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Where There Is No Water and Nothing Grows

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If the reason Haiti suffers is just bad luck, some voodoo curse, then maybe we bear no responsibility, maybe we can confine it to some distant dimension.

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Illustration by Erin Perfect.

Two nights before we left for Haiti I went to Walmart and bought sixteen items for $129.11. Socks, boxer shorts, two t-shirts, two pairs of men’s cargo shorts, After Bite, Advil, antidiarrheal medication, travel soap, travel shampoo, ear plugs. Two collared polo shirts. This was, I think, my very weird way of dealing with anxiety. I didn’t let myself consider the irony of buying sweatshop clothes to relieve my fear of going to an island where the main economic strategy is sweatshops that pay garment workers just over five dollars per day. Honestly, I was scared.

In the days and months leading up to my trip, it seemed like everyone I talked to was scared of Haiti. Scared of poverty and voodoo. Scared of the curse of those smashed black bodies, buried beneath the rubble. Scared of the descendants of the slaves who had dared to slit the stomachs of their French masters, and in so doing freed their nation.

I sorted through my Walmart loot, removing stickers, cutting tags, in my father’s kitchen in the small farmhouse in central Pennsylvania where he lives alone. He was cooking. Broccoli and shrimp bubbled in red sauce. Spaghetti boiled. The smell of garlic was strong. The TV was on, as it usually is, tuned loudly to a gruesome true crime show. I muted the sound as my dad told me, “Kidnapping in Haiti is becoming epidemic.” A girl, he said, was kidnapped for a $1000 ransom. They took her to Cité Soleil, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Western hemisphere, according to Wikipedia. Her family had to borrow money from neighbors, sell everything, sacrifice everything, just to get her back. My dad seemed worried. I was about to tell him he watches too much TV when my phone chimed. Héctor had sent a text: Are you taking a money belt? I think I’m taking a money belt.

*                      *                     *

And then, as if we have blinked and the curse has come rushing upon us like a flood, we are standing in the middle of Cité Soleil.

I am not afraid.

Around me are raised beds of spinach and kale bordered neatly with railroad ties. Nearby, tomatoes grow fat in the sun. Madhu, my father’s friend, a professor of philosophy and education, is blissfully sitting beneath a neem tree. Héctor, my former professor of sustainable agriculture and environmental economics, is kicking the edge of a planter made from a repurposed car tire painted white. Somewhere in the distance I hear my father talking animatedly with Daniel Tillias, the co-founder of SAKALA, the organization that runs this garden. They are talking about the political power of compost and its revolutionary possibilities.

I’m talking worms. Salouk and Injaca and Andrew, three of the young guys of SAKALA who live in Cité Soleil, seventeen or eighteen years old, are telling me how good worms are at eating compost and turning it to soil. Injaca scoops a handful of the chunky black compost and offers it to me. Little red worms like licorice whip lace dangle from the sides. The soil is surprisingly warm in my hand. In the corner of the garden, on the other side of a wall, there is a composting toilet. Injaca explains to me that the soil here is a mixture of the poop from the composting toilet, dry leaves, and sugar cane scrap waste from rum production. I gently put the worm and compost back into the pile.

*                      *                     *

In June 2015 my father and I went to Haiti for ten days. Perhaps you understand this about fathers and sons: traveling with my father is one of the most frustrating, disempowering, irritating experiences of my life. He allows me to make no decisions. He hurries me at every stop. I have lived and traveled in more than forty countries for the better part of twenty years, but somehow in my dad’s mind I am frozen at sixteen years old, or six.

I booked our trip through Global Exchange, a human rights organization based in San Francisco that offers (unfortunately named) “Reality Tours.”

But he had just retired from four decades of teaching university students about poverty and development in the Third World. I had just sold my first book. I wanted to give him a retirement gift. After the trip to Sri Lanka when he locked me in the house while I was sleeping (and chained and padlocked the outside gate) because he was worried I would “wander away and be attacked by thugs,” I had promised myself I would never travel with him again. But I really didn’t want to go Haiti without him. I wanted to know why Haiti was so poor. I wanted to know if it was even true that Haiti was “so poor.” I wanted to know if Haiti was hopeless. And I hoped my father could help show me.

