Moving as Meditation (and Other Pre-Lenten Events)


As Sara and I prepare to move back to the US next week,  leaving behind in Haiti a year’s worth of work, challenge, periodic victory and sometimes defeat, it’s a time for me to reflect, reminisce, think about where I’ve been over the past year, in an effort to figure out where I am going in the one to come.

In the reflective spirit of Lent* (which begins tomorrow), I thought that over the next week I’d revisit some of my earliest posts to the blog, remembering the lessons learned, even the questions left unanswered.

So–since I’m busy packing up one life and moving into another, and since, at the blog’s beginning, most of you weren’t reading yet, I’ll resurrect the first post below and give you a glimpse of how it all got started 4 months ago:

So–the old blog is reincarnated here under a new name!  It is, indeed, the Vietnam version “reinvented” from yet another edgy location–this time Haiti, where a cholera epidemic has spread to Port-au-Prince–my home for the next couple of years.

But before I address the big issues faced here on the western half of Hispaniola, I should clarify why I’ve chosen this new title.  For my less geeky readers, an “event horizon” is the edge of a black hole, a boundary in the space/time continuum beyond which no light can escape—in many ways, a point of no return.  You’ve taken physics; you know this; you’ve just forgotten.

Bottom line–it seems to me, that the far-away places Sara and I have been over the last couple of years have formed a kind of “event horizon” in my mind–taking me to the outer limits of my own comfort zone, shaping new perspectives in me about both the world around me and about this time in my life–a bending of my personal space/time continuum, if you will—–mind-bending for me, at the very least.

However, Haiti itself offers a kind of event horizon–a comparison I first found when reading Paul Farmer’s book “The Uses of Haiti.”  Farmer begins his chapter of the same name with the following epigraph by T. D. Allman:

Haiti is not simply one more of those tropical dictatorships where to rule is to steal, and headless bodies are found by the road.  Haiti contorts time:  It convolutes reason if you are lucky–and obliterates it if you are not.  Haiti is to this hemisphere what black holes are to outer space.  Venture there and you cross an event horizon. (After Baby Doc, 1989)

Wrap you brain around that statement and you may begin to see why I’ve renamed the blog–because this place, this  location has forced me to rethink my beliefs, not only about myself, but also about big issues such as poverty and hunger–and disease, for god sake!  We’re in the midst of a cholera epidemic!  

But even without cholera sickening folks by the thousands, we had an earthquake here last January, a hurricane last week, and a million and a half people homeless in Port-au-Prince today. 

Was the earthquake an event horizon for Port-au-Prince?  Will cholera bend time and space so there’s no escaping the dis-ease that’s plagued this place for centuries? 

Is there light for Haiti?

Now, fast-forward 4 months. 

Do you think the blog is fulfilling its mission so far?

And, even more importantly, if you have one, what task does your blog accomplish?  What is its purpose?  Tell us about it in the comments and leave a link.  You might attract some new readers!

And don’t forget that tomorrow we’ll have our “Mid-Week Mindy,” tomorrow a reflection on Lent*.  Mindy will be covering for me, answering questions, responding to comments.

* On the Christian calendar, tomrrow, Ash Wednesday, begins the season of Lent, 40 days of reflecting and fasting, leading up to Easter Sunday.  For a beautiful mediation on the meaning  of Lent, check out this post by my friend Jane over at PlaneJaner’s Journey.

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.