Haiti is not a catastrophe

Fabienne Josaphat is the author of “Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow,” a debut novel published in 2016. She recently made the Notable Essays mentions in Best American Essays 2016, and has published fiction and poetry in numerous journals. She lives in Miami. 

Fabienne JosephatI could feel the effects of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti before it even hit. Social media had warned me. The news announced a storm of “catastrophic” proportions. I braced myself. They’d spoken the word into existence, and before the hurricane hit I was already in “aid” mode. After all, catastrophe has always been Haiti’s middle name. So I waited for the noise to begin and thought to myself, “We will have to recover from this one way or another.” Haitians can take it. Haitians are resilient.

My father, who lives there, is resilient. In 2010, he survived the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, when  his Port-au-Prince office collapsed on him. This time all I could do was think about him, alone in his new house on the hilltop, exposed to Matthew’s wrath, unable to escape the storm because his body is now fighting Parkinson’s Disease. I felt horrible. I felt his loneliness across the oceans, and I wondered what that meant for everyone else living abroad with family in Haiti. I wondered about the devastation happening internally, inside of us parents and relatives, knowing our families were so vulnerable.

Then, after Matthew moved on, I saw images of Haiti unfold before my eyes. My country, barely sewn together after the 2010 earthquake tore it apart, looked obliterated. People were amassed on shore, washing their small children in basin outdoors, wandering the streets like zombies in need of salt. Did I still believe in resilience?

Haiti is in a constant state of vulnerability. We don’t even have an army to protect us in case of a military attack. We have poor infrastructure and a crippled economy. Since the earthquake, we worry about tsunamis, more earthquakes, and disease. We are a non-cauterized wound ripe for infection, at the mercy of winds. On top of the drowning, flooding and loss of homes, there is fear of cholera. What next?

Hurricane Matthew swept through Haiti seemingly on a mission to erase the vulnerable areas the earthquake did not destroy. The photographs rolling in from media, from Haitians on the field, from missionaries, are shocking. What is left after the storm is nothing: shacks are flattened, walls are all that remain where homes once stood. There are empty spaces where tents were once pitched. Even the mountains seem in shock.

Mothers line up in the morning, shoving against one another for food donations. Fathers cling to cliffs on shore, scanning the horizon for help. There are clothes hanging out to dry on lines between ruins, and there are people sleeping in those ruins.

Registering this level of devastation is emotionally draining. It’s inflicting a wound upon the self, and while my fingers are working to share information and seek organizations that are helping, I am increasingly aware of a terrifying thought: Things could get worse? What about the next storm? How much more can Haiti take?

This is how it feels to register Matthew, and its aftermath. It is a study in both horror and humility. Haiti is like a sacrificial offering, a nation waiting for the hand of death to reap more bodies. It is wondering whether we are meant to be, to exist at all.

But what we don’t see enough of, in this catastrophe story, is the magnitude of faith and hope. We are inundated with the photographs of survivors, waiting for ships and trucks to come in, and children bathing in filthy waters, and fathers wading through floods to get to the other side, but we fail to see the truth in these images: there is always hope for tomorrow. Without hope, these men and women would not cross these waters.

And hope is the kernel of survival we Haitians have been planting for centuries to feed our families. We need more hope. We need more images of survival, of men and women sitting on benches of roofless church, their hands reaching for God despite the threat of death.

We need a new story and it will not be one of catastrophe.

What Haiti needs is a new narrative, and it shall be called “endurance.” In it fathers will rise through rubble and swim through floods, mothers will get to the other side, and children will grow to see tomorrow. We know it is possible and feasible because we have survived the worst. And Haiti always survives.

Editor’s note: Photos in this piece were removed for accuracy reasons. 

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