‘Kléré tankou flanbo sou tè-a

“Today,” announce the politicians and newspapers, “We are all Haitian.” Except that we’re not. We’re their neighbors; we’re their brothers and sisters; but we’re not Haitians, and no matter how much yesterday’s horrible earthquake shatters us, I don’t believe we can presume to know the depth of the pain and confusion being suffered right now by nine million Haitians on the island of Hispaniola and by their relatives across the globe.

I say this, in part, to put a check on my own pride as I write this reflection. It’s not really an exaggeration to say that the week I spent there, with a Haitian friend and his family, changed my life — perhaps not drastically, but it certainly did color in some way what I think about, what I dream about, and how I conceptualize faith and necessity and economy and suffering. Still, because I’m given to baroque prose, the very simple remembrance I’d like to write about the city of Port-au-Prince could come across as a presumptuous claim to victimhood, and victimhood is something to which I couldn’t possibly pretend.

I say that we are not Haitian also out of honesty. I’ve spoken to my Haitian friend, who is in France at the moment and is safe, but because the quake destroyed telecommunications in the capital, he has no way of contacting his family or of knowing how they are. For him and for those like him, uniquely, would I reserve the words of Lamentations: “All of you who are passing on your way, look and see: is there any suffering like my suffering?”

When it became certain, early in 2009, that I would visit my friend in Haiti (I’d met him at Taizé, in France, where we were both on retreat, and then kept in touch), I started searching online for some description of the places he’d told me we’d go: Carrefour, Pétionville, Canapé-Vert. To my frustration, I didn’t find much: a Google image here, a byline in a French-language newspaper there. So much of the spirit of the diverse corners of Port-au-Prince was bracketed in vague catch-all terms, like “slums,” “suburbs,” and “outskirts.” When I first started reading about the earthquake and the damage that it had wrought, I hoped that the names I read would be as unfamiliar to me as those other names had been to me back then. This is how it usually is. When disaster strikes we can circle a ninety-mile radius on a map, but the specifics typically elude us. That is why it was shocking to me to read the newspaper accounts yesterday, and to see how all of a sudden my obscure half-knowledge of Haitian streets and neighborhoods was activated: “The damage is great in Carrefour, in Pétionville, in Canapé-Vert…”

The image of Petionville that greeted me when I Googled it many months ago

Pétionville. This is where I stayed the week of my visit, in the home of my friend’s cousin, her infant son, her sister, and two young girls they had taken off the street and now employed as something scarcely more dignified than house-slaves. These two little girls captured my heart. On my first day there, I thought they were my host’s daughters, and I kept complimenting her on how well her kids behaved, how quickly they rushed to clean up after dinner. It was only later that my friend took me aside and gingerly explained that they weren’t their biological relatives — that, in exchange for food and shelter, these little orphans “helped out” around the house. In reality they were at their lady’s beck and call from before I woke up till after I went to bed. One, taciturn, insolent, twelve years old, never betrayed a flicker of emotion as she coldly and efficiently went about her work feeding the baby, pressing mangos for juice and bossing the other orphan around behind their mistress’s back. The other, shy at first but ultimately devilish, curious, and girlish, six years old, learned after a week that when I was praising her for doing her chores I wasn’t being sarcastic or condescending, and that when I offered her whatever I didn’t finish after dinner, it was ok to take it because I was just a stupid American who didn’t understand that that sort of extravagant generosity towards the house-slaves shouldn’t normally be practiced. On my last night in Haiti, after everyone else had gone to bed, I stayed up till midnight with the younger one showing her pictures of all my friends on Facebook. She didn’t normally have Internet rights, so this was forbidden fruit. Long after I’d told her that “this would be the last one, now,” she kept pointing madly at the little thumbnails of all my female friends that would pop up in the corner of the screen every time I clicked through someone else’s profile. “Elle!” she would jab her finger at an icon, after a while bridging an unthinkable distance and allowing her knobby little elbow to press against my knee as she leaned in closer and closer towards the screen. “Comme ses cheveux sont beaux,” she would whisper admiringly (half in Creole, which I didn’t speak, and half in French, of which she spoke very little), oblivious to the fact, which I kept on trying to point out, that the friend in question was posing in front of something as grand as the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. When I finally sent her to bed it was way later than I should have allowed. She couldn’t wake up the next morning (at 5 o’clock) to see me off or to do her chores because, the older girl told me in a steady, suspicious tone, she was complaining of a stomach ache and had been confined to bed. I wondered whether she would be punished for this, and my heart hurt at the thought of what I had perhaps done. As for the older girl, I later heard from my friend that she’d been found out to be pregnant. Doing the math, I realized that it must have happened not much more than a week or two before I’d arrived.

