I was supposed to be in Haiti last week. However, the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince issued new warnings about travel in the country. There are always warnings about travel in Haiti, but other than the dangers of bad water, we have always felt safe. Other mission connections in the country agreed that because of Haiti’s most recent political upheaval it might be wise to change our plans. Our trip to visit our friends in Pasquette, Haiti, was cancelled at the last minute.
Parliamentary elections have been put off for so long that the terms of most senators have expired. Presidential elections have been delayed again and again. The most recent run-off election was cancelled just last week because the runner-up refused to campaign in what he believed to have been a rigged election favoring the current president, Michel Martelly’s chosen candidate. Martelly has said he would leave office on February 7, as required by the Haitian constitution. Now he is saying he will not step down as required. No interim government has been appointed.
It is hard to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in Haitian politics. The truth is that the rest of the world has ignored corruption and injustice in Haiti when it has suited our purposes. On the other hand, we have interfered and even orchestrated the ousting of elected officials when they did not suit our purposes. Haitians believe the recent elections were rigged and once again, the people of Haiti will be the ones who suffer.
Haiti has a long history of abuse, exploitation and political corruption. The vast majority of Haitians are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the new world to work on plantations owned by European colonists following the extermination of the native people who greeted Columbus when he landed in the “West Indies.” Not only were the slaves and their labor exploited, the land itself was stripped bare of trees for export and for fuel. Mineral resources were dug out of the ground and floated back to Europe for kings’ riches. There was no regard for reclamation of the spoiled landscape. The island has been wracked by earthquakes, floods, landslides, hurricanes, tsunami’s and epidemic disease. More than half of the island’s wealth is owned by the French speaking one percent minority of the population. The other 99 percent, the Creole speaking majority, lives in desperate poverty.
Much of the island is mountainous and sparsely populated. Most of the country’s subsistence farmers have been forced off their land by cheap, subsidized imported crops. Having lost their land holdings they moved to urban areas looking for work. Most of Haiti’s more than 10 million people live in cities and along the coastal plains. It is the second most densely populated country in the Americas and it’s cities are some of the most crowded in the world. I am still overwhelmed by the images of acres of small tents and huts with walk ways between them only wide enough for a single person to pass through. I was told that a dozen or more people may live in each small shelter.
The country of Haiti has serious problems with gangs, violence and political corruption. Most of the people I have met, however, are gentle, friendly and polite. The response to our impatience was usually, “No problem.” We might erroneously see the easy-going, laid back attitude of the Haitians as a sign of laziness and lack of initiative. We would be wrong. Haitians work hard to survive. They are strong from carrying water and other loads on their heads. They do what they need to in order to eat. They have no means to leave and nowhere else to go.
I cannot understand what it means to spend one’s whole life in a crowded city like Port au Prince. I try to imagine what it is like to live in a tent city day after day. If that were where I had grown up, wouldn’t I be a different person? Would I find the energy to go look for a job in the face of an 80 percent unemployment rate? What would I do to feed and educate my children? How would the lack of adequate nutrition have changed their ability to learn? Would I be as generous as Haitians are with each other? Would I understand better what it means to care for my neighbor?
Seeds of Support, the Eden Prairie, Minnesota, mission we work with, decided it was not wise for us to put ourselves and our Haitian staff at risk of being caught in the middle of political demonstrations or potential violence. Taking seriously the frustration of the elections and the chaos of national Carnevale celebrations which begin next week, this seemed a trip possibly headed for disaster. Less than a day before we were to leave for Haiti, our trip was cancelled.
One of our translators’ initial response to our cancellation was the usual Haitian equanimity. “No problem. God is good.” A few hours later he emailed again with another, perhaps more honest, question. “Will you return?” he asked. We assured him we would return when things calmed down, that we would not abandon our work together. I pray that we can keep that promise and not let our fear overwhelm us. The Bible repeatedly reminds us not to be afraid. That does not mean uselessly putting ourselves and others in the way of danger. We still need to be realistic about the risks we take. We should not, however, let our fears cause us to abandon our friends to the even greater risks of continued poverty, unemployment and hopelessness.
We are who we are not just because of the choices we ourselves make. We are who we are because of history, climate, landscape and the community which surrounds us. This doesn’t make us better or worse than our neighbors in Haiti, just luckier. The people I have met in Haiti are patient with us. They are gracious in accepting our help. They are polite in spite of our sometimes superior attitude and our often condescending manner.
I am different because I have spent time with my Haitian friends and have learned to patiently wait in the warm Caribbean sun. I have had smiling, affectionate, children sit in my lap while they tried to teach me Creole words. I better understand generosity and tolerance. There is a little bit of Haiti in who I am. I will return.
Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains