like in the Haitian context? Surely there are uneven exposures to environmental risks and hazards. Those living in the slums at the bottom of large mountains are at higher risk of death from flood than those sitting at higher elevations. This is an inequality based on class. The wealthier Haitians often live at these higher elevations, on mountain tops and sides. There is certainly more pollution down in urban centers where there is a constant flow of car traffic.
I suppose what I’m really trying to get at here is that the influx of all of these international people, ideas, and things creates environmental inequalities too. Like who has access to clean drinking water and proper waste disposal, who has comfort in security and safety from threat like robbery or assault, who has access to a place to cool down in the Haitian heat, who has access to clean and safe food? These are the kinds of environmental inequalities that you can find in Haiti in Urban areas in addition to the more traditional ways of thinking about environmental inequality. Are they necessarily unique to Urban Port au Prince? No, I do not think so. These are also things that you can find in the U.S. Think of gated communities, etc. What makes Haiti unique, I think, is that it is driven by the foreign presence of the international community of development and aid workers, which are seemingly ubiquitous in Haiti. Tourism, too could be a culprit in the future, if it eventually takes off.
What if the same people sent to Haiti to alleviate poverty were actually, unintentionally, perpetuating it?
These are of course precursory remarks based on my short stay, in one part of the country. Further study is needed to validate any of these claims, or to “test” these hypotheses.
Tomorrow, I’m headed back to RI. Back to Grad School. Back to my room, my bed. Back to my family and friends. But I’m going to miss Haiti. A lot. There is something about it.
I’ve practiced the language, I’ve soaked up some of the culture. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here. There is so much that numbers don’t capture, as with any abstraction. Judging from the numbers, you’d think that Haiti was a barren desert. It is not. Yes, the hillsides are mostly barren, but there are many lush green areas too. There is also rubble, trash, plastics, pollution. Nonetheless, there is a beauty.
I’ll admit it, I was scared to come here alone. I’d read too much, I’d had too many family members react jarringly when I told them I planed to come by myself. I’m glad I did though. I don’t think I would have had the same experience. I don’t think I would have been as challenged as I was. I don’t think I would have soaked in as much as I have. I’ve grown from this experience.
I leave Haiti humbled and filled with gratitude. I’ve been extremely fortunate in this life. The Haitians I’ve met, the lives I’ve encountered even if only for a split second while passing them on the streets, have inspired me to keep pressing forward. Many of them fight to survive every single day, while I fight to read and write another privileged sentence.
One of the biggest take aways from this trip is how complicated it all is. I’ve sometimes felt like this academic thing is a joke, and that what I should really be doing is helping people directly. Here in Haiti, from what I’ve seen, this isn’t really the solution. I’ve heard Haitians tell me this themselves. Haiti is full of Aid workers of all sorts, from non-governmental organizations like Save the Children to the United Nations Development Program. As a Haitian informant asked, “they’ve been doing this for 50 years, and what do they have to show for it?” Could bringing more jobs to Haiti help? Of course, but only with the right intentions. We’ve got to call it like it is. Capitalism is a system of socio-ecological relations that benefits a minority of people, at the expense the majority of humans, other species, and the landscape. Bringing huge corporations to Haiti won’t help anyone if people continue to be exploited for their labor! $2 a day? Come on, it is ridiculous.
So what is there to do? The best that I can do is rouse the passion that stirred in me as a young person (and still does) in others, in my students. Some of us are born with a stronger sense that something is not right than others, and it is our job to point this out to people. This is true especially of sociologists, whose job it is to decipher the complexities of social life, past and present. It isn’t enough to simply show people that this inequality exists, as evinced by a recent study that shows that showing people the numbers on the disproportionate number of blacks in the prison system actually leads them to support the types of policies that produce these inequalities. We’ve got to make the moral appeal, that the inequality we’ve observed and the ways that it is produced are WRONG. If that doesn’t work, God help us.
Celestine drove me downtown to the MUPANAH, a small museum containing historical artifacts of Haiti. I live for this kind of stuff! There were all kinds of things. Some overwhelming, like actual slave irons! I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of the chains that bound black bodies up until 1804. There were artifacts from the TAINO and ARAWAK people that were decimated when Europeans colonized the island. Weapons, swords, rifles, bayonets, and pistols from the REVOLUTION. Absolutely incredible.
I was happy to see a group of young Haitian children being guided through the museum by a curator. They must know the beautiful history of their country, and of their ancestors. I wonder if learning this history is as emancipatory for them, as it was for me?
I knew little of Haiti, other than its current poverty, growing up. In school, we didn’t learn about the Haitian revolution. The first time I learned anything of it was in college when a professor mentioned it to us in one of my sociology classes. He pointed out the neglect of Haitian history in the American education system. I knew that a nation of slaves overthrowing their masters was something incredible, but it didn’t sink in at that point. It wasn’t until much later as a graduate student that Haiti reemerged in my consciousness, as a teacher’s assistant for a course on Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Modern world (taught by one of my mentors).
Modern Haiti is the result of a system of global white supremacy. First, the island of Quisqueya, now known as Hispaniola, was cleared of the Amerindian peoples that called it home by European settlers. Then, a colonial system was set in place, which utilized slave labor from West Africa. It is estimated that over a million slaves were brought to the island. They were treated brutally, but resistance was the norm. Slaves would flee the mountains often. Perhaps a revolution was inevitable. After the revolution, no nation would see Haiti as an equal, and the new Black nation was deliberately stifled. Then comes government corruption…violence…civil unrest…Now everyone wants to help Haiti from the aid workers to the missionaries.
