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.”

Colonialism Challenges Thanksgiving in Haiti?


I had planned to post the following yesterday, had not the old sit-down-Thanksgiving-dinner-for-23 gotten the best of me, eating up any time I might have dedicated to posting what had, for the most part, already been written:

Let’s face it.  Planning Thanksgiving from here in Port-au-Prince has had its fair share of near disasters and we haven’t even had the dinner yet.  That’s not till tonight.  But it’s in this spirit of near calamity I’ve been writing all week about my misadventures trying to make this holiday happen here, ruminating in posts over the past several days specifically about the shopping and oven-related challenges that have nearly derailed my efforts.  Today, however, in honor of the day itself—a holy day, of sorts—I’m pondering the moral implications of hosting a feast for folks with plenty to eat in a country where children will go hungry today, will have gone to bed last night with not a drop of dinner and woken of this morning with no real breakfast to speak of.

This dilemma has its roots in a system that got started centuries ago.  In fact, some have argued, that Haiti’s economic challenges originated in the kind of colonialism our American Thanksgiving actually celebrates.  Now I like my Macy’s parade and other Thanksgiving traditions as much as the next guy.  But frankly, I find it uncomfortable to be highlighting this event from a place where colonialism couldn’t have gone more wrong.

Let me clarify—by offering the following facts.  You ponder them and tell me your thoughts.

–Christopher Columbus landed here on the island of Hispaniola in December of 1492, setting up Europe’s first settlement in the New World.

–When the Spanish arrived an indigenous population of as many as 8 million welcomed them, but in fewer than 20 years only 50,000 remained, most of the Indians having been killed by diseases first brought to the island by Europeans, namely yellow fever.  Thirty years later only hundreds had survived.

–With the loss of an indigenous labor force to mine for gold, the Spanish and later the French, needing manpower to work their sugar plantations, began importing slaves from West Africa, until by the beginning of the 19 century, as many as 500,000 may have occupied the island.

–Because the population of slaves was so high, compared to the few Europeans actually in residence, and because the French were so brutal in their abuse of slaves, soon-to-be ex-slaves revolted and won their independence from France in January of 1804, becoming the first independent ex-colony in all of Latin America.

–Because Haitian political leaders wanted to trade with France and wanted their country’s legitimacy to be recognized by the US, they agreed in 1824 to pay France 150 million francs to compensate the former French plantation owners for lost income, effectively paying an indemnity, effectively buying their freedom, the freedom of an entire nation of former slaves.

–The Haitian government was not able to pay off that debt until the middle of the 20th century and was forced to hand over to the French tax revenue the government might otherwise have invested in infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals, an electrical grid—none of it established in Haiti as it was in the US by the 1950s.

–Some have argued (see Paul Farmer’s Uses of Haiti), that it is this fallout from former colonial rule that has left Haiti destitute economically and vulnerable politically to the kind of pre-election violence we’ve seen in Haiti this week (elections scheduled for Sunday, November 28th).  Some have said this continued servitude has left Haiti without the basic services a government can establish with tax revenue—left it without a building code, for example, and therefore structurally vulnerable to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake—left it medically vulnerable without enough hospitals to manage the cholera epidemic we see raging in the streets of Port-au-Prince today.

The bottom line is this—

I feel uncomfortable celebrating a holiday that essentially celebrates friendship and feasting between colonizers and an indigenous population.  It feels wrong, in a lot of ways, border-line hypocritical, especially with hunger, malnutrition, and a lack of clean water killing thousands just down the street in Port-au-Prince proper.

I don’t mean to imply it’s wrong to celebrate, as we would have back home.  Rather, I’m suggesting that this awareness has troubled me for most of the day—a sore spot on the conscience of someone of European descent, celebrating the holiday of the (sometimes brutal) colonizer in a place so ruined by the colonial system.

What are your thoughts about this?

Note: the Thanksgiving dinner was fabulous, thermostatically-challenged oven and shopping snafus not-with-standing. I promise to share details in upcoming days.

Thanksgivng Haitian style: a shopping list


Yesterday, promising a series of posts this week about the difficulties Sara and I face trying to celebrate Thanksgiving from Port-au-Prince, I outlined what I called the “oven-related challenges” that could jeopardize our thankful feasting this Thursday.

Today, however, shopping-related issues take center stage—the consumer-driven hazards that could take down even the most well-intended and tradition-centered of holiday celebrations.  In fact, it may be that the more one tries to model any Thanksgiving feast in Haiti on the one Grandma would have catered, the larger the obstacles threatening it loom.

So, buyer beware.

Wisely, Sara and I anticipated some of these issues and brought back from the US several Thanksgiving menu items we thought might be needed—imagined we wouldn’t find here, even in the expat-oriented grocery stores in Petion-ville. 

But as you might expect (those of you who know my pathetic track record when it comes to poor packing), I anticipated incorrectly—finding here in Haiti what I did bring back but not bringing what I didn’t find.  Just my bad Thanksgiving luck!

Except for canned pumpkin—that is. 

Here I hit the pie-filling nail on its not-so-proverbial-pie-filling head.  I swear there’s not an ounce of Libby’s to be had on the whole of this damn island—cherry pie filling, yes—canned yams, yes—canned pumpkin in time for Thanksgiving pie-baking—no sir—none of it—anywhere.  And believe me, I have looked. 

But we need not worry.   I may not have a thermostatically controllable oven to bake the pie in, but I have a full 29 ounce can of “America’s Favorite Pumpkin” to put in it.

