Having participated in three medical relief trips to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake which devastated Port au Prince in January 2010, it was with great anticipation that I read Jonathan Katz's The Big Truck That Went By, and Amy Wilentz's Farewell, Fred Voodoo, both released this month in conjunction with the earthquake's third anniversary.
I found both books riveting, and felt that they complemented each other perfectly. Katz's book exuded the innocent outrage of an eyewitness to the monumental calamities, natural and man-made (such as the importation of cholera to the island by the very U.N. troops supposedly there to protect the population, which has killed more than 7,500 to date), of which the world seemed all too rapidly to tire. Katz's perspective on Haiti was colored by the three years spent there working for the Associated Press, waiting, in fact, on the day of the earthquake for the phone call informing him of his next assignment, which never came: indeed, he spent the next year in Haiti as well.
Wilentz's book is much different, in perspective and in tone. Having lived in Haiti intermittently for more than 25 years, during which time she has written extensively about its turbulent recent history, Farewell, Fred Voodoo is a much more personal (and critical) assessment of the forces and people who have shaped modern Haiti. Many of these have been foreigners who have come to Haiti for their own reasons, often at odds with the needs and interests of the Haitians people themselves. Having been connected with the country and its citizens for so long, and not willing to avert her gaze even when what she sees isn't pretty, her account is a much more cynical, doubting, and wistful one. Compared with Katz's book, which presents the events it details in black and white, Wilentz's is colored almost entirely in grey, which left me wondering if any of what I had seen and encountered while there, which had at the time seemed good and noble was, in fact that.
Describing many of the foreign do-gooders who descended on Haiti to pursue their own agendas, often without any attempt to coordinate these efforts with the Haitian government itself, Wilentz writes: "many outsiders in Haiti -- not all, of course -- want to feel for a moment like adventurers, explorers, heroes, saints, or mobile sovereigns, or at least to feel a little better about themselves. They want to experience the zest of committing altruism, thus the admiring comment about Sean Penn, pointing out that he's doing something in Haiti 'that he doesn't have to.'" Going further, she pointedly criticizes those who "appropriate the pain of others for [their] own personal gain, personal gain being not just money, but fame, self-glorification, moral standing."
Wilentz is unsparing in her praise of Dr. Megan Coffee, the infectious disease physician who came to Port au Prince a few weeks after the earthquake and has been there ever since, caring for patients with tuberculosis (and having met Dr. Coffee myself while there, I, too, was and remain immensely impressed by her selflessness and dedication). However, apart from Dr. Coffee, almost no one else escapes Wilentz's critical eye unscathed, herself included. "All the outsiders who come to Haiti and come again, and never absolutely leave, are expats of a kind. What is it they get out of Haiti? This is the mystery I was trying to solve after all. What do I get out of Haiti? What draws me back, looked at unromantically?" Reading this gave me pause, and I confess to still struggling with how to answer that question, even now that a few weeks have passed since first reading this passage.
And that, after all, is a measure of a book's strength: its ability to linger with the reader long after she or he is done reading it, and to provoke reflection and contemplation. Farewell, Fred Voodoo does exactly that, and anyone fortunate (and dedicated) enough to read both it and The Big Truck That Went By will come away with a greater understanding not only of just how catastrophic the earthquake was for a country already facing enormous challenges, but also of just how much harm well-intentioned yet poorly executed foreign aid can cause.
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