Home News & Stories Eulogy For An Earthquake: Gran Boukan, Haiti & Development Aid

Eulogy For An Earthquake: Gran Boukan, Haiti & Development Aid

Re-posted with permission from TakeTwo Services

I’ve just returned from 10 days in Haiti and my head is a jumble of smatterings of Kreyol, broken French and unlearned English. Leaving JFK in a yellow taxi, I scanned the roads for anything that resembled the colors of TapTaps. I woke up this morning craving spaghetti and ketchup, a staple in the village of Gran Boukan, where I was for most of my time in Haiti. How can I possibly miss a place where I’ve spent such a short time?  It seems impossible and yet it is so. Just like many things in Gran Boukan and Croix de Bouquets, the two places in Haiti where I spent any length of time.

Gran Boukan is a village about 90 minutes (by TapTap) from Port au Prince.  {My friend Pedro Poblete corrects me on this. Grand Boukan is actually a “section” of the Mirebalais Arrondissement, subdivided in various “villages”: Bassin Thomas (where I spent the most time), Draman, Dipil, etc.} Croix de Bouquets is about eight miles away from the capital, Port au Prince and home to tens of thousands of people who became refugees in the 2010 earthquake. I spent about three or four days in total in different parts of Croix de Bouquets, where I saw empty mansions, guarded by tall iron gates and walls, side by side with shacks that barely had room for the families who lived in them. I didn’t venture in to Pétion-Ville, which was an epicenter of the 2010 earthquake and that I hear is a wealthy bubble maintained by barbed wire and I-NGO money.

I was in Gran Boukan documenting a project of the Melton Foundation, where several Melton Fellows did mini-workshops and trainings in motorcycle repair, education, community organizing, health and farming. My job was to document and to observe (yes, I do love my life.) And yet, I don’t know if I can say anything much about the country of Haiti, since I only experienced one tiny part for a very short time.

I can say this: my experience of Gran Boukan was unlike any other I’ve had. It was my first visit to Haiti, my first time living in a village, and my first time without electricity or running water in over 25 years. But life in Gran Boukan was the opposite of boring. Or quiet. Roosters, dogs, donkeys kept me – who sleeps through NYC’s car alarms, sirens and street parties – awake. But there was also luxury: I got to lie under the great Boukan tree, which is the main source of shade in the village, and read my book. I also discovered that even though for me, Gran Boukan was a completely new experience, I too, was new and strange for the residents there. For the first time in my life I was called “blan”, which may or may not derived from blanc, which means white in French, and in Haiti refers to any foreigner, regardless of skin color.

It will take me a long, long time to unravel all the layers of my time in Gran Boukan. But there’s one thing that stands out to me: the 2010 earthquake was a terrible, terrible disaster that destroyed lives and part of a nation. But I hardly heard people in Gran Boukan talk about it – not because they weren’t affected, but (I think) because it was one (awful and tragic) time in a much longer and ongoing story of this community. My work documenting a type of international development aid on a tiny, tiny scale made me realize how much I had been thinking about Haiti and its people in a “before and after the earthquake” framework – and what an injustice this is. Yes, I had read about Haiti’s history and yes, I intellectually knew that the problems that the earthquake laid bare arose from a much longer legacy of colonial rule, corruption, dictatorship and more. But what I had forgotten was this: just as I live my everyday life, where events like 9-11, or the partition of India are markers, but which mean different things on different days to me, so  too, life for the people in Gran Boukan is like life anywhere – chaotic, interrupted, joyous, silly, unexpected. And for those of us attempting to do any kind of international development work in Haiti (or elsewhere), it’s worth it to keep this in mind or to risk being patrons of constant victimhood.

As I took my last TapTap ride to the airport, my translator and now friend, Dadi, asked me what I thought was the most pressing problem in Gran Boukan. Water sanitation was my reply. What did he think? “Education,” said Dadi, “it’s the basis for the future, for change.” Dadi, an engineer, I realized, wasn’t thinking in terms of re-building, but in advancing opportunities for the residents of Gran Boukan. And this is why the 2010 earthquake must be laid to rest as the defining portrait of Haiti today. Because to focus on it exclusively is to forget that economic development is a long, long, long journey – whether by TapTap or by jet.