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6050: Re: haiti article (fwd)
I wrote this article for the Michigan Citizen (10/14/00). Since re-reading it
I've found some mistakes and mispellings. I'm sending it because I've become a
little annoyed at UPI, AP and American newspaper stories about the brutality of
Haiti, american beauty queens in Haiti, the plight of Western photographers in
Haiti, and narrow western views of Voodo. I really appreciate Melinda Mile's
"Haiti Reborn" article and would like to read more works like hers.
I hope my article isn't too long and I apologist for the errors and
Fortresses, Faith and Hope
Last spring Michael Leslie traveled to the nation of Haiti as part of the Sacred
Heart Church's Haitian Committee.
Ennery is a rugged, mountainous town surrounded by palm trees, elkhorn
cactus, thinning forests, and bumpy, corkscrewing road that slopes towards
cliffs without guardrails.
Its' a humble town. No electricity. No running water. Few jobs. Poverty
aside, the town bustles with activity. Women, by the thousands, work as
merchants selling poultry, goat and vegetables.
Children are lean, beautiful and passionate. Many suffer from malnutrition
and tuberculosis. The healthy are like kids anywhere, playful, rambunctious,
affectionate. Girls, as well as boys, walk with arms wrapped around each other,
fingers clasped as they play by a park enclosed by a locked wrought iron fence.
The fence protects a dark 12 ft. bronze statue of a Black soldier in an
18th century general's uniform, boots and his head wrapped in a dark bandanna.
Its a handsome statue that looks north towards the green mountains that surround
Ennery. His right hand holds a saber, its' tip lowered to the ground.
This is Toussaint L'Ouverture, who at the age of 45 would become the
principle leader of the Haitian Revolution. That revolution, 1791 to 1803, led
to the defeat of the local plantations owners and the three slave trading
European powers: England, Spain and France, at the hands ex-slaves fighting for
Fifty miles North of Ennery stands another revolutionary monument, a
fortress of iron, wood, rock, limestone and cow's blood. Built atop a 3,000 foot
mountain called Bonnet-a-l'Eveque, or Bishop's Bonnet, the fortress sits, an
impregnable land-bound battleship; walls twenty to thirty feet thick, armed with
365 bronze cannons, a stable, foundry and living quarters for 2000 soldiers.
The Citadelle is the largest fortress in the western Hemisphere. Built in
1820 the fortress would protect this independent nation against French invaders
seeking to restore slavery. Writer John Allen Franciscus calls the Citadelle the
"most colossal Black-conceived monument in the world."
This is Haiti: a country of staggering beauty and stifling contradictions.
Its' a place like Moulin Sur Mer, an 18th century sugar plantation, now a
resort featuring sandy beaches and clean hotels. Minutes from the resort are
children, walking, struggling, carrying bundles and furniture. A family at work
or "Restavek," children sold into slavery, a brutal reality for some 300,000
children in poor rural areas.
Then there're the cities filled with half-completed construction sites,
deteriorating roads and "New York-style" lotto ticket stores to sell false
dreams to Haiti's poor.
Next, travel to Milot. There you'll find spectacular ruins and the genesis
of an a developing Haitian empire, the San Souci Palace, built by King Henry
Christophe, a hero of the Haitian Revolution. In Michel-Rolph Trouillot's
Silencing the Past, he writes of the palace's legendary gardens, underground
waterworks, barracks for the feared Black Royal Dahomey Guard and, next door,
the majestic Royal Church of Milot.
The palace takes its' name from the Colonial Jean-Baptiste San Souci,
Congolese, an ex-slave and military genius who crushed Napoleon's army in
Despite its poverty and long standing turmoil, Haiti has some of the worlds
most phenomenal historical sites, particularly as it relates to the history of
African people and their resistance to the slave trade. The ruins of San Souci
Palace, the Royal Church of Milot, the Citadelle and numerous other Haitian
historical sites stand head-to-head with the 17th century castles of France,
Italy's Colosseum and the Arc de Triomphe of Paris.
News reports paint the island as a place so troubled and lawless that
sources report that countries like Japan have withdrawn all financial aid in
protest of recent allegations of foul play in Haiti's May elections.
