Where Urban Legends Come to Life

Images, flashbacks, nightmares materialize behind our eyelids; we can’t escape our own eyes:

The armored car lifts four feet off the ground, then comes down hard blowing all four tires with a huge sound.

A corpse hangs suspended on a mattress of concrete jutting out from between the slabs of a collapsed building.

Screams and people running… silence and people covered in white dust slowly walking with their belongings balanced on their heads.

A year ago, right now, time stops.

In a beautiful house on a hill top a bishop has come to sing a mass in memory of the young women who sleeps under the slabs of concrete.  Someone who was under the rubble with her, heard her voice screaming in the darkness. She is now here to mourn her friend.  You can’t tell where sound is coming from when you are buried alive.  This one was rescued, the other not. Above the enchanting view, her friends sing for her and play on their guitar.  Her body has not been found. The casket is empty.  Her friends all raise their hands toward her photo and bless her.

On Sunday morning a young woman comes to our door.  She is a manicurist from the beauty shop in Petion-Ville.  Her house is split.  She’s sleeping in the street. She wants to do our nails. We sit on the balcony while she gives us a manicure and a pedicure.  She says her neighborhood is broken. Those of the young men who can read and write have gone looking for a place where they can report their case. No one knows where to go.  The mayor’s office gives them water.

Some workers from the mayor’s office wear t-shirts that read: “Bureau of Coordination of Earthquake Relief Efforts”. No one knows where this bureau is and the t-shirts do not include a phone number.

B.J. the cook goes to her family place in the countryside every year; the place she calls her country. She brings back presents for us: plantains, sweet potatoes, beans called Congo, also corn and peanuts that she will grill together on a skillet with salt. She is now cleaning some enormous yams at the kitchen sink. She cuts them and puts some aside for the neighbors. They are huge convoluted sculptures that can make your skin itch if you rub against them; but after they are peeled and cooked, they are white, smooth textured and taste like the smell of water on a breeze.

Urban legends also are flying on the breeze. From mouth to mouth:

The US soldiers sent en masse right after the quake went into the rubble only twice to remove safes at Citibank and Caribbean Market. (This must come from the memory of the American occupation which started in 1916 and ended in 1935 with marines withdrawing the safes containing the nation’s entire gold reserve.  It now sleeps in vaults in New York or D.C.)

The U.S. soldiers were not sent here to extract anybody from the rubble.  We don’t really know why they were sent and why they drive tanks instead of fire trucks.

The Israeli’s trained dogs sniffing in the ruins of the big hotel indicated that no one was alive under there. But a son insisted they continue to search and his mother was freed twelve days later, her legs beginning to rot, but alive.

Once more the bishop comes. It’s a place called the park of memories.  The casket is not empty this time, but it is a very small white casket. People are sobbing. We pray for all the kids who didn’t make it and give thanks for the ones that did.

The hillside on the Kenscoff road shows a deep gash where it was fissured. Still the trucks come before daylight and continue to dig the sand out of the mountains undermining it, even though this has been outlawed for years.

In the absence of building codes and supervision they continue to build helter skelter.  Now the quaked-out poor, silently, with their possessions balanced on their heads are setting up camps in all the town squares. Silently, humbly they keep coming filling all available places. They come for the water, foods and meds dispensed there.

Port-a-potties are full. In Petionville one of them across from the mayor’s office and police station sports a printed cardboard sign: DO NOT SHIT HERE GO SHIT IN THE RAVINE BEHIND THE CHURCH.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans”

Today U.N. soldiers have been photographed emptying their slop trucks into our rivers instead of digging latrines. This is the origin of the Cholera outbreak of the last four months.  A French scientist identified the strain as an Asian one found during an epidemic in Katmandu a few years back. Neither the French nor the Haitian authorities want to point their fingers at the U.N. who refused to acknowledge responsibility for the Nepalese soldiers’ human waste disposal.

In the refugee camps thieves still try to steal babies. In the refugee camps young girls still get raped. In the refugee camps gang bangers still operate.

On a busy sidewalk a man is peddling pills from a portable pharmacy strapped to his chest and back.  These are meds of every kind, many expired, many banned in the U.S. or elsewhere and dumped here among the still mostly illiterate population. (The U. S. Congress in the 80’s voted that they could be dumped).

