Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Here then is a philosophy for the 3rd and 1st worlds. The poorest have more to do with our future than does the rich global North, with their electric shields and all-terrain tanks built to penetrate Conrad’s heart of present darkness and destroy all imagination with the ubiquitous phantasmagoria of the already known (science, technology, economy). “The sated sleep in the shadows of their armaments, while the most fragile are bringing grandeur and newness” (Michel Serres). We are on the hunt for Beauty and Wisdom in Haiti – one of the few remaining estranging places in a Caribbean full of “non-places” (islands not much different from the tropical-generic of Miami Beach highrises and macdonaldised and supersized Bahama honeymoons). We are looking for the surprise of cultural difference hidden among the huts and muddy streets of storm-ravaged, poverty stricken, and all the other third world clichés which drain and sharpen the people of middle earth.

Swaying down towards the tarmac out of the back of an American Airlines Airbus 300 we were greeted by Mennonite missionaries who welcomed us with German-American heartiness (later, pizza and applesauce to be precise!). On our way to the Mennonite compound of trees and bungalows stocked with Thomas Kincaid paintings and custom-made cabinets we rode in a pristine Japanese Landcruiser through a sea of Haitians in the throes of market exchange and its contingencies. On the back of a gaudy tap-tap pickup truck we saw written in French Creole “In Travail is the Liberty” – an aphorism which reflects all we see everywhere in Haiti.

The Northern part of the island was flooded by a female hurricane named Hannah a few days before we came. She filled Haiti’s number 3 city Gonaives with water and mud up to her eyeballs. Yesterday on our way through the city’s mothers trudged through the knee deep sludge with their months old babies and looked at us Whites in our Landcruiser with tired resilience. The UN was bringing water and rice by boat and helicopter and truck and Haitians were calling their families in Port au Prince on their cell phones to tell them that they had prevail again. Goats were on roof and mattresses were drip drying where they could. The worst was just beginning.

This morning a huddled skinny man in a soaked suit-coat with an upturned collar told us that overnight Hurricane Ike had knocked over his house here in La Source where Bethanie, my Mennonite sister-in-law, works. The winds are strong in a category 4 hurricane; they turn over trees and knock the stuffing out of thatched hut walls. The whole town of La Source is miserable huddled in their homes if they still have them of down in the Mennonite school waiting refugee style.

The Mennonites are making them gallons of stew in giant commune style pots. The Haitian proverb makes it pretty plain, roughly: “What happens when a tree grows in your backyard? – It gives shade for everyone.” When the missionaries come and help people it is good for everyone – they are like a tree in the back yard of Haiti. When the Mennonites bring their food down to them tonight, the villagers will laugh and nod and be content in the simple solution of today.

As Michel Serres writes: “One of the most beautiful things that our era is teaching us it to approach with light and simplicity the very complex things previously believed to be the result of chance, of noise, of chaos, in the ancient sense of the word.” Raise to the level of method the cliché “take one day at a time” and you have a Haitian confronted by a hurricane huddled with his family in a Mennonite school house. Or another way, a cheerful group of exhausted farmers with honest complaints and exuberant yells at the thought of a tin bowl of soup, a biscuit, and a previously discarded energy bar.


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