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.
To the tendency toward radical independence there is a countervailing tendency in the Haitian character that makes survival, no matter how tenuous, possible. Haitians have remarkable qualities of personal generosity and an instinct, in informal groups, toward intense solidarity. Haitians will work the fields together, take in one another’s children in times of need, or without hesitation share meager resources—these are considered primary social obligations. That this exists contemporaneously with so much fear, mistrust, and suspicion suggests only the complexity of the human heart.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the people of Port-au-Prince displayed admirable cohesion. A strange calm, beautiful and moving, reigned over the ruined city. People who knew each other only glancingly and whose lives had been reduced to the fact of their continuing existence and nothing more lived together side by side in remarkable harmony; what people still had, they shared. Almost in an instant the vast numbers of children who had been orphaned seemed to find sheltering hands. How different and superior this was to my own instinctive reaction, which was to hoard what I had, and to be fearful and mistrustful of my neighbors! It was as if two hundred years or more of Haitian life had exquisitely prepared this people for this moment, when everything would be stripped away but their own internal fortitude and discipline. In that moment, I saw that Haitians for all their myriad faults were a great people.
I could be wrong about Haiti—my sense of its people could be entirely mistaken. One of the strangest things about life in Haiti is how mysterious a place it still is; how little the foreigner ever knows about Haitian life. Haiti is a nation where information consists chiefly of rumor, and where story dominates over fact. The structure of the society is opaque. Who is in power? Who makes decisions? To what ends? It is a place whose complexities increase over time: I’m leaving Haiti after five years with the dismaying sensation that I understand it only marginally better than when I arrived.
Some part of this necessarily owes to the language. Haitian Creole employs a vocabulary almost entirely derived from French overlaid upon a substructure of phonology and grammar inherited from a number of West African languages. It is the only language in which most Haitian people can communicate comfortably. Creole’s short, pithy sentences, almost Latinate in their concision and powerful in their emotional force like slaps, make it ideal for rousing orations, jokes, and storytelling; every sentence in Creole is like an apothegm or proverb. The small vocabulary means that words come to serve double or triple duty, and new words are added to the Creole vocabulary as needed: goudougoudou is how Haitians refer to the great earthquake, the invented word suggesting the rumbling of the earth; when food prices rose, the phenomenon was described as klorox, as in the brand of bleach, so corrosive was the ensuing hunger.
Because the Creole system of tense, case, and gender is radically simple compared with French, and because the vocabulary is small, foreigners, myself included, often make the mistake of supposing the language easy to learn. Not so: the difficulties have simply been displaced elsewhere. Full comprehension of the language seemed to recede from me always, particularly when I was far from the Francophone city, into a morass of proverb, neologism, and allusion.
But language is not the only obstacle to comprehension. Haiti remains also, from an ethnographic point of view, an understudied country. This is strange, given its accessibility, its celebrity, and the vast sums of foreign aid that have been invested in recent decades. But large swathes of Haitian life remain unexplored. In the aftermath of the earthquake, for example, Port-au-Prince was seized by a wave of panic: the loup-garou—usually translated inadequately as the werewolf—had descended on the city. These loups- garous were said to fly through the night sky shooting flames from their anuses, feasting on small children.
The loup-garou is every bit as dominant a fear in Haitian society as the zombie; yet it remains largely undiscussed in the ethnographic literature. Equally mysterious were the secret societies that proliferate through the Haitian countryside. In the small corner of rural Haiti that I came to know, their influence and power were profound: they dominated daily life. No one can discuss governance or justice in Haiti without coming to terms with the importance of these societies; but they remain—as they surely wish to be—largely unknown.
Travesty in Haiti is the American anthropologist Timothy Schwartz’s remarkable memoir of ten years in the north of Haiti as an ethnologist and aid worker.3 His work is chiefly concerned with the microeconomics of poverty. The theme of his book is just how little was understood by foreigners about the country that they proposed to aid. Why did Haitians have large families? Surely, he suggests, one must understand this before one can propose family planning measures. How much money and food do ordinary Haitian peasants actually have? Who lives in orphanages and who benefits?