We are afraid to fall asleep, afraid of the images crowding behind our closed eyes; the harvest of death.  We still hear and feel the rumbling, the zip, zip, zip sliding under the earth. The calendar and clock mean nothing. Time is racing with our heartbeats. Time has frozen and the entire year has taken place all in one moment.

A young man gives thanks for having been able to save his mother.  He expresses his gratitude by going about town everyday looking for whoever might need help.  He says: “I saw a woman beside the road whose leg looked like pants that had been unstitched. The bones were exposed from hip to ankle. I always keep this brown liquid disinfectant in my glove box.  I poured the entire contents of the bottle into her leg. Then I brought the two sides of the wound together and closed them with duct tape.  I was able to bring her to the general hospital and when I got there, I saw a guy I had gone to school with.  He was the doctor on duty. He called me a week later to tell me that he had saved the woman’s leg.”

The young man’s eyes filled with tears but he didn’t cry. He continued: “I opened my store and called in the four policemen left at the station next door.  We distributed everything, my entire stock to the neighborhood people. Then the cops told me that four people were still stuck under the building across the street. I didn’t know what to do and I told them so. People on the sidewalk had stopped and they were insisting that we do something about that. I didn’t know what to do. Just then, miraculously a fire truck appeared coming towards us. We formed a human rope across the street; me, the policemen and some passersby and we made the fire truck stop. The soldiers inside were Russian and nobody understood anybody. They kept miming and pointing that they were on their way elsewhere.” (to one of those four official sites, no doubt).  “So we answered by miming and signing that there were four people under this rubble and they had to help us get them out.”

He continued “The Russians gave up and got out of the truck. They started opening a bunch of drawers on the truck.  Out came a generator and cables.  They set them up. Out came the ‘jaws of life’ and also a hydraulic lift. It took them five hours to get four people out.  They were teenagers. Unbelievably they were fine even after being buried for eight days. I’m glad I saved some people.”

The local radio stations really took the place of the government during the first couple of weeks. They ensured communication between lost family members and friends. They ferreted out the authorities and arranged interviews.  They exposed the total incompetence and criminal neglect. At the same time they played some of the best music I had ever heard.

Now, the Afro-Haitian dancer who was a spokesperson for several neighborhoods has shifted the focus of her involvement back to culture, after some NGOs took over feeding and providing medical care.  She had completely burned herself out during the month of January trying to coordinate aid between her neighborhood representatives and those of the government. She had lost about 15 pounds that she could scarcely afford to lose. I urged her to “cool out” and take of herself. Luckily, she got into a program offered by the French Embassy that enabled her to spend three months in the south of France.  There she participated in cultural culinary exchange with a restaurant that is part of a protected historical site.

“Circus Without Borders” has sent clowns to some of the refugee camps. They teach and put on shows with the kids. Many Haitians are also doing theatre workshops and performances in the camps.

Why couldn’t these camps be in the countryside in a green environment? The Haitian state is the largest landowner in Haiti. Why are the displaced people living in town squares with un-emptied port-a-potties instead of a place where there could be latrines?  I know that in some places in Haiti, latrines are set up to provide natural gas that can then be use for other purposes…cooking, lighting, etc. These projects remain relegated to isolated parts of the country when they could really be of use now. Usually at this point in the conversation, most Haitians will shake their heads, shrug their shoulders and tell you to: “ well, me, I don’t occupy myself with politics.”

The hill above my friend M’s house fell down and all the people who lived there set up camp in his yard. Somehow he was able to contact some of the U.N. soldiers who came over and helped them. They dug latrines, sorted people into family groups, single males, single females and provided water, food and meds. That also happened in the church yard at two different places on the golf course camp where Sean Penn operates and also in Jacmel. Some camps are well organized, but not the one across from the police station in Petionville.

At the restaurant across from the police station and the refugee camp, on the terrace overlooking the pool, foreign correspondents sit with their video cams.  Two women are eating and talking at a table next to us. “Two women adopted a baby here in Haiti and took him back to New York.  There, in the middle of winter, they left him locked up in a car and he died of pneumonia. Afterwards they got the insurance money. They would have gotten away with it if they hadn’t come back some time later to adopt another baby and try the same thing. The second baby was strong and didn’t die. The insurance company got suspicious and investigated. They got arrested. Still it’s a big business in Haiti and in the world and lots of people are involved, even missionaries.”

