All posts by Jesse Phillips-Fein

Witness the resilience of Haiti’s people

I went to Ayiti March 28 – April 4, 2010, with my Haitian dance teacher Peniel Guerrier. It was a trip we had planned before the earthquake in January, and it is because of Peniel’s vision and commitment to the people of Ayiti that the trip was possible. These are my reflections on the trip.

It begins with seeing tents. Fields and fields of tents. Some are hearty, large, bearing the symbols of the aid organizations that gave them. Others are just plastic tarps tied together. The worst are patchworks of sheets upon wooden sticks. It is sunny and unbearably hot, and hard to imagine what will happen when the rain comes, soaking the sheets, turning the ground to mud. And the rain is coming. Soon. For two months: rain, rain.

Then there is rubble. Everywhere. And no sign of it being moved. I imagine it becoming part of the landscape, permanent stacks of devastation. Looking at it, I do not know how anyone was rescued or removed, the slabs of concrete heavy, awkwardly jutting against each other, or sometimes whole floors stacked on top of each other like two pieces of sandwich bread, or the whole building tipped onto an unstable diagonal, dizzying and crude. A member of my group who grew up in LA comments on the lack of personal possessions in the remains, in comparison to her memories of the LA quake. The possessions have either been taken, or more likely, did not exist in the first place.

We attend a public Vodoo ceremony for the dead. Vodoo is a New World religion, the synchronization of traditional African religions brought by different ethnic groups to Ayiti, with the Taino native populations, sometimes carefully masked under the veneer and symbols of Catholicism. It should be stated that there is considerable amount of prejudice and misunderstanding about what Vodoo is. Probably some of these associations come to mind: black magic, dolls with pins stuck in them, senseless sacrifice of animals, perhaps humans. Despite taboo, Vodoo has been central to Haitian culture since the Revolution, which began at a Vodoo ceremony. As a dancer, understanding the religion is crucial to learning Haitian dance, as dancing is an essential means of connecting with the spirit world in the religion. This ceremony is an adaptation of what would be done as individual funeral rites, en masse. There is relatively little dancing at it, but much singing and drumming, with the occasional partnering and turning between different practitioners. After the ceremony, we meet with Max Beauvoir, the unofficial spokesperson for Vodoo in Ayiti. He shares hearty wisdoms with us, but one sentence rings out in my head now: “The Haitian people have been kicked in the back. We are down, and though you reach your hand to us, we can hold it, but we cannot get up.” The affect of seeing so much death makes the fragility of life a clear fact to everyone. He says we can bring life to Haitians living with the trauma.

So we hand out donations, clothes, food, and medical products. We pull over to the side of the road to tent cities and open up the back of the car. People swarm around us. Sometimes I cry, handing them what I can, torn open by how dehumanized they are, how they push each other, how they hide one thing behind their back to get another, how crushed they are by their overwhelming need. There are women with small babies, children, children, children, old men and women, standing one breath away from me, and we are in two worlds, only by the chance of our circumstances, delivering us into this moment where we are face to face, and no matter how much we give, we will run out and yet still always have more resources for ourselves, the scales tipped so unevenly, towards us. The insistent tapping on my elbow, the pleading in Kreyol, and underneath it all, the frequent smiles of children when we drive past, the sharp tug of gratitude for anything we can give, and the living of life on the edge of life.

And then, there’s the UN. In its trucks and military uniforms sporadically throughout the countryside. The UN workers at the hotel we’re staying at tell us they have seen evangelical ministers make hungry children recite biblical passages before giving out food aid. Aid has been unevenly distributed at best. The UN here is an occupying force. Occupying the first free, independent Black republic, it seems to be it could be humiliating to not have one governmental body or organization you can trust. And what is the occupying force doing? It is so unclear. The rubble is not moved. I do not see one sign of new construction. The rain is coming and 1 million people have nowhere to go.

There is a museum next to our hotel on Haitian history. The memory of slavery lives here. One member of my group puts her hands in the shackles. “So heavy,” she says. The wooden sculptures depict the faces of the enslaved, etched with sorrow and determination. And next to then, the marble sculpture of the colonizers. The creation of race captured in these artifacts, so stark.

It is hard to laugh, but sometimes we can, at the awkwardness of our American selves, thrust so far out of what we are used to. Here, 10 minutes can become 4 hours, you can drive on any side of the road, every stranger is a friend who can help (when our car breaks down in the middle of somewhere), what little resources there are will be constantly exchanged instead of hoarded, physical discomfort from heat or over crowdedness becomes routine, and small things are enormous surprise blessings: a napkin appears when I am sticky and messy from mango eating, water when we thought we had none, someone who can fix the car. There is a flow in the chaos, an order holding it together, connected web.

We laugh and we dance, taking classes with some of the Haitian master teachers, some of whom haven’t taught since the earthquake. Several of the drummers lost family members and homes. Their resilience is astonishing. The spirit of my teacher, Peniel, moves me to my core. He is willing to do whatever he can to ease the suffering, even though it seems so miniscule in the mountains of need surrounding us. He makes me see it is not futile; we must do what we can. At the only national school for the arts, now too damaged to be used, artists have pitched camp. They sell their paintings to maintain a bare survival. Their work tells the story of continued struggle and hope in the midst of hopelessness.

The moment of greatest meaning to me is when we visit an orphanage, also destroyed by the quake, to dance with the kids. 80 children, several missing legs, arms, are living in tents next to their collapsed building. Kids who had nothing now have even less. They are immediately affectionate, holding our hands, climbing into our laps, speaking in Kreyol and sometimes in the one language we share in common: Spanish. When they dance, they light up with glorious movement, smiles spread across their faces, and we move together, move the sadness, move the loss, through our shoulders, arms, hips, feet. We laugh and cheer each other on, dancing into the middle of the circle, the same way my students do in Brooklyn, the powerful movement of the Diaspora that has held this center through centuries of oppression. These children need everything in the world, and it is clear to me, they need to dance. As we leave, they crowd around the car. One girl is wearing a bright red tee-shirt from a Manhattan private school, and I pause on this odd moment of a privileged kid’s hand-me-down ending up on the flipside of our lifestyle of excess. It is clear to me how distant and how connected our worlds are. It is clear to me I have a responsibility to these people, to keep holding their hand, until they can stand, with solid feet on perpetually unstable grounds.

I encourage you to donate to Architecture for Humanity where money can get more directly to the people on the ground: architectureforhumanity.org.

For info on Peniel Guerrier: tamboula.com. Jesse’s website is jumpoffdance.org