Prior to visiting Haiti, I already had my own preconceived notions of the country. I knew about the history of its revolution, I knew about the earthquake. I had a rough idea that western NGO’s in Haiti have done a terrible job on development. However I did not anticipate that my experiences in Haiti would have such a profound impact upon my return to the UK.
Irrespective of the assumptions I held about Haiti, I made a conscious effort to over-stand my position as an outsider and to learn from the experiences/ perspectives I encounter throughout my stay.
I traveled to Haiti on their election day, January the 3rd. This was not premeditated. Coincidentally my holiday coincided with that date. Given that information on Haiti is relatively scarce, it was hard to figure out whether the election had finished or not prior to my making traveling plans. Whilst on my journey to Haiti I was informed by my host about potential road blockages and violence that may occur because of the election result. I was extremely anxious when I first heard this because I didn’t know whether my safety was at risk, especially as a foreigner. I quickly realized I came at a pivotal time when I saw posters all over the streets and graffiti on the walls in support (or disdain) for various presidential candidates.
Upon arrival I saw the UN base with around 5 UN trucks drive outside of the building. Next to it was the US embassy. The paradox of having a strongly built embassy in the same country where houses were deeply ravished by the earthquake was very perplexing. I was even more dumb-founded by the audacity to have a huge embassy whilst contributing the bare minimum to Haiti’s development (even covertly contributing to its underdevelopment). I noticed upon arrival that some people were living it abject poverty, in houses that weren’t made strong enough for harsh weather conditions. I was baffled and confused by their savagery.
I spent the first few days familiarizing myself with the area. The streets of Haiti are so vibrant and I was always received warm greetings. I was often confused with being Haitian which wasn’t much of a surprise given the fact that I am Caribbean. My host, partner and I went to a restaurant at the top of a mountain which oversaw the whole country. The view was astonishing and truly captured Haiti in all its beauty. The afternoon was filled with nice conversation although throughout it took a serious tone. I would ask about Haiti, the culture, its politics and the role of NGO’s. The host told me about American actor Sean Penn’s project that allocated hundreds of thousands of Haitian’s that were displaced by the 2008 earthquake into tents in a mountainous area. He pointed to where the tents were placed and told us how it’s now known as one of Haiti most dangerous communities. The lack of accessibility to the main city means basic necessities are scarce and jobs barely exist which have led to third world poverty conditions. We spoke about the Haitian revolution and how it changed the trajectory of international politics in centuries to come. Our host went onto explain how many countries are quick to forget about the price Haiti paid not only for its liberation but for the oppressed worldwide. It will never leave me when he said “if it wasn’t for Haiti, Obama probably wouldn’t have been made president”. At the point I realized the significance of the Haiti’s independence in marking a paradigm shift in the world.
Each day there was paradoxical. I would be fully immersed in the city’s vibrancy, admiring its beauty and then notice large houses in close proximity to excruciating poverty. What really got to me was seeing a highly gated Marriott Hotel surrounded by street stall sellers and young kids asking for money. I couldn’t comprehend how such inequalities are allowed to exist. The Marriott Hotel symbolized the savagery inherent in free-market capitalism and the inequalities needed to exist in order for it to flourish. I could only imagine the millions spent on making such a luxurious hotel when NGO’s (who most likely raised more than its cost) gave tents to Haitians as a response to the earthquake. It just reinforced what a lot of Haitian’s already know; neocolonialism has/is ravishing the country up until the present day.
The highlight of my trip was visiting the National Museum in Haiti (known as Mupanah). I was astonished by its amazing architecture. I could proudly say that it is the most beautifully designed museums I have been to so far. I was thankful to get a tour of the museum just to gain a deeper insight on what I was seeing. I learnt more about the founding fathers. In fact their boldly remains were preserved within the museum.
The tour guide man taught me about the Taino genocide across the Caribbean orchestrated by Christopher Columbus. He spoke about Haiti’s efforts in helping/inspiring other uprisings and revolutionaries, most prominently Simon Bolivar. I didn’t know that the Haitian government under Alexandre Petion (1815-1816) provided funds and aided him with soldiers during his fight for South America’s liberation from colonialism. After being told this I reflected back upon the stigmas projected on Haiti across the world whilst thinking back to what my host mentioned about Obama. Haiti’s revolution paved the way for oppressed people over the world and I began to feel as though many of us are undeserving of the sacrifices that were made. A prime example of this is their neighbour, Dominican Republic. Haiti liberated Dominican Republic from Spanish colonial rule for them to end up showing affinity/admiration for their colonial masters and to end up playing a huge role in marginalizing Haitians. Haiti set the trajectory for black liberation, only for us to turn around and write off the whole country as being “cursed” because of voodoo.
Another thing that touched me was seeing the actual chains used to bring African slaves during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. I had never seen them physically before. They were so thick and heavy. I was not prepared for the emotions I felt at that moment. The fact that I was in Haiti, a country that helped liberate my own ancestors and seeing the huge repercussions they have faced for their bravery was too emotionally intense. I realized fully at that moment that all of us that descended from the transatlantic slave trade owe Haiti for our ancestors liberation.
I learnt that day about the King and Queen of Haiti during the 1900’s. I got to see the King’s crown which they were still able to preserve. It was the most sophisticated thing I’ve ever seen filled with the finest diamonds, crystals and gold. I found out that the Queens crown was stolen which still until this day is “lost” (aka stolen) somewhere in France. I could not help but feel intense rage at the idea of a family comfortably living off of an inheritance made from the riches built in Haiti. Just to think that blacks asking for reparations is “living in the past” is infuriating and disrespectful in every way possible. The museum did end on a lighter note when I was able to appreciate the amazing artwork of Mark Brown, an Antigen born painter. Near the end of the Museum was a mood board was various sticky notes. One notes in particular stayed with me “we have to look to the past to move forward”. It reinforced something that I have been thinking for a long time- there’s a lot of work to be done globally for the liberation of all people, particularly for all black people.
I will never forget the street art, the lovely people, vibrancy, picturesque mountainous views I saw in Haiti. All of this made my time there somewhat exceptional. Despite being from a country that had been unfairly treated by the world, the people I met held dignity and pride for their country. They over-stood the price they paid for liberation and that many have been quick to forget the role Haiti played in their liberation. Haiti has experienced decades of corrupt governance and neo-colonial imperialism which are extremely important factors when understanding why Haiti is in the position it is today.
I spent the last few days in Haiti exploring the area and enjoying my apartment that was situated in the woods. Overall Port Au Prince, Haiti is probably one of the most unforgettable travel experiences so far. It’s hard to capture what I learnt and experienced there in writing but what I learned had a profound affect upon me. It made me question my own intentions within activism and just how much it truly means to me. I hope to travel to Haiti again one day, hopefully knowing french creole, and being able to explore different cities in the country.
Copyright © AshAlves 2017, All Rights Reserved
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