A Postcard from the Grande Anse
The Grande Anse (Grandans) is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful regions of Haiti. It is also one of the most isolated. Mason Robbins was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village outside of the regional capital of Jeremie. He recently had a chance to spend two weeks in the community where he served. Below is his postcard.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Grande Anse from 1999-2001. While there I worked on soil conservation, small business and water/sanitation projects. I remain connected to my town in part because I met my wife while working there. Her family still lives there. When I look back on my time in the Grande Anse as a Peace Corps volunteer, I think of the difficulty in maintaining relationships with people that have every reason to be suspicious of you as well as the intensity of friendships formed once mutual trust has been established.
I recently had the opportunity to take a two-week trip to Haiti this summer, my first since the earthquake. Unlike other trips I’ve taken to Haiti, my only objective was to spend time with the in-laws who live outside of Jeremie in the small village of Gravoir Fourcan. I wasn't there to assist with any projects this time around. After working to support the basic and not so basic needs of my extended Haitian family over the last six months, I was just there to be there with them and to relax.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fond of the term “in-laws” which I think carries a negative connotation for most Americans. I genuinely enjoy my wife’s family, even if they might watch me out of the corner of their eyes. During my visits to Haiti, I’m a beer-swilling, tobacco chimney. As an American, I guess I am uncomfortable with idleness and try to fill the time somehow. I have to re-adapt to a culture where everything moves slow. I wonder how they might feel about the United States where everything moves so fast? In the end, we get along fine.
Like so many other places in Haiti, you have to go through Port au Prince to get to Jeremie. From there one must take an overloaded ferry, an overpacked bus, a crowded tap tap, or an expensive rental car. It takes time, energy, and money to get there no matter what method you select. However you go, the journey starts at the Mais (Corn) Gate where the airport is located. I was surprised to find myself stepping off the plane onto a modern, raised walkway from the plane to a bus waiting on the sweltering tarmac. I wondered about that walkway. Who thought this was a good idea? How much did a two-minute walk in a modern, air-conditioned walkway right before being roasted by hot tarmac and tropical weather cost? What else could that money have been spent on?
If you’re going to Jeremie, you probably have a good reason for doing so - perhaps friends, family, or work. While once referred to as the "City of Poets" for the number of writers who lived there, those days are long gone. Despite forests, a beautiful coastline, and an interesting albeit tragic history, there are few tourists. Ourselves, we decided to spend a night in Port au Prince first. In the past we stayed at the Hotel Montana or the Villa Creole, options no longer possible in post earthquake Haiti. The Visa Lodge and most other hotels were also booked with foreigners either helping, or at least trying to, with reconstruction efforts. We found a room at Habitation Hatt, which is the sister hotel of Visa Lodge. It was a nice place. The beer was cold, there was a pool, and the air conditioner works from 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM. Much of the Mais Gate itself was a wreck. The streets were the normal free-for-all that I remembered but now lined with white and blue plastic shelters. As someone who’s followed Haiti closely for the last ten years, I am concerned these shelters are not temporary at all. The displaced are going to be stuck in these tents until the government figures out how it will determine who owns what land, how to re-allocate some of it, and how to resolve the inevitable disputes that will result.
Once you are on the plane, the journey from Port au Prince to Jeremie is only 45 minutes. Much about Jeremie is the same as I remember it. However, many of the businesses I had known are gone – either out of business or moved to new digs. Jeremie certainly seemed more crowded now. I noticed the presence of more blan (foreigners) as well. I saw a large group of foreigners picking up trash around town with Haitian volunteers. I couldn’t help but wonder what they did with the trash they collected as there is no landfill in or around Jeremie. Burning trash solves one environmental problem while creating another, unfortunately.
I also noticed that while everyday life seemed the same, money was more readily available. Hardly anyone traveled to and from the villages to Jeremie via foot like they had so often when I was living there. Motorcycle taxis now seemed to be the norm. The motorcycle traffic by my in laws’ house was constant and came close to ruining my peaceful repose in the mountains of remote Haiti. This shift in transportation choice makes me wonder about how the motorcycle taxis benefit the local economy and the community. For the most part, the economic situation of my family has not changed following the earthquake. At least the Grand Anse is blessed with fairly good soil and plentiful fruit so food can be obtained fairly readily. However, there are few formal jobs in the region but that hasn’t changed since the time I lived and worked there.
I stayed only two weeks while my wife, 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter stayed for two months. Most times I go to Haiti I get some sort of intestinal illness, which was no different this trip. My wife, son and daughter all contracted malaria or other intestinal illnesses during our stay. The nature and frequency of the illnesses may just be bad luck but it may also be indicative of how the situation in Haiti has deteriorated since the earthquake, I ask myself whether the quality of heath care is better in the camps in Port au Prince or in the long neglected countryside. Probably the most notable NGO working in the Jeremie area is the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF). CARE, Lutheran World Relief (LWF), Relief International (RI), and World Hope International (WHI) are also here.
More than anything, I continue to worry about the influx of foreigners. Many well-intentioned people without a basic understanding of development, the culture, or the language come to Haiti to promote a faith, an idea, or a commodity. Most Peace Corps Volunteers have seen how well intentioned but misguided actions can reverberate long beyond the week or two that they spend in Haiti. In my opinion, many volunteer efforts seem to be designed more to make foreign volunteers feel good about themselves rather than to build the capacity of Haitians to grow their own food, start and maintain their own businesses, generate their own solutions, and build their own institutions.
Much has been written about the lessons of the past. I wonder if these are lessons learned or mistakes that will be repeated again. If you’re interested in knowing more, especially if you intend to do development work in Haiti, please do yourself and Haiti a favor by picking up a history book. Start with “The Lords of Poverty” by Graham Hancock which features many examples of how those who are paid to help countries like Haiti have often, in the name of development, actually done it great harm. The “Uses of Haiti” by Paul Farmer is also an introduction to an often exploitative relationship between the United States and Haiti. “Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People” by Houghton Mifflin is another classic text. Other books well worth checking out by Paul Farmer include “Aids and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame” and “Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.” These are just a few possibilities. Haiti will need to draw from its history to recover from the aftermath of the worst natural disaster it, or the Western Hemisphere for that matter, has ever seen.
Travelling to Haiti is never really a vacation. Still, I was glad to have a chance to return to the village where I served, to see how it has and has not changed, and to spend time with my extended family. We'll be back.