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Poverty, beauty, humanity

Thursday, February 28, 2013
Aided by a donkey, a popular mode of transport in rural areas, farmers make their trek to the mountainside to plant plantains. Photos: Michelle Loubon

T&T Guardian senior reporter, Michelle Loubon, won the silver award in the 2010 United Nations Population Fund Awards for her pieces on Haiti: An Economy Torn Apart and the work of missionary Avonelle Hector-Joseph and her humanitarian group Is There Not A Cause (ITNAC). On the third anniversary of the earthquake which destroyed Port-au-Prince and claimed about 300,000 lives in January 2010, she visited Haiti to assess the extent of reconstruction and restoration.


Move aside the heavy corrugated gates of St Joseph of Cluny convent, and one is immediately exposed to the bustling streets of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. It feels as though you have walked into a Haitian wonderland. There is the omnipresent poverty and the biblical line “hewers of wood and drawers of water” comes to mind. 


But it is impossible to miss the spirit of the people as they go about their business under punishing sunshine. Haitian people are beautiful, earthy and nubile. They also have the distinction of being the first independent Black republic in the Western hemisphere since 1804. In Black Jacobins, the late Trinidadian writer CLR James documented the Haitian Revolution and the outstanding contribution of liberators Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. 


The start of a road trip to the Haitian countryside with some nuns from the Cluny convent, took us into downtown Port-au-Prince where there are many images of these liberators. There is also a very striking sculpture of an ebony black slave blowing on a conch shell, located a stone’s throw from where the Presidential Palace used to be. The area is now devoid of the tent cities which stood there in the aftermath of the earthquake. 


As morning breaks, Haitians can be seen hawking their wares on dusty streets. Women armed with brooms sweep the areas caked with grime. Clutching their parents’ arms, school children in pretty ribbons and clean white socks make their way to school.


Amid the hodge podge at Port-au-Prince, vendors sit beside huge wicker baskets selling seasonal San Francique mangoes, flowers, tangerines, fish, woven mats, baskets, purple Congo beans, butterfly craft, sugar cane, charcoal, clothing, vegetables, tyres, pans, eye glasses, hand crafted furniture, stoves and rum. 


Some of the vendors brave the sweltering heat under rows of beach umbrellas. There are mannequins on streets displaying trendy clothing. There are no shops or even kiosks. Vendors just claim a space and set up shop for the dizzying array of items. It is a typical sight to see a strong Haitian woman balancing a three tiered basket with perfect aplomb. Some even pause to engage in a casual conversation in krewol (a Haitian dialect). 


Wheelbarrows are ubiquitous. They serve as tuck shops for cold drinks and bags of water. People stop to buy pies the way that Trinis flock to doubles vendors for breakfast. The edibles are cooked in huge earthen pots, with no sign of containers with water for cleaning and washing up. Craftsmen build suites of furniture on the streets. 


Port-au-Prince is also a busy metropolis that suffers from traffic congestion, as fancy cars and colourful “tap tap vans” jostle for space on streets that lack formal traffic signs. A small crowd clambers onto the tap tap vans many of which bear names like Jesus Is The Way. 


Haitian nun Marie Yannick said they are called “tap tap” vans because they don’t go very far. “To get out all the passenger has to do is “tap tap,” she said.


Artwork and clothing were nailed into trees. Also noticeable, was the absence of policemen in Port-au-Prince. A few were regulating traffic at the affluent suburb of Petionville. 


Along the way we spotted massive trucks coming from the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Yannick explained that they were carrying goods and the irony was while the trucks were welcomed in Haiti, Haitians who chanced going beyond the border in search of jobs were sent back home if caught by the authorities.


Road to St Marc, Gonaives 


As the dusty streets of Port-au-Prince grew distant, the Cluny sisters made their way into the Haitian heartland. They were going to socialise and assess the work being done by their sisters in the other convents. Their ultimate mission for the Haitian Cluny, was rebuilding the St Madeline Orphanage. This project is taking place with the assistance of Dr Paula Henry, co-ordinator of the HaiT&T Foundation and the assistance of the Irish Cluny. 


We passed rustic communities like Couer de Bouquettes, St Andre and Genthier en route to convents at St Marc and the Gonaives Mountains, where desert-like cacti and scrub lent beauty to the rugged terrain. 


At times, the landscape is broken by swathes of greenery and bougainvillea. It is noticeable although there are unpaved roads, the drivers know how to negotiate successfully past the flower islands. Men took a moment to wash their cars wherever water flowed heavily. But the more popular sources of water were wells with pumps. Both children and adults carried containers, jugs and bottles. 


In her poem Jamaica Market, Jamaican poet Agnes Maxwell-Hall (1894-1984), wrote about “black skins, babel and the sun that burns all colours into one.” She could easily be speaking about the busy market at St Marc. There were huge bunches of plantains, cassava, christophene and garlic stacked on vans and on donkeys’ panniers. In the distance, wads of cotton on the trees glinted in the sunlight. Trade was conducted in the open air and on the streets and Haitian gourdes (named after the vegetable) were the common currency. There were many vendors selling charcoal for heat, fuel and cooking. And there were just as many selling rope, a necessity for securing items on tap tap vans and donkeys. 


Just past the market, opposite the breathtaking stretch of beach at St Marc, men were working in rice paddy fields. There was no evidence of sophisticated agricultural equipment. Trees wore leggings of pink and blue. People gathered in small groups chatting animatedly. 


In the next village, St Andre, some men were crudely buccaneering a pig. They used crude knives to carve the sow into large cuts, ready for wives to cook at dinner. In the middle of the busy main road, pedestrians hopped over a huge, muddy crater that also caused traffic to grind to a near halt. 

Donkey, motorbikes to for transport


Apart from donkeys which are usually laden with fresh produce, motorcycles are a popular mode of transport in the rural areas. Yannick explained Haiti means “mountainous” and motorbikes were the only way to get into the vast wasteland. The motorbikes were parked like a taxi stand, while the drivers laughed and chatted under a denuded almond tree. 


It was a common sight to see two children at a time on the back of motorbikes on their way to school. Even adults were in for the ride. To outsiders, it may have looked like a stressful enterprise. But the passengers appeared happy and relaxed en route to their destinations. 


The nuns also made a pit stop at Kanesville, a community completely untouched by modernity.


As we approached, children stopped playing behind the huts made from moriche palms and laid out like an African village. Both adults and children came up to the nuns who offered them sweets and nuts. 


We were amazed to see the state of Kanesville. It was devoid of modern conveniences like cars, computers and toilets that flush. The scene was like a tapestry of poverty. 


Clicking at the site while absorbing the sight, Rowena Galvin, one of the younger nuns from the Irish Cluny said: “These people are completely untouched. They are so unspoilt. They live so close to nature. It’s amazing that people still live unsullied like this.”


Historians, sociologists and anthropologists would concur Haiti is undeniably beautiful—but it is also an environment at the cusp of human survivability. 


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