The January 2010 earthquake generated a new word in the vocabulary of Haitians: goudougoudou. That’s the affectionate Kreyol term that Haitians across the board use to name the disaster that ravaged Port-au-Prince and nearby cities. It’s alternately written goudou goudou or goudou-goudou, and is supposedly–if you say it over and over again very fast–the sound that the buildings made as they swayed and collapsed during the quake. More than just a word for an event, however, it’s a playful invention used by people of all social classes and religious orientations to name something so horrible that it’s better to call it something else, even if they had to make up a name. Linguists call this a onomatopoeia, naming something for the sound it makes. I suspect it also has psycho-social value in that it restores some sense of power to people who were made to feel powerless in those thirtysome seconds of terror. Naming, after all, was one of the first powers that God bestowed on humanity in the Genesis narratives.
Unfortunately, ordinary Haitians don’t feel very empowered by everything else that’s happened in the last year.
No one thought this last year would be easy, but the Haitian state basically decided to sit this one out. That’s nothing new around here; the Haitian elite have never cared much for the poor. That’s why they’ve done little to provide education or health services for them, for example, while encouraging foreigners to come and build schools and orphanages and clinics that tampered down dissent and removed social agency from the poor, all the while letting the rich off the hook. The resultant culture of dependency has been devastating to the Haitian spirit.
And then they invent a new word.
That’s part of what I love about this chaotic place. It can be so depressing one moment, and then the Haitians will surprise you with their impishness, creativity, compassion and strength.
I encounter this in small ways when I’m walking around a tent camp, for example, capturing images of the everyday life of some of the 800,000 people who remain living in what are generously called tents. Upon seeing me, a Haitian will sometimes rub their stomach and say, Mwen grangou–“I’m hungry.” They want me to give them some money. I don’t do that. I’ll often explain that I’m a journalist, or (depending on the setting) that I work with an aid group working in the camp, and that I’m there to document what’s happening so that people in the rest of the world will know what they’re living through. My translator Ulrick does this rap in Kreyol a lot of the time without me initiating it. Often I’ll use the opening to ask them how they’re getting along.
What I find fascinating is that a person who one minute is trying really hard to look pitiful and hungry, once they see they’re not getting anything directly from me, they change persona and sit up, return to looking dignified, they smile and maybe even give me a thumbs-up or a fist bump. This isn’t to argue that they are not hungry. They very well may be. Life in the camps is harder than ever. But there’s a mask they put on which has long worked with the blancs who flock here to do things for them. If it hadn’t worked in the past, they wouldn’t keep doing it. But when they’re treated as normal people rather than objects of pity, they straighten up and are often happy to tell you about what happened to them and their loved ones during the goudougoudou.
Those memories can be painful, however. Here’s Remilliene Morris, who lives in the country’s largest tent city, located on a former golf course in Petionville. She started crying as we talked early one morning. She was sitting in the entry to her “tent.” She has had to send two of her four kids off to live with relatives in the countryside because there wasn’t enough to feed them at home. After a while she just grew quiet and stared into the distance, emotionless, goudougoudou still shaking the foundations of her life.
On January 12, many Haitians gathered in places of worship to pray and remember, often bringing with them photos of their loved ones who died a year ago.
A lot of the media attention around the quake’s anniversary this past week focused on what has not been done. That’s an appropriate focus. Oxfam sums up some of the challenges well in a one-year report that deals with both government incompetence, international inaction, and the plight of the victims who are still buried, as one wag quipped, “under the rubble of dueling NGOs.” Another look at the NGO sector’s performance after one year came from the Disaster Accountability Project.
There was a lot of other good analysis this past week, most of which I didn’t have time to read because I was busy working. Around here, that means spending six to seven grueling hours a day in traffic (in a hired taptap–not an airconditioned NGOmobile) while maybe getting in four or five hours of work in the field. For me, that was mostly shooting images for the ACT Alliance, though the last few days I did some interviews for a piece I’ll be writing for response magazine.
The images I captured include some that indeed show progress, ranging from houses built by an ACT Alliance member in Leogane
to Haitian kids dancing to the rhythms of Brazilian capoeira as part of the trauma recovery work of a local group supported by ACT
to work with trauma-affected girls carried out by the YWCA with support from United Methodist Women
to the education of restaveks–Haitian children working in virtual slavery–in a training center rebuilt after the quake by Church World Service
to the work of what I affectionately dubbed the “Toilet Nazis”–women who, as part of a program to combat cholera, keep some latrines in Cite Soleil spotlessly clean and make everyone wash their hands with soap and water and then rinse with a chlorine solution after using the toilet.
