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Published 06:02 13.01.12
Latest update 06:02 13.01.12

Miserable, but it photographs well

The West's eternal basket case, Haiti has more NGOs per capita working within its borders than any other country. Some locals say the well-meaning groups are undermining the state by ignoring the local government.

By Alex Levac

The hall at the Port-au- Prince International Airport was sweltering at 32 degrees Celsius, with three ceiling fans whirling sluggishly, as though stricken by the heat.

When I boarded the plane in New York, the temperature was zero, but here, still in my woolen sweater and heavy coat, the heat was unbearable and the sticky tropical humidity suffocating.

A child working on her homework. There is no free education in this poor country and few have the money to pay tuition.
Photo by: Alex Levac

Things only got worse at the crowded baggage carousel. The Haitians outdid the stereotypical Israeli in pushing, shoving and trampling their way toward the bags, uttering cries of joy when they managed to identify and rescue their precious cargo.

My suitcase arrived and I started rolling it in the direction of the exit, from which melodies were being played unenthusiastically by musicians dressed in the colors of the local flag. Outside, we were greeted with huge enthusiasm by dozens of porters. A few of them wanted very much to help me with my suitcase but when I aimed the camera at them, two of them pulled a finger across their throats in a gesture that seemed to need no translation.

Only after a few days of similar gestures did someone explain to me that here the gesture means "I am hungry, I haven't put any food in my gullet," or, in short, "Give me money."

Every white person - of whom there are few in Haiti - is perceived as tremendously rich: In Haiti, the average annual income is $600 per capita.

Non-governmental organizations have poured into the country to lend a helping hand, especially since the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, leaving some 300,000 dead and devastating the country.

Two years later, not everybody is happy with the NGOs, which bypass the government with their funds, leaving many local institutions to rot.

Haiti hasn't always been the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In 1871, exports from Haiti to Europe were greater than the exports from all of Spain's colonies in the New World. The French had colonized part of the island of Hispaniola, which today comprises both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in the 17th century. The native inhabitants, the Arawaks, were wiped out quickly by exploitative labor and by diseases the Europeans brought with them. They were replaced as a cheap labor force by slaves brought over from Africa and cruelly put to work growing sugar cane, tobacco, coffee and indigo.

Eventually, the slaves, after bitter battles, succeeded in expelling the French and in 1804 declared their independence. The Haitian slave rebellion was the first in modern history.

Today, hillocks of fermenting organic garbage rot in the tropical sun. Someone is washing his feet in a stream of water running into the street, above which, on a tall pole, is a sign calling for washing hands with soap, written in two languages, French and Creole, the language of the locals. I wonder to what extent this hygiene campaign is effective in a country where only half the population is literate.

Photographers say that the suffering and misery in these areas photographs wonderfully: the straight-backed women balancing bananas on their heads, water vessels, piles of colorful laundry, a basin full of sweet oranges - all make for an evocative image. So do handsome black men lounging against cracked walls in colors of pastel green, blue, pink, red and yellow.

But I know the men are leaning back on the walls because they are unemployed (the unemployment rate is 60 percent ) and their clothes are faded because they are second-hand, donations from distant lands.

The camera does not see the polluted spring where the women will launder the clothes because there is no running water in the houses, or the meager, crowded huts where they live.

Cute children play in the streets with fragments of toys. There is no free education in this poor country and few have the money to pay tuition.

Poverty, ignorance, disease are rampant: Seven and a half percent of the population has AIDS, in addition to all the usual tropical diseases like malaria, cholera, parasites and whatever else is caused by the polluted drinking water. Haiti is plagued by natural disasters, like earthquakes and annual hurricanes.

I look at the bald mountains to the east. The rain forests that once covered the land were cut down long ago. There is no more depressing landscape than a bald island in the Caribbean.

Sweet Micky's tomatoes

The distance from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to Leogane is 40 kilometers, but the trip takes about two and a half hours. Gilles the driver is stuck behind an old truck laden with sacks and passengers clinging to them with their fingernails.