“Instead of asking why people don’t make enough money,” my father says, “we should be asking: Why don’t poor households have access to healthy food, to good housing, to clean sanitation? How can we provide those things without asking for more jobs?”

He’s excited by Cité Soleil. By this garden. By the vermiculite compost.

Stroking his coffee-grounds beard and gesturing, my dad looks like a Caribbean revolutionary, albeit dressed undercover as a German tourist. He wears long socks, sneakers, khaki shorts, and a floppy hat for the sun. A sleeveless tee shows off his brown biceps. “The answers are totally different!” he says. “We don’t have to call Bill Clinton. The answers are right here!”

*                      *                     *

I booked our trip through Global Exchange, a human rights organization based in San Francisco that offers (unfortunately named) “Reality Tours” to connect tourists to activists and local residents all over the world. I was drawn to the mission behind the tours, which, as they’re described, “are not designed to provide immediate solutions or remedies to the world’s most intractable problems, nor are [they] simply a kind of voyeurism…rather they are meant to educate people about how we, individually and collectively, contribute to global problems.”

Rea Dol, the Haitian activist and organizer assigned to our trip, meets us at the airport. I’m immediately struck by her smile. It’s real. She is dressed smartly, in a bright skirt and a white lace top. Her hair is braided and held back with a bobby pin. She is somewhere between forty-five and fifty years old. Within minutes we are laughing. I discover quickly that Rea knows everybody. She counts former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide among her close friends. He lives down the street from her, she says, but doesn’t take many visitors these days.

“Who is the president now?”

“The president today is a singer.”

“A singer…?”

“Yes. All his songs were about women.” Rea laughs.

“Do you take the politics seriously?” I ask.

“For me,” she says, “the politics are a mess. Politics is no reality.”

“We’re on a ‘reality tour’ to learn about ‘no reality’?”

“Yes.”

Everybody we meet loves Rea. She has the patience of a saint and the organizational ability of an air traffic controller. In the midst of directing the driver of our Toyota 4Runner through traffic and fielding our questions, she picks up her constantly ringing phone to solve whatever problem is at hand. Finding clothes for a student. Fixing a neighbor’s power outage. Getting medicine for a weak-stomached tourist (me). Rea is quick to laugh and joke, but I sometimes sense a weariness behind it all. A weariness bordering on impossible exhaustion. She doesn’t have time to be tired.

Dinner the first night is red beans and rice, barbequed chicken, vegetables fried in a heavy oil. We talk about Rea’s school. Every day she cooks 200 pounds of rice. Every day she feeds 837 children plus staff.

“What will happen now that school is out for the summer? What will they eat for breakfast?”

“They probably won’t,” Rea says.

The power goes out during dinner. It stays out all night and through the morning. A sort of anxiety begins to build. When will the power come back on? When will the fans work? I discover this is common in Rea’s house. In Haiti. The power comes and goes. I give up on email. On charging my phone. But I worry: Can I sleep in 90-degree temperatures without a fan to stir the air? For two nights? Three nights? Ten?

The next day while driving to Canann, a settlement where survivors were relocated after the earthquake, Rea says to me, “There are some things here that are a historical trauma.”

“Like what?”

“Like always serving tea on a saucer.”

“How is tea a historical trauma?”

“A slave is not allowed to touch his master’s cup.”

I think about this. Haiti was of course the first free black nation to throw off slavery, winning independence from the French in 1804.

“What else?”

“Haitians hate dogs.”

“Yes!” the driver interjects. “We hate dogs!”

Stupidly laughing, I ask, “Why do you hate dogs?”

“A runaway slave is chased down by his master’s dogs,” Rea replies. “And they bite you. They bite the slave. They chew him.” Rea mimes biting her own arm and shakes to show me how the dogs would bite a runaway slave. She looks to see if I have gotten the point. But then her phone rings and she is back on the line, solving somebody’s problem, and I don’t have a chance to answer.

