Guest post by Dr. Jean C. Griffith
Before January 12, 2010, most Americans didn’t know much about Haiti. Take the cabbie who drove my husband and me from the airport recently: when told where we’d been, he asked, presumably in all seriousness, if Port-au-Prince was in Wisconsin.
By now, he and others know a few things about Haiti: that it’s the poorest country in the hemisphere, that most of the population lives in poverty, that most are illiterate, that Haitians are known for their fortitude, their ability to survive despite enormous obstacles. All of these factoids, which you probably are already sick of hearing, are true, and I hope in the weeks to come, you’ll begin to explore the roots from which these complex truths spring.
As an academic with a personal interest in Haiti and in one Haitian in particular, there is a lot I could tell you about these complexities. But now, with bodies still lining the streets of the capital city and survivors running out of food and water, is the time for basics. So let me take you on a simple drive from the Port-au-Prince airport to introduce you to a certain house whose inhabitants can tell you a little something about Haiti.
When you step out of the plane and into the airport, you’re greeted by musicians playing one of the forms of music unique to Haiti. One result of illiteracy that the news probably won’t tell you is that it tends to foster thriving oral and visual forms of expression.
When you step outside the airport again, you are greeted by quasi-official looking gentlemen who try to grab your luggage, not to steal it, but to carry it for a few bucks to whomever is waiting to pick you up. Once you get in the car, resist the urge to grab your seatbelt—in my experience at least, people who work as drivers for a living remove them.
As you approach the congestion of Port-au-Prince, you’ll see a few beggars, but they’ll be far outweighed by people walking on the street or sitting in tap-tap buses – group taxis – who may give you a passing glance (especially, because you stand out, if you are white) but who have other places to go and things to do. Poor, illiterate, strong, and always busy.
The streets, created before cars and not improved much since, are lined by buildings that, as someone once observed, you can’t tell are just going up or falling down. There are people everywhere, bartering and selling, carrying with grace more than you think humanly possible on their heads, and, of course, busily walking… somewhere.
Look closer, and you’ll see a number of boys—members of the street gangs, not in our drive-by Crips sort of way, but more like gangs at the turn of the 20th century: homeless and trying to survive by sticking together. You will see ramshackle hair salons, private schools (there is no other kind in Haiti), big white UN vehicles. In the distance, you may catch a glimpse of the deforested but still breathtakingly beautiful mountains that give the country its name.
Wind through the city and you’ll come to a road that drops off on either side (resist the urge to reach for that seatbelt—it wouldn’t help you anyway) to a dry creek bed where people are busy doing… something. Always busy. As you head up a steep road with holes so large you fear they’ll swallow the car, you’ll see a brightly-painted iron gate on your right. Many houses in Port-au-Prince have gates, flimsy, mostly symbolic barriers against not crime but rather the unrest that has for the last century tested that Haitian fortitude.
As the gate opens and you drive into a small open courtyard lined with bougainvillea, several pairs of eyes, at about the height of your knees, peer at you from between the posts of a fence enclosing the small, open front room of a stone house. It’s a rental, and its current tenant is one of the three branches of the Brebis de Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye orphanage, the one they call “Jamie and Ali’s House.”
Let me introduce you to some of the residents here. Ahead of the pack is Rafa, a wide grin on his face that threatens to dislodge the pacifier in his mouth. A little girl named Farica waits for you to pick her up, although she may scream at the site of you if you’re a white man (she doesn’t see so many of them, but she’s learning). Sitting on the ground is Jake, who’s getting a bit too fat, and Gavin, whose glance already seems far away. A little boy, Samuel, and two older girls, Samantha and Bettania, coddle and coo over the young ones; they’ll make excellent parents someday. If you are patient, you may catch the glance of shy Marie, or a smile from Fredo or Christa, always ready to pose for a camera. Sit down on the floor and you’ll be surrounded by children.
Sitting or standing among them are Haitian women, the nannies and the nurse who staff the house, and two American women, Jamie and her younger sister, Ali. Jamie and Ali, both in their twenties, don’t weigh more than about 200 pounds together. Ali just graduated from high school a few years ago. The sisters live amongst the children, caring for them, eating what they eat, and raising them with as much love as any “real” parent. They seldom get back to their family and friends in Pittsburgh; Jamie seldom sees her husband, who lives there. They have been here through coups, through weeks without power, and now, through the unimaginable devastation of the earthquake, they have refused to evacuate. They take no pay. Officially, they are just “volunteers” who can come and go as they please. In reality, they are the heart of this place, the people who comfort abandoned babies or desperate birth families who relinquish their sons and daughters in the hope that they will live to adulthood.
If you are me, Ali is standing and looking directly at you with a baby boy in her arms named Alexander, or “Ti [little] Ali.” He is beautiful and perfect. And if you were me standing there, he’d be your son, the child you can, for now, only visit, whom you must behind every time you get back on that plane. The child that you wait for and worry about even without earthquakes, the child who is now, as far as you know, alive but, like nearly everyone else in the city, living outside, running out of what food and water there is.
That child is Haiti, and he’d be very glad to meet you. Please, consider yourself introduced.
Dr. Jean C. Griffith is an English professor at Wichita State University. She and her husband have been in the process of adopting their son, Alexander, from Haiti since 2008 and have traveled to Port-au-Prince four times.
To follow the progress made in aiding Jamie, Ali and the children at the BRESMA orphanage, follow the hashtag #BRESMA on Twitter for frequent updates.
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