“If you look just at the decades after 1934, you know it's hard to point to really inspired and positive support from outside of Haiti, to Haiti, and much easier to point to either small-minded or downright mean-spirited policies.” Paul Farmer
Thank God for wikileaks because without them this would all seem like conjecture. Cables reveal that even the Obama administration fought to keep Haiti from improving the conditions of its workers. The Administration pressured the Haitian President Martelly to keep the daily minimum wage under $3 a day for factory workers. The foreign business community of Hanes and Levis claimed that anything above would damage their profits. Really, an hourly wage of .31 cents an hour? Can you imagine anywhere else say in the Europe, Australia, or the United States that would allow this?
I don’t really have much to say, but I’ve been told to write even when you do not feel like it.
I skipped breakfast this morning. I haven’t seen or spoken with any other guests in a long time.
For lunch, I considered having the staff help me to order something from a restaurant. I haven’t eaten at a restaurant yet, since I’ve been going to the grocery store. Instead, I decided to get out of here and go for a walk to Kay Atizan (Artisan House). James, our lover of John Legend, gave me directions from his cellphone, “Go down this street right here and take a left at the first intersection.” It seems like everywhere I go there is a certain feeling of discomfort. I suppose it comes from not knowing much about where I am, and not feeling fully comfortable to figure everything out on my own, like I would say back in Providence.
There are high concrete walls with metallic doors on building here. A lot with a big old building sits surrounded by tents and a high metal fence with barbed wire at the top. A placard says “UNICEF.” From a distance I see “Kay Atizan/Serenity Cove” so I know that I am in the right place. I walk in with confidence, false confidence, but confidence nonetheless. Without it, I think I’d be paralyzed here. A woman stands talking on the phone through the smaller than normal doorway. She hangs up, once she sees me. There were all kinds of things. Jewelry, cool T-Shirts, bags, Vodoun artifacts. Magical.
Instead of eating something from a restaurant I went to another grocery store, one that I hadn’t been too. Same exact dynamics as observed at the previous one.
Time moves really slowly, and I’m a little lonely.
I called my parents using FaceTime.
I used to think that I could change the world. Classic messiah complex. Now, I realize that the world is nothing but change, somethings for the better and others for the worst. As a sociologist, I’ve chosen to try to understand the world as it is, while always thinking of what it could be. I feel a bit useless lol.
MOMENT OF INSIGHT: In the past, I’ve argued out loud with people about the use of analytic/descriptive categories like Global North/Rich and Global South/Poor. I’ve always seen these categories as empty and meaningless because the world is never this simple. Even as ideal-types, they fail to capture that which the concepts are supposed, that is the distribution of resources and wealth. A place like Haiti has really brought this home for me. Everywhere I’ve turned I’ve found traces of the Global North. First, there is me, and all the rest of us who go to foreign places to conduct research for whatever reason we do so. Second, there are the international development aid workers and Christian missionaries from Europe and the United States. Third, there are the people that come here from the United States to set up business operations. Fourth, there are all of the material things that come from the Global North as imports. Food, batteries, office supplies, shoes, clothes, and more. Fifth, there are the immaterial things that are imported from abroad, including but not limited to musical proclivities, words (“Chopin: Shopping”), ideas, habits and behaviors (young people wearing backwards hats with USA sports team logos, etc. There is Global North within the Global South and Global South within the Global North. This is modernity.
This movement and convergence of people, things/materials, and ideas, from disparate parts of the globe (often in the name of development, or humanitarian assistance), create the bizarre environment that I’ve been observing here in Haiti. This is what has drawn me to the supermarkets. It is wholly peculiar that there would even be one massive structure devoted to the exchange of goods (food for money) that the vast majority of permanent residents cannot afford. The only thing is, here in Petionville there are 3 of these supermarkets. There are also compounds devoted to organizations like the United Nations Development Project, or USAID, all of which are secured 24/7 by armed guards and high cement walls with barbed wire at the top. Across the hall from me, sleeps a woman here for just three weeks to work for Save the Children. Hotels exist here solely for the foreigner to feel like he is back at home in the Global North. In short, the confluence of people, things/materials, and ideas from the Global North, in a place as impoverished as Haiti, necessarily creates an environment with inequality seeping through everything.
Petionville is rife with indirect, or slow, violence. The anthropologist and medical doctor, Paul Farmer, calls this structural violence. “The core meaning of violence is the deliberate infliction of bodily violation or harm on one individual human being by another” (Shaw 2006). Foreign researchers (including MYSELF), aid workers, Christian missionaries, rich Haitian citizens, are complicit in this violence every time we walk past a mother and child exchanging dollars and cents for produce on the side of the road, to get our imported goods from the supermarket guarded by men carrying shotguns. The message conveyed, implicit and explicit, intentional or not, is that most Haitian bodies matter less. With streets populated with advertisements in English and French, when only a tiny fraction of the people here can read and understand both, the message is Haitian bodies matter less. This violence is pervasive. It reveals a contradiction. All of this foreign aid, all of this foreign intervention, all of these foreign people, things, ideas, have created a form of hyperinequality in Haiti, which is manifest in the physical, biological, and social environment(s).
