Friday, January 1.
It is Haitian Independence Day, and I am in a mood to celebrate year two-hundred and six.
The stereo blasts a wild, up-tempo, tune.
Haitian drums burn !
As I dance, I explain to my befuddled husband that this exhuberant song is about a woman who survived a storm.
She is stuck up a tree and singing that her day to die has not yet come.
Tuesday January 12.
An e-mail from a friend expresses sympathy about the earthquake. What earthquake?
“Haiti does not deserve this.” he elaborates.
I get a chill.
It is 11 p.m. and much too late to phone my 90-year-old aunt.
Wednesday January 13.
Auntie is crying.
She cannot reach her only biological child: a daughter who lives in Port-au-Prince together with Auntie’s only grandchild, only great-grandchild, son-in-law, and daughter-in-law, in a house built of concrete and perched on a ravine.
“Their cell phones ring, but no one answers,” Auntie sobs.
“Please hang on, Auntie. We will not let go of you.” I hear myself repeat, unable to find any better words to comfort my aunt. My aunt’s daughter is only 10 years older than me, and I regard her as an older sister, though she is formally a cousin and my Ninine (godmother).
I recall witnessing her first kiss, and the many times I was made to burden her on her dates as a teenager, in lieu of a chaperone.
My rational mind calculates that the probability is low that our family survived in such a house.
With all my soul, I pray to my dead great-grandmother.
“Granny,” I implore, “I don’t call on you often. Please listen now. I know that we are among the lucky ones, but our family is small. We die young. Please don’t let a third of your descendants perish beneath a pile a rubble.”
Every mention of “Haiti-the-poorest-country-of-the-western-hemisphere” brings visions of obscenely obese men mooning a group of stunned, willowy Haitians. We may be hungry, but we are not vulgar, I think. “Your revolution has failed!”, the men chant, as they jeer and slap their buttocks.
“Yours is a failed state!”, they spit, breaking into a jig.
I shake away these thoughts and check the internet news.
UN soldiers and Haitian police are preoccupied with their co-workers and searching for no one else.
Has our revolution failed?
More than two centuries ago, a group of slaves who had been kidnapped to an island thousands of miles from their original homes had the temerity to declare:
“This place, where we stand now, is our home. It is ours because we sweated and bled for it. What’s more, we’ll fight you and beat you away from it.”
One after another, the Spanish, French, and British fleets came to subdue the barefoot savages, and one after another they ran away with their tails between their legs.
The shame of being outmaneuvered by their presumed inferiors caused them to falsify their records to report that the majority of their men died of malaria.
Such a feverish place, our little Haiti !
“Tout moun ce moun! (All men are men!)”, my ancestors proclaimed, from the earliest days of our state.
The word “neg” (negro) came to mean “man”, and a white man became a “neg blan” (white negro).
“Ti neg blan” is an endearment reserved for close white friends or family, like Paul Farmer.
Our capacity to define ourselves resides in every atom of our beings.
We fought our revolution for more than mere trinkets.
Friends from several countries and every stage of my life write a flurry of e-mails expressing their sympathy. I urge them to support the efforts of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Partners In Health (PIH).
I write to a Brazilian friend with condolences about Zilda Arns Neumann.
I call Auntie again.
Thursday January 14. I phone a reporter I know and am surprised to learn that religious missions are traveling to Port-au-Prince even as we speak. She offers to pass along my family’s information to a departing group. I am suffused with gratitude.
Later it dawns on me that the go-to people for contacting my Haitian family are foreign proselytizers who disdain our culture and want to eradicate all that is uniquely Haitian.
Auntie still has no news of our immediate family, but she reports that two second cousins on my paternal side died in the quake. Their father and my Mom are cousins who grew to treat each other as siblings, though my mother was a maid in her grandparents’ house.
“They are our family!” Auntie insists. “You played with these girls when you were a child. You must not concern yourself with the sins of a previous generation. ‘Lagen pa fotun. (Money is not fortune.)’ you know. Call your godfather and give him your sympathy!”
A photo of my smiling cousin, whom I did not take the time to know, blurs through my tears.
“I promise I will call the family”, I say, really meaning it.
“Our family!” Auntie fires back.
On the internet news, the previous Haitian president says he would like to enter the country to help his people. On the mainstream news, the current Haitian president mourns the loss of his cell-phone signal and government buildings; asked his priorities, he responds “Everything”. One is a former priest and the other an organizer of small-scale community projects. It is a pity that they did not stick to their previous jobs. The estimated numbers of the dead keep climbing, but there is no estimate of the injured urgently in need of care.
Edwidge Danticat and Wyclef Jean lend their voices to the victims and their worried family members.
