In the foyer of our Pétionville guest house you could hear the hymns, prayers and song of locals and aid workers marking two months since the January 12 earthquake.
I wanted to be with them but duty called across town for the last day of the visit of the ACT Alliance general secretary, John Nduna, to Haiti. As his seconded media support and advice officer I had just gone through a whirlwind tour of post quake Haiti taking in everything from refugee camps through to the diplomatic circuit.The two month ceremonies took place on the tail end of our trip.
People took time out to reflect on their losses, their pain, their hope and what they need for the still stunningly unclear future. You could feel the palpable sense of loss, even as the sounds of demolition and construction rang out in our upmarket neighbourhood. In what passed for rush hour Pétionville the normal mobile Russian roulette combat of four wheel drives, creaking trucks and crammed multicolour mini buses slowed down by 30 minutes as people milled around in search of meaning.
While I waited I thought of the hundreds of people we had met that week who had their lives catastrophically upended by the earthquake. Death at least had been democratic in this profoundly unfair society. The Prime Minister’s staff told us that 70 key central Government staff had died on the quake night while everywhere you met people without spouses, children or kin.
I thought of the educated artist I had met in a Jacmel camp who basically just wanted someone from outside Haiti to hear his confusion and bemusement at ending up just another refugee face for the cameras. He showed me the eight latrines for 2000 people in what was rated as one of the “good” refugee camps. In the day the temperature was hovering in the low 30’s."I would like to emigrate, but to where and with what”, he said less in despair, more in puzzlement that it had come to this.
I thought of the young guest house worker who had helped me heft around tables and chairs to make a work station. How when he had worked out from the unusual foreigner who shared in physical work that I was after stories of the average Haitian surprised both of us by starting to cry. Nobody ever tells our stories,’’ he said.
Then there was the guesthouse manager, Joanna, an educated American raised Haitian American who pre quake was a serial entrepreneur who came home to start up a restaurant. The night of the quake was meant to be the last dry run before the restaurant opened. It never did, she was ruined financially but ended the 24 hours as the adopted mother of baby Moses who was given to her by his birth mother before she died of her injuries.
From there my thoughts wondered to all the mothers in the filthy camps managing to wash their clothes and in what is almost a metaphor for Haiti hanging them to dry on barbed wire.
Beauty and tragedy, cheek to cheek, that’s one of the truly amazing features of Haiti two months after the quake. Maybe it was always so. There is lightness, laughter and love. There is darkness, death and loss.
In some odd way post the quake and the emotional adoption of Haiti by the world it has also become the world writ large. Two months on the challenge will be to turn that sense of world community and support into long term help that gives Haiti a chance to start anew.
Having met Haiti’s human face, from high to low, rich to poor the challenge and mystery is working out how well any other people would do faced with this Biblical scale of destruction. It’s a riddle I hope I never get to see solved at home.