Haitian Proverb: Neg di san fe. People talk and don't act.
I didn’t sleep as well as I have been last night. I kept having weird dreams.
My eyes pop open as my body jolts back to waking consciousness. Everything is okay, go back to sleep. Two people were outside in the courtyard speaking in Kreyol. I walk over to my window, but I cannot see anything. “Ventwa (23), Vensis (26), Venwit (28)…” the smooth male voice spoke. What is this counting? A female voice appeared asking a question really fast. The male voice responded, then started to read out numbers again, “Karantun (41), karantde (42), karantsenk (45)…” This must be a radio show, but what kind. I remembered my professor telling us something about a book of numbers that Haitians use sort of as a fortune telling divination sort of thing, kind of like the I-Ching in Chinese culture. Something inside of me was a little freaked out. Flashback to watching Hotel Rwanda and the radio as a means of communication that it was time to kill… I put in my headphones and listened to some Haitian music to try to get back to sleep. It must’ve been the security guard listening to something on the radio, but I have no clue what it was. I’ll have to ask my professor back in the States.
This morning I was a little nervous about my interview. From my experience, and from what my Haitian professor has told me, Haitian people like to talk so I shouldn’t be as nervous that I didn’t really prepare. A knock at the door as I button up my shirt. Its James, my John Legend loving lobby attendant. “I just wanted to wake you up. Ms. Vivianne (the owner) said your driver will arrive at 8:30,” he said. In haste, I grabbed my shoes and told him I’d be ready and thanks. I struggled for a moment about whether to tuck my shirt in or not. Tucked in. Its more professional, right?
The driver got a little bit lost on the way. Shit! I’m glad I didn’t decide to walk like I originally planned. Very few of the streets have signs, there are people everywhere. He calls Ms.Vivianne and tells her to that we cannot find it. She tells him to ask someone, so he pulls over and gestures for me to roll down the window. No one knows where it is either. I’m not worried about being late. It must happen often here.
We finally figure it out. Its a small, but modern building with the foundation’s logo on the door. Before getting out, the driver writes his name on the back of a blue post-it note and says to call him when I finish. “Koman ou rele (What is your name)?” “Celestine,” he replies. “Mesi bokou,” as I leave is small white Toyota (with transmission problems).
When I walk into the Foundation, there is a small black woman sitting in the waiting area. She looks around my age. I walk past her to the a woman who appears to be the receptionist. “Mwen gen yon [pause as I search for the word for meeting…instead I go with interview] entevyou,” I ask. It seems that many people in business settings have been speaking French to me. Though I know a tiny bit, and can understand a tiny bit, it throws me off because I’m expecting Kreyol. “What is your name?” she asks after a failed attempt in another language. She stands up gesturing to the black woman sitting in the waiting area and leads us both into a room with the Co-Founder of the organization.
He is an “average” sized, white, male. “Ce va?” he asks. “I’m well.” Both the young woman and I take a seat across from him at his desk. He is bald and wears a gold cross around his neck. His red, white, and black plaid shirt is unbuttoned enough to reveal some chest hair and the gold chain he is donning. “I don’t speak French,” I proclaim. “Okay. I will have to struggle with English then,” he replies turning towards the woman “Do you speak English?” “I can understand it, but I don’t speak it well,” she says. The other co-founder walks in at that moment extending his hand for both of us to shake. “Shall we go into the conference room?”
We are joined by another woman who is called the Operations Manager. She has an American accent, but speaks to both of the men in Kreyol too. We go around the table and introduce ourselves and say what we do. I’m a graduate student in the U.S. interested in development and environment blah blah blah. The young black woman seems to work for an organization called Biotechnology Development in Africa (or BDA). The foundation has been trying to initiate a project with BDA for the past year, but its not moving ahead. [Because I am making these notes public I’ve decided not to use the real names of the directors at this point to protect them. They will be called L and C.] L does most of the talking, with C chiming in from time to time.
They keep getting interrupted with phone calls. “Sorry. Its crisis mode,” says the Operations manager. They explain to me that they are in the middle of receiving some money.
Money and politics are the main themes of our discussions. Though they’ve managed to survive, money and politics continues to be an issue. In Haiti, they explain, no one wants to do anything unless they see how it will benefit them. This explains why I’ve had such bad luck getting in touch with people here. For example, this project with BDA, which at this point is awaiting a signature just for a $250,00 feasibility study is being delayed because there is no money for people in the government to gain from it.
They detail how they have had many successful programs in the past but that they cannot be maintained because of funding. They had an “Ecole Verte” or green school which sough to education youth from Port au Prince about the environment and would take them up to La Visite Park, where they do all of there work. La Visite is one of two national parks in Haiti and is vital to the socio-ecological system here. “If the park goes, then so does all of Port au Prince’s water,” said the operations manager. Many people are migrating to the lands that are within the park out of necessity. It is probably better than living in “Site Soley” says C. They can grow food and have space up in the mountains where the park is located, but growing food means cleaning of trees for land.
I ask them if they are the only environmentally focused in NGO in Haiti and they say no. There are others but they have more of a philosophical approach at times, whereas there organization seeks to be more hands on and pragmatic. They work directly with the farmers (universally referred to as Peasants here). There organization is more interested in the people and the environment and not simply in conservation. They want to create jobs for people, and realize that addressing the environment in Haiti must also address the other issues like poverty. Value must also be placed in the environment for Haitian people to care. “If you had to cut down the last tree to save your family, you would, and so would I,” says C. I nod my head that I would. They need something that combines environmental concern and protection with the livelihoods of people, so they are interested in developing something like eco-tourism or or trees and foliage that can be useful in skin and healthcare products.
