January 12, I was in Miami poised to travel to Haiti at 6:45 AM the next morning when I received the news that a devastating earthquake had rocked the nation. This horrific event occurred a mere three months after the Haiti Support Project (HSP) led its Third Pilgrimage to Haiti to visit the Citadel, and just three days after a highly celebrative HSP Haitian Independence Month Forum in Brooklyn where Ambassador Leslie Voltaire, Liaison to the UN Special Envoy, was the Keynote Speaker. Ever since this unbelievable disaster, most of my waking hours have been devoted to responding to the crisis in our beloved Haiti.
We deliberately did not travel to Haiti immediately after the earthquake because we did not want to get in the way of the frenetic rescue and relief effort as it was unfolding. However, February 9-12, thirty days after the onslaught of this tragedy, HSP led a Fact Finding and Assessment Delegation to Haiti for first-hand observations of the relief, recovery and reconstruction effort. Composed primarily of African American journalists, our mission was to ensure that long after Haiti has faded from the consciousness of the mainstream news outlets, the Black press will be a voice for Haiti in Black America, sharing vital information and galvanizing people of African descent to remain engaged in the long-term process of rebuilding the first Black Republic in this hemisphere.
On a personal level, the return to Haiti was very emotional. Televised reports simply cannot capture and convey the magnitude of the devastation/destruction and human toll we witnessed. The National Palace, where I had the privilege of being on the Platform for the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Haitian Revolution along with Danny Glover and Herb Boyd, and most recently stood on the steps with our Pilgrimage group for a photo with President Rene Preval, looked like it had been bludgeoned by a gigantic sledge hammer. The Cathedral of Port Au Prince where Danny, Herb and I attended a National Prayer Service on the occasion of the Inauguration of President Preval was in ruins, the face of its edifice standing but in danger of crumbling with the next frightful tremor. Collapsed buildings and rubble were everywhere. However, most astonishing were the scores of makeshift communities, with thousands upon thousands of people that have sprung up around the capital and the surrounding areas.
In a real sense, these tent communities, thrown up with tents and flimsy shelters comprised of sheets, blankets and tarpaulins, represent the best of the Haitian people in terms of their incredible resilience and ingenuity, and the grave dangers they will have to overcome in the weeks and months ahead. As I have said so many times, the Haitian people are remarkably self-organized and self-regulated. This was clearly the case when our delegation visited a tent community within earshot of the National Palace. Shortly after the earthquake a group of young medical students, all in their twenties, rushed to the community to offer their services. As the students performed various medical procedures under extremely adverse conditions, the families in the park where they set up a clinic began to take charge of their lives. About 3,500 people organized themselves into four sections or neighborhoods and elected committees to coordinate the affairs of the neighborhoods and the tent community.
The major complaint we heard from members of the committees and residents was the sporadic delivery of food, a fact that may have been attributable to a change in the system of distribution that now requires women with vouchers to pick-up food at distribution centers. Second, and equally important, there were concerns, fears about what will happen when the rainy season comes. Will the makeshift shelters hold up and will the rains spread disease because of the lack of adequate drainage and sanitation systems? Despite these concerns and all these residents have endured, their spirits remained high. There was order and a self-devised security system. Every night at 10:00 PM, the committee locks the gates to the community. No doubt, what we observed in this community has been replicated in every one of the myriad tent communities around the Capital. The Haitian people are self-organizing and self-regulating.
Nearly thirty days after the awful earthquake, another attribute of the resiliency of the Haitian people was very much in evidence; business, commerce and vending were back, with people setting up shop in nooks and crannies of shattered buildings or simply creating new market places on any space they could find. Our progress in navigating through the Capital and surrounding areas was stalled time and time again by traffic jams, a sign that business is back and people are struggling to return to a state of normalcy in the midst of devastated surroundings. As I said in a previous article, “even in the face of this unspeakable disaster, life is springing back like green shoots pushing up from the ashes of a fired-charred forest as petite, improvised marketplaces appear and vendors commence to peddle their wares again.”
The Haitian people are not waiting for the U.S. Government, the international community or for that matter their own government to rescue them. What we witnessed were people determined to use everything at their disposal, whatever is in their own hands, to fight for survival and development. The challenge is for the Government of Haiti, the U.S. Government, the international community and non-governmental organizations-agencies to tap into and support the will, skill, resourcefulness of the Haitian people as the process of rebuilding the new Haiti begins. The Haitian people, including those who have self-organized themselves in tent communities, must be mobilized-organized to participate in the process of rebuilding the nation. Out of this disaster social and class divisions, which have historically hampered Haiti’s development, must be bridged so that the collective energy of the people will be harnessed to create a better nation – a 21st century Black Republic where the long-suffering Haitian masses are no longer excluded from fulfilling their aspirations. The Haiti Support Project of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century is fully committed to assisting the Haitian people to achieve this vital objective!
Note: Individuals and organizations interested in contributing to the relief, recovery and reconstruction effort in Haiti, including investing in the future of the country, should review the Haiti Support Project’s Haiti Relief Fund Initiatives at www.ibw21.org.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.