Love in the Time of the Haitian Cholera

Nov 2, 2010Rev. Marcia Dyson

haiti_map-150The Haitian people's will to survive, and thrive, is mighty. But they also need our assistance in battling crisis upon crisis.

I've always admired the haunting beauty and sad grace of Gabriel García Márquez's novel "Love in the Time of Cholera". But I never imagined that his title would conjure the force we'll need to fight Haiti's freshest suffering: an outbreak of cholera that threatens the loss of thousands of lives.

It's fitting that the novel in which Márquez temporarily loosens the hold of magical realism is the one that symbolizes Haiti's plight today. There's little state magic to speak of, and the economic realities that this country faces are tragic and legion. But my God, the will and spirit of the people remains indescribably, well, magical, to say the least. I've gotten to know Haiti and its people a lot better over the last two years as I've served and traveled throughout the complicated outlines of this besieged geography.

Haiti's present troubles may yet prove faithful to a script that seems passed down from on high: A small but mighty colony of oppressed black subjects will resist and rise just when nobody gives them a chance in hell to survive. That was certainly true of Haiti at its birth.

In 1804, the nation roared into existence after a decade-long slave revolt fomented by Toussaint Louverture, which ultimately resulted in Napoleon getting beaten at his own game -- and the world's first republic winning independence from France.

Haiti's will to rise was certainly challenged during U.S. military occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, and its national urge to strength was surely suppressed as the U.S. exerted direct or indirect control of the Haitian economy from 1905 to 1947.

And through a string of tyrants, incompetents and soiled idealists at the helm of the nation (some with American support, or at least with our willingness to look the other way while the country was lost and looted), Haiti's people have managed to keep faith, even though that faith has been unjustly savaged and satirized as "Voodoo" -- with the scare quotes in tow -- little more than a hodgepodge of hocus pocus and superstition.

But that's the retail version of Vodou, pushed in the marketplace of ignorance and bigotry. In Haitian Vodou, practiced widely by much of the population, the spirits of the departed -- sa nou pa we yo, those we don't see -- don't fly away, but remain near to those left behind, permitting the suffering living the triumphant advantage of laughing in the face of death.

That's not a fatalistic position, but a supremely hopeful one. After all, the living have had so much death to defy. Is Vodou any more unrealistic a remedy than, say, colonial exploitation and schemes of duplicitous rationality deployed by would-be saviors in military or ministerial garb?

This doesn't mean that it's a pie-in-the-sky piety that isn't vexed by the mortal wounds of poverty and catastrophe. On the contrary: It's a source of spiritual resilience in the face of tragedy. The bipolar opposition between science and soul doesn't exist in Haiti, at least not in any reasonably concrete fashion. (For that matter, there isn't even a neat division between, say, Catholicism and the catechism of indigenous spirituality that flows effortlessly through the syncretic religious experience that is a noted strength of the African Diaspora.)

Even as we respect the homegrown spirituality of Haitian residents, we've got to ramp up the material resources they so desperately need. After the January earthquake left the nation in shambles and rubble, and 300,000 souls lingering near the living, you'd think God, or at least nature, might leave the Haitian folk alone long enough to recover. Until that theological dispute can be resolved, the political and ecological elements, as well as the moral ones, must be engaged.

We need to send more medical personnel and supplies to tamp down a fever of cholera that has pandemic written all over it. That's for sure. And we certainly need to send more money to responsible agencies to relieve the suffering. No argument here.

But we also need to ask some tough questions. Beyond the cholera crisis, is there a crisis in political legitimacy in Haiti and the United States, where real fault may be found in the use, or misuse, of international aid money? Regardless of the source of the outbreak, it's likely that most Haitians see it as a plague of nature. But what role does man play in this tragedy, especially through shortsighted priorities that diverted needed attention away from structural responses to Haiti's suffering? For every bottle of water sent, an inch of water pipe could have been built. For every tent erected, a transitional house could have been constructed. Simple, yes, but sound, too.

As U.S. taxpayers, are we aware of where this country's $1.15 billion pledge to Haiti is going? Do we know what sustainable deliverables are being guaranteed by contractors and suppliers? Finally, what of the African Diaspora's response to Haiti, especially from her benighted kin in America?

Sure, we brag about Louverture; we even sing the praises of the TransAfrica Forum and other groups that champion Haitian self-determination and effective governance. But in truth, we leave the economic and moral heavy lifting to white celebs like Sean Penn, Mia Farrow and George Clooney. Where are our black celebs -- besides Wyclef Jean -- in the fight for Haiti? What about the rest of us? Where do the sun-kissed children of the black experience stand in times of greatest crisis for our people in Haiti?

We need black love in the time of Haiti's cholera. We need the spirits of the departed ancestors to rally the will of the people to survive. We need the revolutionary spirit of Louverture and other slaves to course through our veins. And we need the sacrificial energy of black American brothers and sisters to circulate all the way to Haiti. Otherwise, we are in peril of losing our souls and condemning our brothers and sisters to even more rubble and disease.

Marcia L. Dyson works with the Fondation Lucienne Deschamps in Port-au-Prince, which is dedicated to education and the training of teachers.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Root.

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