“Environment and development doesn’t exist here in Haiti,” says the operations manager. She is the most outspoken and skeptical about what can be done. Most people are only concerned with profit. Wealth is concentrated among the elite here and they will keep hold of it at any cost. Money first. “People are concerned with profit, and the government is concerned with power, but you already know that as a sociologist,” L says. International aid is an issues too. L claims that 80% of what Aid the international community gives to Haiti goes back to the donor country in some way. Think about the personnel and the materials. Most of that money doesn’t benefit Haiti. He tells me to think back historically. Its been 50 or 60 years of this international aid for development and where is the development? Haiti is in the same place as it was. On top of that, when it comes to aid trickling down to NGOs like their own, it is SLOW and INEFFICIENT. In fact, most NGOs here don’t make it past 10 years, though they have managed to survive for this long. “If you depend on international aid, without self-sufficiency, nothing happens,” says C. The woman from BDA asks about the private sector to which they reply is of no help. They are all for profit. They also have their own problems, as most of the businesses here are small and not thriving.
Given all of this I ask how they keep going. They strive to stay positive and they have commitments to the people. If they quit, then people will suffer. He makes sure to tell me that they do not sustain themselves from the Foundation, and that their own salaries come from other ventures. We talked for an hour and a half before saying our goodbyes. They handed me a flyer and a DVD about their organization. I asked if I could call the driver on their phone. As I waited for him, I sat in the main lobby area. The operations manager came over and asked if I needed anything. I told her I was fine, but had a question. “Are these large supermarkets owned by Haitians?” I ask. She says that most of them are owned by Arabs, and a lot of the management positions are occupied by Filipinos.
On the ride back to the hotel, the driver and I speak in Kreyol. He points to mountainsides, which is covered in colorful square structures, “I live up there.” “Se bel (Its beautiful)” I say. He nods yes with a smile. In english he asks, “Are you American black.” “Wi.” “Ou se Ayisyen (Are you Haitian)?” “No. M’ap etidye kilti ak lang Ayisyen nan inivisite (No. I’m styling Haitian culture and language at University),” I respond. I ask him about the supermarkets. He says there are many big supermarkets here. I ask him if he buys his food there and he said yes. I told him that at the supermarket I saw “anpil moun blan (many white people).” He explained to me that Petionville is a kominite (community) with a lot of white people. I asked fi it was because of all of the NGOs and embassy and he said no its because of the money. There are many people in Petionville with money. Looking up at the top of the mountains attests to this fact. They are speckled with very large houses. I hand him 50 gourdes as he pulls onto the sidewalk to drop me off. I tell him thanks and head inside.
In the lobby, James sits at his small desk listening to John Legend. In fact, as I write this he has listened to that one song, All of Me, 6 times, covers, instrumentals, and all. I NOW KNOW THE SONG BY HEART. I’m not mad though. Yesterday he told me that is how he learned English apart from school.
I've spent the rest of the day chilling in my room, except for my daily walk to the grocery store. Tomorrow I might go be a tourist and go to the National Museum. Its a must given my intrigue with, and love of, Haitian history.
My conversation with the local environmentally based NGO has left me a little bit puzzled. On the one, hand they suggested that all of this foreign involvement in Haiti has not been of much help, on the other they cannot imagine life without MINUSTAH, a UN peace-keeping force presence. They said that MINUSTAH has made it so that they feel safe, and that their families feel safe. The situation is further complicated by a government that has little financial stability, nor willingness to address problems that aren't of immediate benefit to those occupying places of power. If the Park that the organization seeks to protect, while enhancing the lives of people living there, gets overrun there could be dire consequences for the broader community. The people that I talked to today called it short-sightedness.
After hearing all of this I don't know exactly how to feel. I'm very inspired by the organizations efforts, especially given the constraints that they operate under. I felt a sense of pride for whatever reason. Here is an organization that is trying the best it can. Its scrambling for money all of the time, picking up crumbs here and there. This makes me a little sad. The people that care and that are actively doing something for the Haitian people, are the same people that have it hardest. Haiti needs to be self sufficient, as those slaves that rebelled against their colonial masters envisioned. Gen twop men an Ayiti e moun li (There are too many hands on Haiti and its people). I've lost track of all of the foreign NGOs, UN people, foreign embassies I've seen here. Yet as my friend from the Foundation pointed out not much has changed with all of this foreign assistance. Haiti remains at the bottom, one of the poorest in the world. It is historically outrageous that the first nation in the world to declare "Tout noun se noun (All people are people)" would in up in the situation that it is in today!
I’m reminded of what the sociologist Howard Winant writes, “In a socially just and historically conscious world the West would not only forgive the debt of the world’s “others”; it would seek forgiveness; it would seek to make good on their losses, to make them whole in the legal sense. Such an event—difficult even to imagine today, but pressing world-historical requirement—would go a long way toward destroying the racial hierarchy built into the contemporary global political economy” (16).
August 5 2014: Madi: Day three
I was able to order my breakfast in Kreyol. I’m happy. I sat alone thinking about questions for my interview tomorrow.
