T&T Review Column: “Walking Sadness: Haitian Returns” (A Personal Reflection – Oct. 2012)

Trinidad & Tobago Review Column, October 2012

“Walking Sadness: Haitian Returns” (A Personal Reflection) by Myriam J. A. Chancy


View from Route de L’Amitié, P-au-P-Jacmel, [email protected] Chancy

“My house says to me, “Do not leave me, for here dwells your past.” And the road says to me, “Come and follow me, for I am your future.” And I say to both my house and the road, “I have no past, nor have I a future. If I stay here, there is a going in my staying; and if I go there is a staying in my going. Only love and death change all things.”


– Khalil Gibran


I remember white nights of excitement as we awaited the hour of departure, the ride to the airport, getting on the plane to return home.

I remember looking for my aunts upon arrival, both in their early twenties, both counter personnel for Air France, greeting us with expectant smiles.

Later, I remember the uncle who would get us through customs and passport control, past armed guards and the swarm of people in need of a job, some work, who descended upon the luggage as if these were precious means to an end, some easy money; but it was never easy, between the others in the swarm and the weary tourists, the men with the guns and the sweltering heat of the terminal.

I remember my great-grandmother, already over 100 years old, sitting on the porch of her infinitely miniscule house, which had been moved from the countryside to the yard of one of her children, instructing us in a Kreyol that I have never heard since, how to pick and eat the quenêpes fallen from her tree.

For years, I remembered every moment of these returns in infinite, glorious detail.  Indeed, they were glory days: days filled with a kind of immeasurable bounty of love that is perhaps only proper to childhood and recoverable only through the annals of nostalgia.  I did not realize that they would, one day, come to an end.  I did not realize that, one day, I would have to rely on those details to reconstruct my life.  Or, perhaps I did know.  Perhaps this is why I accumulated impressions, gestures, events, like an archivist catalogues rare documents, filing them away for less glorious days, which, inevitably, arrived.

Only love and death change all things. Love can also, at times, lead to certain kinds of deaths, or renunciations, while death can liberate, bring peace, and with it, a certain rebirth.  George Lamming once wrote that exile could bring with it an uncertain joy, writing that the pain and pleasure of exile was found in the reality that home could become wherever he found himself.  There are forms of death that are simply abeyances, like plants in the sleep of winter feigning mortality only to sprout new growth and wake in spring.  Exile is like that – one travels like a tortoise in the shell.

My own exile from Haiti is many decades long.  By the time I found myself in Haiti post-earthquake, I had long before let go of any nostalgic sense or need for return.  In the late nineteen-nineties I had already seen Port-au-Prince drastically altered from the city of my birth and younger years as rural Haitians made their way to the capital in desperate search of a better life.  I had seen already the quiet streets of Pétion-Ville turn into market places.  I had already seen the countless homeless in the historic district near the port, sleeping beneath their makeshift stalls while boarded up buildings loomed behind them.  Since then, what people knew about Haiti and about Haitians had, like the capital, deteriorated, to the point that a year ago, when visiting a group of women artisans in LaGonav, I overheard two American friends in conversation quietly positing that they had observed great brutality in the Haitian country side and that this must be cultural since the Kreyol language, they thought, did not contain the words for “love,” that Haitians seldom said to each other, “I love you.”  They argued that if there was great tension and violence in rural areas like the one in which we found ourselves, it must be because Haitians had developed an ability to be less empathic, less concerned with others.  In this, I believe they were wrong.  Great despair and poverty feed violence but violence does not necessarily serve as an indicator for lack of love.

Graffiti, Pétion-Ville, “Haiti in Tears,” [email protected] Chancy

        In fact, there is language for “love,” in Kreyol; one, can, of course, use the French, “je t’aime,” which translates in Haitian Kreyol as “m’rimmin ou.”  When speaking more generally to loved ones, Haitians will say, “Pote ou byen,” (Take care of yourself); “Ke Dye beni ou,” (May God bless you); or “Kenbe la” (stay strong or stay close).  I responded to these friends that this was no different than, in Italian, saying “Sta bene” (be well); or, more frequent, especially between family members and close friends, “Te voglio bene” (literally, ‘I wish the best for you’), which is often said instead of “I love you.”  But, in general, Haitians, like Italians, demonstrate their love for one another through actions, gestures, diminutives (‘chéri/e’ or dear one in Haiti; ‘tesoro’ or treasure in Italy), and expressions of affection.  I could not be sure what motivated my friends to think that violence in Haiti was somehow natural, intrinsic, rather than cultivated through power structures that had made of violence a currency (in the same way as violence has proliferated both familiarly and anonymously in the US and in Italy, especially through organized crime).  Violence is a human phenomenon, as is love.  Where one is rewarded, the other, still continues.

