Last Thursday, I stood atop The Citadel La Ferriere high in the jagged mountains that meet the northern coastal plains of Cap Haitian, Haiti. My friend Cenatus, a Haitian I met while studying in Dominican Republic, proudly explained to me that after the Haitian Independence, Henri Christophe, a military general, built the citadel to protect the nascent nation from the French who were eager to regain their prized Caribbean colony.
Together we explored this impressive feat of architecture that straddles the ridge-line of one of the prominent peaks of the area. Its strategically placed to prevent an invasion where the rugged geography of the area leaves an opening for would be invaders. It is large tool of war and contains 365 windows that allow for everything from small weapons to large artillery to be fired in any direction.
We wandered for a few hours exploring its various rooms and taking in its grand views. Despite its impressiveness, the site was almost empty except for a few tourist we saw on the path bellow. The citadel, like Haiti’s true history felt unknown and almost forgotten.
Preparing to come here, I was consistently asked the question from friends and family, “why Haiti?” which in its self says a lot more. Haiti in mosts’ minds is not just another destination, its soul stealing voodoo, dust and rubble from the 2010 earthquake, and poverty, which is lessened slightly by NGOs and missionary groups doing charity as they evangelize.
Its not to say that these things don’t exist. Various interventions, other structural issues, and exploitation certainly have created crushing poverty. In these desperate living conditions criminality can thrive, and as my friends here have told me, there are voodoo priests and priestesses who hope to do harm. In addition, unemployment is high and there are many issues around quality and access to education. But there is another Haiti.
In Jacmel, where I am currently living, life is not only normaI, but in fact, extraordinarily vibrant. I can walk down to the boardwalk, which is lined with colorful mosaics and is filled with crowds of students that gather to study and socialize. Often there are cultural events, theater, and music. The most well know is Carnaval. I also have my surfboard and in the past week I have surfed almost every day an empty wave in the emerald colored waters of a palm tree lined beach with a few friendly locals.
Here, I recognize I have considerable privilege, and despite my best attempts to immerse myself in daily life, the Haiti I see will be different from the one Haitians see. Yet I feel I can start by exploring the Haiti I glimpsed at the Citadel. A Haiti of immense dignity and power that as a once nation of slaves, through the creation the creole language, and voodoo, achieved its independence as the first free nation in the Americas.
Over the next several weeks I would like to show this spirit of the Haitian people, which I see in the determined eyes of students as they study at the library, in the resilience of people who deal with another blackout by passing the night talking in the street with neighbors, in the playfulness of friends playing dominos, and of course, when a drum beat rouses everybody from their seats into dance.
My intention is not to ignore Haiti’s poverty, rather it’s to look past simple economic and development indicators, which only show Haiti’s deficits and take a deeper at this complicated and beautiful place.