If you’re ever in Haiti (yes, I’m saying you should go to Haiti) make sure you take the time to go to their national history museum, Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (also called MUPANAH for sure) in Port-au-Prince. You won’t be able to take pictures, and it’ll break your heart to not record your incredibly knowledgeable guide, but you might as well not come to Haiti at all unless you’re willing to learn the history taught at this museum.
Before the Europeans entered the scene, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were one island inhabited by three different people groups. The Taíno were the main group, and it is their word for the western half of the island, Hay-iti, that the freed slaves of 1804 chose to use for the name of their country. When the Europeans came, the French on the west and the Spanish to the east, the Taíno and every other native group were wiped out almost in their entirety. Our guide showed us a painting of the Spanish landing on Haitian shore with crosses, swords and dogs—the crosses they seemed to have forgotten the meaning of, as they used their swords to cut off the noses of the natives and their dogs to attack and maul them. To this day, Haitians have a general dislike for dogs and their word for the animals, chen, is used as a slur.
Slaves were carted 800 at a time from Africa to the island, 70% of them dying on the journey over. Girls who were princesses in their home country were starved and beaten, forced to work on sugarcane plantations and raped by their owners. At one point, while there were roughly 40,000 Europeans on the island, there were 400,000 slaves. We were shown the chains used to punish any slaves who tried to run. Their hands were hung up with shackles on either side, with their feet shackled to a 50-pound weight, crucifying them. The 50-pound weights had a dual purpose, though, as the owners would also put them on the heads of any slave woman who had an abortion. While about four white people lived in their large plantation home, they kept 15 slaves per hut. Given these conditions, it isn’t surprising that the tour guide postured that Hispañola had the worst treatment of slaves of any colony.
It also explains why the slaves were willing to fight the French not once but twice for their freedom. After beating back their French colonists, a few years later they went to battle against Napoleon and his 40,000 troops, proclaiming, “Libérté ou la mort!” They were the first country of black slaves to win their independence on January 1st, 1804. In case you were wondering, the newly founded country of America, who had just fought for their own freedom, refused to acknowledge Haiti as a country…because they couldn’t have a country of black slaves succeeding while they kept their own working the plantations, right?
I could really go on for a while about the little bit of Haitian history I have learned. What is important to understand is that the Haitian people are survivors. They have fought tirelessly for their freedom, faced natural disaster after natural disaster, are constantly being controlled and influenced by outside countries, and in the face of poverty choose to work and sell and barter every day to provide for their families, with no complaints. When France demanded 150 million gold francs from Haiti as “independence debt” to make up for the money France “lost,” when it lost control of its colony, Haiti came up with the money. When corrupt presidents took over the country, or the U.S. stepped in an appointed their own, Haitians fought back endlessly against the crooked politics.
And when the earthquake destroyed millions of homes in 2010, burying an innumerable amount of people beneath rubble, it was the Haitians who rescued the majority of their people—not the relief groups from outside countries. The poverty that has developed in this country has occurred over hundreds of years through stigma, military intervention, and economic gutting by outside countries who flood Haiti with their own food and resources, robbing the Haitians of the opportunity to sell their own goods. And yet, they persevere. And yet, they live. And yet, they laugh. They are kind. They grin when any foreigner attempts to ask how they’re doing in their native tongue. They teach ignorant, 20-something blan girls Kreyòl with patience. And I remain astounded.
Our first day of class began today. As this isn’t your typical study abroad trip, we had to learn all about the research project that we’ll be conducting while in the country. Briefly, we’re asking Haitian women about their water use. Where does their water come from, and how often do they have access? How do they use it? What do their hygiene practices look like? Is the water treated? And then, we’re asking them about their beliefs surrounding water.
