The Common Good
March 2010

Living and Loving Through Tragedy

by Edwidge Danticat | March 2010

What happens when your world comes to an end? A Haitian-American writer reflects on the earthquake and its aftermath.

I was at the supermarket at my home in Florida with my two young daughters when my sister-in-law called to ask if I’d heard that there had been an earthquake in Haiti. I was a bit stunned. “Earthquake?” I said. “Are you sure?” She said it was 7.0. That didn’t quite register for me. Then she said it was catastrophic.

Like millions of other Haitians in and outside of Haiti, I was nearly out of my mind with worry. Everyone has seen the images. The fallen buildings. The dead bodies covered with sheets on the street. The amputees. We have also seen the resilient Haitian spirit. In their worst hours, people were singing. The world is more intimately acquainted with that Haitian spirit than it has ever been in the past. The best of Haiti has been on display, even as the country continues to suffer.

The standout media image for me is of a little boy named Kiki coming out of the rubble with both his hands raised in the air and a mile-wide smile on his face. I choose to remember that first, but of course there are so many other sad images, of the hands sticking out of the rubble as if reaching toward heaven. The children. The dead children. The orphaned children. The wounded children. As a mother, of course, those images haunt you. That’s why little Kiki was so comforting to see.
The stories that stand out to me are Évelyne Trouillot’s essay in The New York Times, which ends with her saying that she is busy loving her country. There are so many other voices. Régine Chassagne in The Observer, describing her first reaction to the earthquake: Crying, I think she says, as if I had just heard that everybody I love had died.
The fact that this fault line was lying beneath Haiti was not something we could control. However, the fact that Port-au-Prince was so crowded and had so many homes built on slopes, and certainly not with earthquakes in mind, made this a bigger disaster.
Why was Port-au-Prince so crowded? Haitian agriculture has been on the decline for years because of policies that favor import. The demise of the Haitian sugar and rice industries, and even livestock—with the U.S. Department of Agriculture wiping the Haitian pig population after saying it had swine fever, which I suppose was a precursor to swine flu—left farmers with no choice but to migrate to Port-au-Prince and try to make a life for themselves in these houses that didn’t stand a chance against this earthquake.
I am not an expert on how to rebuild, but I think reforestation is one necessary thing. In the wake of this disaster, you have a lot of people moving back to the countryside. I hope this will mean a renewal for Haitian agriculture, with the international community involved, with Haiti exporting—after the county has fed itself—more than it imports.
The news media keeps stressing looting and violence—almost inciting it at times when a news reporter throws himself in a crowd of hungry people who are, of course, eager to get something to eat. We saw it with Katrina. When black people get desperate and some lose their calm, it’s seen as the most menacing thing in the world. Given what everyone has suffered and lost, given the level of desperation that exists, I think the population in general has acted in a very dignified manner.
When I speak to my relatives, they are saddened and humiliated to have to wait to be given food. They want to buy or earn their own food. Whether they are getting help from the international community or from relatives who themselves might be in a precarious financial situation during these hard times in the United States, they would rather be earning their own way. They don’t want to fight for food. They would rather earn it as they had been trying to do before.
As of this writing, no one has built a single tent city for the people who lost their homes. The people have done it themselves. They are the ones relocating themselves, mostly. Not the international community. Not the government. Haitians have learned to be very resilient—it almost sounds like a cliché now—because they’ve had no choice but to be resilient.
Haitians are very religious and spiritual people. Whether we are Catholic, Protestant, or Vodou practitioners, we believe in the Gran Mèt, a greater spirit who oversees everything good or bad. People of faith, more than anyone else, should not blame those who suffer for their suffering. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is what the scripture says. In these camps, where people are living outside, they are truly living up to that creed.
When we were finally able to send help to our relatives, many of them told us that they were given some food, some water, by a neighbor who helped sustain them until they could get their own. How can someone who claims to be a Christian not see it when people are living the gospel before their eyes? They are also living the Apocalypse. They are each living Job. Yet they still manage to love their neighbors. I think that’s an extraordinary example for everyone who is willing to open their eyes and hearts to witness it.

Edwidge Danticat, author of six books including Brother, I’m Dying, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She now lives in the U.S. This article is adapted from an e-mail interview with Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger.
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