27 May 2014

"Are We Still in Haiti?"

Tango dancers dancing to the orchestra music, led by Andres Tolcachir

On Friday evening I was invited to the Karibe Convention Center in Pétion-Ville for a gala event held by the Argentinian embassy in celebration of Fête des Mères Haïti (Haitian Mothers' Day). The event took the form of a concert featuring Haitian orchestra L'Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinité, founded in 1956, and Argentinian tango dancers Cynthia Vielzebergs and Facundo Barrionuevo. The orchestra was led in part by David Cesar, director and professor of the school, and Argentinian Andres Tolcachir, and the programme contained a great mix of both Haitian- and Argentian-composed pieces. It was a beautiful night filled with food, drink and great company deriving from Haiti, America and Europe, and I overheard variations of the phrase "I never knew about this side of Haiti before!" more than once.

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Observatoire, a mountaintop restaurant overlooking the island of Haiti. Again, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the view and confused as to why more places like the Observatoire in Haiti (despite its slightly "touristy" vibe") aren't acknowledged by more Westerners.

Being here has been an incredibly bittersweet experience, and I have come to learn so much about the country and people, past and present. I am now somewhat protective over the country of Haiti and get so frustrated when I hear comments about how helpless or scary the place is. Of course, a significant number of factors over the years (loss of revenue from sugar plantations, mass livestock slaughtering from 1978-1982, earthquake in 2010 and so on) have contributed to the socio-economic weakening of the country as a whole, but as is the case any country in the world there is wealth here just as much as there is poverty. Aid workers and missionaries undoubtably do a fantastic job of providing support to the areas of the country that need it the most, but what I find damaging is that in many instances these same aid workers and missionary groups make little effort to seek or appreciate the "other side" of Haiti: its beautiful climate and natural wonders, its wealth, its rising (although still minimal) middle class. As citizens of the West it is just as important to recognise and highlight Haiti's strengths as well as its weaknesses.

View of the Southern coast of Haiti

Original artwork sold by vendors outside the restaurant

A change in the perspective of Haiti by Westerners will help to reconstruct Haiti's tarnished image and could, in time, boost Haiti's tourism sector, providing more jobs for local workers and slowly rebuilding the country's economy in turn. I know that there are many more factors affecting the viability of these suggestions, but I strongly believe this would be the start Haiti needs. Just as there is poverty in certain parts of London, there is great wealth here in Haiti. And the gala on Friday was a perfect example of that.

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