Now about the celery—

Here I should mention having a bit of scare yesterday morning trying to find this vegetable, almost as essential to stuffing as sage itself.  Standing in Giant Market (right here in Petion-ville), I came so close to a celery-induced heart attack, I was imagining, “What would Jesus do?”  What would the son of God himself (assuming he were a turkey-stuffing kind of carpenter) use in his stuffing were the stalks of stringy stuff not available?  If he turned water into wine, could he turn carrots into celery?

But, again, you need not fear, as Saint Sara herself performed the miracle, finally finding what she called a “not very robust” celery (but a celery-looking substance nonetheless) in the grocery store near her office. 

Catastrophe averted.  We are that much closer to a celery-ed stuffing inside our bird that’s to be roasted at a temperature the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will themselves determine.

Then there’s the chicken broth—

Yesterday Sara sent me to the super market for some cans of it, among other things.   Actually, Giant carried the item in both the Swanson and Campbell’s variety—the Swanson, carton-ed with no added MSG and the Campbell’s, canned with all the blood-pressure-raising MSG one would ever want.  And being a health-conscious, not-wanting-to-consume-excessive-amounts-of-salt American, I selected the broth without MSG.  In fact, I tried to check out with three cartons of the stuff, since Thanksgiving dinner calls for broth in both the gravy and as a moistening agent in any well-celery-ed stuffing.

Here’s the hitch.  Though the store stocked the Swanson’s (over-stocked it, in fact)—they wouldn’t sell it to me.  And, if sheer quantity were any indication, wouldn’t sell to anybody, for that matter.  They couldn’ t figure out the price.  So, when, after thirty minutes of trying to determine one, no member of the sales or management staff could still settle on the number of Gourde to make me pay, I suggested they charge me anything. 

“Over-charge me,” I even offered—a concept they seemed not to grasp—though they seem to get it well enough when selling products on the street and doubling the price when any non-Haitian tries to buy.

But undeterred and unwilling to waste any more of my time-is-money American minutes, I gave up, bought the cans of Campbell’s, and headed home, risking ill-health all the way.

So the bottom line is this— the shopping obstacles, though they were multiple and at times bizarre, did not obstruct in any hugely significant way.  These were more imagined obstacles than obstacles of real substance—

So Saint Sara, the wise and proper packer, was (as she is in all things) probably right about this, as well–

—Since the anticipated shopping obstacle was, like the celery itself . . .

. . . “not a very robust” obstacle after all.

Figuring out Thanksgiving from Port-au-Prince


In honor of the upcoming holiday, I’ve decided to share, over the next several days, a few of the challenges we’re facing trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner from Haiti.  So stay tuned all week for the sometimes amusing, sometimes maddening, sometimes mind-numbing complications that inevitably arise when celebrating this most American of holidays in the least American of places.

Today I give you the oven-related challenges.

I told Sara when we were looking for a house here in Haiti, that I simply had to have an oven.  Neither of the two homes we had in Vietnam had anything other than a cook top in the kitchen, which bothered me to no end, since I like to bake—cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies, muffins.  The only thing I like more than making them is eating them, but that’s another post for another day.

 So Sara did what any Tollhouse-cookie-loving-partner would do.  She got us an oven—a real honest-to-goodness gas oven—minus the thermostat.

 I kid you not.  There’s no way to set any specific temperature on this most essential of kitchen appliances, any temperature either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

 Now, I love Sara more than anything, even more than my daily dose of cake and cookies, and those of you who know my inclination toward carb-consumption, know that’s saying quite a bit.  But sometimes she misses the most obvious of details.

 “Oh, that’s not that important.  You’ll figure that out.”

 Twelve attempts and twelve burnt batches of cookies later, I’m still figuring. 

 Which brings me to the matter of needing an oven this week, a temperature controlled oven, I might add.   In America we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  It’s the most Thanksgiving of Thanksgiving desserts—even when celebrating from here in Port-au-Prince—especially when celebrating from any far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled part of the planet!

 A pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 to 50 minutes at 350, temperatures too precise even for the oven thermometer I brought back from the US.  It only seems to get me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees. 

 But what about the turkey Sara plans to roast, what about the thermostatic requirements of the old Butterball?

 Oh, that’s not that important.  She’ll figure that out, she says.

Breakfast for Haiti


Here’s my struggle—potentially trivial when one considers the overwhelming hunger plaguing Haiti—but I’m on a diet and having difficulty reconciling my personal focus on weight loss with the staggering starvation faced on this relatively tiny island.  When I was renaming my blog, I considered calling it “Breakfast for Haiti: a diet diary from Port-au-Prince.”  I thought I might attach a fundraising feature to the site, so while I was focusing on losing what so many Haitians are desperate (even dying) to gain, I could appease my middle class, American guilt by, at least, increasing the amount of money available to fight hunger here.  But this seemed potentially offensive, in bad taste, at the very least, given the fact that even before the earthquake nearly 2 million people in Haiti were “food insecure,” according to the World Food Program.

I come from a country with an obesity epidemic but live in one plagued with either not enough food or a population too poor to feed itself.  This is a painful irony to swallow—quite literally.

So my question to readers really is: could or would dieting Americans find friends and family members willing to pledge a dollar, or five, or ten for every pound they lose—a diet for dollars of sorts? 

Would you sell a literal pound of flesh to feed the poor?  (Would my former colleagues from the English Department at the University of Kentucky read a diet blog that used Shakespeare’s images in such clichéd ways?) 

Would over-weight folks from the US step up to (or away from) the plate on January 1st and reform their formerly failed New Year’s resolutions?   Would this motivate dieters?  Would they be more committed to this kind of effort?  Would America’s biggest losers get off their fat asses long enough to fill the plates of their mal-nourished neighbors here in Port-au-Prince?  Will morning in America mean breakfast for Haiti?

I’d love your feedback.