I was back in my room working on preliminary exam stuff, when I heard a knock on the door. It was a thin elderly Haitian woman, in a full out french maid outfit, except she wore no shoes. She said something really quick in Kreyol, and I grabbed my stuff and said, “Mwen pral ale mache a (I will go to the Market),” pointing in its direction.
Today, I noticed a lot more children were out and about. Some of them with parents, others not. Education in Haiti is an expense that most people cannot afford. Many children sat working with parents selling mangoes, bananas and such.
The market was packed this morning with people of many shades. The asian man from yesterday was there, except he brought along his young son and wife.
This market is clean. I mean extremely clean. The contrast with the rest of Petionville is stunning. Everything is neatly placed on the shelf, bin, rack, just like you would see in the US.
In a moment of reflexivity, I notice that I feel all too comfortable in the market. They’ve got just about everything that’d I would buy at home. I instinctively head to the bagged greens and pick up my greens, with the choice between regular and organic. I was even able to find some “eco-friendly” bottled water by deciphering what I could on the French label. “La bouteille Volvic utilize use resource renouvelable” it read. I then almost automatically seek out the non-dairy milks, of which they have every kind, from soy to almond. As if guilt crept up behind me, I put down the almond milk and go for the soy (even though I don’t normally drink soy milk and always go for the almond). I feel as though I need to be less comfortable. I feel as though I have it too easy. I get to shop in this neat, clean, safe, patrolled by shotgun carrying guards SUPER market while the majority of Haitian people buy their food from the side of the road.
This market really is for people of a certain socio-economic status. There are black Haitians shopping, but they are clearly the privileged ones. Two young black Haitian boys played on tablets as their parents journeyed through the aisles. A police officer with a Canadian flag pin placed on his shoulder, wearing a grey shirt and dark blue pants, browsed the bread aisle for just the right one. Two latina women speaking spanish grab a bag of dried chickpeas off of the shelf next to me. With everything I need for the day in my blue hand-basket I head to checkout with a cloud of guilt following close behind. Two men, one black and one Latin, stand behind the woman cashier, fiddling with a credit card reader. I glance around as I place my groceries on the belt. Every one of the cashiers is a black Haitian woman, while all of the baggers are black Haitian men. Perched like Judges overlooking the cashiers, were three customer service reps, all Latino. I’m beginning to think that this supermarket, in Haiti, is owned by Dominicans.
Back at the hotel, I wave to the guard to let me in. He comes to the door. “Koman ou rele (What is your name)?” he asks. Straining a little bit, I respond, “Mwen rele Michael.” He extends his hand and says his name too quickly for me to understand. He then says in Haitain, “You speak a little bit of Kreyol.” “Wi,” I respond laconically. I try hard to push out words that mean, “Very pleased to meet you.” I knew I didn’t get it right, but he understands. I was thankful that he decided to speak to me because it turned out to be a warmup, as I felt encouraged to speak to the young black Male sitting in the lobby that checked me in a couple of days ago. I had been rehearsing just what to say to him in Kreyol for the past day or so.
He is somewhat short, and slim, like most of the men that I’ve seen. It reminds me of what Charles Tilly says about stature as a sign of inequality. Less nutrition, smaller body/stature. “Ou renmen tande mizik Ameriken (You like to listen to American music)?” I ask. He responds in English, “I do. Very much.” “ M’ te tande ou tande John Legend (I heard you listening to John Legend),” I respond. “I love it very much. His music is so soft. I am downloading all of these songs to my phone right now,” he says with a smile. It is true. He really does love that song, All of me, I’ve heard it about 10 times since I’ve been here at this B and B. Even cover artist renditions! We talk for a bit about where we are respectively from, what we both study, our age (both 23), etc. Then after a pause, he asks me about meditation, and if they teach us meditation in sociology. I was a bit confused as to why he would ask that, but I said no they don’t. But he went on to talk about how he was reading about meditation on the internet from some French teachers I’d never heard of. He said it made him calm when he tried it. I told him that I was a meditator and that I started when I was 17. I said it was good for the mind, body, and spirit. It keeps you calm, and able to respond to your anger in a better way (of course if you practice regularly). He said he wants to learn more. I grabbed a blue post-it note from the counter and wrote down the name of one of my first (distant) Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, and told him to check out some of his videos on youtube.
We truly do live in a connected world. I’m amazed by the way that culture diffuses around the globe. I’ve been learning about his culture from afar. He’s been learning my language and culture from afar too, by listening to John Legend, Whitney Houston and others, while I’ve been listening to Haitian artists like Emeline Michel, Bethova Obas, and Boukman Eksperyans. We’ve both found a way to connect with an ancient buddhist meditation practice that could be thought of as foreign to us both. We were able to bond over this. “Thanks for talking with me,” I said and headed up to my room to write my notes for the morning, and study for my prelim exams.
