Are you just skimming the surface or are you diving deep?
Haiti – this word will trigger a mental image in most of the people I know. And quite often, these images will be very similar, almost monochrome in nature. It is the picture that is painted in newspapers, TV reports and in the occasional in-depth documentary. It is the image I also started off with when I first applied for the Deep Dive.
Now, not even half a year later, that image has been turned on its head. For once, it is not a picture anymore. It has become three-dimensional, it has been enriched by sounds, tastes, smells, dialogues and feelings. Most importantly, it has become very personal and, only through that, very humane. When I think of Haiti now, people and names, situations and experiences, emotions and actions come to my mind. And to counter a very popular or even the all-dominant stereotype: none of those experiences had any direct relation to the devastating earthquake that struck the island of Hispaniola three years ago. Yes, I did see the destruction and the rubble, the broken homes and the campsites, the new settlements and the widespread infrastructure problems. But at the same time, I saw children going to school in their bright school uniforms, I heard music blasting from houses, courtyards, motos and tap-taps, I witnessed people working in construction, service and commerce and I experienced human strength that is greater than natural disasters. Tragically, this is something that is greatly overlooked and not reported to the rest of the world – to the detriment of so many Haitians who are fighting to rebuild their country. So after my return, when people asked me about my experience in Haiti, my initial reply would be: “It’s not like you might imagine it.”.
It was not how I imagined it either, despite me trying to get my head around the complex that is Haiti. I watched documentaries, participated in online prep talks, read books, searched the internet high and low in order to prepare my project and myself for my two weeks on the island. With a head full of images, quotes, data and pictures of the monochrome kind I went off onto a trip that seemed to be the farthest I had yet traveled – by means of pure travel time (34 hours, to be exact), but also emotionally. For me, even though I had all this knowledge, Haiti was in uncharted waters and I was going to dive in and find out more. Right from the moment I first set my feet on Haitian ground, I was constantly adding details, colors and sounds to my picture of Haiti. The first one? A loud band, playing Caribbean music as a welcome to all visitors – well before we passed through immigration. The second one? A little boy, who started playing with Mia while we were waiting at the airport for Lars. The third one? Riding a tap-tap, the ubiquitous way of transport in Haiti, to Croix-de-Bouquet, our safe haven for the first days of Deep Dive workshops. The list goes on and on. From day one, my image became more lively, more vibrant, more colorful. Clearly, poverty and destruction in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake are still present in my picture, but they now share the canvas with the faces of the teachers I was working with, with the villagers of Bassin Thomas Community, with the rainy tap-tap ride to Sodo, where Melton fellows and Haitian volunteers alike marveled at sheer natural beauty. They are complemented by the unforgettable taste of mangoes fresh from the tree, the smell of charcoal-fired stoves, beautiful artworks on street sides, the sudden refreshment of tropical rains and the nightly cacophony of donkey hee-haws and dog barking.
How can one possibly describe this intricate and complex image with just a few words, even just a few sentences? How can one possibly transport the depth of the experience – not just from the looks and sounds and tastes of it, but also with regards to feelings and emotions? My journey to Haiti not only allowed me to look beneath the superficial portrait of Haiti and discover the cultural depth behind a perceived monochrome world of poverty and destruction. Much more importantly, it challenged me in many ways: professionally, as I found myself teaching others topics that I am only partly proficient in. Emotionally, as I was frustrated, felt overburdened and had workshop participants whose motivation was drastically diverse. Culturally, as I learned that not only literal translation, but also cultural translation is essential for succeeding in such projects. Without a doubt, going to Haiti was a deep dive. When I reemerged in my so-called normal life, I noticed that I had a few things in tow: the feeling of having empowered others, a humane rope connecting me to a now-familiar place somewhere in rural Haiti, a deepened humbleness and best of all: a colorful mental canvas, unfurling a bit more each day and elaborate enough to rival even the most artistically outstanding tap-tap in Port-au-Prince.
So to the whole diving crew, I say: mèsi pou pran m ansanm ak enspire m!