In communities where the most basic of needs are not met, where despair seems to rain without end, there is a love of the deepest kind, the kind that makes mothers and fathers (but especially mothers, aunts, grandmothers) sacrifice everything for their children, so that their lives will be better than their own. The kind of desperate love that runs through the lakou-foumi (ant’yards or slums) and up through the working to working-middle-classes is the same as that eternalized in Guadeloupean writer Joseph Zobel’s “Rue Cases-Nègres,” immortalized in the film by the same name realized by Euzhan Palcy.  It’s no wonder that some parents give up their children to strangers, Haitian and foreigners alike, in the hope that they will be better served by them, only, often, to abandon them unwittingly to lives as “restaveks” or child-servants who are often abused, neglected, overworked and, even, trafficked.  Even among those who ‘rescue’ children from being ‘restaveks,’ there resides often a misunderstanding of the poor who sacrifice their families for a baseless hope; would-be rescuers pick among the children those they think will be the most “successful” in North American families and vilify their birth families as if they can know nothing of love.  Often, there is no attempt to reunify broken families, to provide the services and securities that would keep families together and not in need of having to banish their young into strangers’ hands.  Rescuers rationalize that Haitian culture bears no evidence of love to warrant making such efforts and thus rescue what they perceive to be Haiti’s talented 10th, often children who aren’t restaveks at all but children who simply happen to be poor, working to help their families, or doing chores to help those working outside the home.

After the earthquake, I hear the word “resilient” being thrown about again and again to describe Haitians moving forward with their lives.  NPR, National Public Radio in the US runs what can only be described as “happy” pieces about entrepreneurs in IDP (internally-displaced people) camps opening up barber and hair shops, selling Digicel phone cards and other, more basic staples.  Basically, merchants move where the people are, to make a living, and those who’ve lost jobs in actual buildings have to make-do with what they have left.  I’m not sure if this is resilience or rather tenacity.  Resilience implies a return to a previous, better state.  Tenacity is the characteristic of defiantly persevering.  For most, post-earthquake, there is no going back, only a going on.

As a result of such depictions, many non-Haitians seem to think that either Haitians lack sensitivity (after all, 300,000 died beneath the rubble – shouldn’t there have been a longer period of mourning?), forgetting that, despite the dead, over 1.5 million found themselves, overnight, without a roof over their heads.  Today, close to half a million still are without lodging while it’s safe to say that a good half a million more must be in what can only be described as sub-standard in every way possible. How would any of us keep on in the midst of such tragedy?  Love has many faces.  One of them is perseverance against all odds, holding in one’s personal grief to put on a brave face for others, to survive hand in hand. I watch others ask questions only to be greeted by a closing, like a clam snapping down its shell for protection, a nod of the head.  The uncle who, on a night that he wants to show photos of a villa by the sea on his camera, is stopped short by the hundreds, if not thousands of images he has yet to download, one year later, onto any hard-drive or computer, even though he and his journalists provided coverage of the aftermath.  Photo after photo, “Look,” he says, “here’s a dead person,” and pointing, “here’s another.  Dead everywhere.”  Showing photo after photo of what he witnessed as he barreled through the streets.  “See,” he continues, “Look,” witnessing along with him.  “There, and there,” one tumbled building after another, one corpse without a name after another.  “Look,” he says, and what he really means is, don’t look away, don’t look away.  And I don’t.  Look what I am showing you.  He doesn’t cry.  He doesn’t explain, just shows one image after the other for what seems like an eternity, as if showing me the film that makes up the memory of his mind, indelible images of the implausible.  When I go to Haiti, parts of my family that never converge visit one another.  Some haven’t seen each other for years even though they live close by, all in the capital.  Over dinner, over drinks, gradually, in the absence of questions, the stories emerge, where each was when the thundering sound started.  Many begin by speaking of a sound that they could not identify, that sounded like a canon or a deployed academic weapon.  They describe how, a few seconds later, the ground buckled beneath them, how solid ground suddenly became like an ocean wave, undulating, how their bodies shook, what they held on to, if there was anything to hold to.  Some prayed while literally holding up the beams of a doorjamb.  They all thought it would never end.