*                      *                     *

A one-hour, barely-fifteen-kilometer drive from Port-au-Prince, up stony broken roads into the arid hillsides, Canaan seems a strange place to relocate people from the capital. On the long drive one of our group asks about the paramilitary under twentieth-century Haitian dictators Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

“Tell us about the death squads.”

“You mean the Tonton Macoutes.”

“Tell us about the death squads. About the Tonton Macoutes.”

No answer and then Rea tells us a story about the Tonton Macoutes. She tells us of the men who “forced a son to make sex with his mother. But he said, ‘No! She is my mother.’ But when she saw that they would kill him, the mother’s good sense prevailed. Afterwards they put a gun to his head and killed him.”

No one says a word. “The most difficult part,” Rea continues, “is the mother can never explain to her new son who his father was, because that was her son, too.” Nobody asks again about the Ton Ton Macoute and I am glad.

Hundreds of thousands of people were moved to this dry dusty area, but there aren’t more than ten people around when we finally pull into a small dirt yard.

Outside, I see nothing but sand and rock. The desert mountainside is more reminiscent of Nevada than the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of people were moved to this dry dusty area, but there aren’t more than ten people around when we finally pull into a small dirt yard. The only sound is the wind running through rusty barbed-wire fences. There isn’t even a UN truck to clatter over the rocks that pass for a road; no rumble of a diesel generator; no murmurs of concern in an NGO meeting; no outraged Americans, except for me, of course, and my father and the two others on our tour.

Thick branches and rope hold together walls made from repurposed USAID tarps. The roof is tin. This is the school. We take our seats at five wooden benches polished to a shine. Three chickens peck in the dust at our feet. Because of the blue tarps for walls the light inside is the blue-green of an aquarium.

Around us, a concrete shop with no customers and nothing to sell. The mountainside of dust and white stone. An intermittent stream of children, arriving with buckets to gather water from a concrete cistern. The pride of the settlement, this concrete tank, cost $5,000—money Rea raised—and is the only source of water for miles.

Across the yard from the school is a concrete house painted a weathered salmon pink. On the stoop sits a young girl, maybe twelve, with an older man and two younger ones. Who are they exactly, I wonder, and what is the shape of their days, these men and their laughter beneath a sky so thin and blue?

Bored of the lecture in the five-bench school, I wander over. The older man gestures to the little girl and says, “She’s hungry.”

Before I can form a response, he gestures to his penis, and says again, “She’s hungry.”

I am in total shock. This is not what I expected.

The girl looks at me and the man laughs. How old is she? Eleven? Twelve?

I pretend to not understand. To cut through my thick-headedness, our lack of a common language, the man makes the motions of holding a giant penis, like gripping a small tree with two hands, and says, laughing, “She’s crying.”

He smiles and nods at the girl, offering her to me.

The other two men (are they boys, really?) laugh nervously. “She’s crying.” Now they are all laughing and repeating it. “She’s crying. She’s crying.” The girl doesn’t laugh. I look away. I don’t know what to think. So instead I look at the wind blowing dust, the empty hills of tan and brown, and try to imagine life on this desert mountainside and cannot. What are people even doing here?

I walk back into the blue-green light of the school. I sit on the polished wooden benches. I sit in the shade of the USAID tarps and discuss the Clinton Foundation as if that somehow matters. Madhu insists on leaving five coconuts we have in the truck for a small group of people sitting nearby. And then we get in the jeep and shut the doors tight against the dust and drive away.

Rea later tells me, and I later read, that people were resettled to Canaan because a South Korean company promised to build a garment factory. People were relocated to this wasteland because the company wanted a dependable supply of labor. Fuck, I think, is life really so cheap? Is this what we mean by “economic development”?

The whole thing, of course, depressed me terribly. Because what a failure of government, of NGOs, of good intentions and Red Cross donations and the whole fucked-up system. To resettle people, who lost their homes in the earthquake, up here where there is no water and nothing grows.

