As an American who’s been to Haiti a handful of times, I’ve often been asked by those who haven’t been there some variation of the question: “why is Haiti so poor?” But from Americans who have traveled there, I’ve often been on the receiving end of a comment: Haiti is a land of contrasts.
Slavery and freedom. Very rich and very poor. Very light- or very dark-skinned. French; African. So close to the U.S., but so very different. So much despair, but so much pride. Squalor, beauty. Corruption; hope. Disaster; resiliency. History; promise.
I recently took my fifth trip to Haiti since I first travelled there in May of 2009 to meet the infant who, through adoption, became my son. On this trip, thanks to Jamie, HFF staff, and the many families that welcomed me into their homes, I had the opportunity to see more of the contrasts embedded in Haitian life–and to see something beyond them.
Take, for example, the two kinds of homes in which most of HFF’s families live. Many families reside in the kind of huts that have dotted Haiti’s landscape since before earthquake. Made of cinderblocks, usually with no electricity, no doors or windows, no bathroom, and no furniture except, perhaps, an old table and a cot or two, these small dwellings are often shared by many family members.
But we’ve heard so much more about tents since January 2010. I visited one HFF family that lives in a tent city and, oddly enough, though the walls were made of tarp rather than cinderblock, the tent was much hotter than the huts I visited. There were the same odds and ends lovingly cared for that I saw in many of the huts I had visited, and the same kind of old, wooden chair was brought out from its hiding place for me as a guest. The same graciousness and the same pride. But there wasn’t as much a sense that life went on outside that I saw in the huts. Tent cities are sprawling, crowded places where neighbors are friendly but tentative and families come and go. Huts are built in clusters that bring together a handful of families that are mutually dependent.
Thanks in part to HFF’s help, the family I visited in the tent will soon own the land on which their temporary home now stands, and they’ll be able to work toward building a more permanent structure, which will probably be made of cinderblocks. Hopefully, some of their neighbors will be lucky enough to do the same. That visit reminded me how hard Haitians try to hold on to or rebuild their communities and families, and how important HFF’s work in helping them to do so is.
–Jean Griffith, Executive Director, Haitian Families First