Haiti: A Nation Reborn From The Ashes

At the first of the three waterfalls that tumble into the gorge here, local women sat washing clothes and conversing loudly in Creole, its French intonations sounding almost song-like. I tiptoed across stepping-stones and soon reached the second cascade, where a cerulean lake was churned by a metre-high tumble of water. By now I was fighting the urge to leap in – and I wouldn’t have to wait long. After another scramble down some rocks, the only way to reach the third drop was by swimming. I needed little persuasion, but yelped at the coolness as I plunged in up to my neck. However, if that took my breath away, it was as nothing compared to seeing the final cascade. The pool was edged by vertical cliffs and craggy boulders, and I watched as my guides climbed up the sides and backflipped flamboyantly, their splashes echoing off the gorge walls.

Refreshed, I arrived in town, where I was greeted by a woman who called herself Madame Jacmel. She was a stylish older lady; with her hair neatly scraped back, ringlets framing her face, earrings dangling and a pale-blue scarf tied to one side, she looked like she might break into a salsa at any minute. Her English was limited, so we tried to converse in broken French. She showed me some papier-mache heads from last year’s carnival – a Haitian take on Mardi Gras, with vodou influences – and faces painted on the shells of calabash fruits.

street-in-cap-haitien
“I tiptoed across the stepping-stones and soon we reached the second fall, where a cerulean lake was chruned by a tumble of metre-high water”

As I meandered around the streets, I found similarly brightly coloured items everywhere. Vendors arranged their wares on the pavement: flower-coated cockerels, lion faces, globes, models of tap taps (Haiti’s vibrant buses), all made from wood, metal and coconut husks. Near the promenade two teenage boys were busy adding layers of glue to their papier-mache structures. And across the road from the charming Hotel Florita, I found the donation-funded FOSAJ Gallery, which has an art school that teaches the next generation traditional Haitian styles – either full of colour, or a mix of dolls, bent cutlery and sequins, nodding to vodou motifs. In this town art is not just a job but a passion.

“Maybe it’s something in the water,” laughed Ronald Mevs when I asked what made Jacmel such a mecca for handicrafts. An artist with a studio just outside the town, Ronald thought for a moment before adding: “Perhaps because the environment is pleasant -there’s lots of green space and the light is good.” I looked at one of his paintings, a fusion of reds and blacks, with bird-like shapes emerging through the chaos as though a palimpsest. Downstairs his workshop looked like a salvage yard, filled with scrap wood, metal and plastic. One of his paintings had been created on what looked like an old sheet. “Sometimes I don’t have canvas,” he explained, “so I paint on whatever I can find.”

New hope – Back in Port-au-Prince, such creativity and resourcefulness were just as prevalent. I journeyed to the suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets in the north-west, near the fields of sugar cane that still supply the local Barbancourt Rhum distillery. The unmistakeable chink-chink of hammers hitting metal resonated as I began to explore the network of more than 20 workshops here. Sculptors use scrap steel drums to fashion elaborately intricate wall ornaments called fer decoupe. Using a chisel they cut out the shapes of vodou lwa, hearts, trees, birds and suns; one artist called Eugene Jaques, aka Mr Rasta, also sources old cooking utensils and bends wire rods to create large freestanding installations.

In downtown Port-au-Prince, amid the beeping horns of always gridlocked traffic, the theme continued. On the Grand Rue artists create sculptures using anything and everything they can find – from old TVs to car bumpers and broken keyboards. As I passed this thronging scene, women walked by selling peanut brittle, balancing huge and varied loads on their heads. I was driving through the capital to reach the eastern mountains in Kenscoff, where I was meeting environmentalist Jane Wynne at the Wynne Farm Ecological Reserve.

Thanks to USAID funding, the reserve has established programmes to try to encourage locals to employ more sustainable ways of farming. “My father established this in 1956,” Jane explained. “We just want to make people realise that they can work the land and still look after it.” As well as educating Haitians about working practises, she uses her land to grow trees and reintroduce native species of plants and flowers, some of which she pointed out as we strolled around.

flamboyant-tree
The uplifting tones of the flamboyant tree lights up the square in Jacmel and many a city hillside in Haiti.

“We try to get school groups in here to help the children reconnect with nature and learn about pollution and how important green space is to Haiti,” said Jane. From her house she sells handbags made of recycled plastic – the product of showing local youths how rubbish can be recycled or reused. “1 can’t change things overnight,” she admitted, “but 1 will keep trying all my life, and my daughter will after me too.” I left Jane to return to the clogged streets of Port-au-Prince. Looking out of the bus window I smiled when I noticed the occasional red flamboyant tree breaking through the stacks of concrete.

In the aftermath of such a catastrophic earthquake it would be all too easy (and understandable) to neglect environmental issues, but I spotted further signs of change. The capital’s Iron Market, with its stalls selling art, Cuban cigars, vodou paraphernalia and groceries, was rebuilt with the addition of solar panels. And at the Barbancourt distillery – one of the oldest companies in Haiti – leftover sugar cane is burned to produce electricity rather than just left to rot.

As Jean Bernard, a hotelier in Cap-Haitien, had said to me earlier: “Hollywood put their spin on vodou and now it’s time they put their spin on Haiti. After the earthquake has come new hope, and possibilities are only just beginning.” On my last night, 1 raised a glass of Barbancourt to that sentiment at the Hotel Oloffsson. RAM, the local vodou rock band, was beginning to play, and the drums were getting louder. This time 1 didn’t fight it; 1 let my feet move to the intoxicating beat.

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