Haiti’s Feast or Famine: the good, the bad, and an etiquette of greed


I got out of the house Saturday, in fact made it all the way to the grocery store, where I saw people—an assortment of real, honest-to-goodness, up-right-walking, human beings.  They were people on a mission—a singular mission, I might add—the search for sustenance.  Members of this group—more hunter than gatherer—were out for the kill—the thrill of stalking and slaying.  They were ruthless.

Blood was shed.

But, before I proceed with these graphic details of gut and gore, let me remind you how I got myself into this mess, in the first place.  To make a long story short, I came to Haiti with my partner Sara, who directs earthquake recovery efforts for a major, international, NGO.  I am an artist/writer/former-academic.  Since our arrival in Port-au-Prince, our two dogs in tow, we have survived a number of dangers that have included Hurricane Tomas, a cholera epidemic, and the ongoing threat of kid-napping.  In the past week things have worsened considerably, however, as in the aftermath of fraudulent presidential elections the country, Port-au-Prince especially, has been paralyzed by protesters rioting in the streets against a myriad of misdeeds on the part of the ruling political party, crimes that included blatant stuffing of ballot boxes and intimidation of voters at the polls.  It is this rioting that kept us house-bound for much of last week—housebound as all around us the city descended into chaos—buildings burned, people killed.   And it is this confinement that made us more than just a little merry to be out this weekend—even as far as the supermarket on Saturday—

—Where, indeed, blood was shed—

—Almost—

Okay, there may not have been literal blood in the aisles—but it was bloody in every metaphoric sense imaginable.  It was desperate.  It was deadly.  There should have been medical intervention, at the very least.

These human beings were hungry, as only housebound-for-days-with-pantries-depleted aid workers can be—a singularly ravenous group—I now know.

So here’s how it all went down:

Sara and I, wisely arrive at the super market early. Giant, as it’s called, opens at 8.  But we arrive around 7:50 with a strategy mapped out—divide and conquer.  By this time a small group has already gathered.  By 8 our number has grown.  By 8:10 we’re a small crowd.  By 8:15 we’re a ravenous herd thronging the gates of super market heaven, as Giant’s own Peter, raises the barrier.

This, I would argue, is what happens to humans accustomed to the food surplus that is America, Canada, Denmark, Kuwait—suddenly threatened—where anything short of feast is experienced as famine. Ironically, many of these aid workers feed the hungry by day, have degrees in food security, advanced degrees in hunger studies These food-spoiled-food-specialists have been housebound for days and know now that more isolation is inevitable, maybe even imminent.  These are the real survivalist, the professionally-programmed to gather, to stock pile, to horde.

Unfortunately, I participate in this parody.

Willingly—

Isles clog with carts— the meat department is particularly intense—shoppers grabbing chickens to roast, t-bones to grill, pork chops to fry.  These are carnivores galore, consuming the store.

I am no different—but I crave the carbs, have been on a diet for weeks.  And even during good times diets increase my cravings.  So when the few foods I’ve been eating for more than a month aren’t stocked by the store, I start to stress.  My anxiety soars—is still soaring two days later. 

On Saturday I do finally find a few favorite foods—pretzels, almonds, raisins, dates—the carbs I crave even on a diet.  This stockpile, however, doesn’t satisfy.  Sara and I still argue.  I know I’m over-reacting.

There’s too much uncertainty.  The airport has finally reopened, though American Airlines won’t resume flights before Wednesday—the very afternoon I’m scheduled to fly home for the holidays.  Almost daily for the past week American has promised to start flying again on a given day, only to announce the following morning the need to prolong their Port-au-Prince closure.  The only way I’ll get out with my dog Lucy on Wednesday, is if the airline does not delay again.

On top of this uncertainty, we’re not at all confident Sara will be able to leave Haiti on the 23rd—the date of her scheduled holiday departure.  The airports are expected to close again after the final results in the presidential election are announced on December 20th.  Many believe the country will slip into a chaos even more intense.

I know I should be mourning these facts on behalf of Haiti, when, actually, my grief is grounded in fear that neither Sara nor I will get home for the holiday, or even worse—that I will, but Sara won’t, and we’ll be apart on December 25th

It’s an ugly, selfish sadness. 

In fact, I am what I find most deplorable in citizens of rich countries.

Driven.

Greedy.

Vain.

I come from ugly America, a Mecca of meals with an etiquette of greed.   Am I an ugly American, ashamed but not changed?

Or maybe Alexander from Judith Viorst childrens’ book got it right after all.  Maybe it’s just

                “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

8 thoughts on “Haiti’s Feast or Famine: the good, the bad, and an etiquette of greed

  1. Ah, Kathy, don’t be too tough on yourself. You’re honest about how you feel – many people appear stoic on the outside but are battling internally in just the same way you are. And sometimes time at home is what keeps us going in our faraway places; keeps us doing amazing work.
    Love and hugs and strength to you both xx

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  2. Perhaps you should view yourself not as an “ugly American” since I seriously doubt that such person would be where you are for any reason…but rather as what Hans Selye referred to as an practioner of atruistic egoism…a balance state of being selfless and selfishness. 😉

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    • Really interesting–I don’t know Hans Selye nor the term “altruistic egotism.” Sounds like Selye is describing precisely what I’m noticing. Thanks for sharing this. It’s so strangely comforting to be able to name something!

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    • Thanks, Wendy. I hope we make it too. I will certainly keep you all posted as I travel. It will take 2 days to get home with an overnight in Miami, but I will attempt brief updates along the way.

      Blessings to you, Wendy,
      Kathy

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  3. I agree with Sunshine, if there was a chance that a long awaited trip home might be snatched away from me, I would also become selfish.

    The aid workers are there trying to help, and now due to a chaotic situation not of their making, they might not get the one thing that’s kept them going during the year.

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    • It’s so strange, Lisa, but when I hear you and others describe the situation as “trying to help”– it makes sense, seems real and true. But from the inside it is so hard to catch a glimpse of that normalizing reflection. Thanks for articlulating it for me!

      Take care, my friend——
      Kathy

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