I first landed in Port-au-Prince in December 1971. A student at La Universidad InterAmericana de Puerto Rico, I was slowly winging my way back to Texas for the Christmas holidays. (In those days one could actually book a “student ticket” with stopovers from San Juan to Haiti to Kingston, Jamaica, to Mérida, Mexico, to Mexico City and on to San Antonio for a couple-hundred bucks.)
Determined to see the world and get a degree simultaneously, I remember landing at the rudimentary airport outside Port-au-Prince and wondering, have I missed it? Have I missed the heyday of artist expats — Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Noël Coward, etc. — all the legendary writers, painters, musicians, dancers, and theater mavens who flocked to Haiti in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s to soak up the island’s distinctive, exotic patois culture? I was steeped in the imagery of Graham Greene’s political novel, The Comedians; Truman Capote’s musical, House of Flowers; the vivid paintings of Hector Hyppolite and Wilson Bigaud; Katherine Dunham’s Haitian-inspired dances; the gripping biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the 18th-century Haitian slave who led Haiti to independence against Napoleon Bonaparte’s army — could there possibly be a more fascinating, distinctive pot-au-feu of art and intrigue anywhere in the western hemisphere?
I was not disappointed. From my tiny gingerbread guest house directly across the park from the National Palace, I slowly let Haiti envelop me like beurre sur le pain grille. Writers have gushed lakes of ink trying to explain what it is about this miserably poor and heartbreaking country that is so ineffably captivating. TV does it no justice whatsoever. Looking at CNN earthquake footage you could easily confuse Port-au-Prince with Juarez or Tijuana. But exactly how does one film soul, zest, esprit, and character? Haitians are arguably the most charming and paradoxical individuals on earth. It’s never been “a good day” in Haiti. Life is a perpetually unfolding drama of contrasting extremes. Pain and joy, tears and laughter, life and death — all in the same day, the same hour. Centuries of crushing poverty, political despots, religious rot, and nature’s betrayal have not extinguished the Haitian’s innate will to survive. Indeed, they endure with humor, hope, and surprisingly enough, breathtaking beauty in an all too cruel reality.
Back then the Haitian dictatorship had been passed from voodoo demagogue Papa Doc Duvalier to his bumbling, clueless son, “Baby Doc.” On weekends the downtown streets of Port-au-Prince were blockaded so le gros bébé could race his sports car around town. The country became an adjunct playpen for an overgrown buffoon, its citizens props to fend off a despot’s raging boredom. Naturally, in such transcendent farce artists found volumes of material. The country was throbbing with vibrant expression (though covert by necessity). Intriguing art naïf murals lined the side streets, innuendo filled the air in the lyrics and catchy rhythms of mizik razin, Compas, and merengue; esoteric newspapers, leaflets, flyers, reviews, pamphlets, and journals were stacked liberally around the city. People sold paintings and sculpture in front of their homes. Repression had the usual numinous effect of energizing the local artists’ capacities. You could breathe in the foment surging just below the genial, animated veneer Haitians wore philosophically on their ragged sleeves.
Sitting one morning under the largest purple bougainvillea I’d ever seen, I peeled an orange and listened to French pop singer Mireille Mathieu sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” over loudspeakers surrounding the wedding-cake National Palace. People scurried about completely oblivious. Where was I? I pondered the prospects of hearing Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn” blaring from the White House. Orwellian mind control or Muzak pour les masses? That evening, I took a “tap-tap” taxi up the mountain to the Jane Barbancourt rum distillery (How could I not — free samples of more than two-dozen varieties, from coconut to hibiscus. My penurious student circumstances all but demanded my presence). I sat on a stone terrace savoring a buzzed, surreal sunset of unnamed colors. I tried in earnest to absorb all the heart-stopping beauty, misfortune, and primal life forces surrounding me. From nearby hills drums could be heard thumping. A voodoo batterie? Native dancing for wealthy tourists or just a passing car radio? Every enigmatic echo, every reverberation heard was eerily redolent of Mother Africa. It was a place so deeply inscrutable and propelled entirely of its own idiosyncratic contrivance I decided a lifetime of contemplating Haiti could only achieve skin-deep acquaintance. Haiti is not the rest of the Caribbean; it’s not even the rest of America. The oldest black republic on earth is a conception unlike any other.
