Today is not just New Year’s Day, it’s Independence Day in Haiti.
I was just there again a couple of weeks ago. The photo above is from my day at a public beach about 45 minutes from Port-au-Prince. It was a Saturday with perfect weather when such an idyllic place should have been crowded and the vendors selling drinks and fresh seafood doing a brisk business.
I don’t generally like crowds, but I wished for one here because it would have been a sign that the hard times might be relenting in Haiti, that more people have enough money not only to survive, but to spend a day at the beach – just like we would here at the Oceanfront on a nice summer day.
Not yet. Maybe in 2010.
On Jan. 1, 1804 Haiti officially became the first free independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after slaves fought for more than a decade for their freedom. You might be thinking the U.S. was the first free republic in the Western Hemisphere, but remember we still had slaves then and would for several more decades.
In Haiti, the people fought the power and won…and yet somehow have ended up paying for it ever since. Literally in money – France charged the new republic for the slaves and property they lost in the war for independence, a massive debt the Haiti was still paying until World War II. It's an unusual case in which the victor in war had to pay the loser.
The people have also been paying because the slaves of San Domingo (as the French colony that would become Haiti was called) were successful in fighting for the freedom that was rightfully theirs. It sparked a fear that other oppressed people of the world would do the same and so, from the beginning, Haiti was a threat.
Many of the descendents of those slaves find themselves, on this Independence Day, still struggling for a free and comfortable life. One where enjoying a day at the beach is not just the province of the wealthy and the blan (foreigners). One where eating a few times a day isn't a luxury.
I went to Haiti five times last year. It has become my second home. When I’m actually home here in Virginia, there really isn’t a moment that isn’t affected by my experiences in Haiti and the people I’ve met there. They’ve made my heart bigger – still not big enough, but bigger.
Yet the more I learn, the deeper I get in, the more I see how much I don’t know (which is one reason I don’t write in this blog as much as I should).
The most important thing I don’t know is how best to help the Haitian people fulfill the birthright that their ancestors fought so hard to give them and which they celebrate on this day, just like we celebrate and cherish July 4.
I don't know yet, but maybe in 2010.
This article reminded me of a prominent point made in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Here is a small excerpt ....
How could a just God permit great misery ? The Haitian peasants answered with a proverb:"Bondye konn bay , men li pa konn separe," in literal translation, "God gives but doesn't share." This meant, as Farmer would later explain it, "God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he's not the one in who's supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge is upon us."