What I learn in my post-earthquake returns is that it is in moments freed from the pressure of others’ voyeuristic expectation that the stories emerge, spill out, are told, and then retold in more intimate detail.  There are, of course exceptions, or unexpected confessions: the elderly uncle who found himself at ground zero in the capital and who returned to Berthé to find the apartment building he had himself designed and built intact, and who then subsequently refuses to engage in any conversation about the earthquake except to say that he doesn’t believe that things as are bad as they say while his best friend, twenty years younger, a baker, spends every day distributing bread himself wherever it is needed.  This uncle suddenly becomes conservative, blames those who perished and those struggling under tents for their lack of prevision.  His mental and physical health deteriorates yet no one suggests that his sudden shift in point of view is a reaction to what he lived and witnessed those few seconds and that first night of which he never speaks, at least, not to me, a post-traumatic response of denial and dissemblance.  A story circulates of a cousin who seems to have lost his mind, who dresses for work every morning and descends into the worse hit areas of the city and returns home every evening.  No one knows what he his doing.  Why bother to dress for work in these days?  A year later, that same cousin gives me a tour of the city, pointing out various sites, going by the now disassembled sprawl of the tent city that used to sit facing the broken presidential palace.  It turns out that this cousin, an engineer whose buildings did not fall during the quake, was hired by the government and private enterprises to conduct surveys of buildings.  He was crawling through the debris, coming across the bodies of individuals who had been crushed or died in other ways, whom no rescue reached, for whom their would be no sanctified burial.  He, too, does not speak of what he feels, only the descriptions of how things were and how they are now, his finger pointing to this or that site.

A year later, an acquaintance in Jacmel who lived in the capital at the time of the earthquake offers me a small glass of old-fashioned homemade liqueur at the end of a visit and, as we sit, spontaneously describes how his two-story house fell into the ground so that he and his family found themselves eye to eye with the patio two stories below.  His children were encrusted in the debris below; he eventually got them out, two with severe injuries, and the group traveled on foot to Jacmel only to find it similarly devastated.  There is no end to the stories.  Most surprising, perhaps, are the stories of those refusing to leave or leaving and returning.  Despite, or because, of the post-traumatic stress the majority now live with, most have found that the community of survivors created by the earthquake provides a safety net, the reassurance of not having to explain when, like the experience of the phantom limb, the physical memory of the tremors and shifting ground recurs again and again.  There is no escaping the past.  There is only a living with it, an uneasy accommodation that is unfortunately, for Haitians, nothing new.

To be Haitian in these times, even on the outside, when one carries within the memory of one’s parents and foreparents, when one can still remember a Haiti less despairing, is to live with, like with the air that we breathe in daily, not with a lack of care or empathy but with a sadness of immeasurable intensity that defines one’s life. We carry a backward glance with which we must always live.  By moments of culpability, many of us would throw everything away, except that we are stopped short by the stern glance of a great-grandparent in a photograph she took great pains to have taken, whose gaze speaks long on the sacrifices undertaken so that we could be where we are; perhaps she hadn’t imagined that we would be outside, but at least alive, more than comfortable, with a future before us and for other generations.  No, that gaze cannot be betrayed.  It would be the worse of the worst of betrayals.  That, no.

On all the roads I travel, I walk this sadness like others walk their dogs, without complaint, because we have escaped other fates by taking the road out.  I am not alone but accompanied by my ancestors, by people who still look upon me hoping not for my return but for my support, who ask me, always, upon my arrival in Port-au-Prince, “when are you coming back?,” eyeing already the inevitable departure, so that I can forge something, out there, elsewhere, for us all, even if they never meet me in that elsewhere.  But it’s for this reason also, often, that you won’t find me smiling in these faraway roads, unknown, wandering.  I keep those smiles for them, the ghosts of the pasts, those ghosts who make up my conscience.

 The author in LaGonav, Haiti, [email protected] Chancy

        I’ve left many homes over the course of my life and it often surprises me that this isn’t the way for most, that most people stay within a restricted space close to the place they were born, or at least in the country of their birth, that moving from one country to another isn’t pro forma, it isn’t even within the scope of the imagination for most, excepting vacations, short trips out of the comfort zone where comfort, still, is sought, some familiarity in a resort or cruise ship that offers what they have at home and don’t want to leave behind, lest they forget who they are and become someone else, from elsewhere.  It never occurs to me to ask others when they left home; I assume they have; it’s a rite of passage very few of us can escape, even if we don’t stray far from home or emigrate.  But it always surprises me to have to justify my departures and returns from Haiti, as if having emigrated is a sign of abandonment and returns half-hearted attempts at some kind of atonement.  But if atonement there was in any of these movements back and forth, it would be owed not to those asking of me justification for my existence outside of Haiti, it would be to those within, who never ask me when I left, just when am I returning, and for how long, who say, ‘that’s right, you never left,’ and are glad to see me once again.

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