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from the January 2013 issue

Time Stretches Out and My Words Do, Too

Mid-August. The beach, for the first time since the earthquake. The water is warm, just the way I like it. I keep saying that Haiti is neither a postcard nor a nightmare. This Sunday more than ever. I’m exactly in between the water, the sun, the sand, and the sky. Not in a postcard, not in a nightmare. In something that makes my blood sing gently. That’s all.

On January 12, time froze; every second was loaded. We were without a past, without a future. In the unique, paralyzing shock of the instant. Sealed into a narrow black present.

All these pages in two and a half months just to speak. The words came out like fragments shot out of a body. Some projectiles had hit me well before January 12 and on that day only, they dug more deeply into my skin. It made me almost lose my breath and my sleep, but I kept going. I had to. Despite my own faults. In the end, was I putting myself in danger or on stage, or both? I don’t know.

The screening of the club’s documentary in the camp at Pétion-ville [1] took place March 28. As I left the camp that evening, I looked at the men I walked by in a different way and I had a thought for all those women and teenage girls who were regularly raped.

I stopped taking notes at that time. Events followed one another, stirring up all kinds of shadows and light, questions and expectations inside us. They shed light on those first notes I took back then. I started writing again in the first days of July.

Six months later, the succession of days, hours, and minutes seems to find its place in the duration of a present made of habit and forgetting. Time stretches out, makes itself comfortable, finds its familiar markings once again.


Beginning of May. Trip to Nantes to lay the first stone of the first memorial of the slave trade and slavery in France. In a city from which half the slave ships left for America in the middle of the eighteenth century. The city struggled for twelve years to carry out this duty of remembrance. Hats off! For me, a strong emotion on the Quay de la Fosse. A very strong emotion.

With the hot season and the showers of August, living under the tents turns into a nightmare. Sweat crackles on the skin like boiling water, when the rains don’t transform these places into a miniature version of the Flood.

Some people, who came back to what remained of their former homes or stayed with friends or relatives, have left the camps. Fifty per cent of the ones who had deserted Port-au-Prince just after January 12 have returned. The scene on Place Boyer has taken on the look of “Vive la difference,” Haitian style. Imagine buildings trying for an occidental look—Manhattan or Miami—surrounding a misery-laden courtyard right out of the Middle Ages. The clash is startling. Two banks, a store selling designer furniture, an ad agency, a large retail outlet for a cell phone company and in the middle, a camp made of tents, wooden stakes holding up patched cloths, tarpaulins and pieces of plastic placed end to end to make shelters. Six months later, the tents already look dilapidated and let in water. But the strangest thing of all in this telescoping of time is certainly the presence of a Chinese restaurant and a European brasserie. The stench of rudimentary toilets creeps into a wonton soup, the odors of garbage spice up a magret de canard, a fly ends its sticky flight on the fine crust of a crème brûlée. We get used to everything (including the NGOs and the international community).

In the ravine behind my house, the population has grown quite a bit. The noise, too. In addition to the fans of compas, ragga, rap, and Creole music, we now have a trey fanatic—a kind of music brought back from the Haitian-Dominican border, played on a three-string guitar. The house whose construction had resumed as early as January 15, taking no heed of the new requirements, is just about finished.

Three events showed me that the ordinary course of very ordinary days was spinning its web: the reopening of the schools, the qualifying games of the World Cup, and the evening gatherings.

Some schools didn’t wait for the permission of the authorities and reopened as early as February.  One February evening I heard on the radio that a school had opened its doors again at Petit-Goâve. One of the first. Parents, teachers, and children all said returning to school was like returning to life for them. In this country, the gates of a school are the gateways to life. You could hear children’s laughter in the background. A few weeks later, I met Lissa (one of the young people from the club of the Pétion-Ville camp) at her school, with her uniform impeccably pressed. It was hard to imagine how much effort it represented, when you live in a tent, to go out every morning in an impeccable uniform. I immediately thought of Lisssa’s mother. Some time ago, I wrote about the shantytown behind my wall: “Just by their eyes, you know that the mothers are beginning to think about how they’ll make a meal for all these people. Or, at worst, how they’ll stave off their hunger. Survival consists in defying the rules of mathematics. Here one and one does not make two, but five.” Deprived of everything, Lissa’s mother certainly defies the rules of elementary organization in such a small space every single day. And in the shantytown behind the house, the children have begun to study aloud again, in French, a language they do not speak. And are again beaten by parents who visibly still resent people higher than they are. So the little ones pay. One woman is paying, too: she howls under the repeated blows of a drunken husband. Unbearable.

