Notebook

Ten years and an earthquake: the changing face of Haiti

Everywhere I was struck by the fever of rebuilding and reconstruction

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

This summer, I returned to Haiti for the first time in ten years. I was itching to see how the Caribbean republic had changed after the terrible earthquake of 12 January 2010. This time, I would not be travelling by jitney, lorry or fishing boat, but in taxis and air-conditioned tourist coaches. Port-au-Prince, the capital, was as exhilarating and exhausting as I remembered it. The streets, thronged with pack animals and porters were a human ant heap. The smells I knew so well from earlier visits — sewage, burning rubbish — hit me forcefully and it was as though I had never been away.

I made a bee-line for the Hotel Oloffson, a magnificent gingerbread mansion made famous by Graham Greene in his Haitian novel The Comedians. Illuminated at night, the hotel was a folly of spires and fretwork. Hurricane lamps flickered yellow, showing white rattan furniture. I had not seen the Haitian-American owner, Richard Morse, since I proposed to my wife here in 1990 (I went down on two knees to Laura after a burst of machine-gun fire startled me). ‘Ian, it’s been too long,’ said Richard, laconic as ever. Not only had he kept the Oloffson open all these years, but he fronts a world-class Vodou rock band, RAM. The band played so well that night that I thought I would levitate out of my seat. Past guests to the hotel have included Nöel Coward, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger (who wrote ‘Emotional Rescue’ there); laughably a room had been named after my book on Haiti, Bonjour Blanc.

Port-au-Prince was still visibly damaged from the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. The death toll is uncertain but the official Haitian tally is 316,000. It remains one of the worst natural disasters in Caribbean history. The convulsions lasted 35 seconds but were enough to destroy the National Palace; the Episcopal Cathedral with its magnificent, Vodou-inspired murals by Wilson Bigaud and other Haitian artists, the Palais de Justice and the Palais des Ministères were all razed. A more graphic image of municipal chaos is hard to imagine: the heart of Haiti’s national and civic life had gone. Down by the Iron Market, the Grand Rue and Rue Pavée showed extensive damage; the old Syrian-owned warehouses collapsed in the aftershocks that radiated from the epicentre ten miles away in the city of Leogane. In 2012 the Hollywood movie star Sean Penn, who runs a charity out of Haiti, recruited a demolition team and carted off what remained of the National Palace. The building was a painful reminder of the earthquake but many Haitians felt aggrieved that a white foreigner should have taken away their symbol of sovereignty.


Everywhere, I was struck by the fever of rebuilding and reconstruction. At the airport, brightly coloured adverts for Haitian rum and beer adorned the walls; Haitian raboday hip-hop music blared joyously from a speaker box somewhere. New Hilton and Marriott hotels are due to open soon in Port-au-Prince; change is coming fast. Some money may even ‘trickle down’ from the Hilton to the (truly disgusting) seafront slums. The transformation of Haiti into a cruise-ship destination has already started.

No visit to Haiti would be complete, I suppose, without a Vodou ceremony. Vodou reflects the rage and ecstasy which threw off the shackles of slavery. On the night of 15 August 1791, a ceremony was held outside Cap-Haïtien which marked the beginning of the African slaves’ revolt against the colonial French. (Haiti, the world’s first black republic, finally gained independence in 1804.) For many Haitians, Vodou is a way to rise above the misery of poverty and the devastation wreaked by hurricanes, mud slides and other natural disasters. When a Haitian is possessed by a loa (spirit) he is taken out of himself and gratefully transformed.

To attend a Vodou ceremony, you follow the rumble of drums into the countryside. This I did on my birthday, 24 June, St John’s Day. In Vodou, St John the Baptist (Sen Jen Batis) is a powerful, rum-drinking divinity who is propitiated with bonbons and bottles of alcohol. At the village of Trou-du-Nord, in the north, the night air was dirty like a smoked ceiling and eerie with barking dogs. Round the parish church of St John, the candles and the swaying, crowded bodies suggested a Mexican Day of the Dead. Crowds stood round the edge of the Vodou temple of woven palm-thatch; they paid me no mind. The mambo (Vodou priestess) was sweating and jiggering her shoulder like an epileptic. The drummers, bashing furiously, looked similarly possessed. A peaceable religion, Vodou is derived from the rites and beliefs brought to Haiti by African slaves in the 1600s. It is as old as Christianity.

