I’m no expert on Haiti. I’ve been there twice in the past four years, for a total of two weeks. But two weeks is more than most folks, and it’s enough to form an impression.
And enough to refute our president. Because when President Trump reportedly called Haiti, El Salvador and most of Africa “shithole countries,” he intimated that Haitians, Salvadorans and Africans are “shithole people.” It is awful, racist, repugnant stuff. It is divorced from my lived experience.
So let me tell you a little about the Haiti I have experienced, and point you to some better reference materials if you are interested in the place and its people.
The joyful and the troubling mingle in Haiti in ways outside the usual frame of my experience. I loved my time there. That’s not to say the place is easy. It’s hard, and I lived the most privileged existence possible in Haiti—the white visitor. I was treated like royalty, which, if you know anything about the history between our two countries, is unexpected and undeserved.
Everyone knows that Haiti’s standard of living is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, and I have driven through the slums around Port Au Prince. I’ve looked up long roads strewn with trash and lined by shanty town shacks. I’ve looked and looked, because I could not take my eyes away. I’ve driven on dusty roads past three-room homes where I could not discern what the people who lived there could possibly do to scratch out a living.
There is something elemental in the struggle it takes to get even simple things done in the country. It appears tiresome. And yet people manage, because a lot actually gets done there.
My minister today was saying that the key to resilience is not learning to tough out a miserable situation. Instead, the key to resilience is discovering how to retreat and recharge after facing up to a difficult and heartless world. As he said that today, I remembered being gathered in silence with a small circle of fellow travelers in a compound outside Hinche, in Haiti’s Central Plateau, reflecting on a difficult day … and listening to the sounds coming from a modest home nearby. I don’t understand enough Creole to catch more than the occasional word or phrase. What I did make out was the unmistakable sounds of a family working through its daily routines with compassion, frustration, dignity and humor. Those overheard moments told me Haitian people, like so many Americans, find strength in their families that feed their dreams and help them cope with a world that so often appears arrayed against them.
As much as I appreciated my time there, I was glad to come home. I remember saying to a colleague on my second trip, “I’d be less excited if we were staying another week, let alone another month.”
Which is one way of saying that I remain in awe of the resilience of the people I met. Their ability to enjoy their lives, to be aware of the problems and not be defeated by them, amazed me.
Haitians aren’t saints. They’re people. I’ve been the recipient of their generosity. I’ve witnessed them argue violently over an unconscious boy about who was responsible when the boy was hit by a motorbike on a dusty street, without attending to the boy. I’ve worked with them and laughed with them.
I hope to be among them again.
I’ve written a bit about my time, including this poem, called 17 Pilgrims, about my first service trip there. From it:
“Haiti, you trudge to the end of a long day. I expect you to wake tired in the morning. Instead, you are bright smiles.”
I offer these resources as a way to connect with a challenging, beautiful place and its beautiful, worthy people.
A Whirlwind Start
A Harrowing Day on the Roads
Why Haitians Reject industrial Farming
A Different Take on Education
The Boy on the Road, a Poem
The Amazing Way Power Is Coming to Rural Haiti
59 Photos from My Trip to Haiti
If you’re looking for some starting points on understanding the place:
- Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, by Laurent Dubois (2012)
- The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan Katz (2014)
- Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracey Kidder (2009)
- Revolutions Podcast, episodes 4.1-4.19, by Mike Duncan
- Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, (1995)