Pétionville is, as the newspapers have recently pointed out, the neighborhood where the “wealthier” Haitians live. Wealthy, in this context, is a relative term. The two-storey, sparsely furnished (but furnished nonetheless) house where I stayed was subject to frequent electric black-outs and we didn’t have running water for most of the week. I always hoped that the electricity would be on at night so that I could power a fan to blow mosquitos off my face. When the electricity was on, we did have dial-up internet, and every day that I was there I truly ate better, in terms of quantity and quality, than I do most days in the United States: spreads of good coffee and eggs and bread and margarine and Nutella and oranges and bananas and a juice made from the fruit of a strange plant, which I could translate from Creole into French but not for the life of me into English, called lamveritab, or l’arbre veritable — literally, “the true tree.”

This house in Pétionville was our home-base, and before and after our daily excursions elsewhere in the city, I would spend hours talking to my friend and playing with his adorable, bediapered cousin. The boy’s father was an Italian art dealer, the only other white man I ever lay eyes upon in Haiti. He paid for the house and it was understood that when his son grew up he would pay for a good education for him…a funny thought, since all the little tyke could do now was cry and cry, stare up at people with his big brown eyes, and cry. The baby’s father would show up in the light-less evenings when it was too dark for me to tell the color of his skin and would sit outside wrapped in a warm blanket of night air talking in gentle tones to the mother of his child. I think that his wife was back in Italy — or perhaps in France. Even Pétionville abuts struggling slums, but many of the houses are set up on a hill, looking out over misty ravines, seemingly far from that nearby life more pitched and precarious than its own. When I read the New York Times online an hour after the earthquake struck, it was the name of this quartier that I saw first: the modern houses of Pétionville, read the article, have disappeared into the ravine, leaving an empty, smooth hillside behind.

Centre-ville. When he is not staying with his cousin in Pétionville, my friend lives with his uncle and grandmother in Carrefour, exactly opposite Port-au-Prince, over to the west. In order to get to Carrefour, we had to take public transportation through the clogged, congested Downtown, or Centre-ville. A two-hour odyssey with three connections: first, we took a shared public taxi called a tap-tap. A tap-tap is a rusted old pick-up truck with a sunroof and benches mounted on the chassis. You push your way on-board and when the vehicle gets to your destination, you tap on the metal back of the driver’s cabin and shout, “Chauffeur, merci!” It can be uncomfortable getting on one of these, especially when you stand out as much as I do, but once you settle in, you don’t really want to leave. The ride affords a moving panorama of the city’s population and of its urban landscape, dominated by churches of all denominations (though 80% of the population is at least nominally Catholic), mysterious “Lesly Centers” (it’s unclear to me what happens there, but they were everywhere: little one-room shacks among other shacks where old men sat behind cash registers waiting for someone to arrive), vendors meeting the barking choruses of “Glo!” (water) from passers-by, and indeed, the tap-taps themselves: decorated in flaming bouquets of color and sporting defiant bits of wisdom, in French, English, and Creole, gleaned from tradition and from the Psalms: “Jésus nous sauvera,” “The Lord is my shepherd,” and for me, the most touching and honest one that I saw: “La vie est difficile.”

