10 Nov 2010

The despair of Haiti, years on from Graham Greene

The fans wobble on their ceiling stalks. At night, the drawn sun blinds clatter in the draught. The electric lights are a deep underpowered yellow. The white paint on the warped woodwork on the veranda must be a centimetre deep.

Earnest young French doctors mingle with a shrinking number of desiccated old journalists. I hear one say he’s down to his last US dollar.

The Olaffsen Hotel’s connection with Graham Greene is unmarked, and by most who pass trough here probably largely unknown. But it’s here that he wrote The Comedians, here that he captured a Haiti that is with us to this day.

It’s so difficult to pinpoint the lure of this island country. In part of course, the agony of its existence; its dark, deep religious manias. Why, last night our young driver – a fully trained, unemployed lawyer – told us he was a Freemason. It’s not something people have announced to me in the past.

Visiting the Prime Minister of Haiti in his hilltop residence yesterday was the most security-free experience with any head of government I have ever had. We simply banged at the gate and drove in. Bullmastiffs bounded to our feet. His graceful older sister greeted us with coffee and we sat down and chatted amiably amongst the palm fonds.

Yet the cauldron of spirits, threats – real and imagined – swirl around you.

Port-au-Prince remains currently the filthiest city in the Western hemisphere. Trash simply piles up on the pavements to become entwined with earthquake remnants, then to be soaked and compressed into the roadway, to await the next random deposit of garbage.

Traffic is eternal, long wiggling queues winding their way up and down this hilly place. Yet whist I shamble about in tropical fatigues – the people here are turned out in immaculately laundered shirts and dresses. How do they do it?

I’m leaving on a jet plane – don’t know when I’ll be back again. If not Peter, Paul and Mary, someone says the Stones are on the way…they could very well be. It is that sort of place.

Then there is the love and hate of America – and another love of France. The vast diaspora in the US sustains this place; facilitates (however unwillingly) the money laundering, and the fleecing of the economy. The French merely pamper the elite with perfumery and wine and an education at the Sorbonne from which they rarely return.

And the poor – kept alive by Medecins du Monde, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and a cascade of obscure agencies – Homeopaths Without Borders, and more. Strange American Christians of every shape and size, cluster in the Plaza Hotel, apparently fearing to go out. The occasional single white woman passes through with a tiny Haitian child in tow, a neat Mickey Mouse nap-sack on his back. Child trafficking? Life saving?

Come back Mr Greene! Amid it’s new and most devastating agony – make sense again of this strange land of mass deprivation, spiritual strangeness, and future uncertainty!

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