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Haiti: The Mountains Beyond the Earthquake

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The title of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains is based upon a Haitian proverb — dye moon, gene moon — beyond the mountain, more mountain. It speaks to the never-ending challenges of life. Once one difficulty is overcome, the next, seemingly insurmountable, arises immediately. The phrase is even more relevant now watching what is going on in Haiti. Every hour, on Twitter or via e-mail, I get a report of some important landmark or someone who is missing. This disaster must not happen again. When the U.S. and the U.N. get beyond the immediate, necessary phase of rescue and relief, what will they do with the mountains of Haiti beyond?

Haiti was an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. The hurricanes of 2008 clearly showed that. Perilous situations, man-made, existed in Haiti before recent natural disasters struck there. These same dangerous conditions exacerbate the devastation now and will continue to defeat the country if a tragic opportunity is not seized now, by both national and international government, in rebuilding Haiti.

After a couple of days of watching rescue efforts on news television, I'm sure by now you've heard about the hurricanes that swept through Haiti in 2008. What doesn't happen on television is an at-length discussion of what led to the horrendous effects of those storms. The mudslides in Haiti which killed hundreds and left hundred of thousands homeless in Haiti didn't happen in the Dominican Republic because that country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, still had its trees.

Haiti is now a mountain desert — a beautiful, tragic desert. Cutting down their trees for fuel, people were forced to move away from the desert, as would be logical for survival, and settled in Port-au-Prince which lacked the infrastructure to support so many people. There are many reasons, hundreds of years of reasons, that this happened. The result was an impoverished infrastructure that is impeding current rescue efforts. One runway at the airport. Ship ports that can't be used. Small towns, destroyed, that can't be reached by roads impassable before the earthquake. The question remains — what then must we do, as Tolstoy said.

I have had a love/despair relationship with my children's native country ever since I first picked up a book on Haiti, even prior to traveling there for the adoption. When we first were thinking of adopting from Haiti, the book I chose to start my Haitian studies was Graham Greene's The Comedians and it was all downhill from there. At least that's what many Haitians would probably think. And they would be right. Green's thinly disguised condemnation of the Duvalier regime portrayed a Haiti doomed. Little has changed for the people of Haiti since the book's publication in 1966. Then the catastrophe was Papa Doc Duvalier and his manipulation of the United States government, using U.S. fear of Communism to overlook the poverty and worse of his people.

In the novel, the hero leaves Haiti. In reality, the real heroes stay behind on the island. Will real heroes stay behind now? Concentrating on working with the Haitian people to "destroy, clean up, rebuild" as one Jacmellian said in an email today?

Upon my first trip to Haiti, back in 2000, I saw the heroes walking the streets piled with garbage, carefully working their way through trash and pigs, dressed in immaculate white shirts and pressed a-line skirts. On their way to work, school, wherever, looking all the more proud and pristine in contrast to their country, an economic disaster, an environmental disaster.

Graham Greene's book did nothing to prepare me for transracial adoption, but at least it prompted me to look up the Hotel Oloffson, a predominant character in the book, there called the Hotel Trianon. We stayed there upon our first visit and every subsequent one, and the hotel has taught me more about Haiti than any book. A place for journalists and a place to see Richard Morse's RAM play music on Thursday nights, it is a bridge to the outsider. As we all are, looking upon the wreckage on our television sets. Mr. Morse regularly uses Twitter and it was through that social network that I heard many reports of good news. The hotel probably survived because it was made of wood rather than the unreinforced concrete of the buildings around it.


Tuesday night, I wanted to resist the addiction of watching 24 hour news, but I succumbed pretty quickly with the pictures of the Presidential Palace. This particular area was a source of pride for the Haitians — a place of trees, cool breezes, grand white buildings. An oasis.

These must be rebuilt with speed and care, as a metaphor to return to a functioning government.

Seeing the picture of the damaged palace on the New York Times website, I turned on CNN and haven't left the television except when necessary. My Haitian children, who are now teenagers, look with some interest but don't really think it has anything to do with them. They don't ask about the sisters who raised them at the hospital in Delmas. They don't ask about the children who lived at the Oloffson. As I said, they are teenagers.

In contrast, I look with horror at destroyed landmarks I know on the television screen and on the computer: the beautiful beach bar, in the gingerbread town of Jacmel, that looks like its roof caved in. Who was in the building, did they get out? During a visit to Jacmel, back in 2005, we shared the enthusiasm of the town which was hosting its first ever film festival. A newspaper article in the Miami Herald described this event as "a glimmer of hope for a country in despair." Last week, Jacmel had another glimmer of hope when Comfort Inn announced that it would build a new hotel. There was great excitement at the news. Now, Jacmel has had extensive damage but has received little media attention. Port-au-Prince to Jacmel was a difficult trip before this. It is, five years later, a country in despair.

And speaking of despair, after days of watching CNN I now have a despair/despair relationship with my children's country. Broadcasters move with the motion of a consistent golf swing: the same rescue video – backswing,  the same downcast eyes and shake of the head – contact, the same "poorest country in the hemisphere" – the follow-through. There have been few that digressed from this routine. An interview with Paul Farmer, subject of Tracy Kidder's book and expert in effective non-governmental organizing in Haiti, was perfunctory. The broadcasters must cut away to their man in the field and his understandably emotional reporting. This show business is helpful for immediate money-raising but will it be helpful in the long run? The long run is what Haiti needs.

