I came to Haiti in the spring of 2007 when my wife found a job with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission there. She was assigned to the southern seaside town of Jérémie, a place where donkeys outnumbered cars on the streets. Jérémie was just 125 miles or so from Port-au-Prince, but only a single dirt road linked the two, and the trip overland could take fourteen or fifteen hours. Otherwise, the only connection to the capital was by propeller plane, if one had the money; or, for the poor, the night ferry, the Trois Rivières.
About a week after we arrived in Jérémie, the Trois Rivières ran aground leaving the wharf. It had been loaded badly, its cargo heavy and high on the bow and its passengers perched precariously above the cargo. Another ship soon came to its assistance. Crew members ran lines between the two boats and the assisting ship reversed its engines. The Trois Rivières did not budge, listing instead under the tension of the ropes until its flank was at a sharp angle to the horizon. Then the lines snapped and the Trois Rivières, rolling fast back to the vertical, flung its passengers and goods into the shallow bay.
Eighteen travelers drowned. The bodies were gathered from the wharf and rushed to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine where in the middle courtyard they were tossed into a promiscuous heap—face down, face up, mouths streaked by weird smiles of sputum and sea foam. The next day or the day after that, the tides shifted and the Trois Rivières proceeded normally to Port-au-Prince. Several days later, the last of the drowned travelers was found on the wharf being eaten by a pig.
Here then was my introduction to Haiti, a classic Haitian tragedy: the careless, criminal incompetence; the gratuitous grief inflicted on the poorest of the poor; the absolute lack of accountability, on the part of both the boat’s owners and the bureaucrats responsible for overseeing maritime safety. In his new book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, the historian Laurent Dubois laments that “when Haiti appears at all in the media, it registers largely as a place of disaster, poverty and suffering, populated by desperate people trying to escape.” This is, he says, a “negative stereotype.”1 But Haiti appears this way in media accounts because in my experience it is the truth. It is not the whole truth about Haiti but it is surely the most important truth about Haiti. The newsman, traveler, or historian who ignores Haiti’s suffering to focus instead on its lovely beaches, its remarkable folk culture, or its brilliant and ingenious art might well be accused of having an awfully cold heart.
The local explanation for the grounding of the Trois Rivières was this: the owner of the vessel had made an enemy—the details were obscure. The enemy had secured the services of a boko, or sorcerer, who had employed magical means to curse the ship. The accident was thus a punishment, the dead bystanders caught up in a private feud. In my time in Haiti, I would hear stories like this over and over again, from every level of society. The dean of the civil court in Jérémie refused to settle cases because he feared the losing party to his decisions would punish him with magic; manila folders settled on his desk in a dusty heap. The richest man in town was said to owe his fortune to human sacrifice. The failure of a merchant in the market was only the result of the supernatural intervention of her competitors.
The Haitian world was like the world famously described by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his ethnology of the Azande: “Witchcraft participates in all misfortunes and is the idiom in which Azande speak about them and in which they explain them.” The details of Haitian life differed radically, of course, from Azande life. But Haitians, like the Azande, lived in a world where everything that went wrong went wrong for a reason: the door of fate in Haiti, not always but very often, swung on a hinge of sorcery. Happenstance, coincidence, sheer bad luck—these were all bit players in the drama of Haitian life. The chain of causation inevitably led back past magic to one’s enemies, real or imagined; magic was something commissioned or desired, an overt act of hostility. Feud with your neighbor today, a child falls sick tomorrow: one has surely caused the other. There is to this principle a bitter converse: your child falls sick, surely your neighbor was at fault. Every death is, in a fashion, a murder.
A magical world is a world in which things make sense, where cause provokes effect. It is a rational world. It is a world without existential despair. It is a world in which one is never wholly responsible for one’s misfortunes. But it is also a world that supposes that one’s neighbors are vicious and predatory; that suffering is directly the result of somebody else—somebody in your community, somebody close to you—wishing you ill.
The January 12, 2010 earthquake was too large—too dramatic—to be considered the result of simple witchcraft. In its drama and horror and grotesque scale, it was outside common experience and the ordinary system of life. The consistent explanation offered to me for the earthquake was this: God had been angered by the inability of the Haitian people to live together harmoniously. In my experience, Haitians were no more fractious than any other people and quite possibly less. My Haitian friends, however, told me that I was naive. The earthquake, in their way of thinking, was the just response of a wrathful God to the mistrust, suspicion, and cruelty that, they argued, pervaded Haitian society.