Friday January 15. Thousands of U.S. marines and the U.S. 82nd airborne occupy Port-au-prince and make a headquarters of the Haitian white house.
The marines were there before, in Jim Crow days.
Haitians were routinely lynched then and conscripted to chain gangs.
It took 19 years, but a home-grown resistance (the Cacos) ended the occupation in 1934.
If the current U.S. force is humanitarian, the gratitude, friendship, music, food, dance, and yes, maybe even succor, to be returned some day are well worth it. The liberals who casually write of a protectorate ought to consider that, even at our most dejected, we reserve the right to choose our friends, and we expect nothing less from our friends than a total recognition of our common humanity.
Medecins Sans Frontieres protests that the wounded are dying of septicemia because its planeloads of medical supplies are being turned away from the main airport in Port-au-Prince.
Meanwhile, several planeloads of children, evidently unharmed based on their photos, are lifted away from the same airport by religious missions. Another chill runs down my spine.
This makes no sense.
Collapsed buildings are deadlier to children than to adults.
Therefore, earthquakes should create more parents without children than children without parents.
The French newspaper Le Monde reports that fifteen Haitian children have mysteriously disappeared from hospitals in Port-au-Prince. Elsewhere it elaborates that “treatment networks are linked to the international adoption markets; these networks are activated during catastrophes and exploit the weakness of the state to coordinate agents on site to steal the children and remove them from a country.”
As the world congratulates itself on its largesse, I sit, frozen, imagining the parents who lost everything and then had their children stolen from them too.
I imagine too, the smug adoptive parents who presume to be able to give these children a superior home merely because they have more money.
Such utter lack of empathy should disqualify anyone from adopting the most flea-ridden dog.
What is the going price for a Haitian child these days? This time, I beg Toussaint to look after his children.
Finally, word arrives. In a brief phone call, Ninine says that the house withstood the earthquake, and the entire family was in it and survived.
“Granny protected them!” Auntie explains, overjoyed.
The particular Granny she means is her own mother, who died four decades ago.
She is the great-grandmother to whom I also prayed, though Auntie does not know this.
“Granny was a great person. No one can say they ever heard an unkind word from her about anyone. This was a true blessing from Granny!”
Wednesday January 20. No more news are forthcoming about the family.
Reports of food and water shortages, and a magnitude 6.1 aftershock, slide beneath the television’s talking heads as I struggle to swallow my breakfast.
The waiter says coffee’s on him.
Such small kindnesses go a long way.
A reporter describes how she felt during the aftershock, forgetting that she is not the news.
Photos of the dead, injured, and disconsolate are shown with abandon.
I am reminded of the time a Canadian tourist snapped my photo, and I followed him for several blocks asking to see it. “Next year, little girl,” he promised. “I’ll be back, and I’ll bring a copy for you.”
The next winter, I tracked him to his hotel’s poolside and demanded my picture. I was all of eight years old. I scan the insensitive images on the screen and hope no one will discover their loved ones in them. I think too of the millions of stories not being told about Haitians who rescued other Haitians.
Victims of this disaster are as voiceless as if they were gagged.
A Haitian friend sends me an article about the pediatrician Claude Surena, who opened his home to more than one hundred patients. There is no note with the article. There is no need. It is cheering.
Friday January 22. Love letters to Haiti by Cynthia McKinney and Greg Palast explain much of what I have been striving to understand.
Saturday January 23. Based on an aerial map of Port-au-Prince, every landmark of my childhood is gone. None of the buildings I passed every day while walking to and from elementary school remains standing.
Such things are trivial compared to losing one’s home or limb.
There will be a party to celebrate Auntie’s grandson and his wife, who will arrive in the U.S. tomorrow. Ninine, on the other hand, is refusing to leave her home in Port-au-Prince, and her husband is backing her one hundred per cent on this decision. Auntie hopes I can persuade Ninine to bail out. Instead, I explain that if Ninine leaves her home now, she will surely lose it, and with this we will sever our last tangible connection to Haiti. I am reminded of Barry Lopez’s observation that, these days, the most revolutionary thing one can do is to stay at home.
“What Ninine is doing is brave.” I say.
“You’re telling me? She is a stubborn girl!
Always was!” Auntie retorts, laughing.
Monday January 25. The mainstream news report that the ambulatory Haitian survivors are vanishing into the countryside. Yes, in times like these, one shares one’s stew. We cling to the second cousins, godsons, god-daughters, uncles, aunts, young and old.
The proverb “Nou byen sangle, men n’pap foule! (We’re well bled, but we ain’t gettin’ stuffed.)” is oddly comforting: a reminder that we have been bled before within an inch of our lives but lived to celebrate not being served on a platter, or made into a trophy.
Haitian eyes will smile again.