As I write this, there is breaking news that Jean-Bertrand Aristede is "willing to come home and help his country." This news makes me flash back to 2003, to a handsome bartender at the Oloffson. He shocked me with his opinion that "Haiti was better off under Baby Doc Duvalier." His half-smile told me that he was enjoying my dismay, and maybe he didn't really mean it, but regardless, it is a defining statement as to Haiti's history: I prefer a ruthless dictator to what is going on now. I'm sure many Haitians would agree with Hippolyte's brash statement today. Better roads, better building codes, the Haitian people have deserved this for generations and have not received them from either their government or the international community. Perhaps now they will. Perhaps that will be the good that comes of this.

Someday I aspire to trek the Furcy to Seguin trail, to walk over Haiti's highest mountain. When I do that, the Hotel Florita will not be waiting for me in Jacmel. Reports today say it is ruined.

I hear that schoolchildren in New York City are making bracelets of hope. What a marvelous project. This is what Haiti needs. The bracelet will be a reminder of help needed a month from now, a year from now because —

Kay koule twompe soley soley men li pa twompe lanil.

A leaky house can fool the sun, but it can't fool the rain. Or the earthquake.

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • bob march

    Why bother with this country … seems like if it is “fixed” it will simply be back in this same state very quickly … maybe a nuclear testing site?

  • I guess I think of Haiti as Ireland in 1847 when millions died in famine and millions more came here and physically buillt this country’s infrastructure. Haiti is worth fixing for our sakes if not theirs.

  • Typical bleeding-heart liberal take.

    I am not buying it. Haiti is a rural country that morphed into an urban oasis. Port au Prince is a dump filled with slums because too many people call it home. This so reminds me of Calcutta, which I have not seen, and northern India which I have seen. Too many people too few resources. The corruption alone makes it not fit for fixing. Why throw good money after bad?

    Americans love to waste money. Haiti is a money pit. Who will get the money as it flows there? Not the people you can bet.

    If this leads to depeopling of Port au Prince and a resettlement in other places then it may be the silver lining. You can’t bring back the people who died and you can’t bring back the land to a pristine state when it is overpopulated. Wake up. The death toll will get in the 100+K range for sure. Recall when typhons hit Bangladesh and the big one in China. People there are still living in tent cities.

    You can’t fix Haiti. You can’t fix pernicious poverty.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Heloise –

    Yours is a typical Republican/libertarian take. “I got mine and they’re not worth worrying about.”

    What Republicans and libertarians don’t realize is how our efforts to help them benefit us. Perhaps the simplest example is the birth rate. If we allow those who are in grinding poverty to remain in poverty and do little or nothing to help them, then they will NOT rise out of their poverty. They will remain impoverished, and their countries will remain breeding grounds for disease and violent extremism.

    On the other hand, if we help build them up, their standard of living rises, their level of education rises, and their birth rate falls…and the rate of disease and violent extremism also fall. I can cite you many, many instances of this. There are always exceptions to the rule…but generally speaking, this rule holds true.

    But some of us don’t want to turn our backs on those who desperately need help. Some of us want to help just because it’s the right thing to do. And anyone who is against abortion should be first in line to help.

  • mrdockellis

    I can see you’re point about disease, but violent extremism? Saudi Arabia is a well off country and they produced most of the 9-11 jihadist killers. Bin Laden and the Christmas day bomber? Both educated in the West and both upper class in their respective countries.

    I don’t think anybody wants to turn their back on somebody, but we’ve got two wars, nation building in both countries, a trillion dollar healthcare fiasco coming, stimulus one and soon stimulus two, the bailouts, Fannie and Freddie and on and on.

    As President Obama said last summer ” We’re broke”

    Sometimes you just run out of money.

  • A beautiful and sad article..grief is setting in all of us that watch helplessly as they die now…but amongst all the absolute horror around them. Thursday night on CNN, men, women, and children sang together..they gave hope and strength to those who witnessed. The undying spirit of the Haitian people.

    I watched and felt shame…knowing that many of my countrymen do not posses even one ounce of this inner strength.

    Please text Haiti to 90999 so that ten dollars can go directly to the people of Haiti…they are us..they are our humanity!

  • Hi everyone: Thanks for commenting! I certainly agree that a degree of compassion fatigue, especially with 24 news channels in a frenzy, sets in, but I argue that Haiti is a problem that can be fixed by its own people with our help. See Paul Farmer’s Partners In Health for a model.

  • Doug Hunter

    “certainly agree that a degree of compassion fatigue”

    By my top of the head calculation there’s about 7 billion people in the world. A person lives roughly 70 years, so we’re losing approximately 100 million people per year. (clearly the population is growing so there may be some fewer deaths than that) In any case, the number is within an order of magnitude and hundreds of people have died in the span of you reading this comment.

    It’s not possible or rational to ‘care’ about every one of the hundreds of thousands who die in a single given day. People who tell you they do either want to trigger an emotional response to further an agenda or are positioning them selves as morally superior.