Gonaieves Nights–Haiti, March 2009

Street scene, post flood, Gonaives

Street scene, post flood, Gonaives

Gonaives Nights

The streets are never quiet in Haiti,
Even at night; Two cylinder motorcycle
Horns beep a right of way
As they weave through the flow of pedestrians,
Tap-taps, SUVs, Buses, and semis,
Each loaded to carrying capacity with human and agricultural cargo,
Playing a game of Chicken that rarely ends in tragedy because
Everyone knows the rules except the Americans. The
Door of the bar across from the hotel
Cannot contain electronically amplified
Steel drums, nor can the walls of the Pentecostal
Church next door contain the similarly amplified
Voice of the Holy Spirit. The Rau Rau band parades
Down the street, the dancers blowing tin horns,
Hammered out of U.S. A.I. D. commodities tins,
Drummers keeping time on cowhide and snares, the
Leader brandishing a rope whip and blowing
A drum major’s whistle. The dancers parade down the main road and the
Sound fades. In the alley two students sit on piles of debris
Under the streetlight at the hotel gate, reading, because
There is no electricity at their home.

Reading by streetlight

Reading by streetlight

Six months later, the road to Poteau, Haiti from Gonaives is still washed out from the floods that followed the hurricanes of August and September, 2008. The road is worn down to hardscrabble rock in places, and our convoy of seven four-wheel drive pickups weaves through a slalom course of potholes that range from dinner plates to bomb craters and piles of mud, rocks, and debris deposited by the flood or dumped alongside the road by people digging out their homes and lives. Traffic runs heavy in both directions: women walk with baskets and buckets balanced on their heads, or drive burros along the roadway, tapping at hindquarters with sticks, a bag of rice balanced across their laps; children string along behind; young men weave motor scooters in and out of the traffic, sometimes with a girl clinging on behind, sometimes with a sack of rice perched across their lap or dangling a live chicken by its feet; tap-taps, pickups that function as cheap public transportation (just tap the side when you want to get off) teeter along, simultaneously top-heavy and squatting on their springs; dump trucks and buses, piled high with trade goods and people hanging out the windows and perched on the roof, play chicken with on-coming traffic, air-horns blaring; the occasional UN troop truck, Brazilian soldiers sweating in the back under their sky-blue helmets, troll along, reminding the people that there really is a kind of law in the land. There are no lanes. Every driver angles for the path that offers the fewest spine-crunching jolts, the path of least resistance.

Cars, trucks, and vans, lay semi-entombed in dried mud. Litter, the wreckage of the flood, and cast off objects that can no longer find a purpose among even the most resourceful of the poor lay about everywhere. Goats are staked in the vacant lots and gullies, nibbling at the weeds that poke through the dried mud shell. Tent cities and shanties spread out along the road, sitting or standing in the shade of trees or the houses that remain standing, children play, women talk, and men sit and stare at the passing traffic. A few men shovel out their houses, dumping the still damp mud into the street. People are everywhere, either going someplace or waiting for something. No one lives inside their house—there’s nothing there but a hard floor and the barest of posessions necessary to survive.

In 2008 Haiti was smashed by four hurricanes within a period of four weeks. Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike wreaked havoc and death and destruction over nine of the country’s ten regions. When Hanna hit, unexpectedly, the city of Gonaives was submerged under six and a half feet of water. The water came in the night. People scrambled to their rooftops. Mud washed down from the mountains denuded by years of deforestation, wood being the only available cooking fuel for the poor. When the waters receded, the mud remained, and buried within it or on top of it lay the rotting bodies of people and carcasses of dead animals. Gonaives, over a hundred kilometers by road from Port Au Prince, was cut off because all the roads and bridges into the town were damaged or under water.

We had driven into Gonaives the day before from Port Au Prince. Our group, a medical mission team associated with the Haiti Christian Development Project, included four physicians, three dentists, an optometrist, three nurses, several nursing, physician assistant, and pharmacy students from Harding University, as well as other volunteers from Little Rock, Nashville, and Houston. Over the course of the next four days the group would hold four clinics, see more than 1,500 medical patients, fit 552 pairs of glasses, and pull 532 teeth.

I had been recruited the week before we left, when a nursing student got sick, making an already purchased and non-refundable ticket available. The group leader, David Smith, a cardiac surgeon from Little Rock, said he was excited to have me. “We need a creative person,” he said, “an idea man. Someone who can write about what he sees and tell the world about it.” David had given me an expensive video camera and remote microphone, and he promised me my own interpreter, saying, “I want you to just go out there and talk to people. Go to the marketplace, go to the schools. Just use your imagination.”
I had been less certain of the values of my potential contributions, but I wanted to see Haiti. This would be my wife, Lisa’s, fourth trip. I had seen the pictures, heard the stories, and imagined the worst.

Ra Ra Band

Ra Ra Band

As we approach Poteau on Sunday morning, a small town with a Church of Christ congregation where we plan to worship before setting up our first clinic in country, we meet a crowd of people blocking the road, a Rau Rau band preparing to march. At the head of the line a man danced, brandishing a length of thick rope like a whip, striking the ground rhythmically, keeping time with short sharp blasts from a referee’s whistle. Behind him a group of mostly men warmed up the rest of the band, an assortment of instruments, including a couple of real trumpets, homemade tin horns made out of large tin cans—wide funnel shaped at one end, narrowing down to the mouthpiece through a series of cone shaped pieces connected to one another at right angles–long homemade horns that looked to be made out of 4 inch pvc pipe, and drummers banging away on everything from snares to homemade drums. At the end came a line of dancers, people just picked up from the crowd. They crowd the road.

I can only imagine what a couple hundred Haitians think of us, thirty-odd white people (and one African American who Haitians tend to mistake for another Haitian) driving in four-door, four-wheel drive pickups and SUVs. We drive through the parade, slowly but persistently—our drivers never stop unless a truck breaks down—while the Haitians peer through our windows, using their hands to see inside better. Others gesture angrily and yell what sounds like threats or taunts in Creole. The dancers at the back of the parade, mostly women and children, smile broadly, the typical Haitian response to anything that breaks the tedium of poverty.

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