Somewhere upstairs, under the guest bed in a long plastic box, there is a picture I took in Port-au-Prince of a smiling little girl who was probably about three years old. I don’t know her name or her parents’ names, only that her bashful smile and the way she stood outside of her home giggling at me made me turn my camera to her.
When I visited Haiti in 1990 – almost exactly twenty years ago this week – the country was under the dictatorship of General Prosper Avril. I stayed in Haiti for two weeks. Not long, but long enough to sing and dance and pray with people in the city and in the countryside. Long enough to play a game of chicken under a pretty incredible waterfall in the central plateau. What else I remember about this trip is seeing soldiers with machine guns inside of churches. I remember watching a policeman beat a bus driver with the butt of his rifle. I remember, too, how people in Haiti shared their bounty of plantains, beans, rice, pickles, and goat. That was a thanksgiving meal to rival one of my Grammy’s making.
And because this is mostly a horse blog, I also remember seeing a woman beat her over-packed donkey. He was refusing to go another step, and she thought she could whip him all the way home. Well, the donkey stood there accepting the strikes and not budging a step. Finally, a Little Brother of the Incarnation spoke ever so gently in Creole to her. He told the woman “His load is too heavy. If you carry some of the packages and share the burden, you will find that he will be happy to carry his share. He cannot carry all of that alone.” The woman did as the brother said and, yes, the donkey started walking home again, his load now lightened.
You know, in 1804 Haiti became the first free black republic after a long and bloody revolution led by slaves. The revolution in Haiti, no doubt, influenced and inspired American men like the blacksmith Gabriel, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey in their efforts to bring the freedom promised by the American Revolution to all Americans, not just white ones.
In 1990, after many years of military rule, Haiti stood up for a people’s democracy and elected a priest – Jean Bertrand Aristide – their president. There is much controversy about whether Aristide was good or bad for Haiti. My own opinion is that Aristide never had a real chance to make change in Haiti because any Haitian leader who would want to reform and revive Haiti would need money, help, and partners from the around the world. I don’t think America or the world have given any Haitian leader the kind of partnership Haiti deserves.
What does Haiti deserve?
There is another picture in the photo box upstairs. It is a picture of six young people, including me, sitting around a table in Port-au-Prince talking with that priest. We asked him these same questions, “What does Haiti want? What does Haiti need?”
He answered, “Haiti only wants to have a place at the table. We don’t want to turn the table over. We want to sit at the table with you.” We were meeting in a shelter for abandoned boys. The priest gestured toward the boys and said in English, “These boys are not garbage. They are people. Haiti is not garbage to be thrown away.”
Here’s the thing about Haiti: they have taught the world mighty lessons about freedom, faith, democracy, and self-determination, yet the world seems resolved to turn its back on Haiti. There is no oil there. Early explorers hoped they might find gold on the island, but there is no gold. No diamonds or coal, either, but there are nine million people and every one of them more valuable than a barrel of oil or a train full of coal or the diamond on my finger.
I believe in Haiti because the people of Haiti showed me something about faith and resilience. No, I was not in Haiti for long, only long enough to learn a few lessons about not giving up and about facing hardships together.
This is the part where I should write a call to action. If I could think how we could all help Haiti recover from the earthquake of yesterday I would write it here. If I could think how we might help Haiti recover from the three or four hurricanes of 2008, I would write it here. If I had a list of actions we could take to make a real and lasting place at our bountiful table for Haiti, I would go tell it over the hills and everywhere.
Oh. We asked the priest another question. “What can we do for Haiti?”
He told us to tell people the story of Haiti.
These organizations are two that I trust and believe to be doing the long-term work of building and rebuilding Haiti. They will continue their presence there long after thoughts of the earthquake have faded.