To the right and left of us fly Chinese-made motorcycles, carrying three, four, five and even six riders, even small children, all without helmets.

Life has a different value here. Nevertheless, the good-looking people, banana plants, mango and coconut trees, blooming sugar-cane fields and abundance of water temper the culture shock and the poverty.

At these moments I am bewitched by the color of the sea in the light of the ruddy sunset.

In Leogane, I am hosted at the volunteer center of IsraAID: The Israeli Forum for International Humanitarian Aid and Tevel b'Tzedek, two Israeli organizations that have joined up to help in the country's rehabilitation.

Leogane was near the epicenter of the earthquake in 2010, but today the destruction there is less pronounced than in the capital.

Gilles says that 90 percent of the houses in the town were totally destroyed but that most of them have been rebuilt. Since the entire country looks like one big slum, it is hard for me to imagine how the place looked before the disaster.

Haiti's president came to inaugurate the agricultural project the Israelis have established with the locals' help. A few hours before the president's arrival, at the top of a small hill, under a rusted tin roof, the organizers covered a wooden table with a plastic tablecloth. From the roof, they hung a few balloons and they even tied, very charmingly, orchids to the nearby tree trunks with the help of colored ribbons.

When the black helicopter landed with surprising promptness at 4:30 in the afternoon, the flowers had already wilted and the balloons had become deflated. But nobody noticed.

Excited children crowded around a handsome mulatto man of about 50 with a smoothly shaven skull, Michel Martelly - Haiti's new president. And it wasn't necessarily out of good citizenship and an interest in politics that they crowded around him, but rather because Martelly, better known as Sweet Micky, was formerly a popular singer who used to strip at his performances.

After the expected speeches and rounds of applause from the small audience, mostly old people sitting on chairs they had brought from home, the president and his entourage (his closest adviser is his brother-in-law ) went down to a new greenhouse.

After receiving a short explanation about the Israeli strain of pest-resistant tomatoes (pests are a big problem in Haiti ), the president, holding a young tomato seedling, bent down, dug into the soil and planted it.

From an excess of enthusiasm, as I tried to photograph the historic moment, I trampled the presidential tomato plant. Silence prevailed. Martelly and his heavy bodyguards looked daggers at me. I was so embarrassed, I bent down and tried to revive the seedling, whose stem had broken, by artificial respiration. In fact I kissed it and apologized.

But the president smiled and said, "Never mind, I'll plant a few more." I don't want to imagine what my fate would have been had I trampled a royal tomato during the regime of the tyrant Francis "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

A few days later I asked Jonathan Liberzon, a pleasant and intelligent young man from IsraAid who is in charge of the tomato project, how the plants were taking in the new plot.

"Don't ask," he replied. "The hens ate most of the seedlings."

He said he turned to local farmers for advice on what to do about the chickens.

"They explained that there are several ways to solve the problem. One way is to threaten the owner of the hens," he said. "Another way is to post guards. But the most effective solution is to scatter poison in the field. That is what we did. A few hens ate it, but since then the owner has been making sure they don't get close to the tomato plot."

Bypassing the government

Tevel b'Tzedek and IsraAID are the only Israeli organizations still active in Haiti. Per capita, Haiti has more non-governmental organizations operating on its soil than anywhere else in the world. Some estimate their number at 10,000.

In effect, such groups have been running the country for some 40 years now.The government of Haiti says it has no supervision over what they do. The NGO invasion hasn't been completely popular with the natives. In their opinion, the government should be managing the rehabilitation money and the rehabilitation itself. The representatives of the people know what Haiti needs better than any foreign organization, they say.

In fact, the NGOs and their money almost completely bypass the state. Of the billions of dollars contributed as aid from around the world in the wake of the 2010 temblor, 76 percent was designated for foreign organizations and the government received only 1 percent. The rest went to private entrepreneurs.