On Haiti’s south coast, the old coffee port of Jacmel lost 5,000 inhabitants to the earthquake. The Hotel Manoir Alexandra, where I had stayed in March 1990 during the coup that deposed General Prosper Avril, was a husk of its old self, its rosewood staircase and roomfuls of French antiques destroyed by tremors. In the municipal cemetery I found Aubelin Jolicoeur’s grave. The dandyish Haitian gossip columnist was immortalised as Petit Pierre in The Comedians. Bizarrely, he had been born in the same cemetery — ‘among the spirits’, he liked to joke — when his mother went into premature labour. His death in 2005 at the age of 81 made headline news in Haiti; he was buried in his signature beige-white suit and silver-topped walking cane.

After a week, my time had almost run out, and I felt a mixture of impatience for home and deep regret at leaving. Haiti is one of the most astonishing places on earth — a West Africa in the Caribbean — and I can’t wait to go back.

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Show comments
  • Kenneth O’Keeffe

    Vodou? Is this some sort of ‘hip’ spelling of the more conventional voodoo?

  • Harryagain

    Still a $hithole then.
    There’s a surprise.

  • citizenH

    Ian, you need to revisit Haiti again, but this time stay away from the slums. I don’t know why some people are attracted to the trash, they seem to have an affinity for the rubbish as though it doesn’t exist in their own country. The US is full of depressing places where people like Mr. Ian Thompson can find plenty to write about if he’s interested in garbage or the negative aspects of a society. There’s a lot to be inspired about when visiting Haiti without going back to its dark history such as Slavery, Voodoo, Duvalier dictatorship, etc. The country is moving forward, and those puritans from the West should STOP talking about Haiti in the past but instead, they should give this new Martelly/Lamorthe administration some credit for trying to rebuild the country especially after the devastating earthquake of 2010 that killed well over 300,000 people. Royal Carribean Cruise Lines, Carniva Cruise, Hilton, Marriott Hotel, Best Western Hotel to name a few are now pouring millions of dollars into the country, American Airlines will soon add more flights to Haiti (Cap Haitien). Haiti will have 114 new hotels with international standards, 7 new international airports, 15 new seaports……etc…..etc. Haiti is now hosting major international conventions, world leaders from Europe to Asia are now visiting Haiti and partnering with the Haitian people in order to move the country forward. So, please, please I beg those who are bent on making negative comments about Haiti under the disguise that they “proposed to their wife” in Haiti, need to STOP. Haiti is more than Voodoo, black people, savages as depicted by some racist media outlets and other free lance news operators. Haiti has been providing the world with some Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Scientists, Teachers, etc. but those individuals don’t get recognized for their contribution. Lighten up my friend. Haiti is NOT there yet, but it’s moving, let’s give it a chance.

    • global city

      but it needs entrepreneurs, business, free markets and wealth creation, not the collection of ‘train to leave’ sectors that you list.

      • citizenH

        I don’t know what you mean by “train to leave”. Those professionals didn’t get trained to leave the country, they were forced out of the country by necessity and/or to seek out better opportunities abroad. I was born under the Duvalier dictatorship, and during that, the regime didn’t think about reconstruction of Haiti, they were more interested in padding their own bank accounts while the rest of the country lived in despair. But that was 40 years ago. Now however, Haiti is trying to move forward under the Martelly/Lamothe administration, and under the watchful eye of the international community, so people should stop talking about the Haiti of the past, but what Haiti is doing today. Even the pictures that Ian Thompson posted in his article are biased, voodoo doll, drunk actor, monkey heads, , ( I don’t know what this one is about because we don’t have monkeys in Haiti) and everything ugly to depict a country and its people. These cut and paste journalists should try to find new materials before they have to find another job.

        • global city

          If you’d noticed, I did not criticise Haiti or Haitians in my post. I am greatly concerned by what you term ‘the watchful eye of the international community’. These are the same do gooders that play a major part in the holding back of many African countries from developing wealth assets and properly functioning markets.

          If the UN and international development NGO’s had been as powerful after WWII as they are now then Japan and much of Continental Europe would still be aid dependent dumps.

          You did rather confirm my description of ‘train to leave’ by what you then wrote in the very same sentence in which you question it.

          • Rene

            Global City, I truly appreciated your comments, and your desire “to see Haiti thrive…” hopefully. To be honest, the challenges seem to be very difficult to overcome in Haiti although efforts are being undertaken to achieve this goal of reducing poverty and make it better for the Haitian population in general. May I ask you what you mean by “free hand”?