But does it really matter how I felt about what I imagine is that young girl’s life? Did it make me say anything? Did it make me do anything? No, I stood from the step and walked away feeling like a helpless humiliated tourist in a country I didn’t understand the first thing about.

*                      *                     *

Driving back home through the Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Madhu says, “There are beauty salons everywhere.” Hector responds, “There are walls everywhere. This is a city of walls.”

But Port-au-Prince is a city of rubble. It looks to me, five years later, as though the quake hit yesterday. Two hundred thousand dead. One and a half million left without homes. The quake destroyed the Port-au-Prince cathedral, turned the presidential palace into stony Swiss cheese. The national prison, parliament building, thousands of schools, hospitals, all leveled. It is still a city of ruins.

There is a curious silence. As though 10 million cubic meters of rubble makes a sound like falling snow, hushing voices, burying homes. The city seems haunted, quieted, by the absence of so many. I recognize that silence. It is a certain reluctance to speak because you know once you start you may never stop. It takes me days to remember where I heard that silence before. Then it comes to me. New Orleans, 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina, when you would sit in a bar and beneath the conversation was another conversation—one you didn’t have. Where were you? How many feet of water? Where did you go? Who did you lose? I could never decide—neither in Haiti, nor in New Orleans—if it was better to respect the dead by remaining silent. Or if it was better to ask, to respect the living and the miracle of their strength, their survival.

Rea tells us the story of where she was when the earthquake hit. I can’t follow the story. She was not at home, but was trying to get home? She went to her school? My father says later, embarrassed, that he was trying to understand, but he couldn’t follow what she was talking about at all. “Maybe it’s because I’m an academic,” he says sadly. But I know trauma narratives are often like this. They loop and circle. Dwell on seemingly insignificant details. They are incredibly vivid and yet shrouded in opacity. Unknowable for all their detail, which seems the loneliest aspect.

I spend the next morning staring blankly out through the barred open window, watching streams of people passing, climbing the dirt and pebble road that runs past the house and up the hill. Birds chatter noisily in the trees. People wear nice-looking clothes. A new jean skirt matched with a bright halter top. Khakis and a striped polo shirt the color of a candy cane. Nobody wears shorts even though it’s already 80 degrees. In a few hours it will be in the high 90s plus humidity. Many people wear sneakers, white Nikes covered in red mud. Below me, in the courtyard of Rea’s house, a man polishes his blue sneakers. I hear the flip-flop of a pair of sandals. I hear the people chatting in Creole as they make their way up and down. Everyone carries a yellow bucket. They are climbing the hill to the one source of water in the neighborhood, a concrete tank that collects water from a small stream.

A beautiful tiled bathroom. A white sink with silver faucets. But turn the tap and nothing happens.

Rea’s house doesn’t have a well, but it does have a tank of its own, which is filled once a week from a bowser truck. Even in a house as large and sprawling and modern as Rea’s (sixty people lived here after the earthquake, and some are still here) we flush our toilet by pouring a bucket of water into it. And this, in Haiti, is luxury. A clean porcelain toilet. A beautiful tiled bathroom. A white sink with silver faucets. But turn the tap and nothing happens. All the fixtures of a modern Western life are here, in the house, but outside there is none of the infrastructure to get clean water to these taps. So we bathe with buckets filled from the tank and hauled up two flights of stairs by the house servant, a man named Gima. We flush the toilet with buckets poured rapidly with a great swoosh into the bowl.

I am sick and using six or seven buckets a day. My father has become so embarrassed by the amount of buckets we use, he has replaced Gima and started filling and hauling the buckets himself. One day I go looking for the house tank and my father. I am thinking about telling him what happened on the hill, the little girl, and the men who offered the child to me like barbequed chicken, something to burn and eat. But when I find him he’s laughing. He says he likes the tank, likes turning the crank that lowers the bucket, the sound of the water splashing below, the effort required to raise it back to the surface. It reminds him of home, he says.

“Of when you were a kid in Sri Lanka?” I ask.

