It’s taken me a few days to get my head even part of the way around Haiti: it’s a strange and wonderful place that has so many signs and so few destinations. What I mean by that is that you see here the beginnings of things and the leftovers of things, but they often don’t seem to lead far. As though the events and history of this half of the Hispaniola island have always been in a constant stop-start mode. It’s as though there are so many influences culturally, politically, religiously - not to ever forget the impacts of serial natural disasters - that few things move in a linear manner to a meaningful conclusion.
Haiti feels as though it has been physically beaten down since its revolution in 1804 by bigger and more powerful neighbours, by unstable and sometimes cruel governments, by the attempts to wipe out voodoo in the last century, by trade and land insecurity, by degradation of the soil by deforestation, by internal and external racism. And yet Haitians keep going – I won’t say undeterred, but they seem to reinvigorate themselves despite any and every precipitous turning in the road.
Today I saw families who have finally moved into new permanent homes after their own were destroyed by the earthquake in 2010.
Two things struck me – the rapidity with which people are making these places their own – an awning here, plant pots there, a self-built shed in the back garden, a newly planted vegetable plot; and the people who have removed the plaques which say that the houses were built as part of an NGO project. One of CAFOD’s partners told me: “They remove the plaques because they feel demeaned by them.”
An earthquake shook these people’s world in a way we can only imagine – it killed people, it injured others and it took away not just lives and belongings and homes, but the infrastructures that make life able to be lived. And then we expect these same people to exist every day with the idea that what they want to make their own, the platform for their future, is branded by the charity that gave it. CAFOD never puts its name on the homes it helps build with Haitian families.
This rightheaded defiance by Haitian people thrills me because it is what will pull the country up by its boot-straps regardless of what is thrown at it. The only problem is that the people are perhaps so strong they keep trying to move forward still pulling the past with them. Haiti never seems to have the chance to renew itself, to have a fresh start; it is as though the newest shoots must fight for sunlight in the shadows of what has gone before.
The rubble has been cleared from the main streets of the capital Port au Prince, but piles of it border the roads where people sell their goods. You could be forgiven for thinking in the hive of activity in the city that the earthquake is far behind Haiti, but then you turn a corner and there will be one smashed building, twisted round on itself. And then you look again and see how the loadbearing columns were popped outwards by the force of the quake, leaving nothing to support the storeys, and sandwiching the floors on top of one another. These buildings collapsed in minutes with people still inside.
When I saw my first building like this it took my breath away – the violence and the power and the devastation and the loss of life were all there in that ruin. It was physically frightening. And then you refocus again because someone in the shadow of those remains is calling to you to buy mangoes, or cigarettes or a souvenir painting. Because life keeps going, because Haitians keep going - just as one woman who was caught in the earthquake told me – “It kept knocking me to the ground, but I kept getting up and running, every time it knocked me down I got up and ran again”.
© Pascale Palmer is Senior Policy Media Officer for CAFOD - www.cafod.org.uk