What kind of illnesses do they believe the water transmits? What water practices cause different illnesses? How do they treat these illnesses? We’re mainly looking to understand beliefs surrounding water’s relationship to women’s health, so a lot of the questions are fairly sensitive. The plan is to conduct surveys, about an hour long each, for a week or so. After that, we’ll be returning to the most “knowledgeable” participants, the ones who kind of hold the keys to the community’s beliefs, and doing ethnographies with them. An ethnography is an anthropological method where you just essentially embed yourself into the community and become a trustworthy enough individual that they will share their knowledge and practices with you. It’s participant observation: watching as you participate in the community. For our purposes we’ll be doing a much shorter version of this, instead just doing extensive interviews with these individuals where we hope they will trust us and share more details than in the original survey. It’s a conversation, more than anything, where we try to learn as much as they have to share.
So, to prep us for this huge task, Dr. Wood and Kelly Chapman (the PhD student who conducted the first half of the research project from February-April) began teaching us the basics of research methods. It took most of the day, between our plethora of questions and learning all the details of the project. Personally, I am invigorated by the research process. I want to know why we phrased each question the way we did, how we know it’s asking what we want it to, how the data can deliver us one cohesive answer in the end. Everything. But at the same time, it’s clear that the research is dependent entirely on the community in which your conducting it. I have to understand the life of my participants; I have to be willing to learn from them. I have to learn their customs, what is appropriate and inappropriate. Maybe most of all, I have to step outside of my nervous self-consciousness and be willing to look like a fool, look like an outsider. I have to be okay with the fact that I am the one who needs help here, who needs someone to teach me. It is all about humility.
With this on our minds, we took two hours after class to hike up a mountain (some might call it a hill, but I’m a Floridian) to visit a local Haitian church known as Odin’s church. Dr. Wood took us up a steep, narrow path where we passed goats, cows, and children who screamed enthusiastically, “How are you?!” eager to practice their English. In Haiti, it is polite to greet anyone you pass. So our walk was littered with, “Bonswa,” and, “Salud,” with most Haitians flashing us large grins as they replied. Their smiles are so wide they take you aback a bit, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to the American grimace we pass off as a smile. The views were breathtaking. To the north, past the glowing blue sea, you can see the clouded silhouette of the northern part of the island wrapping around the water. To the south, the lower part of Haiti whips around the same way. When we got to the top of the mountain, we could see everything. Christianville off in the distance, small part of Port-au-Prince, everything. The wind was so powerful that a bird trying to fly forward was being pushed backward, and my hat kept flying off my head and rolling away. It may have been my favorite place we’d been so far. I probably could have stayed up there for hours.
Instead of having pizza for dinner, we opted to go to a local restaurant called Ben Haiti. It took a total of three hours to walk there, wait for our food, eat, and walk back. But the food was entirely worth it. I had Haitian flavored beef with pico de gallo on top, fried plantains, and a side dish called piklis. It looks like coleslaw, but is actually shredded vegetables with spices and vinegar. Very flavorful, very spicy. Very good. After waiting two hours for the food, the table was virtually silent as we all scarfed it down. It was our first authentic Haitian meal, and we all left sleepy and satisfied.
I’ll be honest, the walk back was a little tumultuous. At least for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tarantulas. In Haiti there are no street lamps to light the way, so when night falls your flashlight is your only guiding light. Between the anxiety of whether the next step would introduce a huge spider onto my path and the constant need to get out of the way of trucks passing, it got a little overwhelming. Luckily, the girls that I am here with are kind and understanding, and while one walked in front of me to brave any possible spiders, another linked arms with me and distracted my thoughts. We got home in piece—no tarantula sightings—and I went right to bed.
Days Five through Seven.
Over the last few days we’ve had a lot of trouble with the Wi-Fi and power around Christianville, so the chances to post any blog writings have been sparse. We also spent Thursday and Friday in class most of the day, and by the end of the night I was too mentally exhausted to write. Most of the group hit a rough patch the last two days of the week. Stomach issues, family turmoil, homesickness and exhaustion caught up with us and group morale fell a lot. Though we’re all excited to start collecting the surveys and actually get our hands onto the data, the preparations for it got a little overwhelming. Most of us will be on our own with one enumerator (a fancy word for the person conducting the survey), and while they ask the participant the questions in Kreyòl, we’ll be following along on a tablet. When the participant tells a story about their experience with water, the enumerator will translate it for us and it’ll be our responsibility to transcribe it in English and ask any follow-up questions. It doesn’t seem like much, but we all feel the weight of responsibility going into the field. The work we’re doing is so important, and none of us want to mess it up by not asking the right questions, or not making the participant feel comfortable, or anything else we might not do right.