And so we watch as violence and bedlam are unleashed wholesale; affliction, death convulsions, and rampant chaos performed live for a global audience. Men with machetes and guns roam the streets mad from thirst, hunger, and despair. Children die before our eyes; their crushed and mangled bodies stare back at us like dusty deities, daring us to look away. Parents clutch babies listlessly, old people sit immobile in the streets, dogs seek out carrion and life simultaneously; all is ruination and misery. And yet, and still … from such unspeakable desperation the Haitian people will, of course, rise one more time. Categorically. When an American “Christian” (how loosely can the definition be applied here?) like Pat Robertson shrugs off the suffering of a nation with blithering “Pact with the Devil” idiocy I fear more for my own country’s sanity than that of Haiti. What will it take to get it right this time? Will this pivotal moment spin the arc of history and ameliorate Haiti’s decline after more than two centuries? If Hurricane Katrina is any example, the “American template” surely won’t win us many friends. Has the time finally come to bury the old canard, “It’s not America’s problem?” More than half-a-million Haitian Americans are U.S. citizens, and 100,000 to 200,000 more have just been granted resident status. At what point does it become our “problem”? The Haitians are willing, the Haitians are ready, the Haitians have no choice — will the world ignore them once again after the bodies are buried, the bones healed, and the scars faded? How much can human beings take? I suspect we are about to find out.
For Dr. Ruth Berggren and medical student Beth Melia, their safe return from Haiti, two days before the January 12 earthquake, offers no consolation.
“I felt a multitude of emotions when I found out about the earthquake,” Melia told the QueQue, “but I’d say my very first concern was about the people we worked with and who were still in Port-au-Prince.”
It was Melia’s second trip to Haiti. A second-year medical student, she traveled with a group led by Dr. Berggren, who is the director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The delegation consisted of 10 medical students and four doctors and is part of the center’s Project Haiti, which twice a year sends medical students and doctors to conduct mobile health clinics in the island nation’s rural areas.
“Since we came back, it’s been email after email trying to find out who had heard from which person, and if we could account for every person we worked with,” said Melia. “Fortunately, we were able to account for most people.”
One of those found is Haitian-American Wellesley College student Emanuelle Charlier, whom Dr. Berggren had hired as a Creole translator. He missed a charter plane back to the States under mysterious circumstances, but after days of great anxiety, Charlier was found safe in the Dominican Republic awaiting return to the U.S. But the fate of others is unknown.
“There are actually students from `Florida’s` Lynn University, where half of them are missing,” said Dr. Berggren. “Six students showed up at the `U.S.` embassy `in Haiti`, eight are missing, and there is a search organization that is now looking for them.”
The Haiti tragedy is also deeply personal for Dr. Berggren, who lived there from ages 4 to14.
“Haiti is a country that nurtured me during my childhood, and it was very good to me,” she said. “I have great love for the country and the people of Haiti. They’re my brothers and sisters; they’re my family.”
Dr. Berggren stressed the immediate need for medical volunteers and added that in three to four weeks, people skilled in engineering, water technology, and construction will be needed as well.
Dr. Berggren told the QueQue she would depart for Atlanta on the night of January 15 and arrive in Santo Domingo on the 16th. From there she planned to drive across the border into Haiti to work in Jimani with Remote Area Medical.
“But now we need medical people, and Remote Area Medical and Partners in Health could both be possible portals for people, and they have set up systems where you can send email inquiries,” she said, adding that it is better to send emails instead of trying to reach them by phone. “It’s not a good time to make any phone calls to these organizations because they’re completely swamped. Even when I have inside info and I know who I am calling, I have to be on hold for a long, long, time.”