He looks at me oddly. “No, of back home in Pennsylvania. I haven’t been to the gym in days. I need the exercise.”

I laugh, grab a bucket, and follow him weakly up the stairs.

In my fever dream of Haiti I see mounds of broken concrete below a half-built school, thin rods of rust-colored steel rebar reaching for the sky like fingers.

*                      *                     *

Rea’s family friend, Paul, joins us for dinner that night. Paul is half-Haitian, with almond-colored skin and a bird’s nest of curly light brown hair. He wears a long mustache and a strange smile as if there’s an inside joke. He has a post high up in the department of water and sanitation for all of Haiti.

Paul tells us by candlelight that after the quake, two state-of-the-art sewage treatment facilities were built outside of Port-au-Prince using funds donated by the Spanish government. These were the first two sewage treatment plants in Haiti. His face moves in and out of pools of shadow, the orange light of the candle. He says there isn’t enough running water nor a network of sewage pipes to get the waste in Port-au-Prince to the treatment plants, so it is hauled out of canals by hand and shipped by truck to the plants. Paul tells us this story with a weird wry grin.

I like Paul. He seems to have a photographic memory. He has perfect recall of 1980s pop lyrics. Sting. Aha. At one point he tells me he speaks twenty-eight languages. My dad interrogates him. He asks what it would cost to build a sewage system.

Paul looks sadly at Dad. He says the UN estimates a new nationwide sanitation infrastructure for Haiti would cost $1.6 billion.

My dad says it’s quite clear that nobody—not the Haitian government, not an NGO, not a foreign aid organization, and certainly not the UN—is ever going to build what we in the US would consider an entire sewage infrastructure.

And he’s right. It is very clear in Haiti that poverty is not an economic problem because it has no economic solution. And given Haiti’s long history of dictatorship, corruption, occupation, and foreign intervention, is it even reasonable to expect the government to “fix Haiti”?

Paul shrugs and tells us another story. In November 2010, less than a year after the quake, Haiti exploded with one of the worst cholera epidemics in recent history. Cholera spreads through drinking water contaminated with fecal matter. The source of the epidemic was a base of UN peacekeepers, who accidentally, or improperly, dumped their waste into one of Haiti’s major rivers.

Paul tells us this story with his characteristic sad grin as if that pretty much sums up the story of Haiti. I’m beginning to despair. I want to leave. Being in Port-au-Prince feels like being in one huge open-air prison. Paul joins us for a ride to Rea’s school. We pass a sign advertising English lessons and I ask Paul if people want to learn English.

“Every. Single. Person,” he replies. He’s silent, and then later says, uncharacteristically morose, “The lack of opportunity. It’s soul-crushing.”

At Rea’s school my father is surrounded by children. They speak no English, he speaks no Creole, but it doesn’t seem to matter. They are all—my father included—over the moon as he invents some game or another. I wander the three small rooms of the school. The kids are in grades one through six. On the wall I see a chart, in French, naming the body parts. I see another one, also in French, teaching the children how to properly clean themselves. It was the French who declared in 1789 that every person has an equal and inalienable right to life. But I don’t see any of that on the walls of the school and I feel bitter and pissed off. Why teach Haitian kids in French? Has nothing changed in 200 years? I hear my dad laughing with the kids in the dusty courtyard.

Later, in a small office, Madhu asks the principal of the school, “What does your dream of a better Haiti look like?”

The principal tells us how she was cheated out of a political position, a seat on a local council. She says everything is crooked.

Madhu repeats her question.

The principal tries to answer. But soon she is crying and Rea crosses behind the desk to hold her. I see Rea wipe away tears of her own and I look away. There is a quote my dad often tells me, and I think about it now as the room fills with the sound of the principal crying, and the children outside, screaming with laughter. I cling to it. It is from the 2006 book A Postcapitalist Politics, written by two geographers, Kathy Gibson and the late Julie Graham. “What if we were to accept that the goal of thinking is not to extend knowledge by confirming what we already know, that the world is a place of domination and oppression? What if instead we thought about openings and strategic possibilities in the cracks?”