          • global city

            What I mean is that support measures should be there to reflect what people say that they want and then try to help produce, in business, in community and social infrastructure. Right now so many NGO’s have fixed programmes and centralised notions of civil infrastructure. These themselves are too often tied to social theories concocted by idiots in left wing institutions in the west.

            Micro initiatives, building up from the bottom, not services provided from above. A huge focus on enterprise and injecting seed funds into start up business and markets.

          • Rene

            Thank you for your comments.

          • global city

            I know that my response is woolly and not deeply thought out, but the number of NGOs, both after, but more significantly BEFORE the earthquake was rather telling. vast numbers, vast resources..none of it geared to providing what the people want or need short or long term. it is basically a waste of time them being there.

            If anybody wants to help Haitians I would strongly recommend them tracking down a local charity and donating to them directly or doing business with a Haitian company.

  • Rene

    It’s a good description of some aspects of the life in Haiti. However, there are poverty, slums and homeless in every country, not only in Haiti.

    Besides the poverty, and the reconstruction that is being undertaken in Port-au-Prince downtown, there’s also a lot of positive things that Haiti has to offer to the World. Just watch this, and you’ll have another idea about Haiti not often shown in foreign media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziZ7HnZixxQ

    The Haitian country is trying to move forward, with implementation of programs to improve living conditions of the population despite scarce resources, and attraction of foreign investments, tourists, to create more jobs. It would be good for foreign media to encourage this change that is being put in place. Haiti’s poverty is not an eternal sin that must exist in this country forever, although foreign media tend to often point out mainly this aspect…

    • Gwangi

      Yes, but Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and that is largely self-inflicted by a corrupt (and black) ruling elite and also a corrupt ruling white French elite before that. Haiti – like all failed states – has millionaires and billionaires. And yet we are expected to send aid to their dumps.
      You holiday in Haiti if you want to…
      Me, I’ll watch Live and Let Die again and feel glad I live in a boring street in sunny Britain (though true, some inner city vibrant and diverse areas do resemble parts of Haiti now, complete with child sacrifice and torture of children identified as witches).

      • global city

        the difference between the sh*thole countries, of those that try anyway and those that have thrived has been that the latter have concentrated on building markets whilst the sh*tholes tried to build (unfundable) ‘social services’….usually whilst milking $Bs from the aid their poverty generates in grants.

      • Guest

        With all due respect, what I just wanted to point out is that Haiti has much more good opportunities to offer on its land, like tourism, or opportunities for foreign investment. I didn’t deny Haiti’s poverty, but I also noticed in this country the will to move forward, and that’s something that should be encouraged, if not also supported.

        I never heard about this kind of rumors “child sacrifice” in this country. But, supposed that it’s true, do you sincerely think that horrible crimes are being committed only in Haiti but anywhere else in the world? Is there a country where crimes are never committed?

        Perfection does not exist, and everything can improve with the will and the appropriate actions to overcome difficulties. I respect your choice not to visit once in a while this part of the country for instance, among others: http://www.royalcaribbean.com/findacruise/ports/group/home.do?portCode=LAB

        I hope, like stated by Global city, that Haiti will benefit from the services of a “clean government” in order to make consistent progress to reduce poverty on its land and attract more foreign investments.

      • Rene

        Gwangi, with all due respect, what I just wanted to point out is that Haiti has much more good opportunities to offer on its land, like tourism, or opportunities for foreign investment. I didn’t deny Haiti’s poverty, but I also noticed in this country the will to move forward, and that’s something that should be encouraged, if not also supported.

        I never heard about this kind of rumors “child sacrifice” in this country. But, supposed that it’s true, do you sincerely think that horrible crimes are being committed only in Haiti but anywhere else in the world? Is there a country where crimes are never committed?

        Perfection does not exist, and everything can improve with the will and the appropriate actions to overcome difficulties. I respect your choice not to visit once in a while this part of the country for instance, among others: http://www.royalcaribbean.com/findacr...

        I hope, like stated by Global city, that Haiti will benefit from the services of a “clean government” in order to make consistent progress to reduce poverty on its land and attract more foreign investments.

  • Terence Hale

    Hi,
    I haven’t been to Haiti because of the bad train connection but from my assessment the charity money funded and fund the Clinton election campaign in America.

  • global city

    The NGO’s won’t let it escape from their socialist utopia, despite the people being desperate to do so.

    It will be the same when Cuba tries to rid itself of the Castro clan.

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