Returning to see a long-time friend and if there were changes in Haiti.
Arriving in Port au Prince, Haiti, Mike and I descended the aircraft’s steps as we did so many times before. The heat and humidity, even on the first day of February, reminded my partner and me we weren’t in Wisconsin anymore. The new escalator in the recently constructed Arrivals building whisked us up in a modern, professional way. Concrete corridors blended into billboard-sized tourist advertisements — for a casino, the Citadel in Cap Hatien, and five-star Barbincour Rum.
But where was … ? And there, another turn on the way to the automated carousels of the baggage claim, my partner and I came across our beloved Digicel Band. Five musicians in red and white t-shirts, sponsored by one of the major mobile carriers, played traditional Haitian music. Regardless of what changed in Haiti, there remained some of the old traditions.
Our visits to Haiti began in 2006 as a lark — a feel good opportunity to travel-to-a-country-that-we-think- needs-our-“help” and enjoy a different culture. It ended in 2013, far different than it began — a cerebral, serious, concerned questioning of ourselves (specifically) and humanity (in general).
We established a small foundation from 2007-2013. Every six months we arrived in Port au Prince, and later that day, hired a car or flew in a five-seater to Jakmel. By nightfall, a second car would whisk us up the mountain to the rural Lamontay to meet with local associations about leadership and economic development and check on our joint projects.
February 1, 2018, Mike and I went back once more to review those projects — did they have an impact, and if so, how?
Putting the past into perspective.
A few of the changes we saw in those two cities felt subtle in some ways and obvious in others:
- Haitians generally responded differently to the question, “Koman ou ye (How are you)?” Before 2013, they answered “Papimal,” which meant, “Okay, not bad.” In 2018, they answered in a more upbeat fashion, “Byen (well)” or “Trè byen (very well).”
- Fewer Blans (whites, foreigners) appeared in the cities. After the hurricanes and earthquake, we saw many driven about in air-conditioned Land Rovers, employees of foreign, disaster-relief groups. Those who gathered these days in Jakmel for Karnival populated a couple of streets in the artists’ area. As we moved about the cities of the southern peninsula of Haiti, we saw one here in the transportation center, another there at the hotel near the airport. Most individuals and organizations went home.
- Mobile phone usage was on the rise in 2013, but we saw almost everyone carrying a cell phone in 2018. Though phones could be expensive, minutes were cheap and a SIM card inserted gave the user access to Facebook and its instant messaging system for free. No wonder I received messages almost daily from my friends in Haiti. “How are you? How is Mike?”
- Movement of people out of the rural farmlands to the larger cities seeking jobs did not stop, but it differed. Haitians prefer to live amidst the beauty of the countryside rather than the high-density, loud, dusty, and high-crime capitol. It is hard to make a living wage in these bucolic areas with only subsistence farming. Recent local efforts in the rural areas encouraged residents to stay, offering them better education for their children and more activities at the end of a day’s work. Though those efforts have not stopped the movement out, they have slowed them. Families who used to send their young adults to Port au Prince to make money or receive an education now send them to the smaller, growing cities of Jakmel, Cap Haitien, and Les Cayes. Jakmel was becoming as congested as Port au Prince.
- The appearance of the average person improved. The hurricanes ruined crops for two seasons, the earthquake shook every family with personal losses, cholera sickened and killed. This year, the average citizen appeared healthier, heavier, and more stylish. Almost everyone carried a little extra weight. Women wore fashionable silver sandals and the newest tops like celebrities wore. Men sported clean, stylish shoes and pressed shirts.
- Haitians who loved our past American president, Barack Obama, held our newest leader at arms length. A week before we arrived, President Trump referred to Haiti as a cesspool. Haitians who spoke with us compared their past president, Michel Martelly (aka Sweet Micky) with Donald Trump. The two men, both elected on populist platforms, were recognized for their crassness and limited world knowledge.
- The infrastructure in the cities improved — and not just at the airport. The ports, roads, commercial buildings, public spaces, and high-end hotels appeared where before there were none. The waterfront of Jakmel featured a lengthy, elaborate, artistic, mosaic mural bringing the visitor to the bay. A second grand mosaic carpeted the boardwalk from one end to the other. The work of those artists appeared throughout the waterfront city — from small pocket murals to an entire poem featured on the steps to the central plaza.
- With the bettered roads came more vehicles. MACK trucks, luxury busses, and high-end cars populated the two-, three-and four-lane roads. In Port au Prince, just outside the airport, we marveled at the new Mercedes Benz concession. Signs in the capital offered GMC trucks on sale for $39,000 US. I remember often stopping by the side of the road so that the driver could change a tire or fiddle with a moving part under the hood. The taxis we used were late model vehicles, dusty but in good repair.
Were we seeing the full picture?
On the morning after we arrived in the city of Port au Prince, Mike and I sat on the hotel patio in the warm breeze, watching people walk to work. Most wore “business casual” in this mixed-use area of hotels and small businesses. When the hotel security guard with his sawed-off shotgun moved up to his second-floor guard house to survey the hotel’s grounds, it gave space to a street beggar to address us, cloistered behind a plant-clad fence. “Hey you! Blan! Hey! Bonjou!” he persisted. “You have work. Something for me?” It was the type of question we did not hear when we first arrived in Haiti in 2006.
Over the years, we heard more often the words, “Gimme a dollar?” It resulted from need as well as from Blan who gave the dollar, believing hand outs were the best way to address the economic disparity. The cars, hotels, and infrastructure suggested that yes, there were changes in Haiti; but the street peasant suggested perhaps not everyone enjoyed them.
Are there changes in Haiti? Yes, certainly in the cities. Traveling out of the cities into the rural villages would give us a more balanced look at how to frame the answer.
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Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist who writes, travels, and authored “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2017: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.