Tap-Taps in the street

The second connection was the best: a bus more or less as we would understand the term, its seats up high and its view unobstructed of the hillsides we’d pass at this point on the route. Independent contractors would board the bus and hawk razor blades, sanitary pads, and medicine (sold by the tablet) for the duration of a given ride. Only once, returning home long after sundown and caught in a seemingly endless stream of exhaust-churning, horn-honking traffic, did the bus threaten to become dangerous, as something along the lines of a melee broke out among two of the men fighting over a seat. Tensions flared a little more frequently on the third leg of the journey, my least favorite, when we’d get off at a square on what may have been (but I’m not sure) the Boulevard de Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Picking our way down streets mobbed with people and littered with trash, we’d have to find an airport shuttle-sized van less frequent than the tap-taps and less spacious than the buses. On more than one occasion my friend would push and pull at other people swarming the vehicle so as to ensure that I got a seat. Imprecations of all sorts were howled at le blanc et son privilège, and I couldn’t possibly blame them for their anger.

But there was a great deal of incredible beauty downtown. The cathedral and the presidential palace were Haiti’s pride and joy. These two buildings, white as alabaster and gleaming like diamonds in the rough, were the two “sights” to which every Haitian could be proud to take a white tourist. I stood before the presidential palace and prayed in the cathedral, and I sensed some of the pride and hope and security that these two buildings inspired in my friend and his countrymen and women. At the heart of this poor nation is a parliamentary state which is capable of a physical structure as pretty as the American White House and a president who may be able to lift his people out of poverty. By its side is the Church, the voice of the country’s suffering, the opiate of the people in the best possible sense, and an unfailing source of personal kindness and compassion. In our attempt to sneak into the church, which was locked, we had to pass through a catechism class that was taking place in one of the side chapels. The instructor beneficently let us pass, after ensuring that the students had acknowledged our presence with a collective nod of heads. Indoors we took a picture before an icon of the Virgin Mary, protectress of Haiti. When we stepped back out into the hot heat and bright light, we ran into two or three children, their uniforms rumpled and dusty, playing hooky and not looking too concerned about it. They smiled at us, and held out their hands for money. In the hours after the earthquake, the brutal images came out: the palace was split in two, collapsed in the center, crumbled in utter defeat. In the morning I spoke to my friend, safe in France but with anguish in his voice, who had seen other images too: “Notre belle cathédrale, elle est toute détruite,” he mourned, and it wasn’t until I searched on Google for these images, as well, that I understood the horrible finality of that phrase: utterly destroyed.

In front of the Palais National, July 2009
Palais National Destroyed, January 2010
My friend and I in the Cathedral of Port-au-Price, July 2009
Utterly destroyed: The Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, before and after

Carrefour. I spent some time here in what I guess you might call a slum, populated by people whose hearts were palaces. It was here, my friend told me, that I encountered “the real Haiti.” People greeted me with an extraordinary kindness, never hesitating to open their homes to me and to feed me as much food as I could eat. It is difficult to describe kindness, I think, much as it is difficult to describe warmth. I don’t know how to express the warmth of the people I met except to say that it was radiant (even the most telling anecdotes will fail: for example, one of my friend’s neighbors, told in advance that I’d be coming, knit a lace tablecloth for me to bring home to my mother). One neighbor showed me an extensive collection of photographic portraits that he had done, and offered to do one for me (though I never saw the proofs). I’ve struggled tonight to decide whether to post photos of some of the people I met; without their permission and under such circumstances, it seems invasive or macabre. I wonder what this man would recommend. All of the people I met were very anxious to know what I thought of their country. When I responded, genuinely, that the people were among the kindest and most welcoming I’d met, many of them smiled slowly and prompted, “And it’s hot here, too, isn’t it?”

