I have been in Haiti for the past two weeks. Actually, mentally, I have been Haiti for the past three months, but this has been the first time that I was physically in the country. You see, I have been working with Ushahidi to map need in Haiti. We have been reading text messages sent to the number 4636 and manually locating them on the map (based on information inside the message.) I have looked at so many maps of Haiti, I could tell you the coordinates of the Caribbean Market in my sleep. I thought that meant I knew Haiti like back of my hand. However, this trip taught me that I knew the map of Haiti like the back of my hand – I can tell you that I did not know Haiti.
The first time I saw the Caribbean Market (in person), I lost my breath. The building was flattened, and I mean flattened. I had seen this from satellite imagery, but the power of seeing this huge piece of concrete reduced to rubble was awe-inspiring. Yes, I say awe-inspiring. The work of hundreds of humans can be reduced to nothing by the simple moving of the earth. In a purely poetic sense, the concept is mythical; however, the more I was driven around Port-au-Prince, the more I realized that breathing and comprehending were difficult tasks. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the rubble and the destruction that this earthquake caused. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the camps of people who are too afraid to return to their houses out of fear of being one of the ones trapped underneath the rubble. It’s so easy to think that nothing but destruction is everywhere.
However, as I am preparing to leave, I can tell you that a destroyed building is not the most powerful image in my mind.
One day, I was in the car being transported to yet another meeting about technology and mapping in Haiti. I was driving down a street in Babiole, I believe, and I kept seeing flattened house after flattened house and I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I just kept thinking – what in the world can I do? I am mapping need, but that doesn’t mean I am doing anything to alleviate need. I saw house after house and I was feeling so small and powerless.
We turned a street corner, and I was instantly transplanted to New Orleans. You see, a few years ago, I did a research project evaluating the social cost and benefit of redeveloping housing in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and as part of my research I traveled to the devastated city. I drove around N’Orleans, and when I got to the Lower Ninth, I saw nothing – literally. Houses had been cleared away, and only a few (barely stable) structures remained. When I turned down one street, I saw one standing ‘double shotgun’ house – the staple of building design in the city. This house still had the water lines on it, and it even had the search and rescue ‘X’ on it. However, the house itself was not what drew my attention. There was a woman, sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch. Her house was clearly empty, besides a few necessities, and it was obvious that soon it would be torn down with the rest of them. However, she was sitting in her rocking chair, drinking sweet tea, and just basking in the New Orleans sunshine. She didn’t seem to notice the destruction around her, and she had this look on her face that said, “This is my house, and it has always been my house. I will be here as long as it is.”
When I turned the street corner in Port-au-Prince, I saw a similar image. There was a man in a plastic chair sitting beside a pile of rubble. This pile of rubble had clearly been his house at one point in time, and instead of looking distraught, he simply sat there as if nothing had changed. It was clear that this was his afternoon activity, and rubble or not, he was going to sit in the shade of his house and enjoy the Haitian sunshine.
This is the image that I take with me as I prepare to leave Port-au-Prince: life goes on. Whether we like it not, we have to just understand that tomorrow will come and all we can do is continue to live regardless of rubble, floods, or strife. I amazed by the Haitian people and their ability to just continue. I can’t tell you how many times in my life that a simple failure has overwhelmed me and I have been afraid to continue because of the consequences. I have thought that life, in and of itself, was too much, and that it would be better just to give up than go on. However, my time in Haiti and New Orleans has truly taught me resilience. It has taught me that despite everything, you just have to continue.
So, as I am spending my last days still trying to understand the complex country I find around me, this is the big lesson that I take with me. Yes, I could talk about the camps, and the poverty, and the destruction. Instead, I prefer to remember the perseverance the strength. I hope I can continue to be like these people who I try to ‘help.’ They clearly understand more of life than I do, and I hope that I can just take a page out of their books – life goes on and the best thing we can do is just embrace that life and just continue.
Continue to what? I really don’t know – maybe the next disaster will teach me that, but in the meantime, I will just bask in the Haitian sunshine and strive to be like those around me.