Touching down in Haiti
We arrived today in Port-au-Prince, the capital of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The airport is named after Toussaint L’Ouverture, an amazing first generation Haitian immigrant.
His parents hailed from Benin on Africa’s west coast, became enslaved, and were brought to Haiti by French slave-traders. It is perhaps history’s most amazing account of a rise to greatness (eclipsing even Obama’s Kenya-to-the-Whitehouse odyssey) that their son – young Toussaint – should rise from slavery to lead a successful rebellion of blacks and mixed-race “mullattos” together against the French rulers of the island, to banish slavery, and become the first ever black leader of a post-colonial nation.
This slave-free Caribbean island republic, however, was short-lived, and Haiti has since been made to pay for her non-compliance with two subsequent centuries of colonial oppression and exploitation by the political elites.
The arrivals hall is the archetypal third world chaos. But despite the oven-like surge of heat on alighting the plane, I was determined to remain cool, and not act like a panicky gringo when our bags did not emerge from the carousel for an hour. The wait was eased by music drifting from the welcome-band playing Haitian folk songs to frazzled travellers.
The band-members were all wearing matching yellow t-shirts sponsored by Western Union, and emblazoned with the name of Wyclef Jean (hip hop man and former Fugees member) who is probably – despots, voodoo high priests, and Toussaint aside – the world’s most famous Haitian.
After something of a hiatus in his music career, Wyclef’s fame picked up earlier this year when he organised the American music stars for Haiti charity song, which revisited the We Are The World scenario, replacing an Ethiopian famine with the Haitian earthquake with Wyclef as the American-Haitian Bob Geldof, if you like.
My grasp of Haiti’s history is pretty patchy I admit, but a quick google offers up a top three that includes: colonial brutality, crazed dictators and desperate charity songs, is not a good sign. I am looking forward to getting out of the airport and meeting real Haitians. But it already becomes apparent as soon as we leave the airport compound, that most of them have been routinely let down by the outside world.
Bill Clinton said recently that if we (the international community) put Haiti back to where it was before the earthquake, we will have failed Haitians. And this certainly wouldn’t be the first time.