A grain of dissimilarity
Dany was born in Saint Marc; a chaotic, legless town of shacks, north of Port-au-Prince. Along the main street, old wooden balconies are held up by their own shade. Riding through town on a scooter is like playing Space Invaders. No electricity, no traffic lights, no signs. Everyone has the right of way. Light passes through this place like an X-ray held up to the sun. Everything is bare and naked. The messy heart pushes blood through the veins that are clogged with rubbish and the skeleton is held together with sellotape.
Dany doesn't live here anymore; we met him a hundred miles away, over the border in the Dominican village of Duverge. You might think that a hundred miles is a short distance but you'd be wrong. Police check points, civil unrest, a long mountain chain and frequently impassable roads mean that he's as far from Saint Marc as a Londoner is from Mourmansk.
We had walked down from the mountains to the village square in Duverge and were happy drinking beer in the shade. It was a Sunday afternoon and hot. Dany approached us with a basin of pistachios. Nearby, a group of physically disabled villagers were sitting with friends and family in what looked like their regular spot. Crutches rested against the trunk of a tree. Some of them sat in wheelchairs behind small foldout tables selling fruit.
We bought tubes of pistachios from Dany and in the general banter we learned that he was from Saint Marc and he learned that we knew this town. He was excited by this. Most Dominicans know nothing about his country, although the border is just thirty miles from that village. He sat on the wall and we passed him the litro bottle of Presidente beer. He seemed relieved that we were not hostile towards him.
He told us that he left Saint Marc for the first time in 1996. That was the year that the military was disbanded (all except for the army band) and a fresh wave of violence washed over the country. The president of the time, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had called for Duvalier's old henchmen, the Tonton Macoute, to be disarmed and the bassoons and trombones of the army band were little use in the ensuing chaos. Thousands fled the country, Dany among them. Forty-seven people drowned trying to get to Florida. Elections were called for the end of the year, voter turnout was less than 25% and the home of the presidential candidate Leon Jeune was sprayed with bullets. Anarchy tends to lap against the island, waxing and waning with the various moons of parliament.
Dany walked over the mountains and down into the province of Independencia. Eventually he made his way to the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo where he stayed for nine years working on building sites, dodging immigration. Eventually he was caught and sent home. But as he said "you only have to walk over the hills to get back in." As soon as he had smuggled himself back into the Dominican Republic he settled in the towns around Lago Enriquillo, a large lake in the south west corner of the country that's home to around five hundred American crocodiles. He moved around the two dozen communities that circle the lake before he was rounded up again and deported for a second time. He waited in Saint Marc for a week before setting out for the mountains again.
Next he settled in the border town of Jimani. This time he stayed put and worked hard, saving up six thousand pesos which he had to keep with him because he couldn't open a bank account. Then one night he was cornered by three Haitians and two Dominicans. After a fight he lost part of his left ear, a front tooth and all his money. He fled town. The border teems with petty gangs that prey on hundreds of immigrants like Dany who travel around with all their savings in their pockets. With nothing left, he made his way to Duverge where he had to start all over again. He was afraid to go back to Jimani. He could be recognised by the gang that robbed him and they might tickle his ears again.
"In Duverge, they leave me alone," he said. It is a rural village and Haitians are needed to labour in the fields beneath the mountains. There is too much hard work to be done for the villagers to resent their presence and the police turn a blind eye. More virulent racism is reserved for the capital where manpower is not as essential as it is here.
Up in the mountains there are more Haitians again, either making their way down from the border passes or else living in and around the tiny settlements that are dotted about the forests. Settlements like Puerto Escondido.
A few days before we met Dany we travelled up there to have a look. Outside of Duverge we sat on a wall with a dozen high school students waiting for a truck. When it arrived we all piled into the back amid screams and shouts. It was Friday and everyone was in high spirits; they were going home. An old woman of about seventy made a place for herself in the corner, squatting on the wooden boards. She put a silver bowl over her head to keep away the glare of the sun. At the edge of the village, the truck stopped off at a store to let one of the girls buy a litro of beer which was quickly polished off by twelve thirsty mouths.
It was a painful ride up a dusty white road of rubble and winding switch backs. As the wheels dropped into potholes, the metal ribs of the truck slammed into us like punches. The old woman didn't say a word. The girls stood up, holding onto each other like a tug of war team, the one at the front anchored to the cab of the truck.
The track rose through yellow gullies, past hydroelectric pipes shunting water down steep slopes. Eventually we reached an upper valley. Rolling hills carpeted with green forests, stretched all the way to the spine of the mountains. By the time we reached Puerto Escondido, Duverge seemed like a far away city.
It was a tiny settlement of simple houses around a square of yellow dirt. Lost amid forests, peaks and fields - everything was wild and aimless. Although poor it had a simple peace that was directly proportional to its isolation. It was not a complicated place. They were lucky without knowing it - no gunshots, no gangs, no civil unrest. At midday it was hot and drowsy with the na´ve beauty of a clear blue sky.