In the middle of the night, screams. The next day, an unusual agitation. A blue tarpaulin (almost all of them are blue) is installed on the roof of a house, and the domino players have set up their table and chairs under it. Up to then I couldn't see the players, I could only hear them from down below; now I was going to see them, hear the clack of the tiles up close and the endless discussions from the time they get up to the time they go to sleep. Good-bye peace and quiet. But when night fell, when the sound of voices swelled, interspersed with the cries of the mourning women, I realized that it was a wake. One of the first to die who didn’t go off sans bruit sans compte, quietly and unaccounted for. I am almost relieved at this return to life through the celebration of death. Life is really back on its normal course. Since the dead are being buried properly. I fall asleep that evening in the midst of ritual voodoo chants and the laughter of the tale-tellers.

At the time of the qualifying rounds of the World Cup, the commentary of a sports reporter definitively convinced me life was returning: people started making fun of things again, thumbing their noses at misfortune, as we Haitians do so well. I didn’t immediately realize that when he mentioned the goudougoudou, the name people gave to the earthquake, he was talking about Messi, the Argentine soccer player, whose dribbles and play were in his eyes as implacable for his opponents as an earthquake. I couldn't help laughing out loud. A bit later, between the end of June and the beginning of July, for a few weeks the World Cup made everyone forget today’s suffering. But totally.  Someone who has not yet seen the wild, passionate support of the Haitians for the Brazilian team does not yet completely understand the nature of fanaticism.

On the streets, handicapped people are much more numerous. Many of them beg not far from the traffic lights where cars stop. You can recognize them from their new crutches. From the clothes some of them are wearing, you can guess the degradation of people of modest means: they had a job and they lost it after the earthquake or because of their handicap. I’m thinking of that twenty-six-year-old man I talked to at the red light above Delmas, before the Pétion-Ville cemetery. I think of that boy of seven in the Dampus camp, at Léogâne, who was participating, with his friends, in the first event organized by the pilot library. God how that January 12 has hurt us!

The interim commission in charge of coordinating aid has a hard time getting started and seems to be waiting for the international community to do it, while the international community is waiting for it to start in order to come forward. A game that speaks worlds about the ambiguity of that international community toward us, as well as our obvious limitations when it comes to governing the reconstruction as well as our ability to govern at all. Clinton loudly and clearly expressed his frustration at the slow pace of funding six months after the quake. Only Brazil and Norway have kept their promises up to now. Two very rich men, a Mexican and a Canadian, put their hands into their pockets and came up with twenty million dollars for us.

The NGOs, on the other hand, have struck it rich, and ten percent of them bagged ninety percent of the allotted global funds. Whereas their actions, for the most part, are neither controlled nor coordinated by the government. There are still people in the public sector, in public interest groups, and in other sectors who pretend to be useful. But is there a more striking example of a consciously organized quagmire anywhere in the world? A meeting was finally held on August 18. A few projects were defined, but the money has still been slow in coming… That just shows how brief the recovery from amnesia was, just the time the electroshock of January 12 lasted and that was it. Any excuse is a good excuse to explain the lateness of the disbursements or simply the allocation of funds to other things. Roody Edmé is right to remind us that “this artificial mouth-to-mouth never resuscitated any society suffering from underdevelopment. Underdevelopment is a type of pathology that provokes a sort of addiction to aid, and installs dependency.”[2] In other words, we’ve ended up by becoming junkies, addicted to the cocaine, to the crack called international aid. Reconstruction, real reconstruction, would suppose quality support from outside—for we do need help—but help for a detox rehab that includes the pain of withdrawal before we can walk the long path to dignity. That is still far away.

On the other hand many anonymous citizens of the world still remain mobilized, ask questions, act and want to keep on acting. The gap between international aid organizations and the citizens of the world is staggering. The question remains about the framework into which these citizens’ actions should be integrated. Who, locally, will design such a framework?

I had thought, because of the particular status of Haiti in world history, that the international community would jump on the occasion of the earthquake to rethink the logic of international aid. Well, I was wrong. If Haiti was, as Laurent Dublis writes, “the place where the knot of colonialism was tied for the first time, and for the first time untied,”[3] the knot of aid will not be untied here.

This morning I set out for Léogâne to make another visit to the camps where libraries will be set up, one at Dampus, the other at Darbonne. It’s a project financed by French “cooperation” and supported by Libraries Without Borders. These camps are run by young Haitians: Rochnel at Dampus and James at Darbonne. Still the same desolation, and the certainty that it’s going to last. But still that determination of the young people who want to count the fingers of the sun anyway. The traffic jams at Carrefour and Martissant are still a headache, between mud and crevices. A part of the road has been under repair for months. Which complicates traffic tremendously, going and coming. In the car I think of those thirty-seven candidates in our presidential election. Which one will be able to do something to make this road no longer a nightmare? Which one will make a proposal to lift two of the nine million Haitians out of poverty during his administration? Which one will resolutely tackle the problem of the environment? Of our exploding population? Who will tackle the legal system head on? Which one will change the state of our education? The linguistic situation? So we can have a quality education, in line with the times but with content that aims to build self-confidence? In a country where the Creole language itself conveys semantic elements of exclusion, which one will further the emergence of new creators of wealth at all levels of society, so it could no longer be said that in Haiti money has a skin color? So we no longer project the image of apartheid? Which one will create new jobs in agriculture, fishing, manufacturing and the service industries? The collective imagination, especially that of young people, urgently needs this kind of a boost. Reconstruction cannot simply be the reconstruction of buildings and streets.

