Amid Rubble And Ruin, Our Duty To Haiti Remains

A man makes his way through lifeless bodies in Haiti. i i

hide captionA man makes his way amid lifeless bodies outside the morgue in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, following a devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on Tuesday. Desperate Haitians await a global effort to find and treat survivors from the quake that left streets strewn with corpses and a death toll that may top 100,000.

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
A man makes his way through lifeless bodies in Haiti.

A man makes his way amid lifeless bodies outside the morgue in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, following a devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on Tuesday. Desperate Haitians await a global effort to find and treat survivors from the quake that left streets strewn with corpses and a death toll that may top 100,000.

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Gina Athena Ulysse was born in Petionville, Haiti. Trained as an anthropologist, she is also a poet/performer and multimedia artist. Haiti is the main focus of her works. She is a current faculty member at Wesleyan University.

Words are especially difficult to come by in a state of numbness. My response to the outpouring of calls and e-mails from concerned friends has become something of a mantra. No, still no news yet. We have not been able to make contact with anyone. To stay sane, I have resigned myself to accepting that my immediate family will not come out of this without loss.

And even if we did, the lives of the already departed and sheer magnitude of the devastation are enough to keep me catatonic.

You see, I was just in Haiti the week before Christmas. I went to the Ghetto Biennale of the Grand Rue artists. I returned from what I boasted was my best trip ever full of hope about the future. The reason for my optimism was encounters with people from Cite Soleil. Through INURED, a research institute, I met 10 students who received scholarships to study in Brazil and members of a community forum that has been actively engaged in dialogue in attempts to build a broader coalition beyond politics. Their work renewed my dedication to participating in building the country again. I made a commitment to raise funds to make sure both of these efforts are successful.

Hope is not something that one often associates with Haiti. An anthropologist and critic of representations of the island, I have often questioned narratives that reduce Haiti to simple categories and in the process dehumanize Haitians. Yes, we may be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but there is life there, love and an undeniable and unbeatable spirit of creative survivalism.

Gina Athena Ulysse

hide captionGina Athena Ulysse was born in Petionville, Haiti. She is a current faculty member at Wesleyan University.

Courtesy of Gina Athena Ulysse

I have heard cries of why Haiti and why now or that this could have been avoided. Narratives of blame may be explanatory, but at this time they are not constructive. Since our inception as a sovereign state early in the 19th century, we have faced obstacles. We have had to build and rebuild before. I am worried about Haiti's future. In the immediate moment we need help, rescue missions of all kinds. I am concerned about weeks from now when we are no longer front-page news. Without long-term efforts, we will simply not be able to rebuild. What will happen then?

My first response to seeing post-quake pictures of the capital was to ask how will they build factories with this devastation. In the past year, the United Nations and special envoy Bill Clinton's plans to help develop the country's economy have virtually ignored dissent on the ground that called for a more humane approach that would not re-create the same exploitive labor relations that continue to serve the wealthy. Haiti's government, with its absence of structure, cannot be ignored as it is in desperate need of reinforcement and civil space needs to be nurtured.

The folks I met last month had one response when I asked why despite their personal hardships, they chose to engage in community-building. In Creole or in French, they replied, "C'est mon Devoir" (it is my duty). I was charmed by the phrase, its elegance and matter-of-factness. On this side of the water, I hold on to their words today as a sign that there is will in Haiti. When long-term efforts are on the way, the international community, too, must see it as its duty to not re-create the mistakes of the past.

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