*                      *                     *

My pops is kind of in love with compost. He thinks composting toilets like the one we saw in Cité Soleil are exactly one of those possibilities in the cracks. A simple but brilliantly appropriate solution to the problem of shit—the kind of development he calls the Basic Needs Economy. A way out of the economic development trap. “The conventional approach defines poverty as an ‘economic’ problem,” he says. “Most economists think poverty can be corrected through more jobs and higher incomes; however, history shows that such ‘solutions’ have offered little help to the long-term resolution of the problem.”

Paul suggests to us that if there is one person in Haiti to talk compost and composting toilets with, it is Sasha Kramer, the director of SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), an NGO of American and Haitian workers. But Rea doesn’t want to take us to SOIL, and Sasha doesn’t seem particularly interested in meeting with us either. I can’t blame her. Sasha is a busy person, and we are four inquisitive tourists on a “reality tour.” We call and call but nobody returns our messages. Finally we drive down there and sort of bust our way in. No one in the SOIL offices seems to know what we want. And then Sasha sees Rea and her hazel eyes light as she tucks blond hair behind her ear. The two embrace. They chat. They hug again. Rea says, “This is my sister.”

SOIL is one of the largest waste treatment operations in all of Haiti. I find that surprising because composting toilets are the only way it collects waste. A young American woman named Laura gives us a tour and explains SOIL’s business model. For five dollars a month, SOIL members will come by once a week and collect waste from their customers, replace the collection unit, and replenish the dry flush materials—chips of sugar cane bagasse, a byproduct of local rum production. They then transport the collected waste to their composting facilities, where they continue to mix it with vegetable matter.

Through this process, Laura tells us, all cholera bacteria is dead within a week. Something to do with the high temperatures. Give them six months and they are producing actual soil which can be used to grow crops and is a safe, cheap substitute for expensive chemical fertilizers.

We are all blown away. In a country as widely deforested as Haiti, and suffering from so much hunger, fresh soil in which to grow crops is an incredibly valuable commodity. SOIL performs an act on par with turning lead into gold. It turns the human waste making hundreds of thousands of Haitians sick into something safe and valuable that contributes to the rebuilding of Haiti’s agriculture system.

We wander around SOIL’s large test gardens. We eat oranges sitting on a truck bed in the sunshine. It was in Cité Soleil, the most unlikely of places, looking at the compost pile, that I thought, years ago it now seems, Haiti is a hopeful place.

*                      *                     *

The next day we visit Papillon Industries, a jewelry-making facility founded by Christian missionaries that “provides hope for Haitians.” Local staff, small-scale, driven by good intentions, not a foreigner trying to make a profit. Or so we are told. It takes me about five minutes to be pissed off. We are shown, but not introduced to, dozens of Haitians making jewelry from recycled cereal boxes. The boxes are rolled tight, dipped in clay, fired, and then painted. The cereal box jewelry, which is marketed as belonging to the “unique arts and handicrafts that are part of the tradition of Haiti,” is sold online and all over the US. Christmastime is especially good, our missionary guide tells us. There is a room downstairs where the workers can leave their infants and small children when they work. It’s called the nursery and this is somehow the most depressing aspect of the whole patronizing, depressing place. On the way out I see purses and handbags lined against a wall.

“What’s that?” I ask. I’m told the workers must leave their purses and handbags at the door because, it is implied, they would otherwise be tempted to steal this clay jewelry. Bill Clinton visited here because the Clinton Foundation believes “everyone deserves a chance to succeed.” His picture is hanging on the wall. This is meant to be a place of hope, a celebrated project where we can imagine Haiti’s future, local artisans connected to the global marketplace.

I suppose the thinking is that any place that gives Haitians jobs is a good place. Any job is a good job. But I’m not so sure. Why is it every time someone imagines Haiti’s future, it is a future of wage labor standing in a line making cheap crap for Americans to buy? Why in this version of Haiti’s future are people assumed to be criminals, forced to leave their handbags at the door, just as they leave their children in the nursery?