"And they're still accusing us of being corrupt!" complained one Haitian government minister.

No one is denying that the NGOs do good work. Only one-third of the 1.5 million refugees who were living in tent camps last year are still there. In Port au Prince, the drinking water is cleaner today than it was before the earthquake.

But by making sure funds stay out of government hands, the NGOs have contributed to the collapse of local institutions that dealt successfully in the past with the same problems the groups are there to fix. Only 450 out of the thousands have registered with the authorities as required by law and of those only 17 report regularly to the government about their activities. A local journalist told me that they have kept Haitians out so much that they even prevented participation by local experts in meetings at which they discussed the rehabilitation.

The problem is that they come full of good will, continued the journalists, scatter a lot of money around and along the way they harm the local population. For example, when they pay salaries several times higher than the usual pay, and then, when the budget gets used up, they depart and leave a vacuum.

"The Israelis," he took the trouble to note, "are in fact contributing to long-term rehabilitation because mainly they are teaching us new modes of action, with the intention that we will be able to carry on after them."

That voodoo that they do

It is impossible to leave this beautiful, sad country without attending a voodoo ceremony.

In 1945 Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism, visited Haiti and attended a voodoo ceremony that perfectly matched his Surrealist fantasies. Since then, voodoo has glowed in the minds of European intellectuals with an aura of a fascinating black culture, equal in value to white culture.

Other tourists, prejudiced and afraid of the blacks, saw these rituals as the embodiment of evil and evidence of inferiority. From a different perspective, Duvalier, who ran the country from 1957 until his death, in 1971, knew very well how to wield his power as a voodoo priest of great repute for his political needs.

The indefatigable Gilles drove me one dark night through narrow alleys in Leogane to a shack from which rose sounds of African drumming and monotonal chanting. In front of the dwelling burnt a campfire that illuminated a voodoo doll in the shape of a cross. Around its neck was tied a hangman's noose. The adjacent unpaved courtyard was illuminated by a dark red light and served as a dance floor for a few young men and many old black women wearing colorful dresses and red ribbons in their hair, who looked as though they had been taken from a slavery history museum.

In the center stood a tall wooden column and next to it a gigantic wooden mortar. Beside the mortar stood two men who were pounding away at something unidentifiable with great force and in rhythm, each in turn, with the help of his pestle, a thick wooden stick two meters long.

Two young fellows danced around the wooden pole, waving long machetes that clanged against each other. In another corner sat drummers, and with them a percussionist who banged with a toothbrush on an empty beer bottle. The uniform drumming melded perfectly with the pounding of the pestles in the mortar. Every so often someone sprinkled the audience with alcohol he sprayed from his mouth. Others blew cigarette and cigar smoke, and a strong smell of powdered pepper, which perhaps arose from the mortar, made the air very thick.

From time to time someone emerged from the audience and threw himself upon the people gathered there, a glassy look in his eyes, standing up and falling as though possessed by a demon. After several minutes, he would fall fainting into the arms of the people close to him.

An old woman who could barely stand on her feet suddenly burst into a frantic dance. After a few minutes she fell on the ground, at my feet, convulsing as though in the throes of an epileptic attack.

Gilles waited in the car.

The next day, he drove me to the airport and told me he does not believe in voodoo. Two nights before, however, in his village, he said, the ghost of a betrayed husband who had died entered an old man of 90, who rushed like someone who had run amok at the adulterous woman with a long machete in his hand. Ten young fellows wrestled with him and were not able to overcome him. Only the local voodoo priest managed.

He put his hand over the old man's mouth and caught and trapped in his fist the spirit of the jealous husband. The old man fainted on the spot and the voodoo man hastened to thrust the evil spirit into a Coca-Cola bottle, which he closed with a cork.

"With my own eyes, I saw that bottle moving on the table," said Gilles. I looked at him. He smiled. "We Haitians say that 90 percent of us believe in voodoo and 80 percent are Christians."

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