So after all of our training, we were ready to cut loose a bit. While reminiscing over how great it would be to jump into a pool (and even seriously considering putting on our bathing suits just to sit around in the cold showers), we suddenly found ourselves asking Dr. Wood if we could go to a nearby beach. Our friend Claude, one of the enumerators, helped us out with, “Can we, Mom? Can we, can we, can we?” And since he had a truck that could fit us all, Liz gave the green light. In less than 15 minutes we were all outside in our bathing suits, ready for some much-needed relaxation. We opted for a private beach, where we all paid 200 gourdes (roughly three bucks) and found ourselves on a small strip of sand with maybe a handful of other people there with us. The water was warm in some parts, cold in others, but we didn’t really care either way. The whole group of us were neck deep in water within two minutes. We only got to spend about two hours there before it was time to go back for dinner, but being off campus and out in nature was definitely what we all needed. We came back tired, but way less wound up.
The ironic thing about our random beach trip is that we had one a full day beach trip planned for the next day, too. I certainly wasn’t complaining about the chance to go twice, though. And this time, we drove about an hour out to Léogâne to a beach called Grand-Goâve. Guys…this beach is one of the many reasons I’m going to keep telling you: go to Haiti. Pictures will not do it justice, even though I’m gonna post some. It was breathtaking. We walked down a path with high grass on either side that led out onto the sand, and were greeted by the glimmering, clear ocean before us. Behind us towered a mountain—if you’ve ever seen Moana, it felt a little like living on her island. The water had multiple shades of striking blue, with the closest water a crystalline color and the deep waters a radiant sapphire. As you swam around the cool, salty water you’d randomly run into a small coral reef (I cut my foot on one—no regrets).
There were rocks galore, and you could see literally everything under the water. At one point I found a rock with a hole in it where a little fish lived. He’d swim into the rock and back out in repetitive circles, and I named him Piklis after my favorite Haitian food. He was very consistent; he was still in the same place when I went to say goodbye at the end of the day. Our large group spent most of their time in the water, splashing and competing (Caitlyn is better at chicken than Liz, and Kelly is better at floating than Maha, if you’re wondering), learning Kreyòl and how to skip rocks. We had fresh fish, caught straight from the ocean, for lunch—it was delicious, and even had some piklis on the side for good measure. I could’ve stayed on that beach forever, I’ll be honest with you.
The one difficult thing about the beach is the vendors. Haitian artisans lay out large tarps and present all of their work on them: there was beautiful painted wood work, unique jewelry, paintings on wood and canvas, carved bowls and cups. Beyond the overwhelming amount of options, you have each vendor coming up to try and get you to look at their work. They’re not oppressive or pushy in any way, but it’s the guilt that makes it hard. I’m so aware of the fact that in America, I’ll throw away $8 on a chick-fil-a meal that I don’t even finish. And here is someone whose livelihood depends on this business—I want to give them all the money in my wallet, but I know I can’t. We’re told to haggle, and that we can get the same items in other places. But the desire to buy it all is still there. The hard part about Haiti isn’t what people tell you it’ll be—it doesn’t feel unsafe, people aren’t rude, it isn’t smelly or something like that. It’s the fact that you want to fix all of its problems, and you can’t. Frankly, it isn’t your job. It’s hard to have compassion while also being practical about the issues, and it’s hard to not feel ashamed and guilty for being American. But why should I feel guilty for being an American? Because that feeling is really stemming from this idea that I should feel bad for being “better,” or having more than Haitians. But I’m not better than any Haitian. I’m not above anyone in this country. And even if I have more in my wallet, I can tell you that the people here have more faith and tenacity and joy than I’ve ever seen. So you have to stop at the end of the day and check your pride at the door.
Because we’re all poor in something.