Yes, Papillon Industry is creating jobs, but the finished product has nothing to do with the basic needs of the people working there. The workers get paid for their job and the owners make the lion’s share of the profit. The product itself contributes nothing to the well-being of Haiti. I leave simmering with cynicism. Inside my dad is filling bags with gifts, chatting with the woman at the register.

What they need, they tell us, is water, some funding to build a small reservoir tank to collect rainwater, and a way to preserve their vegetables after they are harvested.

We drive out of Port-au-Prince and into the mountains and the air is cool and fresh. Pine forests. We arrive at a farming cooperative. Héctor gets my attention and nods at some hoop houses, gardens protected by half-moons of metal and plastic. They look like covered wagons with the wheels sawn off. This is a USAID-funded project, and in addition to the expensive hoop houses we are treated to the most complex drip-irrigation system I have ever seen for growing corn.

“Why are you using hoop houses and drip irrigation?” we ask.

The group of farmers answer in fast Creole, women and men talking over each other.

“Is this what you need?”

On this they agree. “No.” What they need, they tell us, is water, some funding to build a small reservoir tank to collect rainwater, and a way to preserve their vegetables after they are harvested. One man takes the lead and admits bitterly that the hoop houses and fancy irrigation system are already falling apart because the USAID funding ended and who can afford to pay for this stuff?

“Do you grow food for yourselves or for the market?”

I miss the answer.

“But are there people here—farmers—who are hungry?”

Every hand goes up.

I’m wondering, as we sit on the steep hillside among flowers and long soft grass, why we are scared of this island, scared of this skin that radiates light. Do we want to believe the island is cursed? How much easier to believe that than to admit it is a country with a long history of intervention and corruption. If the reason Haiti suffers is just bad luck, some voodoo curse, then maybe we bear no responsibility, and better yet, maybe we can confine it to some distant dimension. It is not a blank place on the map. It is a black place. Perhaps that is the great fear. That you will never make it back. That it is unsavable by Western powers, by presidents and special envoys and famous actors. Beyond redemption. Or worse yet, the great fear of contamination. That you will bring the curse home.

*                      *                     *

Last day, evening. My father and I are on the barred window veranda. We are leaving tomorrow. We talk about Cité Soleil and SOIL and Papillon. My dad suddenly starts crying. “So many good people trying to help,” he says, “and they just make it worse.” In thirty-seven years it is the first time I’ve seen him cry like this. I am suddenly crying, too.

I don’t know what Haiti’s future will be, but I suspect that if it is hopeful, it will be because of places like SOIL and its fifty-dollar compositing toilet. It is not just that it is local, and dignified, staffed mostly by Haitians, but that its success hinges on inverting the “problem.” Shit is not a problem—it’s a resource. The people of Cité Soleil are not a problem—they are the agents of Haiti’s future.

But I don’t say any of that to my dad. Instead I put my hand on his shoulder and we sit silently as the veranda grows dark, voices in Creole below us as people climb the dirt road chatting, swinging buckets on their way to the hilltop tank.

G

Sunil Yapa’s debut novel Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist was named an Amazon Spotlight selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover selection, an Indies Next Pick, and was the launch title for Lee Boudreaux Books in January 2016. Yapa holds an MFA from Hunter College, where he was a Hertog Fellow, and a BA from Penn State, where he studied economic geography. He has lived around the world, including in Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, and India, as well as London, Montreal, and New York City.

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2 comments for Where There Is No Water and Nothing Grows

  1. Comment by Natif Natale on June 20, 2016 at 11:14 am

    The fact that you couldn’t be bothered to spell “Vodou” correctly showed me off the bat how little effort you made to truly understand. Intro is atrociously disrespectful. Check your narrative.

  2. Comment by Soo Ji Lee on July 28, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    This read more as cultural voyeurism and a father-son cosmopolitan travelogue–sprinkled with elementary facts of Haiti’s sociopolitical history–than as a rigorous, thorough feature on Haitian resilience.

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