Several of my friend’s friends who were closer to our age were studying to be doctors, and we discussed ethics, the media, American politics, and the Catholic religion in my friend’s little kitchen for hours on end. Sometimes when we were visiting members of his family — brothers, cousins, scattered across Carrefour — my friend would leave me alone and I’d find myself staring down the bottleneck of whatever Coke they’d offered me, searching desperately for something to say. With this unexpected community of friends my own age, who had gone to Mass and done youth activities with my friend for years and years, I felt immediately at home. At one point, alone in the kitchen for twenty minutes with a girl with whom I talked effortlessly and freely about whether true love exists, a bizarre feeling struck me: as though I’d known her all my life. At some point a little girl of about seven came shyly into the kitchen and lingered in the doorway for a few moments before we realized she wanted to sing me a song she’d learned in English. I don’t remember what song it was — I didn’t recognize it — but it, too, was about true love, or true love, at least, as understood by whatever pop star had penned it. Anyway, this little girl sang it a cappella and beautifully. It was a moment from a movie or from a slightly condescending Western-centric fantasy, but it was a true moment that really happened, and I loved it.

Later on, my friend and his friends pulled out an old electronic keyboard they’d borrowed from the church and sang for me a few songs they’d composed and had been practicing together for years. One of them, my friend had dedicated to me. Suddenly I found myself addressed in a place where none of my own life trials — romantic, existential — applied or even existed, so far away were all the people I could call “mine” in this ephemeral world, and yet I was no longer allowed to be a tourist in this land of foreign, material concerns from which I would, in a matter of days, depart. In that moment, I had an existence in Haiti because I had people who knew me there, and knew me intimately enough to sing me a song that, whether they knew it or not, meant something to me. But I will pass over what that song was, and its meaning, just as I will pass over the details of the reports of carnage in Carrefour which I read about in the papers the day after the earthquake hit.

Canapé-Vert. Come to think about it, I don’t know whether canapé means “canopy” or, as both my intuition and my dictionary tell me, “sofa bed,” but if you picture a place which could be called Green Canopy, you will have an idea of Canapé-Vert. It’s a large area with its requisite slums and busy streets, but the part to which my friend took me comprised a vertical succession of steep hills, a kind of vast mystic mountain, covered in trees whose thick green branches hung over us. On that day it rained — my only hot, wet, fervent Haitian rain, funneling off the tips of leaves as off the tips of a massive green umbrella. My friend was taking me up the mountain to a retreat house run by the retired bishop of Port-de-Paix, Monsignor Frantz Colimon, a legend of that country who was so frail and so light, it was said, that he seemed to float like a spirit wherever he walked…who couldn’t raise his voice above a whisper and never looked you directly in the eye but wore a smile that betokened the joy of the Holy Ghost. On the way up, our thighs aching for the incline, we passed an impoverished Eden filled with dogs which greeted us happily and doorless shacks whose threshold-lingerers — for their proximity, perhaps, to the sequestered saint of the summit — seemed soothed by an implacable inner calm. At one point I gazed off a ledge into a shallow ravine filled with trash and saw an army of goats munching contentedly in the mist, and I felt as though I had stepped into a film by Herzog, Tarkovsky, or Malick. (Forgive the anomalous reference: it struck me as a genuinely cinematic moment.)

When we reached the mountaintop monastery, the rain was really coming down. We took refuge under the eaves and a cowled sister informed us that the house was in silence at the moment, but that if we waited, she would go and see if the Monsignor would consent to see us. My friend knew the Monsignor and predicted he’d welcome us. My friend was right. He appeared in the doorway with his broad, thin smile and a pink zuchetto, that strange wisp of a man, and led us wordlessly down a narrow succession of stairs and corridors until we’d arrived in his bedroom-study, whose walls were covered in faded postcard images of saints, of John Paul II, and of the lifeless and apparently holy corpse of Padre Pio. In that little room, in a private audience, still dripping with rainwater and sweat, I dredged up memories of my former life which had caused me pain, confided them to the Bishop as though under the seal of the Confessional, and listened as mysterious words came out in reply like so many dead leaves.