I’ve spent most of the day lounging about, thinking about my interview tomorrow with one of the Co-Presidents of a locally-based NGO focused on the Haitian environment. According to their website, it is a local 501 c NGO created by “young local professionals, and Haitians businessmen who want to get involved in development and future of our country. We want to live in a better country, a greener and better Haiti tomorrow.” Their website is very nice, and they seem to have a well organized organization. Objectives: “Protect the environment. Revitalize the regional economy. Educate the population about the need to preserve these vital natural resources. Ensure the preservation of Seguin Park and other natural areas within Haiti. Develop ecotourism initiatives that sustain Haiti’s parks without further damage.” Tomorrow, I should have a very interesting conversation with the Co-President of the NGO. Their objectives are multi-faceted, which is extremely important when environmental deterioration is directly linked to poverty like it is in Haiti, unlike other places around the world, where industry has taken a toll on the environs. They seek to protect the environment, but also ensure the regional economy. They’ve also placed focus on education. Surprising, no where on the website, do they address issues of climate change, so this is something that I’ll have to ask about. Generally speaking, as evidenced by the lack of presence at the last global climate change negotiations (COP 19) in Poland, it seems that Haitian officials have little interest in climate change. I’m also interested in asking about the specific challenges that might be unique to Haiti when it comes to socio-ecological issues, as well as whether or not there is a strong presence of local Haiti-based groups working on environmental issues (human health as related to environment, biodiversity loss, climate change, deforestation, pollution, etc.).
I woke up earlier than usual, seven am, to catch breakfast at the Inn I’m staying at. My room door opens up straight into the lobby, so I was able to hear them setting up. I awkwardly tried to order breakfast in broken Kreyol-Spanish-English sitting next to a tall, blond, white woman. “My Kreyol is pretty bad. I speak too slow, and they speak too fast,” I said. She laughed and said that she didn’t speak Kreyol either, instead she knows a couple of kreyol words that you uses alongside her broken French, though I noticed that she had an Australian accent (or so I though). This naturally led into a conversation about why we were both here. I told her I was a PhD student from the U.S. interested in Haiti’s environment, climate change, and development efforts. She told me that she worked for Save the Children and that this wasn’t her first time in Haiti. Her job is set up in a way that she stays for two or three weeks in different places around the world. Suddenly her driver came in signaling to her that he was waiting outside, and she went back to her room before leaving the lobby. She looked back and waved and I waved back. A large brown man had walked into the lobby and was waiting for someone before he sat at the communal table. He was wearing a shirt that said “Earth Networks” so I of course had to ask him if that was the company he worked for. This was a talkative man. Upon asking simply, “Is Earth Networks the company you work for?” he replied, “Indeed it is…” and went on to talk about how they were installing some weather monitoring equipment…. to gauge lightening strikes… all in one breath. He didn’t dumb any of it down either. He seemed really into what he does. I asked him where he was based, and he told me Florida, along with other details about his life. He was born in Brooklyn and wondered why his Caribbean Island parents would ever move to a place so cold. I wondered where his parents must have been from, until he finally along the way said that he was Puerto Rican. We talked, though mostly him, about a bunch of different things in a short time window. He doesn’t like taxes, for the only fair taxes to him are sales tax. This is why he loves Florida. He hates the North because they give criminals too many rights…which made me wonder how he might have felt about Trayvon Martin and stand your ground law, but I chose not to ask. One must be careful not to show all of there progressive-radical cards at once. Before leaving, I asked the man and his translator, who had been quiet the whole time on his cell phone, for help getting to the grocery store. The translator directed me to the BIGGEST supermarket in Haiti and off I went.
On the way out, I passed a black couple, from the United States. She had a southern accent and her partner didn’t seem to have any accent, but he spoke Kreyol fluently. I was confused about how to get back in when I came back given the large cement walls and barbed wire enclosing our compound. That is when the security guard appeared out of nowhere and I noticed his small post through a tiny barred window on the other side of the large metal door.
I wanted to cross the street, but I didn’t really know how. An endless stream of cars and motorcycles with passengers kept incessantly up the hill. It is a terribly hard thing to do here. See back in Providence people mostly just step out in the middle of the road and expect the right-of-way. I didn’t get the feeling that that would work here. Everyone waited at length before crossing the road. There aren’t really any street rules here. The intersection just outside of my B and B has lights, but no one pays any attention to them, which leads to three or four cars merging at any given time on an intersection, and people speeding by who don’t want to turn, and the loud honking of horns. I decide to take my chances walking up the road without crossing in hopes that it would calm down up ahead.
I’m self-conscious. I wonder what people see when they look at me. Do they see a foreigner, or just another black man walking down the street. I intentionally packed plain clothes and black shoes, as to not draw attention to myself. People immediately speak Kreyol to me, but that is mostly because that is all that they know.
On the walk up to the grocery store, its around 8:30am, I notice people beginning to set up shop. There are men with red aprons on selling cellphone minutes, women selling fruit, men selling something made from sugar cane… I passed a man that was selling men’s dress shoes. There was a large group of men selling car tires, so I crossed the road, somehow safely. To my left, there was the Spanish embassy. I noticed UN vehicles and other embassy vehicles, noted because of the flag in the windshield window. On my right I passed a bank with men in uniform holding shotguns. I thought to myself, “Where the hell is the biggest supermarket in Haiti, because I don’t know where I’m going.” Reaching the top of the hill, I decided to turn back, and go to the bank with the armed guards. I walked up the hill into the parking lot only to find that this was the supermarket!! A supermarket guarded by men with shotguns. It was a large structure, though far smaller than a Stop and Shop in the United States. I got in line to use the ATM behind a white man wearing a grey shirt, shorts, and sandals. He took a while, which gave me time to look around. A security guard holding a shot gun walked by. That is when I noticed that the gun didn’t have ammunition; the clip was missing. Maybe they keep them unloaded on purpose and load them if they have to, or perhaps they never have ammo and the guns serve there purpose without ever needing to be used. Are the guns to keep people out, or to make those who shop there to feel safe?
