Welcome to Haïti

“I’m home. This landscape is mine: the fruit merchants, the colored vans, the dust. The heat is mine; the late sun. I’m home.

I’m welcomed by friends and family, jump in a pool — baptism by water — hear stories till late, sleep wrapped in white tulle, a mosquito net like a wedding dress protecting me from the bites if not the buzzing.

It’s hot. At dawn, Aurélien sweeps dead leaves away behind the bedroom window.I wake up, eat fruits: mangoes; their orange smoothness redolent of fragrant spices,the liquorish syrup of sugar cane drips on my hands attracting ants and soon bees which I will wave away, squealing. I bite into the firm acid flesh of apricots. For lunch, there will be crisp fried snapper and yellow plantains, the edges brown and sticky like caramel, and hot peppers to temper the sweetness.

The road to Pétion-Ville is crowded, noisy. Traffic is horrendous. Acrid grey clouds of smoke flow out of cars. There is garbage in every corner.

The women are beautiful. All the women are beautiful: they have dark satin skin and beautiful breasts; intense eyes in strong faces. So many young women in this city.The men are skinny, the white of their eyes yellow.

Around Place St. Pierre, the stench of urine chokes me. Close the car windows! Place St. Pierre? There were flowering flamboyant trees across the church and fairs filled with noise and music,  fresko vendors selling fruit ices when I was growing up. It has become a public cesspool.

Gas is $6 a gallon. US dollars.  One of the deputies suggested bicycles as an alternative. What about the security issue? Ah, yes; that. Yes, that.

I stop at Bakery Mont-Carmel. Last year, the owner was killed in an attempted kidnapping, leaving two babies orphaned. Hungry little boys put out their hands to ask for bread. Others play in puddles of dirty water and shoot pebbles instead of marbles.

How do people live here? This city is going to explode.

Last night, I was told about the desolate beauty of Anse-Rouge. The village is arid; rocks grow instead of trees. There is not a bush, not a leaf, but the sea in the horizon. There are no latrines in Anse-Rouge. The villagers defecate in the open. A visitor who overnighted was surprised to see people wake up at dawn and go out, coming back with smooth rocks. He questioned. Anse- Rouge residents wipe themselves with these rocks he was told.

Having no intestinal urges that early, he continued sleeping. Around noon, when the need was felt, all the rocks had been seared white-hot by the sun and he could not wipe himself. Those who planned ahead had cool rocks. Haitian proverb comes to mind: Rocks that bathe in the water do not know the suffering of rocks scorched by the sun. What price dignity?

Today on the radio, I am reminded that fire and brimstone destroyed Gomorrah. This country, I am told by the preacher, was born under an unlucky star and a woman who loves another will only attract more disaster to our island. We are a moral people, I hear. And will not stand for such turpitudes. In the name of decency, will righteous Haitian mothers raising young girls, accept this perversity. It is a matter of dignity !

Is this country also mine? Must I take the good, the bad, the ugly? The very ugly?

I am visiting some friends. Beautiful house, garden, lit pool. The other Haiti. Paradise. The wife discontented, the husband distant. Strangers sharing a home. He tells his wife: you expect too much happiness. The saddest words I have ever heard. And I who seize life with both hands, no matter it’s like a puppy squirming. I? I asked; do I expect too much? You are an artist, he answers. My wife should be more reasonable. Oh. What is her quota then? How much happiness is she alloted?

Who’s happy and what is happiness anyway? Philosophical musings ensue all night.

Another friend proposes to read me tarot cards. I have never done this before. Wariness. It is to throw light on your way, she says. My way is revealed to be one of great solitude. Oh, surprise.

I walk through my city. My city. Where my people live.

Women comb each other’s hair in the open. The hair parted, a portion flattened, the other , straight up like a cockscomb. Physical touch. Connection. The coal merchants dress in black, their dark skin powdered darker with coal dust. Their lungs powdered similarly. Poisonous beauty. I have bought Kowosol, a spiny dark green monster fruit, the inside juicy cotton. Ice cream will be made with the juice poured in an ice cube tray to freeze. Krèm karo: little squares of heaven. When I suck on them later, there will be beautiful ice crystals in the milky concoction.

Everyone complains of the heat, the humidity. I imagine the same temperature under a ridged aluminum roof. Without the comfort of water. The blessedness of water. Its absence here. There is a sluggishness that accompanies this heat which calls for a siesta. These days, people dream of Kenscoff and Obléon and Forêt des Pins more than the beach.

Mosquitoes have ravaged my legs. Red spots galore. Ah, sweet blood everyone says: diaspora blood.  La Dous Ki Vyen… san etranje, san diaspora, li dous net.

Blackouts are frequent. Why are they called blackouts if EDH has not provided electrical current the entire day? Shouldn’t it be lights-out?

My computer access is limited and the service is ssssllooowww. I have to rush and write before the signal falls. It rained earlier and there are frogs croaking outside in the garden.

They have freed 13 known kidnappers and bandits. The daughter of another friend tells me their driver was implicated in a conspiracy to kidnap her aunt as money was believed to have been left in her house. A frightened maid revealed the plans.

In Pestel, the fiefdom of a paramilitary leader, henchmen targeted one of my friends. They threw rocks at her windows, stormed into her house, grabbed her camera, her cell phone, her licensed weapon. There is nothing she can do: he is protected. She is exiled from Pestel. Not by fear; like many of my friends who live in this country, she has courage to spare. But her family has asked her not to return there.

Tonight I will visit other friends. Nomad who travels with a toothbrush and a panty in her purse.

Am I in paradise? But behind the scenes, there is trouble in paradise. At the funerals of the Barikad Crew members, more than 25 thousand attended, most of them younger than 30. Some were wearing Francois Duvalier t-shirts (implication: what we need is a strong leader. an iron hand) . They knew all the songs. People talked about their premonitory lyrics: M’gen 25 an; m’pa konn si ma we 26…(I’m 25, don’t know if I’ll reach 26)
Kidnapping touches every sector of the population, why is it the anti-kidnapping march only drew 4000? Why was the march for Barikad 25,000 people strong?

I visit a development project in Martissant. The young men are angry. They say they are tired of the old men who pretend to govern. The old men are tired and sick, and they are sick and tired. They went to school they say. They have diplomas. Why are the doors shut to them?

There is a menace in the air. They have said that when the time comes: Depi gen chodyè ki monte dife, nap desann li pou nou manje tou. (Whenever we see pots cooking on the fire, we will lower them so we can eat as well.) Tu manges? Je mange. Vous mangez? Nous mangeons.(You eat? I’ll eat. You all eat? We’ll all  eat.) “

I’m home.”

I wrote these notes to a friend the summer of 2008 upon my arrival in Port-au-Prince. Port-au-Prince, my city. My cruel city. What complicated ties I have with her. No matter what I give her, either too much or too little, she keeps asking for more. More money, more time, more involvement just when I think I have no more to give. But she always finds a way to give back. She gives me the voices and faces of people I love, poets, musicians, painters, lovers, and those sweating from day to day just to survive. Their smiles and their songs flow through me like the turbulent flow of blood of  my heart murmur; this irregular heartbeat I have learned to live with.

Michèle Voltaire Marcelin

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One Response to “Welcome to Haïti”

  1. Coraline Jean-Baptiste says:

    You write beautifully. your texts are so passionate

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