Monsignor Colimon and I

My friend spoke with him for a while, too, and afterward the three of us went into the Monsignor’s private chapel and prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. Rain thundered on the roof, which seemed to me like it could collapse at any instant. My friend didn’t want to stay too long for fear of inconveniencing the bishop, so we left after a few minutes to another, public chapel, where we were nonetheless the only ones at prayer. My last glimpse of the bishop saw him prostrating his aged frame on the ground, his smile vanished now, his eyes squinted, his mind lost in thought. My impression was that this was a man so slender and yet so much larger than life, and that he, as well as the equally tiny Host reposing in the Tabernacle, were immune to all destruction and untouchable by death. In the second chapel I prayed intensely and devoutly and felt closer to God than I had in a very long time.

On our way down the hill, we encountered a funeral Mass. Mourners, all neatly uniformed in black, were packed into a tiny chapel along the path which had no back wall. My friend saw someone he knew standing near the back of the crowd and stopped to speak to him for a few minutes. He asked who the deceased was, but didn’t recognize the name. We left quickly so as not to disturb the Mass. The rain was only a drizzle now, but the steep surface of the road was slick, and at one point I lost my footing and nearly tumbled headfirst down the slope. I was steadied by the stable arm of a man who appeared almost as if from thin air, and who smiled at me as our eyes met. “Attention,” he cautioned gently, and righted me.

On the outer wall of Monsignor Colimon’s retreat house, there is an inscription in Creole: “Kléré tankou flanbo sou tè-a,” it reads, and while I don’t remember the exact signification of the last word, I believe that it all means, roughly, “Gleaming like a torch over the world.” I remember that my friend and I stood for a long time in the rain, looking at it. He liked it very much. “It brings hope into my heart,” he said (or something to that effect) — in broken English or in fluent French, that I don’t remember.

"Gleaming like a torch over the world"

I don’t know whether that wall still stands. At this point I don’t know, either, whether Monsignor Colimon really was — on January 12, at least — immune to death, or whether any of my friend’s family who took such good care of me or any of the children (my God, the children…) I met there are still alive: the girl who sang me an American pop song, the kids playing in the sun and dust outside the now-vanished cathedral, the baby I bounced on my knee in Pétionville, the poor unfriendly girl who was to become a mother at age thirteen, or my little friend who stayed up with me looking at Facebook, and whom I caused to fall achingly ill. How, I ask myself, might any one of them have experienced those 34 seconds of horror and the incomprehensible suffering that followed? I try to put myself in their place, and the terror is too great. I look at photos that I took on the trip, and my stomach hurts. I know that disasters like this occur frequently and that perhaps a more fitting tribute to these people would be a silence which doesn’t call so much attention to my clumsy attempts to deal with my own grief. But to be honest, as much as the last twenty-four hours have seen me alternating between desperate fascination and shock, it wasn’t until now, having resurrected and written about all these memories, that I realize just how sad I am at the thought that all those beautiful people, and the world they welcomed me into, may by now have ceased to exist. I think too of my friend, desperate for news but dreading news at the same time, and I am sad. Lord, let them live…

My aunt asked me in an email today how I could rationalize a God who is all-powerful yet allows so much suffering in the world. I was going to respond, mustering all my theodical skills, but all that can be said is that it’s perhaps the most powerful question in the world and I simply don’t know how to answer it. I do know that rationalization could never be an appropriate tact. Christianity, I am coming more and more to believe, is not a system of satisfying answers. It is a religion that can only be understood profoundly, or else not at all, and its deep roots are in the experience of the human heart. Perhaps this is not the place to meditate on the nature of Christianity, but in times like these and in a place like Haiti, whose people are profoundly Christian, the question is obvious, and it raps insistently at the doors to our souls.