My friend M is driving for UNICEF.  He’s had to step over many dead bodies in the places where they go. They are documenting all the locales where babies are being kept. (and there are many such places.) In a labyrinth of small streets off the Carrefour road, a densely populated place with lots of earth quake damage, a missionary appears in front of a house made of concrete blocks.  He is big and slimy looking wearing shorts and sandals and stands with a very nervous looking staff behind him.  He tries to throw the UNICEF representatives out until he finds out who they are. Then he agrees to fill out a questionnaire. There are eleven babies here. A couple of Argentinean men are waiting for the babies they previously adopted. What is this about?

More Urban legends: Are they selling children to medical facilities, for child labor, for sexual or domestic slavery?

Urban Legends can not always be verified, but they point to a people’s perception of the present:

A man who was once considered a savior—now perceived as participating in child sacrifice. Missionaries with the holy bible in hand—now perceived as vampires of our future. Soldiers supposedly sent to help us—now perceived as tomb robbers capitalizing on a crisis to accomplish some hidden agenda. The ex U.S. president who already admitted to burying Haiti’s rice economy—now perceived as having profited financially from it as well as a cell phone business. He is now in charge of the reconstruction….Is he really, buying land in Haiti and to what use?

This is the stuff of urban legends. They point to areas in further need of scrutiny. Who will use urban legends as a point of departure for investigation?

“Such times we are living in!” says the lady in the restaurant.  “I lost my brother and sister.  My son saved my life. He grabbed me and pulled me from the path of a falling armoire that would have crushed me.  Do you know he’s not really my son? He is the son of my third husband with a Dominican woman of ill-repute. You know the ones who come here as prostitutes to make their fortune in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I adopted the baby, raised him and loved him well. He saved my life.”

Sand trucks keep digging the hills above the road to Laboule.  A Haitian geologist, Daniel Mathurian, officially warned the government about the earthquake several years ago.  He warned about the danger of continuing to dig there, about the need to evacuate millions of people from the capital. He actually gave a press conference with two professors from Ivy league universities;  but no one listened to him.  Google it and see for yourself.

Meanwhile, millions are spent on farcical elections. Millions are spent on roads that only last two years. Millions are spent on troops and tanks deployed in places where there was no earthquake damage. No footage was shown of the U.N. soldiers looting the fractured stores of the hotel Montana and filling their jeeps with silk scarves and French perfumes. Someone I know witnessed this, but it was not shown on CNN.

“I had sex with him standing against a wall with one leg up,” says the pretty society woman; “The very next day he gave me as a present a Mercedes Benz.”  She was talking about a high official from the previous democratic regime; but it could have been anyone from the dictatorship.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said this of Haiti in 1943: “It is a country that possesses everything it is possible to possess both above ground and underground…”

I know environmental artists who have rehabilitated entire waterways.  I know builders of green villages using low tech means and who are willing to come to Haiti, work with local people to teach sustainability. Yet, when they try to come to Haiti, they are paralyzed by the quagmire of power. I personally know of two green builders that got agreement from the Haitian government to start a project for reconstruction. One of them brought in containers full of materials which upon arrival were promptly loaded on a boat and sold to a foreign country by the same officials who approved his project. They also offered to kill him, unless he dropped his inquiries.  He left; his work, undone. The second one was asked for $30,000. to file his request in the right places.

Here, in Haiti, urban legends come to life. The most heavily taxed peasant farmers in the western hemisphere are still here.  The heaviest brain hemorrhage in the Americas is still happening. The brilliant visionaries from both urban and rural backgrounds are also still here; still trying to deal with the quagmire of power. The millionaires that get along with every regime are still here. The lower middle class who rises to power, with only one goal…to become rich in the next five years, are still here aiming to make millions from our carefully maintained poverty.

BOADIBA is a poet, translator, and performance artist. She is the author of Under Burning White Sky (Ishmael Reed Publishing Co, 2005).

Note: some recommended reading material:

1. grassrootsonloine.org/Haiti

2. The Prophet and Power by Alex Dupuy

3. The Politics of Corruption by Pean (in French only)