On Community and Inequality in the Haitian Earthquake

[This is a guest post by Chelsey L. Kivland, and is part of our series Reflections on Haiti. Chelsey is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.]

January 12, 2010 was a beautiful day. It had been the fourth day in a series of such beautiful days, sunny but not too hot with a cool breeze that gained strength in the evenings, ensuring a set of restful nights. Early that morning, I left the house I shared with a friend and fellow anthropologist and a Haitian couple in the middle-class neighborhood of Lalue, and made my way to Bel Air, an impoverished neighborhood in the center of Port-au-Prince. I had been visiting Bel Air for some four years now to study why their concentration of Carnival performance associations, known as bann a pye (literally, “bands on foot”), had gotten so involved in community politics. Since 2004, they had been attempting to transform their associations into recognized civic organizations in order to stake claims on the multiple agencies that performance governance in Haiti, from governmental ministries to NGOs. They characterized their demands for funds for their performances and for the various social projects they executed in the community as a means of holding those who govern accountable to the standards of respect and equality they sought in and by democracy. That morning I was headed to Bel Air because a group of ti bann, “small bands,” was holding a meeting in order to strategize a plan to get the mayor’s office to recognize them as real bands. This was the first of two such meetings I had scheduled that day, and the only one I would finish.

I was awaiting the second one when, at 4:53 PM, the earth started to shake. I was in the best of possible places—in an open courtyard with only the bright sky and some clouds overhead. I was seated at a round table in the back of an old, wooden, French colonial house that had been converted into the mayor’s cultural offices and an outdoor restaurant and performance space that hosted weekend concerts. Claude, the representative of the Federation of Bann a Pye, and I were awaiting the start of a planning session of the Carnival Committee. Unlike other days, when the committee met around a wooden table inside the house, everyone gathered outside today. From the looks of it, people just wanted to take advantage of the soft sunlight with a cool beer at the bar. Agreeing, the committee chair soon told us that we’d just meet outside today. But we did not hurry to gather the tables together. Claude and I continued to debate about whether or not the mayor’s office would be able to verify that the bands had actually performed the past Sunday, their first scheduled performance of the year. He was telling me how the office hadn’t followed through on their plan to send scouts to check on the bands when a train, or so I had first thought, passed under my feet. Within seconds, I locked eyes with Claude. As the vibrations intensified, voices began to fill the air: “Tremblement de Terre,” Earthquake! Earthquake!

Within seconds of the first trembles, Claude corrected my instincts, honed by a Midwest childhood of tornado drills. He grabbed me from heading toward the patio—whose awning would soon collapse on a young man’s leg—and pulled me into the courtyard. The sharp waves of earth jerked me to the ground and my glasses from my head. I landed before a palm tree. For the next twenty seconds I tried, in terrified silence, to hold the ground with both hands and settle it as though it were a hysterical child. I don’t remember the moment the earth did settle. But I recall Claude telling me to get up. I found my glasses; and then the urgency overwhelmed me. The awning left the man with a shinbone popped through his skin. He had started to cry. His “Amwe,” Help! Help! meshed with those echoing in the street beyond the courtyard’s padlocked steel barricade. A suffocating smell of gas spread from the propane vendor next door. And there was no way to get out.

Two men picked up rocks from the stone floor of the courtyard and began to pound against the padlock that secured the door of the yard’s steel barricade. The man with the broken leg was now bleeding profusely. I ran up to him and told him that we’d find help once we got to the street. We all covered our mouths to ward off the smell of gas, and yelled to those in the street not to light up a cigarette. I believed at this point that it was only here where things shook, and that the barrier would open to reveal the street as it had always been. And I don’t think I was alone in this thought. Once the padlock broke open, the crowd of men pushed each other through the narrow entrance as though we were fleeing a fire. But the street brought no solace. It too was gone.

I remember the huddles of young women from a nearby professional school covered in dust and blood, and screaming about the others still inside the collapsed school building; and the woman who held a dead teenage girl whose head was smashed. There was also a woman with a sheet around her naked body, having fled from a shower. She exposed her nakedness to rip off a piece of the cloth so we could make a tourniquet for the man with the broken leg. We did, knowing he would lose this leg, and then sat next to him, listening to his cries. For each motorcycle that passed I asked the driver to take the bleeding man to the hospital. But their faces seemed to say that each was going to check on wives, kids, mothers, siblings, cousins, friends, houses, and so on. Then Félix, the mototaxi driver, who worked on the corner where I lived, rode by us. Each morning Félix and I exchanged the same banter; he asking me to take a ride and I retorting, “I don’t want to die today; maybe tomorrow, but today I got too much to do.” I thought of the oddness of this joke, as my desire to live now frightened me. Félix took the man on the back of his moto. I had no idea where he was heading. But with them out of sight, I began to head home, dragging my feet down this tiny side street filled with loss, terrified of what lay beyond.

