In February 1986 Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was deposed as President of Haiti and went to live in exile in France. Ordinary people were no doubt hoping that the near 30 year brutal rule of his and ‘Papa Doc’ (his father) would come to an end. However the general chaos remained with a military junta in control. Their will was enforced by the ‘Tonton Macoutes’, a sinister legacy of the Duvaliers which lived on. Their name was Creole for ‘bogeymen’. The populace feared them and the main thing was to avoid their attention. They would race round the capital in open jeeps and armed with guns.
It was with this background that in the November of that same year (1986) I visited Haiti. My reason for going was to initiate preparations (known as ‘line up’) for the visit of MV Logos to the country. Make a brief survey of the situation for others to follow up later. Arriving at the airport in the capital Port au Prince I was immediately struck by a sense of chaos. Exiting the arrivals hall I was accosted by many wanting me to use their taxi services. In a more benign situation the scene would be reminiscent of some film star being mobbed by fans. Not so for me, it felt scary. Eventually I settled on one driver. Tip for using a taxi in a poor land. Always sit in the back with your luggage and just have the driver in front. Never allow a ‘hanger on’ person, either in the front or back.
As we left the airport it was unnerving that crowds were thronging around the car and banging on it. A big relief to get away. My destination was the compound of a Christian organisation in the capital. Upon arrival I began to understand the angry scenes at the airport. Greeted by my host he was shocked to see me. Did I not know there was a general strike on? How had I managed to travel in such circumstances? I had arrived on one of the worst days of demonstrations and riots since the deposing of ‘Baby Doc’. The other greeting has also remained with me. It helped to cement my overall feeling of being in a place where law and order were in short supply… “welcome to the last kleptocratic country in the world”.
The compound was a haven of safety where a number of mission families lived. The whole area was walled in. Outwith the gates were people who seemed to live in hope of some economic benefit from those inside the wall. In my imagination it felt like being in some medieval fort or Biblical walled city. My misplaced sense of identifying with people made me question why those who were there to serve others were so insulated. In fact a concern at the time for the compound community was for one family that had decided to live in a house in the city. However my appreciation grew for having the safety of a walled compound. I recall being wakened at night by the sound of machine gun fire.
My survey visit was only for a mere 6 days. The people I was with would not go downtown for the first 2 days of my stay because of the instability. Much of that time was spent sneaking around back roads to get from A to B. I had great respect for those who chose to live in these difficult, dangerous circumstances for years. I took seriously the counsel that when out and about to wear no watches, rings or jewellery. Another tip. Have small amounts of money in several places including in your socks or shoes.
One category of locals allowed into the compound were shoe shine people. I engaged someone to work cleaning my footwear. Definitely more of a salve to my conscience than any perceived need of clean shoes. Those I was ‘helping’ seemed desperately poor. Apparently the income the shoe shine people received enabled them to employ other people. Seemed there was a hierarchy of poverty.
I don’t remember any tourist sights in the capital though am sure there were. My only ‘sightseeing’ memory was seeing the desecrated grave of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Given his and his son’s legacy of terror it was understandable why there would be some pride in my being shown this.
The dilemma for me in this anarchic situation was where would I get ‘permissions’ etc for the MV Logos to visit the country? I had been given the name of a potential useful contact who agreed to meet with me. Linked by family with the leadership of the junta it seemed this person could be a help. The address for the meeting was on the outskirts of the capital. I made my way there to a well to do part of the capital. My contact managed one of the country’s most luxurious hotels and I was to meet him there. It was all a bit surreal as most seemed to carry guns. Not your normal hotel environment. Turned out my contact had 24 bodyguards. If anything happened to his relative in power he was prepared to go into siege. Again my overactive imagination made it all feel like the set at the ending of many Bond films. 007 meeting his archenemy holed up in his lair. Ushered in to meet my ‘contact’ my bizarre musings were fuelled further. He was in a dimly lit room covered in piles of animal skins and surrounded by several men armed to the teeth. Not sure how dangerous I appeared to warrant such.
Now to the business of the meeting. It was obvious from the start that my presence was of little consequence. My contact was glued to a ‘walkie talkie’ radio most of the time. For short periods in between his intense radio communications he would address me. It was clear that what I was saying was of no interest. What was transpiring on the radio was where the real drama was. My reason for being there became irrelevant as I too was drawn in as he repeated everything he was hearing.
It turned out that a major riot was taking place in the city centre. My contact was following the event as it happened. It was clear he was speaking to some key informant in whatever was going on. It seemed the mob had now arrived at the offices of a world famous (now defunct) American airline. They had smashed their way in and were now trying to break into the safe where airline tickets were stored. In those days air tickets were often written by hand on blank triplicate (or quadruplicate?) forms. Blank tickets, it would appear, would be very valuable. I leave the reader to decide what kind of interest my contact had in this live account of looting.
For my part the intermittent, inconsequential conversation with my contact was becoming embarrassing. It was clear that all I was doing was interrupting more exciting things going on. I suggested I leave. At this point my contact became interested and engaged. He must have been listening to me after all! He could help me with anything and introduced me to his partner. Apparently all it needed was a $2,500 up front ‘service fee’. I sensed the whole thing was opportunistic. Suddenly all that mattered to me was to get away. As politely and firmly as possible I got out of the place. It is at times like that that knowing the prayers of many for my protection became real.
It came time for me to leave the country and travel to the ship which was then in Puerto Rico. As if to cement my kleptocratic understanding a ‘departure tax’ was levied at the airport. I was told it was not destined for any government coffers but some individual.
Some weeks later it worked out to return on board the ship MV Logos. We had an encouraging 10 day stay in Port au Prince as well as 5 days in the town of Cap Haitien on the country’s north coast where thousands visited. No space to relate the activities involved. If interested to know more you can click ‘Logos‘ on the tags cloud.
Haiti’s history is a blot on our shared humanity. A toxic legacy of gross injustices, African slavery, greedy colonialism, despotic leaders and extreme poverty. The suffering of its people being further compounded in recent years by natural disasters. The huge earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 200,000. Add regular tropical storms, further earthquakes and ongoing political instability and it would seem there is no end to ordinary citizens suffering. Environmentally even in 1986 large swathes of the land had been denuded of its hardwood trees such as mahogany.
I appreciate relating my Haiti experience may not be uplifting to the reader. My desire though is that our common humanity would engender love and compassion for the plight of this country’s hard pressed people. When words fail, sometimes nature and music can step in.
Haiti’s national flower is the hibiscus. A thing of beauty yet delicate, like the Haitians whom God loves.
“So much of what music can do most beautifully is humanize things that have become dehumanized,”Laurent Dubois, Duke University professor and historian on Haiti.
While wondering how to finish this blog I happened to go to a musical concert. To my surprise among the featured musicians was the Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla. She sang a folk song in Haitian Creole. You can hear her sing Mèci Bon Dié on YouTube here. It’s a song of hope, even joy, for a land of resilient people in sore need of healing. The translated lyrics are below.
Thank you, God,
Look at all that nature has brought us.
Thank you, God,
Look how misery has ended for us.
The rain has fallen,
The corn has grown,
All the children that were hungry are going to eat.
Let’s dance the Congo,
Let’s dance the Petro,
God said in Heaven
That misery has ended for us.“Merci Bon Dieu (Mèci Bon Dié In Haitian Creole)” (Harry Belafonte Lyrics)