“Welcome back,” my uncle says, struggling to fit my luggage into the back of his car. “Is it anything like you remember it?”
I am in Haiti for the first time in nine years. The heat is unbearable, the city too noisy, the people acutely aware that I — sweating profusely, hiding behind too-big shades, conversing in rapid English — am a foreigner. I mistake my anxiety for excitement and smile too widely, beaming as the trunk closes and my uncle emerges from the back of the car to let me in.
“It’s the same air,” I tell him. “How could I forget it?”
After the January 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 Haitians and left more than a million homeless, foreign aid poured into Haiti like water newly freed from a broken dam. Celebrities flitted across my TV screen promising personal video messages to anyone that donated over a set amount. Sean Penn arrived in Haiti quickly enough to claim that he’d smelled death wafting up from the provinces and into the devastated cities.
Buoyed by the widespread support Haiti received and the progress it was sure to have inspired, I arrived excited to see the mango groves of my great-grandmother’s house in the mountains, the horses that chewed relentlessly at my hair in the round houses of La Plaine, and even the sturdy black Haitian pigs that ran enthusiastically into my legs if I turned my back for too long. “It’s so different!” I told my father over the phone while still at the airport, waiting for my uncle to arrive. I’d only seen the enthusiasm of the men eager to help me carry my things, and the crowded airport tarmac. I was a prodigal child, and the land looked far better than when I’d left it.
Haiti is different.
The already alarming disparity between the rich and the poor has widened to a monstrous distance in the aftermath of the earthquake. News outlets covering the devastation on the island missed the small number of private planes that ferried entire families to Norway, France, Germany, Miami, New York, and Brazil. No one spoke of the composed group of people that gathered in armed compounds, ate pizza, and kept up with the rebuilding efforts on the Internet. No one interviewed this same group as they hired larger private security forces, afraid that kidnappings would increase as citizens grew more desperate.
There is no middle class in Haiti, and no Creole-speaking Upton Sinclair to expose the repressive conditions suffocating the poor. Most families save what money they make for basic day-to-day concerns: food, water, and shelter. A drive through the streets between 6:00 in the morning and 8:00 at night easily becomes a perilous journey. Throngs of people walk alongside unpaved roads, choking on the dust churned up by imported Range Rovers and Jeeps.
In Haiti, the houses that escaped the earthquake’s heavy hand are the homes of diplomats, former politicians, U.N. envoys, and the President. These residences have names like Shangri-La and are cloistered deep into the mountainside, divided into districts. My family has four houses here — one for each of the aunts and uncles still around — spread out along the single winding road that passes through each district. I memorize their names: Thomassin, Pelerinage, Vivy Mitchell, Route de Frères, and, in the very middle, Laboule, my temporary home. After the sun sets, the mountain air gets so cold that I sleep in two sweaters and a pair of borrowed sweatpants. In the morning, everything is covered in dew. My suitcase is filled with shorts, tank tops, skirts, and thin sundresses. My aunt laughs and calls me a paysan — a peasant — as I must be, for bringing clothes needed only at the bottom of the mountains, where the suffering wait.
My mother scoffs when she sees Sean Penn speak about his experience in Haiti. “He must not be there often, or else he must not go far beyond the coast.” I ask her to explain; she shakes her head and moves back into the kitchen.
Both of my parents grew up in Haiti. My mother struggled to survive in the countryside with five other siblings and schoolteacher parents. She — as well as my aunts and uncles — avoids talking about her childhood. Once, during an argument over how I was spending the money I had earned at a summer job, she slammed her hand down on the table and spoke angrily.
“You don’t know what it’s like to sew together pages of notebooks your classmates leave behind at the end of the year,” she told me. “To fall asleep knowing that you will wake up later in the night with something small and disgusting curling up in the shadow of your body heat. To memorize the pages of borrowed textbooks because you can’t afford your own. To — ”
She cut herself off abruptly, but in my stomach I already felt the slow unfurling of a guilt that would grow to shadow me more closely than my own skin. My mother doesn’t mention this incident — ever.
My father grew up fairly well-off in the middle of Port-au-Prince proper, the gregarious and handsome middle son in a family of seven. When my parents married, they lived in a white stucco house on the corner of a street called Rue Vaillan; the house was always referred to as “la Ruelle Vaillant” — the maiden ward of the street itself. A balcony adjacent to the house overlooked rows upon rows of tin-roofed shacks. When I was younger, a friend of the family would come over and wake us all up at 5:00 a.m. sharp, bring us out to the balcony, and play the sound of a running stream while we sleepily practiced yoga.
Sometimes, after parties or at the end of the Carnaval season, the teenagers would let me and the other children join them as they put the leftover food into containers and lowered them into the entreating hands reaching up to us from the raucous community below. But my mother hated when I took part. She encouraged me to read instead.
My parents may be different in upbringing, but when I told both of them that I wanted to spend my summer in Haiti working with high school students, and that I would be flying out over spring break to do ground work, it was only my father who forbade me from going. My mother just looked on in silence.
“We brought you out of the fire, not for you to dive back into it,” my father said. “You’re not going.”
I bought the ticket with my own money. And when I told them, they sighed, spoke briefly to each other, and told me to be a good girl for my aunt and uncle.
