“I think Haiti is a place that suffers so much from neglect that people only want to hear about it when it’s at its extreme. And that’s what they end up knowing about it.” ― Edwidge Danticat
I am writing these lines from a Parisian coffee shop – gazing at the rain outside and wishing I could be as far from the french capital as possible.
I just returned from a lengthy reporting trip in Haiti and as I am listening to hours of recorded interviews and reading dozens of pages of scribbled notes – I can’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia.
I initially was scared to go to Haiti. Maybe not scared per se but mostly hesitant about going to a country where I had never worked before, that was so far off my beat. I didn’t speak the language and this year being particularly full of other projects, I wasn’t sure I could reasonably make this big professional commitment.
Still, I decided to take on the challenge despite not speaking creole or virtually not knowing anything about this place that has made grim headlines for as long as I could remember.
So a few months ago, I started studying. I read “Haiti, The Aftershocks of History,” by Laurent Dubois, “Bury the Chains,” by Adam Hochschild, “The Rainy Season,” by Amy Wilentz, and “Haiti Will Not Perish,” by Michael Deibert. These books along dozens of articles definitely facilitated my arrival in the edgy and bustling Port-au-Prince one afternoon in late January. But as I happily got off the plane, traded my winter boots for sandals – not only did I not feel any kind of culture shock but instead, I just let myself get transported by the warmth and the incredible energy of a place that I then spent a few weeks learning to love and get attached to.
There are so many memories, so many moments that fill my mind. I decide to forget about the hours spent in traffic, the sometimes hard reporting journeys, and the difficulties encountered trying to complete the stories for the “Haiti Uncovered” project.
Instead, I decide to keep with me the moments of pure magic, the Haitians that I have encountered who took me by the hand and made me feel at home thousands of miles away from my actual home. The encounters and the moments are too numerous to all share here. But every time I lift my head up and find myself daydreaming of Haiti, I think of how much I have learned and grew in a short amount of time. I haven’t met a single Haitian who didn’t try to help me feel comfortable and more importantly who didn’t teach me something new. Their resilience to tragedy was most humbling. The way they relate to life, love and death was one of the greatest lessons – especially returning to Paris where people have so much and yet still have such a hard time finding peace and happiness.
On my third day, I met a hotel owner who had spent 45 years in Brooklyn and decided to move back to the seaside city of Jacmel in southern Haiti. I sat with him after a long day reporting, as he smoked his cigar on the porch and listened to Jazz music as we had long talks – discussing Haiti and New York and everything else. I think with nostalgia about the young couple that took me inside the parade the week before Mardi Gras and protected me as we marched in the middle of a pretty wild procession of dancers and people carrying artistic creations made by local artisans. The countless moments after a hard work day, drinking the local beer Prestige and just feeling an overwhelming sense of content. I still listen to Elton John and cheesy French songs from the 90’s that blasted out from small radio posts in the middle of nowhere that remind me of my time in Haiti.
As I have throughout my career chronicled the struggles and accomplishments of women throughout the Arab World, I was mostly happy to see that in Haiti as well there were women who were changing things. You will read about these women in my upcoming stories but the world has a lot to learn from their courage and strength. And their task isn’t small. The place was definitely a complicated one for a female reporter. I met artists, businesswomen, mothers, wives, sisters, who despite all the harshness in their lives, of the pains they have endured, still stand strong and more determined than ever.
As I get back to work and try to channel all these feelings into my writing, I am thinking about how we shouldn’t give up on Haiti, about how we should encourage Haitians, visit their country, get to know it and maybe others can fall in love with it the way I did.
By Aida Alami