Stories of Haiti – Preparing for a Journey

(It’s now been a year since I made a trek to Haiti on a mission trip with a great.  The next few posts will reflect on this time.)

As I prepared to travel to Haiti on a mission trip, I realized that I really didn’t know much about this land.  Most of my knowledge came from reports following the 2010 earthquake.  So, I started to immerse myself in other stories of this foreign land.  In the midst of the physical preparations of shopping, getting vaccines, and organizing projects, I also read and questioned.

Libete: A Haiti Anthology, provided a view of a land that has been constantly invaded by outside forces – starting with Columbus; used by conquerers for resources – including France, Spain, and the U.S.; desirous of freedom and proud of its revolution – while continuing the enslaving practices of the colonizers.  Since the revolution of the slaves, a series of bad and even despicable leaders has kept the population far from prosperity. Centuries of struggle, oppression, and at times terror have shaped a populace that appears reconciled to living this way.  These readings contained shards of broken stories to be careful of when walking through the land.

Memoirs added to these stories.  Whether written by travelers, anthropologists, or novelists there remained an underlying current of anxiety mixed with the desire to move forward.  Nothing was easy or transparent in this land.  The rule of law could not be expected.  Transportation was difficult.  Basic needs weren’t met or even known.  There was always someone to fear.  Trust of those in authority was non-existent.   Yet, the country’s artists and writers were depicted as holding a key to breaking out of the country’s past and present.  They could see the land differently and move beyond the stasis that has been the modus operandi of this country for so long.

In novels I continued to see the fear that has been a central element of Haitian life: hiding and running from the authorities, crashing into blockades, being spied on.  Many of the novels were written in fear of the ruling parties.  Some were written about the past, but referring to the present. They are responding to questions.  How could this island, once the pearl of the French colonies, now be in such desperate straits?  Were they waiting for someone to save them or content with their lot?  Those from outside Haiti see a need to save it;  those within, to accept and even re-create.

One thing I noticed from these readings was the presence of creation even in the face of fear.  Hiddenness is a part of this creation.  Books were written and published outside of the country.  Masks which hide a person’s face are an important art form in Jacmel.  Even the spiritual life is hidden – at least that of voudou.  Churches are visible across the country, but the popular religion, voudou, takes place in secret. It’s not something with which an outsider can connect.

Yet, even as Haitians live within the boundaries of their country, they find ways to create dangerously – as Edgwidge Danticat writes.  These stories helped me better understand the land to which I would be traveling – not primarily as a place in need of help from outside, but a place with a rich history that would teach.  It was also a place where the team could look for opportunities to create together.

Some Haitian readings:

Libete: A Haiti Anthology.  Ed. Charles Arthur and Michael Dash.  1999.

The Kingdom of This World.  Alejo Carpentier.  1957.

Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych.  Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  Trans.  Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokur.  2010.

The Comedians.  Graham Greene.  1966.

Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti.  Ian Thomson.  1992.

After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti.  Edwidge Danticat.  2002.

Mountains Beyond Mountains.  Tracy Kidder.  2003.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.  Edwidge Danticat.  2010.

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