It does occur to me, though, that as important as this question about the apparent non-existence of God may be, it begins from the wrong point of departure. Perhaps we ought not start with faith and proceed through any number of obstacles which challenge it (“If God exists, then how can we understand this suffering?”). Perhaps it is better to begin with the indisputable facts of human experience and imaginatively trace a number of potential philosophical consolations which might present themselves. The more devastating question, then, is this one: If God does not exist, then how can this anguished existence of ours ever make sense in a way that is compatible with a belief in the meaningfulness of love? If there is no justice to right the wrongs of history, if there is no bliss eternal for those who have spent their lives in states of suffering, if there is no meaningfulness which will settle, someday, all the doubts and confusion about the chaos of our lives, then any humanistic justification of our noble impulses and moral tropism will ultimately ring hollow, merely biding time with provisional scientific and anthropological explanations until death catches up to us and our insignificance is revealed. Truly, either God (some sort of god, anyway) exists, or we are nothing but meaningless little bunches of neurons, our suffering (the extent of which the last few days have made manifest) as gratuitous as everything else in our lives is purposeless. We should think about the judgment this implies not only in regard to God but in regard to all humanity. To endorse that viewpoint is to describe not just you, and not just me, but every child in every country living her fledgling life innocently, in hope of happiness — every relief worker striving to bring healing to the afflicted — and every person we’ve ever loved and been loved by. Ivan Karamazov said that the suffering of one child must make us doubt the existence of a good God. Yes, but if God and redemption do not exist, then even our solicitude for the life of that child must remain only superficially nice, not grounded in any transcendent reality which could make it philosophically coherent or morally urgent. Suffering presents a paradox to theists, but it poses a question to atheists which is equally unanswerable, and certainly of less help to those who do suffer: is there nothing in our lives which is eternally valuable?

The atheist’s response will perhaps be to magnify our desperation and claim victory: After all, then, religion isn’t anything more than an evolved mechanism of defense against our fear of death. Yet this is to smooth over all the irrepressible lumps of our existence, over our deep feeling that life is meaningful, that there is an explanation out there that correlates with that intuition of meaningfulness without reducing us to evolutionary oddities — and that, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, “as radical as evil may be, it is not as profound as goodness.” Haiti, a country whose soul is stripped to an existential core which reveals that the true life of humanity is drama, may have learned better than we have that without God, we have nothing. Am I exploiting this country’s terrible suffering in order to draw a moralizing conclusion? I don’t intend to. On the contrary: for a Christian, a chaos of this kind will never be a victory march, but a reminder of how agonizing the path must be towards understanding the beguiling, awful mystery of His Love.

Even after the death toll in the decimated city of Port-au-Prince is counted, I don’t know how so many tens of thousands of displaced people will be able to survive in the streets when the area is as densely populated and as underserved as it already is. (I have distinct memories of the streets of the capital thronged by pedestrians even before their homes became uninhabitable.) Starvation, exposure, and disease will likely reign. All of the city’s churches may also be collapsed; its archbishop, Joseph Serge Miot, has been killed; its spiritual center is upset. And darkness will keep on falling every night, thick and impenetrable. This is a catastrophe of historical proportions comparable to the destruction of Lisbon in 1755 or of St. Pierre, Martinique, in 1902 or of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005. Please, consider donating some money (for instance, here, or here, or here), if you haven’t already. And whether you have or haven’t already, please say a prayer for Haiti.

4 thoughts on “‘Kléré tankou flanbo sou tè-a

  1. Merci Nicholas pour cette introduction à Haïti. C’est bien plus perspicace que ce que j’ai lu dans les journaux.

    Je ne savais pas que tu as rencontré ton ami à Taizé. Une fois par mois mon église a une messe alternative dans l’après-midi fondé sur l’idiome de Taizé. Elle a l’air un peu mystique.

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