After the earthquake, Schwartz was the author of a controversial USAID-funded report that concluded that mortality from the earthquake was substantially lower than government estimates. He has also argued that many residents of the tent cities did not lose their homes in the earthquake, but rather had migrated to the tent cities to take advantage of the services offered by the international aid organizations. I was convinced myself by Schwartz’s reasoning—but the essential point is not how many died, but the miasma of confusion that surrounds even the most basic facts of Haitian life.
So pervasive is the experience of being culturally adrift in Haiti that Barthélemy, the canniest of observers, has proposed that it is an essential cultural trait. Dissimulation, he argues, is a deliberate strategy employed by the Haitian peasant to protect himself from the outsider—whether the foreigner or just the visitor from Port-au-Prince. Barthélemy give us the example of the “technical expert” trying to introduce himself into rural Haiti. One feels he is speaking here from much personal experience. Once arrived, the expert will find an abundance of apparent structures: health committees, water committees, road committees, farmers’ committees, work-for-food committees, committees for conserving the soil, committees for the young, and committees devoted to reforestation.
“It is not structure that is lacking, but rather their credibility,” writes Barthélemy. “In all that, where does the ultimate power lie? Who are the truly representative men? Where are the effective authorities?” Only the most sensitive observer, he claims, would suppose that the docile and self-effacing old man with whom he is talking is in fact the real power—“the sagacious observer judging, in the name of the group, the degree of naiveté, of real power, and usefulness of his interlocutor from the exterior.”
In the end, Barthélemy concludes, “the essential always remains hidden.” This is true as well of national politics. The great foreign institutions—the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the American embassy, and USAID—are all in the position of Barthélemy’s technical expert, engaging with the apparent structures of national government and ignoring the effective authority. The Haitian politician negotiates with foreigners never revealing that he only represents his wealthy benefactors. The judiciary, ostensibly independent, is in fact beholden to the executive. Nobody admits to power; nobody denies that he has power. The most successful Haitian politicians are masters of a certain crafty smile somewhere between a wink and a glower that suggests they are in fact far more powerful than they can reveal. To employ such a smile is inevitably to reveal that one has no power at all.
The dean of the civil court in Jérémie found a separate peace from the demands of his position in literature: he sat in his shady office all through the long judicial work day and read the Latin classics.
For ethnologists, friendship is the most impenetrable of social institutions. They frequently admit that having spent however many years studying some remote people, they leave having formed no intimate friendships at all; they wonder if for such a people, the institution of friendship, as understood in the West, actually exists. Friendship, after all, like marriage or kinship or blood brotherhood, is a culturally conditioned institution. The ethnologists wonder if simple affection can ever transcend the vast social abyss between the observer and the observed; between rich and poor; between the one who can leave at will and the one who must remain.
In leaving Haiti, I find myself in very much the opposite situation. The Haitian people seem to have a particular capacity for friendship. “With all of their ineptitude for certain concepts that the Anglo-Saxon holds sacred, the Haitian people have a tremendous talent for getting themselves loved,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston, who visited Haiti in the 1930s. I can say that I also succumbed. I left behind a number of Haitian friends for whom I feel only the warmest and most sympathetic emotions.
Barthélemy, the most cynical of observers, proposes that la séduction is simply another tactic of the Haitian peasant to disarm the potentially aggressive outsider; the charm, the vivacity, the wit, and the kindness of my Haitian friends just some “strategy of dissuasion” meant to keep me always at a remove. I have found in my Haitian friends, he argues, only the interlocutors that I was seeking, their apparent friendship nothing but a “shining veil” obscuring the violent, unknowable Haitian heart.
Barthélemy might well be right—it is his country, after all. We know our own family in a way no interloper ever will: we see in a transient gesture what a foreigner will never see at all. A Haitian proverb says, “When the dog smiles, he’s not happy.” The Haitian smile might only be so many bared and yellow teeth. But wouldn’t it be lovely to imagine that, just this once, Barthélemy is wrong? I was the recipient in Haiti of a tremendous amount of kindness and generosity, and was the witness to many remarkable displays of courage and grace. For all of that I remain enduringly grateful.