I saw this painted on a tap-tap a few weeks ago. It more or less means, ‘you can’t get to Canaan (promised land) without passing through the desert’. This quote struck me, and then stayed with me.
On one hand, it reminds me of the Canaan in one of the projects I am working on, which is in the North Pole region, just north of Port-au-Prince. You don’t pass through a desert to get there, just a vast shrubland with nothing but shacks and a few pathetic attempts at suburban development by several previous government administrations (Aristide and Préval). But the deforestation and lack of development causes massive amounts of dust to kick up as you drive through, clinging to your hair and clothing. There’s nowhere worth stopping on your way up, and not even a shack on the side of the road selling grilled corn or chopped sugarcane. Canaan, once you get there, is no promised land. It is a vast, and fast-growing squatter settlement alongside an IDP camp. Cement and concrete block structures are quickly replacing the tarps and ramshackle sheds that have populated the hillsides. In the past year, many people bought a piece of land in this area, or rather were conned into buying a worthless title, as the land is rightfully owned by someone else. Unfortunately in a country where there is no real enforcement of rules, this land may never be rid of its settlers, and this area could easily develop into another slum outside the city.
On the other hand, to me this quote encapsulates the Haitian modus operandi. There is a sense of acceptance of misery and hardship in Haiti. People are so resilient, but sometimes, I get the sense that in Haiti you only do what you need to in order to get through the day, the next few days, this year. If you work too hard to build your house, maybe it will be washed away in the next landslide or your neighbor’s house will fall on it in an earthquake. Somewhere mixed into all that acceptance and misery, though, there’s hope that at the end of slogging through, you will reach that promised land – whatever that is.
Come to think of it, I do wonder what people imagine the promised land to look like. What do people dream of other than moving to Miami? Because I’ve seen parts of Haiti that could be absolutely gorgeous if someone would just put in a simple irrigation system, plant crops systematically, and let some trees grow. How about some fruit trees – functional on so many levels: provide shade, feed you, create a micro-climate of cool and moisture, trap nutrients in the soil beneath, prevent soil erosion… To be honest, I know it’s not my place to say this, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to why Haitians have not been taking advantage of the incredible bounty of their land. It is so full of potential and yet it just sits there, and meanwhile people are piling up on top of each other in shitty urban slums just 30 minutes away. This land in the North Pole is a fertile valley with plenty of water flowing through it, but no one is growing anything on it.
I’ve asked myself so many times why this is. Is it that NGOs have created a culture of dependency? Has the US’ food policy destroyed a local food production system by flooding the market with underpriced rice? Haiti doesn’t even supply its own sugar needs! Is it the uncertaintly of land tenure that leads people to invest little into their property? I’ve been through villages where people survive on corn that grows haphazardly on the side of the road, and some emaciated chickens and goats roaming around. They eat mangoes when they are in season, passion fruit when it’s in season… But why not farm systematically and increase their yield? Why not grow vegetables and broaden their nutrient intake, diversify their diet? Is it a lack of education, that they don’t understand basic nutrition? Do people really just not know how to farm? Is it because of the history of slavery and cash-crop driven plantation farming? I don’t know. It seems so basic to me, but evidently it’s not that simple, or they’d be doing it already.