There's another story to be told about Haiti. A story we'll never see on
the evening news or late-night missionary info-commercials drowning us with
images of dying children, diseases and squalor.
Haitians are not victims. They're a bold, tenacious people with a history
of resistance, passion and ambition.
You see it in the eyes of school children in Ennery and Port-au-Prince.
Thousands of children crowd city streets and roads making their way to school.
You see it while negotiating your way through the chaos of Haiti's
airports. Men, by the hundreds, mob airport passengers not just for money but
work, a working wage for carrying your luggage to your car.
You see it when driving down Port-au-Prince's main thoroughfare, Delmar
Street. Thousands of women line both sides of the street selling cloth, can
goods, art and vegetables. At crowded intersections, Haitian men set-up portable
welding stands for auto repairs and building security fences.
On any corner, pedestrians by the hundreds scramble and dodge to catch a
Tap-Taps, Haitian taxis, to get to work, home or school. Look carefully, between
the scurrying mobs you might see small boys shining and repairing hundreds of
shoes, shoes that're part of each child's school uniform.
At Cap-Haitian, or Port-au-Prince, you'll find men too poor to afford mules
or electric lift trucks. They hire themselves out, hauling crude wooden
rickshaw-style wheel barrows. These antiquated wheel barrows roll on heavy car
tires and are dragged through market streets packed with crates, boxes or blocks
of ice. Teenage boys stand in busy traffic mediums hawking sun glasses or
"Busta" Soda pop. This is the human side of Haiti that media reports fail to
cover. People struggling, despite its' 70% unemployment, making work where there
In Haiti we had interpreters who helped us negotiate our way around the
country. Having watched (and fretted over) one too many news reports on crime
and violence in Haiti, I found it strange to have the freedom to go, walk, and
film pretty much where I wanted, on foot, and no one bothered me. But make no
mistake, there is crime and human rights violations in Haiti.
Mornings in Haiti are spent listening to choirs of roosters crowing hour
after hour after hour. In Port-au-Prince, every morning, I saw hundreds of
hardened men with sharpened machetes walking the streets. These were not wild
Voodoo men, as an irresponsible Village Voice writer recently reported, but
workers. Men who work for Haiti's lumber mills. Strong, hearty men like my
father, my uncles and my brothers who get up and leave for work at the calling
of a hundred roosters.
In Port-au-Prince I tried to greet these men every morning, stumbling over
words, trying to say "Bonjou" (good morning), in Creole and getting it wrong
every day. All of them smiled, responded with "Bonjou" then laughed at my bad
These are the stories we miss when we think of places like Haiti,
Johannesburg, Soweto or Zimbabwe. Haiti is beautiful and it's people heroic, not
only in their history of crushing the slave-trade on their island but in their
day-to-day dealings with joblessness, brutal politicians and the even
more-brutal Western business world.
Here in the US, we can help by first questioning the all too often racist
and misleading new reports, like the report on Japan's withdrawal of aid to
Haiti, the story was a lie. Get involved in issues concerning justice for
Haiti's minimum wage is a pitiful 33 and a half cents an hour.
Corporations, aid organizations and even missionaries pay Haitian works far
below that rate. Question what you hear and read about Haiti.
And finally, a number of US missionaries will tell you they are "saving
Haitians from the evils of Voodoo." There is a saying: In Haiti, 15 percent of
the population is Protestant, 80 percent is Catholic and 100 percent of the
population believes in Voodoo. Voodoo, says historian Bob Corbett is the
dominant religion of Haiti.
Our American view of Voodoo is a "Hollywood" creation that began in 1931
when Faustin Wirkus, an American Marine and self-proclaimed expert on Black
magic rites, wrote the highly successful The White King of Gonave. The book,
writes Laennec Hurbon in American Fantasy and Haitian Vodou (from The Sacred
Arts of Haitian Vodou), is the tale of US Marines who come to Haiti to civilize
the population. "Blacks," writes Wirkus, "are more nearly children than Whites,
generally." Wirkus's book is a major influence in early Hollywood films like I
Walked with a Zombie and White Zombie.
Again, question what you hear and read about Haiti, its politics, religion
and its people. Locally, you can work with Sacred Heart's Churches Haiti
Committee or other Haitian human rights groups. Myself, I'm going back to Haiti
next year. History demands it.