Not too many people know that I, a white, suburban, upper-middle-class-raised young woman, have a history with Haiti. I have been talking about Haiti for years. Trying to get people to listen to me when I talked about Haiti was one of the first times in my life I felt entirely powerless with the information I held in my hands. I spent five years working on a documentary called “The Agronomist.” It was my second industry-related job. I was 18 years old. I met the most incredible survivors, artists, activists, radio journalists, and citizens. They all spoke with passion about their politics and their country. Despite all of her flaws, Haiti was their home. A home we (The United States) helped to screw up with our political agenda. The stories I heard during interviews we conducted or transcribed were truly gut-wrenching. All I could do was sit there and listen. But Haitians are proud people. Even in their darkest hours. At the end of every interview the person would pop out of their seat and keep talking to us, to anyone who would listen about how beautiful their messed up country was. Like the problem child you can’t help but love.
During college, I wrote my final paper for my senior film theory class on the history of Haitian cinema in relation to the country’s political, cultural and socioeconomic landscape. This was inspired, in part, by my boss, and partly by Jean Dominique, the subject of “The Agronomist.” I read about the rich history of Haiti from the 1600s to present-day. I also read books by Edwidge Danticat and Paul Farmer.
After college, I spent five years working at the same company which make that documentary. Every day I entered the office, the bright, vibrant colors and scenes of Haitian artwork and sculpture greeted me. And, every day there was work to do about Haiti. Amidst Oscar season, scouting potential film project ideas, and personal errands, Haiti was always on my “to do” list. I had monthly correspondence with Paul Farmer’s organization, Partners In Health. I faxed petitions against Aristide to pundits, politicians and celebrities. I watched the plot of Danticat’s book, “Brother, I Am Dying,” unfold in real-time. My boss continued editing “The Agronomist,” a documentary which he had been working on for over a decade.
I say this all by way of introducing you, gently, into a very difficult, personal opinion: I don’t know if Haiti can be fixed. The world would need to come together in a way it never has before just to get Haiti back to its original pre-quake dire state. And, that’s really not enough. It will not keep the country or her people going for much longer. Haiti is a country that has been broken for decades. Ignored in favor of Darfur and other countries and causes that (still) need aid. Haiti is our neighbor. We vacation right next door to her. Our friends/neighbors/superintendents/taxi drivers/store owners/clients, etc are Haitian. We don’t always know it right away. It takes time to recognize the nuance of the accent, the lyrical voice, the graceful ballet-like gestures of the hands. But once you do learn it, your knowledge of the country helps to define that person. Haitians are among the few people who have such a fervent love for their country that they always keep ties there, no matter where in the world they may live. A house, apartment, car, family, yearly visits. They all go home at some point and they all keep pieces of Haiti in their hearts when they are gone.
Tonight, I spoke to my friend Anthony via Facebook chat. He is from Haiti, where many of his family members still live. Anthony is a writer and a documentary filmmaker, chronicling the journey of Haitian people/culture in America. Anthony could not stay in New York after learning what had happened. He went to Haiti. Petionville called to him, and he answered. This is a direct transcript of our conversation:
Anthony: In Port au Prince, safe…Ayiti is in need of supplies…water…tents…can’t talk much..be back soon.
Me: Am glad to hear you are safe. am sending out your message via twitter and to people at Charity: Water and PIH. PIH and Doctors w/o Borders are sending more people and supplies tomorrow and in coming days.
Anthony: thank you, u would not belive how grateful people are when help arrives…thank you very much young Ashley… 🙂 [Young Ashley was a nickname I was given on our first job together. I was the youngest person working on the movie.]
Me: stay safe. Keep writing. Tell the story. xo. stay well, wise Anthony 🙂
Anthony: have to run…very little power here at the hotel…
Anthony is offline. 12:46a
And, in that instant, he lost power.
The first Creole phrase I learned was Sak pase (trans: what’s up?) to which the common response is Map boule (literally translating into “I’m on fire/I’m hot/I’m ready to roll”). It was that fighting spirit and passion which kept me connected to Haiti even beyond my time working on that documentary. Haiti was once a beautiful country. A vacation destination, a center for art and culture. But it hasn’t been that way in many decades. The only Haiti people now know is the one that lies in rubble and tragedy. With all the sensationalism, we must not forget how much is needed. Not just money, but supplies, WATER, tents, doctors, anesthetics, rescue workers, carpenters, builders, post-trauma therapists, compassion, and most importantly, patience. Though the story of Haiti’s tragedy is a headline now, it cannot afford to fade from the front page. We need to be talking about Haiti next week, next month, next year. It will not be easy to resurrect this country, buried under decades of damage. We must stay focused. As Anthony later wrote on his Facebook status: “The people here are full of grace. Buildings crushed and they sing at night. The homeless sing at night. Please come. Please. The people will embrace you as a gift. Ayiti needs water. Help. Petionville, I came because I love you…very much. Be the gift…”