Ever since the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince (and surrounding areas) on Tuesday, a lot of attention has been directed to what could broadly be called the 'situation' in Haiti. People all over the world are turning their thoughts, prayers and donations towards Haiti, and wanting to know all about what is going on. But Haiti is a country that seldom escapes media attention unscathed, despite being undeserving of the coverage (and 'conventional wisdom' / stereotypes) it receives. With that in mind, here are a few things to keep in mind about Haiti right now.
1) You always hear that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and on par with the Congo or Somalia. In the (capitalist) US, this has the subliminal effect of suggesting that Haiti is lazy, unsafe, to be pitied, etc. It is true that Haiti lacks a solid economy and employment (with the obvious resulting problems of malnourishment and underdevelopment), but Haiti has a wealth that we can hardly even imagine -- a spiritual wealth within the people. If you want to know about humanity, compassion, humor, happiness -- go spend some time in Haiti! You may not be pampered with material comforts, but you would have a better time eating sugarcane on the sidewalk in Port-de-Paix than high tea at Buckingham Palace.
Also, the poverty in Haiti has specific roots -- it is far from accidental or simply a series of misfortunes. When the Haitian slaves finally beat Napoleon, he levied against them a 150 million gold franc fine -- and they had to pay or else no other nation (most neighboring nations still having slaves and not wanting them to know about the successful revolt in Haiti) would trade with them. So they started in debt. And the story continues... but I'll leave that to you to read about.
2) You can't talk about Haiti for too long without its much maligned religion coming up, so I will say this about Vodou: you would never know it existed if you hadn't been told about it. Why? Religion is a private matter in Haiti, so these things aren't in your face like 'righteousness' is here. Also, the vast majority of Vodou ceremony is directed at healing, not turning people into a newt -- so it's not like you need to be afraid of it. See (1) above -- Haitians are not a malicious people.
3) How to help? Unless you get a phone call, you aren't going to Port-au-Prince anytime soon, so here are a few ways you can help from far away.
First is to donate money. I like Partners in Health. They've been on the ground all over Haiti for 20+ years, proven again and again that they are effective and efficient (and not embezzling), and their staff is almost 100% Haitian. In fact, you don't need an earthquake to donate to them, they are an incredible organization always in need of help.
Second, thoughts / prayers / meditation. Open your heart and send love. Fast for a couple of days. Haiti is a spiritual place -- it will respond to this. It will help.
Third, education. There will be (and has been) no shortage of bullshit flying around-- read some books, learn the history of Haiti. This will help you separate out the BS in the newscasts as well as put everything into context. Plus, the history is really interesting as well as inspiring. I recommend The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer (for history); Mama Lola by Karen McCarthy Brown (Vodou and culture) and Haiti: The Black Republic by Selden Rodman (general overview).
4) This quake has caused an unbelievable humanitarian crisis -- people are sleeping in the streets alongside dead bodies, people are hearing the cries of people trapped under rubble and there is no food or water to go around. In a city of 2 million people. (And let's not forget Jacmel and other cities that were hit). But before this quake unimaginable suffering has been the norm throughout the entire country -- malnutrition (hunger), sickness (which comes from malnourishment), poverty and so forth. Port-au-Prince needs help, Haiti needs help! (I remain hopeful that PaP will be rebuilt as the modern city it should be, yet remain in the hands of Haitians, and that this will pave the way for the rest of the country to rise economically) Haitians are some tough people -- they'll survive this one way or the other. You and I can't imagine how, but you and I can't imagine making it through a day in the life there anyway.
5) When someone is starving or dying of thirst and they steal food or water, it isn't "looting." It's "surviving". This is especially true after a devastating natural disaster. (And more so when your country is about 100 degrees year round.)
6) To that end, Haiti is not a country of criminals. Ask a Haitian what happens when you're caught (or even suspected of) stealing. So when you hear about gangs of bandits terrorizing people and whatnot, keep in mind that 6 or 7 people out of however many that survived isn't that much, and you'd be out of your mind too if you had survived what they did. Also, the lessons of Katrina are not lost on the Haitians -- if you remember stories of Blackwater guards preventing people in New Orleans from getting supplies ("surviving"), shooting people who tried to escape certain areas and so forth -- well, the people in Port-au-Prince know this too, and anyone older than 5 has experienced a military occupation of their country. So when they see UN and US military personnel with guns walking around, they don't automatically think "Oh hey, help has arrived!" And check out Toussaint and Dessalines -- Haitians aren't about to surrender their country to anyone.
7) Please also keep in mind what has happened to other countries around the world when a tremendous natural disaster has struck: somehow or another, large amounts of land get bought up by foreign companies and the locals wind up getting displaced. Haiti is unfortunately ripe for this right now -- so please keep your own attention on this and help the Haitians resist such a takeover if it starts happening. (The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is a great documentation of this happening all over the world)
8) To end on a positive note, as my good friend Marie Alice Theard likes to say: "Haiti is a country of miracles." If you've ever been, you know how true this is. Keep your eyes and ears towards Haiti -- there are going to be some astounding and unreal stories coming out -- survivors, rescue efforts, you name it.
Peace to all my Haitian friends. Se temps po nou monte!