When I reached Lalue, the first cross street and the road to my house, I stopped. It was then that I realized—with buildings tilted, cracked, and in piles of rubble; streams of people covered in soot running frantically; and a long line of stopped cars filled with panicked faces—the magnitude of what had happened. I started to run up the hill, falling once over a concrete block.

The first thing I saw as I rounded the corner to my house was the blood-filled shirt of the woman who lived above me. She was running toward me to tell me that my roommate was still under our collapsed house. After a half hour or so (an hour and a half after the quake), our neighbors managed to free her from the rubble of our house. They laid her on her back in the middle of the street in front of the second floor of our house, which had fallen intact to the ground, sinking the first floor into the foundation like a jack in the box. We all spent that night staring into space, listening to the cries of a woman whose son was buried beneath the house across the street, and a man who had lost three of his brothers and two of his children in the house next to hers.

At this moment, I had no idea that Bel Air would see more damage than much of the city, or that fourteen of the people I had come to call friends were dead, including a man and his girlfriend who insisted on throwing me a going away party when I made a short trip to the States earlier that year. I had told him I’d be back in no time, but he claimed, like a good anthropologist, that you can’t leave without the proper ritual—a rooftop party with a bottle of rum, a cake, and a stereo hooked up to a live wire dangling overhead, blasting a steady stream of djazz and rap kreyòl that got me dancing and forty people amused. I had no idea that this rooftop had caved in that day, crushing him, his girlfriend, and members of their families as they watched, in a tiny room below, the loop of music videos that they had been watching that day, like all days.

But my ignorance was not for the reasons that kept my family and friends abroad from knowing that I was alive—the fall of all three cellular carriers’ signals. I did not need to call. I could walk there. But I was too scared to leave to check on them. Scared of stepping out alone; and scared of what I’d find. What I did know was that, if they had survived, they would not have access to the kinds of provisions that we would find where I lived, in this middle class area where people were always prepared to spend a few days inside—prepared, that is, for dezòd (meaning disorder but also, and above all, violence)—as they had done, in 2008, when food riots broke out, or before the quake, when students were protesting the shuttered medical school. These were the kinds of everyday inequalities that I had learned to navigate as a white, foreigner researcher and they now paralyzed me.

When I finally made it to the U.S. Embassy two days later, after my landlord had hunted down enough gas to get us there, such inequalities met me in sharp relief. With IDs buried beneath rubble, our white skin got us through the barricades that would keep so many Haitian Americans out. I was there because my roommate needed to see a doctor. We were to go back to the city. But by the time she was done, and told that despite her shockingly bruised body, she was not to be “medivaced,” our ride had already left. I believe this was my landlord’s way of telling us to go home, home to where home was. We took the advice and stayed. For two days I translated documents for Haitian parents or relatives who would be transporting children to their country of citizenship—the country where they, the parents or relatives of these children, could not stay. And then, a coastguard plane with these children, their escorts, and pregnant Haitian American women flew us to Santo Domingo, and a day later a Jet Blue flight, filled with tourists who, at their resorts in the Dominican Republic, did not feel but a tremble.

It was not until seven months later that I would visit Bel Air, and see that it was hit harder than I ever could have surmised from the reports, in the news or from friends, of its destruction. I was there to attend a meeting of the Federation of Bann a Pye, for they were planning a festival to commemorate the earthquake and to showcase the songs of Carnival 2010 that never saw the crowds. When I arrived with a cake and some rum, the director of the federation handed me two folders of photos and notes that they had collected for me when they heard my house had collapsed and had thought I had lost my notes. Enclosed were the photos I had given them as gifts and some they had taken; drawings of their bands’ flags; lists of band members; transcriptions of songs; and invitations to performances, press conferences, and protests. They said they had heard from my friend and research assistant that another friend had gone to my house and recovered most of my fieldnotes and my computer from my desk (which had miraculously sunk into the foundation with only minor scratches), but they wanted me to have these things anyway. One of the bandleaders took me aside after the meeting ended and told me that he has a lot of respect for me because he knows that I came here to do something, and that, as he said, “You will do what you have for you to do” (w ap fè sa ou gen pou ou fè). A call for accountability and respect, meant to motivate the continuation of that which they do and that which I do, after all.