During week one, at first, I blunder through through every day. I forget to stand up when an elder enters the room and to kiss them on both cheeks. I address a street vendor in French instead of in Creole. I wake up around 7:30 a.m. and realize that the house has already been alive for hours. My aunt glances impatiently at me as I rush to eat breakfast and get dressed to leave with her.
“Café, madame?” the housekeeper asks me, pouring it into my cup. I shake my head as I stand up and mumble that I don’t drink coffee. My aunt arches an eyebrow. The housekeeper sucks in her cheeks.
On my third day, another aunt invites me to her home for une fete pour les pauvres — a party for the poor. This aunt is a caterer. Since 4:00 in the morning, she and eight of her employees have been cooking enough food for sixty people. She tells me this is a family tradition that I helped her with every year when I lived here.
Les pauvres come dressed in their finest Sunday clothes. They are toddlers and pre-teens, and three or four are teenagers. The youngest ones come with their mothers. I take pictures of them with my iPhone, having left my camera at home, which greatly excite the kids. One of them announces to everyone that I am going to be on the news tonight, and that I will show their faces on television. I realize that most of them have never had their photos taken before. I am suddenly acutely aware of the list of facts I have recited to the volunteers who will join me this summer: In Haiti, only 56 percent of adults can read or write. 90 percent of primary schools are privately run, despite the fact that they are unaffordable for the vast majority of children. Barely 20 percent of secondary school-aged children attend school. The rest of them don uniforms anyway and walk up and down the streets in groups, holding hands and cutting their eyes sideways at the cars that honk them by.
One girl, around two years old, is shy. She refuses to look at me when I coax her toward the camera. I turn to ask her mother for her help, and hesitate. The woman who came with her looks like she is in her 50s. Her feet are propped up on her bag and she fans herself, though she surely knows no movement will be swift enough to chase away the heat. She smiles tiredly at me and motions to the girl to smile too. She isn’t happy to be here, neither working nor resting, and we both know it. I can pull a narrative out of her gaze: a dead daughter leaving behind children; the father gone too; and a return to scraping a living for herself and this child through work she thought she’d escaped years ago. I watch her long enough to see her regrets fade away as her granddaughter is given a plate of food piled higher than her head.
A little over a week into my stay, my cousin is driving us through the district of Delmas when a motorcycle rams into the side of my uncle’s Range Rover. My cousin, furious, leaves the car to harangue the motorcycle driver. I am the first one to notice the female passenger struggling to stand up and move away from the motorcycle, and the first to notice that a growing crowd of male onlookers has gathered around the car.
“You owe him money,” one of the men in the crowd shouts to my cousin. Others shake their heads in disagreement. The motorcycle driver thrusts his hands in my cousin’s face and yells something about the police. The crowd rumbles its disapproval and the man who’d spoken earlier mediates: “Just give him some money, man!”
I tear a crumpled twenty dollar bill out of my wallet and hand it to my cousin through the window. While he negotiates a lower price, I motion to the female passenger over and into the back of the car. Her wrist is cut open from palm to elbow and the wads of napkins I press firmly against the wound don’t stop the bleeding. I yell at my cousin to hurry up, that we need a hospital, and concentrate on telling the young woman about how new all of this is to me and how I hope she can forgive me if I squeeze too hard. She tells me she is twenty and a nursing student. She says it is easier to blame someone she doesn’t know.
In the hospital waiting room, I feel hopeless for the first time. The entire building is open-air, and on gurneys lining the walls people moan and cry. It smells and I feel sick. My cousin’s face is hard. He pays for the woman’s medicine and for her to receive stitches, then wanders back to inspect the car.
Alone, I struggle to decide whether or not the country I was born in has steadily changed for the worse, or if this has all just been a series of incredibly unfortunate events. There is so much good to be had in Haiti: the unbreakable bond of family, the swell of sound that nearly lifts the roof of every church on Sunday, the sweet and unfettered smiles of children and adults alike everywhere, any day. But the government is a tangled mess of patronage that knows only how to pander to foreign dignitaries. The downtown area of the district of Petionville has seven five-star hotels within a ten minute walk of each other. On every side of the road vendors sell ornate and expertly crafted furniture, brilliant paintings, and food so delicious the mouth literally waters at the scent. Not one of these businesses will be patronized by their own countrymen — not a single one.
Haiti is a nation continually divided by its contradictions. With a 77 percent poverty rate, it is the poorest country in the world. Through USAID, however, the island has received over $712 million from the U.S. alone. The remittance inflow to Haiti numbers in the billions, but those receiving the remittances are not the ones living along the mountainside. It is fair to ask why I didn’t simply write an article called “Where Has All the Money Gone?” but I honestly couldn’t explain such a massive disappearing act.
In the oppressive heat of the hospital waiting room, I concentrate instead on all of the things that have made this trip worthwhile. I push away numbers and statistics and instead stand to shake the hand of the young woman’s father, who has arrived to take his daughter home. I move aside as he and my cousin exchange words, pat one another on the back, and joke loudly about how the woman held herself so well throughout the ordeal that she should earn her nursing degree right there.
As the parents of prodigal children are wont to do, the island had embraced me and my too-late return without question. All I could do was hold it back.