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.
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).
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.).
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.