One potential volunteer is Wayne Herrell, whom Dr. Berggren calls “my closest tie to the Haitian community `in SA`.”
From 2000-2002, Herrell served in the Peace Corps as an agricultural volunteer in Haiti, where he met his wife, Henriette Beauvil. The couple has two Haitian-born daughters and runs a plant nursery in San Antonio.
Herrell’s wife, Henriette Beauvil, who holds dual citizenship, has spoken to family members outside of the capital since the quake, but several relatives in Port-au-Prince are unaccounted for.
“We know for sure we’ve lost three cousins and an uncle,” said Herrell, “and we haven’t been able to contact a number of people in Port-au-Prince: a sister, a brother, nieces and nephews that we don’t know their whereabouts at the present time.”
“I’m really worried about my family, I don’t know what happened to them,” Beauvil said. “I’d love for him to go and see whether my sister is OK or not. But I’m trying to be strong.”
Herrell says he’s ready to go back to Haiti to help with the disaster-relief mission and to try to locate his wife’s relatives.
“My wife is tough,” Herrell said. “From the two of us, I’m having a tougher time emotionally, and I’m trying to get in touch with people who’d need somebody to go.”
When the time comes for new medical-student volunteers to go to Haiti, they will be able to put basic Creole skills to use thanks to Berenice Nadal, a 22-year-old Haitian-American who will teach them the language.
“In my direct family they’re all safe, but some extended family and friends have lost their lives,” said Nadal, who was born in Haiti but left with her family at age 13 when her father obtained political asylum in the U.S. On Monday, January 18, she was scheduled to have her first meeting with potential students.
“In a place like San Antonio, people don’t even know where Haiti is,” Nadal said. “When I tell them I’m from Haiti, they say, ‘Oh, Katy, Texas?’ It’s pretty bad. So anything we can do to spread the word and help people get informed, it’s always a good thing.”
“Donate till it hurts, because Haitians are hurting,” says Dr. Ruth Berggren of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethcis at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “I really feel that it is urgent for all of us to mobilize and help as soon and as much as we can.” Dr. Berggren returned to Haiti early this week to aid in the disaster-relief effort.
Even before the calamitous January 12 earthquake, Haitians ranked among the world’s poorest, most malnourished residents. According to Meds and Foods for Kids (mfkhaiti.org), a non-profit that produces and distributes a nutritionally enhanced peanut-butter-like food to children in Haiti, half of the country’s households survive on less than $1/day, and residents can expect to live less than 54 years. Almost a quarter of the country’s children are underweight, and 28 percent are too short for their age because of malnutrition. (Meds and Foods for Kids was founded by Dr. Patricia Wolff, an aunt of Current editor Elaine Wolff; she departed for Haiti Sunday.)
“Potable water and food are already scarce, and it’ll be more scarce now,” medical student and volunteer Beth Melia told the QueQue. “For those who don’t have money it’ll be difficult to be treated or to maintain a healthy status.”
But reports of Haiti-aid fraud are already common, and as Haitian-American Henriette Beauvil notes, “A lot of people got a website saying, ‘I’m helping,’ but they `aren’t`, so be careful where you donate.”
Dr. Berggren recommends Dr. Paul Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health (standwithhaiti.org), which gets an A+ rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy (see below), the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics’ Project Haiti (texashumanities.org/), and Remote Area Medical (ramusa.org), which she is meeting up with in Haiti. Partners in Health and Remote Area Medical have set up email systems for volunteers, said Berggren. “It’s not a good time to make any phone calls to these organizations because they’re completely swamped,” she said. “Even when I have inside info and I know who I am calling, I have to be on hold for a long, long, time.”
• Vet organizations you don’t know before you send money
• The American Institute of Philanthropy has published a list of recommended charities:
• Charitynavigator.org has also published a list of charities that are assisting earthquake
survivors in Haiti, with rankings
• You can also check the Better Business Bureau for complaints and ratings:
• Report suspected fraud to the FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud
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