Arrival in Haiti and first perceptions

The first perception once arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has been a great hot and humid heat wave that wrapped me completely.

Hot and humid heat wave in a truly and deeply literal sense.

After picking up our bagagges at the airport Toussaint Louverture (one of the major heros of the country and undoubtedly the ancient leader of Haitian revolution) in a quite unusual way, we leave the capital for Jacmel, final destination. About 100 kilometers and 2 hours and half by car, separate us from the city, where we are going to spend the next 5 months.

We are three in the Ford 4×4 car: Maxi Jonel, the driver and logistian of Alianza por la Solidaridad, Irina, the French EU volunteer specialized in Gender Mainstreaming and me.

I soon and fast discover the reason and the origin of the name Haiti: it comes from the ancient indigenous Taino name Ayiti  that means “land of high mountains”. Also, another Haitian proverb in kreyòl ayisyen (the official language with French in Haiti), correctly underlines, Deye mon, lot mon, that is to say “Besides the mountains there are more mountains”.

No name and no proverb could better explain the morphology of Haiti that with only 20 per cent of the land considered arable faces at the same time great problems of natural resource degradation (deforestation and excessive exploitation of the territory).

We take the road called “Rue de L’Amitie’’’, built by the former President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, François Duvalier, better known as  Papa Doc.

It feels strange to concretely hear and pronounce this name that until some days ago was just a name written in the book I have been reading (Amy Wilentz’s book, Farewell Free Vodoo: Letter from Haiti). I think that I will hear it many other times during my Haitian permanence.

The road as a snake goes between mountains and slopes and offers us an interminable series of unbelievable curves. Distances here, are not exactly fixed or given by kilometers. Indeed, it is necessary to take into account other essential variables mainly related to the condition of the road (asphalted or not/ sloped or flat)  the traffic and the weather … So that is the reason why, 100 km of a good road needs more than 2 hours by car to get to the destination.

I start wondering how is difficult for people to move from one place to another in this country. The majority of the population obviously cannot afford private transport like a car. According to 2013 World Bank figures, Haiti has 10.32 million inhabitants, of which 78% lives with less than $1,25 per day, and a GNI per capita of $810. Therefore, for long distances people use collective way of transport such as camion or the typical tap tap camionette (a kind of little car-bus).

Finally, we reach our destination in Jacmel where is based the Haitian headquarter of APS, Alianza por la Solidaridad, the spanish NGO.

History comes again. The city Jacmel was founded in the 1689 by the Compagnie de Saint Domingue as a French colony and known until the Great Depression in 1929 as an important sugar and coffee production and trading centre to and for Europe. Despite the 2010 earthquake, which strongly damaged between 60-80% of its buildings causing many victims, the remains of its ancient colonial past are still visible (in the picture an example).

Nowadays, the city continues to represent an important center for arts, culture and traditions for the country (important is its Carnival with masks made with papier mache’ and its Film Festival) and starts also to be known as touristic destination for Haitians and some foreigners (especially from the surroundings and from the Haitian diaspora based in the USA).

We arrive at Rendez vous that is going to be our temporary accommodation until Irina and I will find a permanent flat to share. Soon after, we meet and chat with Mercedes Lopez, the Representative of Alianza por la Solidaridad in Haiti that welcomes us. The feeling that I have is positive even if I am visibly tired. So, we agree to talk better the day after meeting directly at the office of APS (in the picture)  that is not far from the Rendez vous.

First and long day in Haiti.

(written by Silvia Dall’Osto)