The electoral institution still has a long way to go to gain the confidence of the people. And the political parties are incapable of mobilizing citizens. For the reasons we know. Now, in the absence of a veritable social base, “political personnel will function in a vacuum and end up like iron filings drawn to the magnet of financial power that has always arbitrated the political arena, to the detriment of the whole nation.”[4] And today what is legal and illegal are bedfellows, the forces of money are as much those of commerce and industry as of the smuggling run by the CEOs of drugs/ CEOs of death and similar wheeler-dealers, all united the better to slice apart the corpse. The money from drug-smuggling flows through our system of justice (I did say of justice), of music, of politics… and I could go on.

The legal/illegal partnership has also understood quite well that in a country of age-old distrust, the young, future voters who soon will be the majority, but with no future, prefer the guarantee of immediate pleasure, even illusory. They prefer the communion of straw fires, like concerts, bòz and pay[5] rather than the promises of a happiness that will never come.

There are mutants in all levels and categories of society (the peasants, the young, the economic sector, women, local organizations, civil servants) who quite simply do not agree to play the game under the traditional rules. Who commit themselves daily “with a burning heart” and are able to “give moderation its right place.” The whole question is how we can federate these mutants. What structure will be able to activate a dynamic that can bring them together? A dynamic with a project in which what is desirable and what is possible can meet somewhere.

During the week, three news items. The first is that the fault that was activated is not the Enriquillo Fault but a fault previously unknown called the Léogâne Fault. So many geological hazards for ten thousand square miles! The second is that a posthumous homage was paid to Gina Porcena Meneus, who had turned geospatial cartography into a passion.[6] The third is that the spot for the new State University of Haiti has been officially designated at last. This change of place, in principle, gives us hope for a complete change of orientation, organization and content, and the end of the ossified academic establishment. These last two pieces of news attenuate the bad one.

When noon break came around, I left off training the young people who will run libraries in the future and went to visit the painter Killy’s show at the Ateliers Jérôme. I like visual artists with strong obsessions, like Killy. A head with blind eyes on fifteen-odd canvases interrogates us and very quickly ends up by inhabiting us, the visitors to this exhibition. The mutilated body, repeated on five canvases, completes that interrogation—both extremely physical and metaphysical. Red, black, and white. The extreme economy of colors sustains the essential economy of the interrogation. Despite the pleasure I had in discovering Killy’s increasingly assertive touch, I would say, contrary to a discourse very much in fashion, that artistic production will not save us. Repeating that it will means putting us into a logic of seduction which is sterile today. “Haiti, a people that suffers but dances, sings, paints and writes marvelous French.” The historical moment demands something else. A vision of society. Another way of doing politics, of producing, of weaving new relations among people. We have to preserve our artistic patrimony and support our artists.

I’m not trying to shoot myself in the foot—the foot of a writer. Because what will be born from all that will not stop us in the slightest from writing, painting or dancing. We might do it differently, we might be less exotic. I have no idea. But I do know that I will feel greatly relieved when I no longer have to say how misery can be healthy for art.

Lying under a tree between sky and sand, I said to myself: what’s the use, in the end, of all these words? Perhaps all that did not happen. Perhaps all that is written here is only a story invented to draw some easy tears or make anger rise up like boiling milk. At any rate, tears and anger will be swept away while the world as it is pulls us inexorably toward the heaviness of denial, habituation and forgetting. Unless we join the camp of scoffers who break out into mockery as soon as the very notion of basic urgency comes up. Those people have made derision, carelessness and cynicism their daily bread.

P. reminds me that doubt is a good thing. I think of that double who accompanies us in the act of writing and who sometimes abandons us on the way, to go further and faster than we do.

I look at the clouds piling up on the horizon. The terrible hurricane season that was predicted has not yet arrived. We fear it and wait for it.

In my head, the August rain keeps falling, endlessly falling.

From Failles, published 2010 by Sabine Wespieser Éditeur. © Yanick Lahens. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by David Ball and Nicole Ball. All rights reserved.


[1]  Lahens worked with young people to make documentaries about life in the camp; they then showed them to the “subjects” of their films. - Translators’ note.

[2] Roody Edmé, “Empathie versus sympathie!”, Alterpresse, April 20, 2010.

[3] Laurent Dublis, op. cit.

[4] Roody Edmé, “Les Défis de la reconstruction” [“The Challenges of Reconstruction”], AlterPresse, February 15, 2010.

[5] Slang names for marijuana.

[6] The “brilliant” director of the Centre National de l'Information Géo-Spatiale (CNIGS) , who died in the quake along with her colleagues when the building was destroyed. Lahens  had known her since the 1990s. – Translators’ note.


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