As you walk into market, there is a pharmacy to your left, and there are all of the checkout aisles to the right. I immediately notice that all of the workers are black, except for a customer service representative who looks to me to be Latina, or at lease lighter skinned. Everything is priced in Haitian Gourdes. There are security guards speckled throughout the store, only this time without the guns. I immediately head towards the produce, and find a bunch of imported goods from the United States, at least when it came to green leafy vegetables. The same brands that I would find in the United States were present in the market, except they had more. They had stuff from France too. The majority of the stuff in the market was catering to “Westerners,” or “white people,” or people from “the Global North.” There were some Haitians shopping, but there were also people that were clearly not Haitian there too. What I found a little bizarre was that the market only had about 6 people shopping, but only at least triple that working. Perhaps this had to do with the time of day? I grabbed what I needed, some salad, a couple of bags of Kirkland (Costco brand?) almonds, Athenos Hummus, Prestige (Haiti’s only local beer), a couple of bags of chips, a carlton of Silk soy milk, toothpaste and headed to checkout. The woman cashier and her male bagger, weren’t too nice, but I don’t blame them. I’m sure they get sick of some of the people who frequent the shop. I wonder to myself if these working people can even afford to buy groceries from here, Carribean Supermarket. A small carton of soy milk cost $4.70, and my toothpaste cost $4.00, which happened to be the cheapest one. The Crest toothpaste was $10.00, or 470 Haitian Gourdes. This trip to the grocery store cost me more than what it usually cost me at Whole Foods! Damn. There is no way the average Haitian could shop here. Haiti has the lowest per capita income of any nation in the Western hemisphere, at $1,300 a year (by some estimates even lower). I just spent $35 on six items that will last only a day, two at most… Crazy. On the way out, I noticed what appeared to be managers. One of them was a lighter skinned, possibly latino man, and the other an Asian man. Race and ethnicity matters.
On the walk home I tried to pay attention to the physical environment. The side walks were nice and smooth in some places and cracked and uneven in others, dare I say even worse than Providence, ha. More street vendors were out selling food, food I as someone born and raised in the US wouldn’t dare eat. When I got closer to the intersection with my hotel I noticed an empty lot, where a building must have stood at some point, with trash thrown throughout. I still haven’t seen any birds other than the one, I saw yesterday at the airport. There are trees though, despite what I thought before coming to Haiti. The official statistic is that there is about 2% of tree cover left from Haiti’s originally forested landscape. In Petionville, the “suburb” that I’m staying in there are trees though. There are also above ground power lines. This to me indicates that people living in Petionville, which is about 300,000 have another means of energy generation. The typical story of deforestation in Haiti is that trees are cut down for charcoal for energy use, like cooking. Petionville has plenty of power, at least from my experience as a person staying in a bed and breakfast thus far, though an hour ago the power did shut off, but I heard a back up generator kick in. Still I’m trying to conserve…
After taking a lunch break and hanging out for a little while in my room, I decided it was time to go exploring on my own. I’d been hesitant because the man at breakfast was telling me about how he met a guy who hadn’t left the lodge other than to go to work, but since they were both here alone, they could go for a walk together safely. I’d also read things on the internet about abductions and robbery. I’ll admit I feel a bit first worldy. I’ve lived in some places that others in the United States fear for one reason or another, like Richmond, California, or even Central Falls, Rhode Island. Yet, here I am in Haiti with a little trepidation to go outside and walk around. After drinking one of the Haitian beers I bought to mellow my nerves, I decided it was time to face my ignorant American fears and go for a walk around Petionville. Maybe living in those places in the United States provided me with just enough courage to face that which others deem dangerous.
As I headed downstairs, I ran into the owner of the lodge for the first time, she asked where I was going, and I told her to the park. She followed by asking me if I was hungry, because she had a driver going to pick up some food for a customer soon. I told that I wasn't hungry, but she insisted that I take the ride down to the park. I have issues saying no. As I waited for the driver, I thought over and over, formulating my sentence in Haitian as properly as I could, “Mesi bokou, men m’ vle mache deyo a (Thank you very much, but I want to walk outside).” Just then she came out with the driver and told him to take me down on his way to Quarter Latin, the restaurant. In the car, it was much hotter than outside, because his air conditioner was blowing hot air! The trip took a bit longer than expected because he went the wrong way at first, but I eventually found some relief as I exited his old toyota (the kind you see in movies about places like Haiti or Africa). As I got out, I handed him some money, which he didn’t accept readily. As I went to cross the street, he signaled that the restaurant was the other direction. “Mwen pa vle manje (I don’t want to eat),” I said as I walked over to the park Boyer.
Plas Boyè, or Place Boyer was named after the ex-president and founder of Petionville. It is surrounded by people. All of them adults. Walking around the perimeter I passed through a group of younger adults selling some drink out of old hard alcohol containers, as they chatted and listened to Bob Marley blaring out of one of their cars. I’m struck by the amount of people that are just hanging out in the middle of the day, but to my surprise there were no children. Then I realized that what looked to be children’s play equipment, was actually exercise equipment, that NO ONE was interested in using. For a brief moment, I thought about it, but decided to keep on walking. The park had trees, which everyone sat or stood underneath. Haiti has an unbelievably high unemployment rate, some estimates as high as 90%, so its not sooooo surprising that the park was packed with adults midday. In terms of the landscape, this is a park with little to no grass. That is something I’ve noticed elsewhere: there isn’t really any grass in Haiti, for better or for worse.
