Things Are Looking Up

The strongest impression you have standing at the wharf in the midst of Cité Soleil is of the many children swimming. There did not happen to be any boats being loaded or unloaded. There were no boats at the wharf at all. But there must have been a couple of dozen kids, running off one end of the dock or the other splashing, playing. It’s probably not what most of us think of when we imagine a place like Cité Soleil, the sprawling slum on the edge of Port au Prince.

Cité Soleil made up only one large piece of the day I spent with Geto today. We walked around a number of what have been the most dangerous parts of Port au Prince, and it’s very hard to avoid concluding that things are very much looking up.

When Abner and I were in the United States through much of April, it was striking and frustrating to be confronted with the persistent impressions that people we encountered have of Haiti. Haiti was in the news a little bit during the hard days before the election, and a little bit in the days during and after it as well. But since then, apparently, there’s been mostly silence. It’s a little hard to bear that in mind when you’re here in Haiti. My main access to American news is the internet, and by entering “Haiti” on Google’s news page I am able to keep up with much that’s written. What’s written is something of a mixed bag, but there is always something. So it’s easy to forget that someone back in the States, someone not intentionally seeking out stories about Haiti, might hear very little of what’s going on at all. The vast majority of folks we spoke to were aware that things before and around the election had been hard, but had lost track of things in the ensuing weeks, as things have turned calm, as optimism has increasingly ruled. The good news, news of the ways things here are improving, has not spread.

Geto and I started the day by hiking down from Ka Glo to my godson, Givens’, house. Job, Givens’ uncle, had spent the night with us in Glo. He came up because he hadn’t seen me since I left for the States at the end of March. He’s a fourth-year medical student, and had been at a week-long seminar. He had received a certificate of participation, and it was made out to Dr. Job Antoine. It was the first time that anything official-looking referred to him as Dr. Antoine, and he was beaming. His excitement had made for a pleasant evening.

We left him at Givens’ house in Delmas and then headed down to Cité Soleil. We had to make a short stop at a cybercafé at the entrance to Nazon, a neighborhood between Delmas and downtown Port au Prince, but we were soon on our way. We got off a tap-tap at an intersection that had been a notorious place for kidnappings, and strolled from there into Cité Soleil, winding through narrow passageways until we got to Geto’s grandmother’s house.

She was there with the one son who lives with her, and was very happy to see us. She sat us down on the edge of the bed that takes up most of her one-room, corrugated-tin shack and served us bread and coffee, very sweet and very strong, with evaporated milk. We sat and chatted for awhile and then I talked to her son. Like Geto, he’s an artist. He makes colorful tin wall hangings, birds and lizards, and trees and flowers. They’re beautiful. He sells them to a man who has a shop in Labadie, the cruise ship destination in the very north of Haiti. He was pleased because he’s been getting orders and he expects to start getting more. People are starting to come to Haiti, foreigners and Haitians who live abroad, and they want to buy “Creole stuff,” he said.

When Geto and I left the house, we took a tap-tap to the Cité Soleil market and walked from there to the wharf. It was a hot, sunny day, and people were out in the streets going about their business or just hanging out. Geto bumped into friends with almost every step. Some hadn’t seen him since he had been forced to flee, and they were only now discovering that he is well, so these were happy encounters. When we got to the wharf, we stood for a few minutes trying to take it all in: the folks in the street, the kids in the water, the burned-out government buildings, the beat-up shacks. It is an area of great poverty, but its liveliness is more striking than anything else to me.

We walked back to the market, and hopped on a tap-tap to Belaire. Belaire was a place of constant violence over the last year. Shootings, beatings, kidnappings of all sorts. It’s also an area where UN and government forces were especially violent. The first block or so that we walked through bore clear marks of the conflict. Whole chunks were missing from concrete buildings that were standing, and some buildings weren’t really standing at all. But as we walked into and through the neighborhood, it seemed cheerful, even peaceful.

The high-light of the day was waiting for us at Champ Mars, the park just uphill of downtown Port au Prince, above the presidential palace and the national museum. Today, May 1st, was the last day of a week-end-long exposition of Haitian agricultural products and handcrafts. It was a big fair. People were strolling around the various stands eating the food and looking at the beautiful range of crafts: jewelry, wall hangings, clothing, and other sorts of stuff as well. The last thing we saw was a gallery of photos that had been taken of René Préval during the recent presidential campaign. His inauguration is scheduled for the 14th, and preparations are well underway. We saw where new palm trees are being planted on one of the Champ Mars lawns.

This is a good time to be in Haiti. All sorts of people feel optimistic, though perhaps cautiously optimistic, about the months to come. There is genuine excitement about Préval’s presidency. The violence that was plaguing this place stopped abruptly when his victory was announced. There is a sense that things here might just be able to begin to change and, just maybe, that they will.

Most of the walk we took today would have been very, very unwise as recently as January. I found myself wishing that Abner and I had come upon more of an awareness of that side of the story when we were in the States, but “Haiti” has become such a watchword for violence, sickness, and misery – at least in American English – that more positive impressions are hard to establish. And American media outlets don’t seem very interested in trying.

I’d like to end my essay there, but I shouldn’t. I can begin to explain why by going back to the image of the kids playing on the Cité Soleil wharf. There were, as I said, a couple of dozen of them. And every one of them was a boy. Not a single girl was enjoying herself in the late morning sun. I asked Geto about it, and he said that girls sometimes swim there too, but in the face of the facts before me, the claim was unconvincing. My guess – and, of course, it’s only a guess – is that the boys I was watching have sisters enough, both younger and older, but that many of those girls are at home, doing housework, while their brothers play.

My point is not that Haiti is a sexist society. It is. But I’m not sure whether it’s any more or less sexist than other societies are. I want, rather, to let the deep sexism here serve as an emblem, a reminder. I wouldn’t want anyone to confuse my claims that things are much better right now in Haiti than Americans are accustomed to imagining with a claim that everything’s ok. And the very first one who should practice avoiding that confusion is me.

Things are looking up in Haiti right now. It’s a good time to be here. But there’s still lots of work to be done. I enjoyed my walk with Geto through Cité Soleil, but it’s not a place I’d want to live or even to visit every day. There’s terrible poverty, and if the criminal-political gang violence has stopped, there’s enough violence of other sorts. Domestic violence, racist and classist oppression, and economic exploitation are examples. So as important as it might be for be to communicate my enthusiasm for the turn that Haiti’s taking, it’s just as important for me to communicate a good-sized grain of salt.

As John Paul II said when he came towards the end of the Duvalier dictatorship: “Things must change.”