Reports from the ground in Haiti
The mountains and hills of Port-au-Prince are surprising. I didn’t expect to the find the city located in such beautiful environs. And anytime I start thinking about the natural beauty of a place, I like to imagine what the first people to see it thought. Like at the end of The Great Gatsby when Nick is thinking about Gatsby’s house and then he “gradually became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.” Here, you might think of Columbus and his crews or later Spanish sailors. But long before Europeans arrived there were people living on the island and beholding the splendors of hill, mountain, and ocean. All over Port-au-Prince you’ll see the name Quisqueya – on schools and buildings and in the names of organizations. It’s a very old word. Older than the European explorers. This is what the people already living here called the island before anyone else arrived. People likely migrated across the sea to Quisqueya from the Yucatan and found it a paradise. The word means “mother of all lands” or “mother of the earth.”
Driving around Port-au-Prince today there is still a lot of destruction. And some progress. I saw a field of bricks baking in the sun. New bricks being made for new construction. Rubble has been moved into piles so that most streets are passable. As far as I can tell there are no rules of the road for Haitians, so if the gap is wide enough between the car in front of you and the oncoming vehicle, you can just shoot the gap and hop in front of the car that was in front of you. The presidential palace is a sad sight. I could imagine how splendid and dignified it had looked before the earthquake; now it’s a complete wreck. There are incredible sights of buildings leaning over to their seeming limit. People everywhere selling goods on the streets – people lining every street. I wondered where they get the goods in the first place, and I learned that for many of them – the women – these are microfinancing programs. They go down to the port to buy wholesale some merchandise (shoes, soap, etc.) and then sell it on the streets for a meager profit. This is their $1-a-day or $2-a-day income. And sitting outside on the busy, noisy, hot streetside, coming early in the morning to set up and leaving at dusk with their goods bundled on their heads.
At the supermarket in Pétion-Ville—the tiniest neighborhood in Port-au-Prince—the food was outrageously priced. All across Port-au-Prince, food prices have skyrocketed since the earthquake. The food at the grocery store is twice as much as the same food (brands) at a U.S. store. Only the top echelon can shop there. The people on the streets eat food aid, if anything – or they eat cheap street food and inexpensive produce from the market.
And there are tent communities all around. In fields, in parks, on sites where buildings were completely destroyed, up and down hills. At the former campus of Quisqueya University,
there are 6,000 people sheltering and receiving medical care. At the new campus location, on the site of a former president’s residence—the new location was just launched and it was the day of opening ceremonies that the earthquake struck—there are tents set up for students and teleconferencing equipment provided by an NGO for class instruction.
Haitians are working hard at rebuilding their homes, their businesses, their neighborhoods, and their country. While the government is absent, the people of Haiti are taking action for themselves and for their neighbors. There is graffiti all around. And a word you’ll see often is Solidarité.
Author: Chris Oxner, Market Analyst