I didn’t stay at the park long and decided to wander off, while still maintaining a sense of where I was. On this afternoon, as with any I’d imagine, the streets were packed with people selling things. I previously noted seeing people selling cell phone minutes, sugarcane stuff, shoes, belts, but on this walk I saw much more. Every so often you find the same sort of products being sold but by a different person. I walked by street vendors selling electronics, while blasting music out of the speakers they were selling, over and over again. Old books and magazines were being sold on the side of the road too. I spotted some in English and in French, with different titles. One thing stuck out though, the amount of old readers digests, probably from the 1990s and 2000s. There is a gendered element to the street vending phenomenon too. Women were mostly selling food, which there was a lot of, and men were the ones selling electronics and books and shoes. Everything the average Haitian needs on a daily basis, they seem to be getting from these street vendors, hell I even spotted several shoe repairmen working on broken sandals. No jobs means that they must create there own as entrepreneurs.
I was walking underneath this huge tree, when I heard a bizarre sound coming from above. Looking up, I spotted a huge blackbird resembling a crow, but the sound it was making certainly did not. Along the way I spotted a couple of smaller sparrow looking birds, but it still surprises me how little there really are. No doubt, biodiversity is an issue here.
Trekking further around a corner back towards my lodge, I spotted a bridge ahead on a one way street. As I got closer the side walk disappeared. I hesitated, but decided to just go ahead thinking maybe there’d be a river or stream, but there wasn’t. Just a huge river of trash and old debris, encased by concrete walls. Several men were sorting through the trash. Why was there no water here all though there clearly had to be at some point? I have no clue. I decided to go back around to another bridge crossing for another look down the waterless urban gorge. As I got closer I spelled something burning. Something that smelled of carcinogens. Plastic perhaps? That’s when I realized how overworked my lungs felt. I’d been exploring for a little over an hour and my lungs had a bit of burning that I’ve never felt in the polluted urban settings of the U.S. No doubt, air pollution is a problem here.
From the bridge I first spotted three huge pink and black speckled pigs eating something on top of a mound of trash and burnt wood. On the other side, there were goats tied to a couple of old rusty polls. These were urban domesticated animals wading through a stream of trash. A bit further down the road, and on my way back to the lodge, I noticed a stream of water rushing down the street. Petionville sits on the side of a large hill/mountain. Men were washing in it, while others used it to wash cars. The river was in the wrong place. Water, like the Haitian people I’ve observed so far, will always find a way.
Side note: I thought I’d have plenty do some prelim prep while here, but I’m exhausted.
Dye Mon, Gen Mon (Mountains beyond mountains)
It is good practice to write down your field notes immediately upon getting to a place where you can do so.
I started jotting notes in my notebook as soon as I got on the plane from Miami to PAP. At the gate, I noticed an array of black people, most of which speaking Kreyol. The gate workers spoke Kreyol too. Most people thought that I was of Haitian descent and spoke Kreyol to me before english. Though I’ve been studying for the past year, the speed and intensity by which the language is spoken make it hard for me to understand. I tried my best though. I speak too slowly, so much so that people don’t understand me. I’m far from conducting any in depth interviews in Haitian.
On the plane, and in the airport baggage area, there were many white people that as far as I could tell were coming to Haiti on a mission of the religious sort. One group had bright orange tee shirts on, and looked frankly like a brigade of soldiers for Christ, that said in Kreyol, “Believe that Jesus is your saviour and you will be saved”. While waiting for my luggage I overheard a conversation that reveals the skepticism and fear for safety that these missionaries come to the country with. “We must have caught them on there midday siesta [because the bags are taking too long to get out], or they are just going through our stuff,” an elder man said. “I know. People have been eyeing our bags even when they don’t look like anyone else’s,” a younger man responded. One boy, an asian-decsent teenager, had a certain look of fear in his eye. These people were preparing for war, the war for Christ and the savior of souls.
My bags got lost along the way, and I had to wait for them to get into PAP on the next flight. Thankfully, my driver was very patient and waited for me diligently. Finally, with my bag in hand, we headed outside where we were met with the fierce warm winds of PAP. A sea of people, mostly black, waited behind a gate for their family members to walk out through the small door. I’m immediately struck by the large, seemingly endless hills and mountains.
In the car, I ask Nick-Olson, my driver, simple questions in English and Kreyol, while taking in the overwhelming scenery. This isn’t my first time in the so-called developing world, but what I saw was something very different than I’ve ever seen: A nude black glistening as he washed himself on the side of a main road, street vendors selling shoes, belts, sugar cane mangoes, scattered everywhere along the side walks, people walking in the middle of the streets as cars weave around them. From the air, I noted how much it reminded me of San Diego, yet on the ground it couldn’t have felt anymore foreign. There were trees but no birds, and the landscape is dominated by concrete structures, most of them dilapidated. I wondered to myself, how is it that there are no birds, and no wildlife, here? I saw one tiny sparrow-looking creature at the airport, and nothing else. Even New York City has wildlife. PAP has sad dogs.
I’ve got to pay close attention to the environment which is mostly, a built and destroyed environment. Perhaps I’ll take a walk to one of the parks next week.