Suffering, Survival and Faith – Haiti

I can only imagine the suffering and pain which Haitians are familiar with and are presently experiencing. The current disaster is part of an unending chain of what seems like a perpetual living nightmare. In the imagination of a people whose generosity and faith are unexplainable, that late evening when the earthquake struck and the aftermath must have conjured up images of an apocalypse. Yet, those reporting are not only struck by the pleas of “when will help arrive”: they are also baffled by the faith and resilience of the Haitians. Where is the Divine? How can such tragedies befall people already living in years of abject poverty and who have carry un-countable number of crosses? And how, in the midst of all this can Haitians still exclaim: “God is Good”? What drives Haitian faith?

Lines from Barack Obama’s observation and his nation’s pledge of support caught my attention:

“With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are our neighbours in the Americas and here at home.”

Indeed, a long history and one worth remembering to understand the anguish of Haitians and our part in it. Yes, there are thousands of Haitians living in the US and contributing to its economy and well-being and send money back home. But those with longer memories will also know how the Haitian boat people were treated. Unlike their lighter textured looking Cuban neighbours, their boats were turned back. Both nations (US & Haiti) can tell stories of birth out of the bosom of European colonialism. And while, Haiti was the first Black republic in the world, the US flexing of its muscle on the world stage has been directly played out on Haiti. Haiti became a Caribbean “playground in the backyard of the US” for military and strategic purposes.

The bottom line is that the rich need Haitians and their muscles for one main reason – cheap labour. No wonder the economic motivation to return the boatloads to service those sweat shops/fields in Haiti and nearby Santo Domingo! And lest we forget, Haiti may have been the 1st Black republic, but it had to pay a costly price to France (before time of IMF and World Bank) for her freedom – a debt which was only completed in the 1950’s. Yet, these sufferers – the “in spite of people” baffle us with their ability to survive. Matthew Price reporting for BBC on the earthquake notes this about the “in spite of people” (Haitians).

I sense that they’ve [Haitians] grown used to expecting nothing. I’m rather ashamed to tell you that I discovered that for myself today, first with a young man called Stanley, who’s a waiter in the hotel we’re in. He’s been working with me from dawn to dusk, helping me do my job. Today I asked about his family. It turns out Stanley’s grandmother had been crushed to death under her house on Tuesday, pulled out of the rubble on Thursday, and buried on Friday. Stanley had been with me throughout and he hadn’t said a thing. Then there’s Stanley’s boss, the wonderful Cassandra. She runs the little hotel we’re in and she’s doing everything for us: given me Stanley, found us drivers, put her generator on when we need power, even as her fuel runs low. She’s found rooms for everyone. And now I find out she has nowhere to live. Her home was also destroyed. There’s no doubt that Haitians are a resilient people, no doubt that they will cope with this…. []

So while we once again rush in with much need aid, quarrel over infrastructure and flash dead bodies across our media screens, we will do well to also force rich nations to tackle the root cause of abject poverty in Haiti, otherwise the poor and the offense of abject poverty will return to haunt us. Indeed, the poor are still with us – as Jesus is purported to have said. And their condition, instead of improving, is getting worse. Free Trade, the new abode of Divinity, the source of plenty and prosperity and in whom lies salvation wants to ensure that the poor stays poor – even though it is cheaper to eliminate poverty than maintain it.

Haitians know this and this is why their faith is strong and practiced with realism. In spite of extreme poverty – Haitians do not lack creativity: art and faith. Joy abounds. One Haitian artist who works with unimaginable and dead/useless pieces of scraps (from anything) puts it this way: “Death is a joyful condition for us artists. We find a shell and give it life. And while we cannot afford to travel: it travels all around the world for us. The irony for us Haitians is that we travel only when we die.” How true: our eyes are now towards Haiti as a result of disaster and death!

Haitians also take the realism and irony to their reading of the Bible. For instance, where the Bible verse from Philippians 4:13 will read: “I can do all things through Christ who will strengthen me”; Haitians will translated this text into creole to read: “In any situation that appears before me, I can ‘make do’ or manage (degaje), thanks to Christ who gives me strength.” The shift in terms of use of words here is not insignificant: to degaje something is to make it work some other way. The historical realities of Haitians mean that they cannot, with integrity, say that with God’s help all things are possible or their dreams can come true. That will be a lie in terms of historical and existential realities. However, with God’s help they are able to make life work and get by in spite of the harsh realities. It is time to help Haiti to be released from impoverishment by putting into practice our declaration to “make poverty history” and this means working to undo root causes.

© copyright January 17, 2010

Image credit Celeur Jean Hérard

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