Those latrines feed into a biodigestor built by a Brazilian group, designed to produce methane gas after a while for cooking in the neighborhood. Of course, every day at 5 pm, according to an Italian nun who runs a cholera clinic next door, hordes of children from the neighborhood gather in a field right behind the toilets to squat and take a dump in the open air.
All this work around cholera, which appeared here in November and has already killed well over 3,000 people, has distracted NGOs from the pressing tasks of reconstruction. Aid workers here talk about the last part of 2010 being “lost” to cholera, which in many ways is more of a political issue than a medical one: cholera thrives in an environment where people don’t have latrines, potable water or adequate education.
While they run some cholera clinics, like the one above in Montrouis, much of the work ACT Alliance members do is educational–going into the community to talk with folks about such things as where they defecate and how they clean their hands. Pretty simple in some ways, but complicated by a legacy of neglect for both public investment in sanitation as well as in education.
Here are community-based health workers getting the word out in Cite Soleil, an urban environment, and in a rural area of Montrouis.
Earthquake recovery was also set back during the last three months because of quarreling about presidential elections. Throughout the country, the sides of buildings and walls are covered with campaign posters, often plastered over each other. Yet in Grand-Goave I found Marie Carmel Telisme and her son in a tent where posters of competing candidates provide the principal decoration.
The campaign devolved into riots in December. My trip was planned to include a runoff scheduled for January 16, but that was postponed when the Organization of American States disagreed with President Rene Preval over which two candidates won the most votes and thus qualified for the runoff. (It was a dispute about the accuracy of the vote count that spurred the riots.) So there was little political action in the streets for me to document (I unfortunately didn’t know Baby Doc was coming back within a few hours of when I left), though I got a tad bit when protestors burned a car outside an anniversary mass where Preval and former U.S. President Bill Clinton were scheduled to appear. Both chickened out. Preval sent his wife instead, and the protestors had to settle for torching the car of an unlucky priest. I was there when Father Allan Francois showed up, keys in hand, alb and stole over his shoulder, looking for his car. It was not his day. Maybe he needs to invent a new word for the experience.
Voting in the referendum in Southern Sudan is now complete, and it occurred without major incidents of violence. The results won’t be announced for a few more weeks, but it’s clear that this particular people longing to be free will achieve both an absolute majority of votes for separation as well as the necessary 60 percent turnout for the referendum to be legitimate. President Omar al-Bashir and other senior NCP officials said all the right things in recent days, something that should be seen as a victory for people around the world who turned the screws on their governments to turn the screws on Khartoum to respect the results. We need to keep up the pressure, however, because while the government of northern Sudan has been forced to accept the referendum, a lot of details remain to be worked out about exactly how these two states will separate. Al-Bashir is sure to invite the devil into the details, such as how Abyei’s status is decided, and so continued vigilance is required.
I’m traveling home today and will be back in Oregon for a few days, commiserating with fellow Duck fans (oh! so close!) and working on a slideshow about Haiti for United Methodist Women’s summer schools of mission. If it stops raining maybe I’ll prune my grapes and pear trees. Then I’ll be off to Gaza in early February.
An old friend and colleague, John Ross, died today in Mexico. John and I both wrote for Latinamerica Press in its heyday. His encyclopedic knowledge of Mexico was astounding and insightful and passionate. He was a force of nature. The last time I saw him, maybe two or three years ago, we met for a late night dinner in the old city of Mexico City. He was already getting on in years, and his wardrobe showed a studied lack of attention. He spilled soup on his shirt, and didn’t care one whit. He wasn’t interested in his image, but only in understanding and accurately describing the world around him. He knew the waiters and half the patrons in the seedy restaurant he given me instructions on how to find. He died at the end of a long struggle against liver cancer. Venceremos, Juan!
The Schools of Christian Mission, sponsored by United Methodist Women, will focus on Haiti this year, and the study book for the course is now out. It uses some of my photos, though reproduced rather poorly. Its worst drawback, though, is the way it’s written, intentionally ignoring some major elements of Haiti’s political culture. I’m already getting emails from folks who will be teaching the course, asking me what books I suggest, so here’s a beginning of a list:
Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment – the real story about Aristide and how the world’s superpowers drove him from office.
Timothy Schwartz, Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking – a description and analysis of why Haiti has become the Republic of NGOs.
Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti – the classic look at Haiti’s history, valuable for understanding how Haiti’s incredible vulnerability was manufactured.
Also, keep an eye out for a forthcoming book by Amy Wilentz, the author of The Rainy Season and editor of Aristide’s landmark theological text In the Parish of the Poor.