The Haitian worldview allowed multiple causes for the grounding of the Trois Rivières. Sorcery motivated by a personal grudge was a necessary condition for the accident; in the absence of black magic, the ship might have sailed tranquilly. It had after all sailed without incident under similar conditions so many times before. But the effectiveness of the sorcery required bad governance. The ship was old and in poor shape and still on the seas; it sailed from port without inspection; the owners were assured of legal impunity should an accident happen; the wharf was too shallow for a ship the size of the Trois Rivières and required dredging; there was no decent road to Port-au-Prince—all of this was subsumed in the phrase gouvman pa bon, by now almost a Creole proverb: the government isn’t good.
The phrase as used by Haitians describes not only the chronic political instability of the capital and the weakness of the state but also the inability of Haitians to take collective action. Haiti is not only anarchic at the top, at the level of the presidency, where power has historically passed from hand to hand by revolution and coup d’état; it is anarchic at every level of society. From village to town to city to state, community resources are poorly managed; what worked once has fallen apart.
“Examples abound of the reticence, not to say incapacity, of rural communities to take charge of the global rela- tionship to the environment, which can only be collective by nature,” writes the Haitian anthropologist Gérard Barthélemy. “Thus, water from the source is not captured…; thus, the only irrigation canal that survives is underground; thus, the road network that supposes a collective will of travel and maintenance is not cared for while it exists.”2
I frequently visited the rural town of Carrefour Charles, about five kilometers from the nearest spring. The town was effectively divided into two castes: the upper caste consisted of those families who could afford to hire the vastly larger lower caste to haul water for them, at five gourdes, or about 15 cents, per bucket. Lack of water dramatically aggravated poverty: children failed to attend school because they needed to fetch water; local gardens depending exclusively on rainwater failed to yield cash crops.
I spoke with a local engineer who estimated that it would cost about US$15,000, between pipes, pumps, cement, and labor, to build a rudimentary aqueduct to transport water to the town center. Even in a place as poor as Carrefour Charles, this was economically feasible, should the enterprise be undertaken collectively. I learned later that the project had been broached numerous times, but the community had been unable to reach consensus on how to proceed. The lack of clean water in Carrefour Charles was essentially a political problem, not a problem of poverty. The aqueduct in Carrefour Charles, like any action in Haiti that required an effective institutional structure, was doomed from the outset.
It is the custom in Haiti, when commencing some charitable intervention, to erect a large wooden placard at the site of a proposed project. On these placards is written the name of the project, the bureaucratic entity responsible for the project’s completion, and the bailleur de fonds, the foreign donor whose generosity will make possible the proposed work. These hand-painted signs line the roads of rural Haiti, an unmistakable feature of the landscape, one after the other, every several hundred meters or so. So on the road to Dame Marie, we see a scheme to help farmers affected by hurricanes, paid for by the government of Japan and executed by the World Food Program. A kilometer down the road, there is a pilot project to protect the banks of the Grand’Anse River, paid for by the European Union. In a large open field, the Inter-American Development Bank was proposing to fund the construction of sixty latrines. The project was scheduled to begin in May 2005, and would last four months. The field was still barren and rocky years later. I could continue this list for some considerable time. Haiti has not suffered the indifference of the world.
These projects are almost all specific in their intent, limited in scope, and created by institutional bodies staffed by transient employees. They all attempt to remedy some specific failure of Haitian government, grafting a foreign idea onto a community profoundly resistant to foreign intervention, even an idea as desirable as clean drinking water. When they work with local governments, the foreign sponsors are working with governments in no way representative of the will of the people; and when they work with the national government, they work with people considered as alien as Tibetans. Some of these projects work; some don’t. They are valuable insomuch as they ameliorate suffering for as long as they endure.
I saw only one foreign intervention in my corner of southern Haiti that was fundamentally transformative. The Haitian Health Foundation has been working in Haiti for almost three decades and now provides basic health care to over a quarter of a million peasants. This admirable enterprise succeeds precisely because it is not a project, scheme, idea, or proposal, but rather an enduring institution. It remedies the weakness of the state by replacing the state. The success of the intervention owes to the decades’ long involvement of its founders, and their ability to coax Haitians themselves to work within an effective institutional structure. Such dedication requires a transcendent personal engagement on the part of its organizers. It is no surprise to discover that they are motivated by the most serious religious commitments.
1 Metropolitan, 2012, p. 3. ↩
2 Gerard Barthélemy, Le Pays en Dehors (Port-au-Prince: Éditions Henry Deschamps/ CIDIHCA, 1989), pp. 49–50 (translation mine). ↩