The presence of a rough military base indicated that the border was not far away. A half dozen timber buildings painted green with creosote roofs lay behind wire fencing. Antennae rose into the air. A young soldier approached us asking where we were going. Disoriented and sore from the ECT of the truck ride, we replied "El Naranjo... Las Mercedes... Banano." We had no idea where we were going. We just wanted to walk into the mountains ahead.
He beckoned us into the shade and puzzled over our map for a while, holding it this way and that, scouring its contours and frowning. Slung over his shoulder, as simple as a stick, was a rifle, but it was clear that he meant us no harm. He was in fact eager to help. His brown skin was as smooth as a lake - he was very young. We couldn't exactly talk to one another, but after much arm waving, we concluded that there wasn't much hope of getting over the ridge, at least not this evening. And from the little we could understand, he didn't seem to be recommending the journey at all. But he said there was a camp just outside the village where we could stay. A young boy sitting on a rusty BMX was watching the three of us with curiosity. The soldier called him over and said that this joven would show us the way.
Along bramble tracks, under a canopy of pines and willows, the boy led us along the trail, peddling his bike slowly while we walked rapidly. On a bluff above the village we came to the spot - a cluster of wooden huts around a simple farmyard complete with refuge-style kitchen and outhouse with twisted metal drains. There was a dog, a cat and a tame crow on a galvanised roof. His claws made a metal clatter as he hopped about inspecting us.
At a long table under a bamboo awning sat an elderly couple. Their faces were as furrowed and brown as the fields we had passed along the way. The boy disappeared and the old man walked us to a patch reserved for tents. He told us it would be chilly at night and he went back to the clutch of buildings to get us some old camel hair rugs.
After dark, the young soldier arrived up from the village to check on us. Clearly off duty now, though still wearing his camouflage uniform, he sat with the old couple and introduced himself to us as Miguel Angel. Soft spoken and slow, hardly the stereotype of a soldier; he told us about his brother who was studying in California and explained how a former Peace Corps worker had cleared this site in the forest a few years ago. The old couple sat together like twins, smiling and gossiping. The woman was an unknowable age; small and swarthy, her hair had the texture of iron wool and was woven into a neat bun. The weight of an entire century had compressed her essence into an enduring ball of strength. The old man was much the same, though more given to twitters of laughter. Miguel Angel, bid farewell to the couple and shook our hands before returning to the base for the night.
A full moon rose over the pines and it was quiet in the forest. It might have been a refuge worthy of Basho until a sugary blast of bachata music struck up from the village below. Faint and distinct, it flowed into our ears like a mountain stream going backwards. Later, as we were falling asleep, a procession of figures filing along the moonlit lane startled us. They were Haitians going back into the forest after the days work in the fields below. Three years ago, Dany might have been among them.
The next morning at the edge of the village we saw the same men working in the corner of a field, turning up the brown earth. By the time we passed that way again, returning home at dusk, they had turned over the entire field and they could be seen as small dots, still hoeing, in the corner diagonally opposite from where they had started. Theirs was a ghostly presence. Around the settlement they mended lanes, fixed roofs, dug holes. They could be found wherever hard labour was needed. But it was as though they weren't there. Alien and illegal, their presence was like the flame of a candle at midday.
Late one evening, as Céline was walking out of the camp in the direction of the mountains, the old woman called her back.
"Malo," she warned. "Solo. Malo. Muy malo. Si dos, bueno. Pero solo - malo."
She went on to explain that the Haitians here in the village were good - good labourers, good people. But up there - she waved at the forest - they were bad. She might have been talking about spirits. So I went with her through the tangle of trees. It was dark in there despite the blue sky above the canopy. The trail was red and brown with leaf fall. Branches groaned in the breeze, lianas twisted around enormous trucks that were frozen in strange contortions. Like children in a Grimm fairytale, we felt a hundred eyes haunting us. The silence was quick and breathless and we hunted ourselves down to the edge of a swamp. Its surface was as thick as soup; swarms of mosquitoes filled the air. Some of the stumps of the trees were black from recent flames. It was here that they slept - those that worked in the village and others who were on their way down from the hills above.
Woods play an important part in Haitian history. During the first uprisings, the slaves used to gather in the forests above the plantations. There was an abundance of trees back then - thicker than the walls of any colonial fortress. But since independence they have been cleared to devastating effect. Today only 2% of the country lies under tree cover. When crossing over the island by air, the border appears as a stark line where the green Dominican forest ends and the brown Haitian soil begins. But the forests are still very much alive in the Haitian mind. One of the militias is called Dormir dans le Bois or Sleep in the Woods; though it would be difficult for them to find anywhere to hide in the handful of trees that are left.
On our way back to the camp, we came upon a group of labourers bathing in a mountain stream. Soap lathered in a pool and they soaked their tired and naked bodies in the freezing water. Their muscles were strong but their bodies were lithe and thin. A quick tremor rippled through the air. They saluted tersely. Here were the darker brothers, not even sent to the kitchen when company comes, but into the hills.
On the other side of the stream was a field that dipped down towards the settlement below. A slope of blue sky made a green triangle of the field; and sticking out of the grass at an odd angle was a cabin with smoke rising from thatch. It might have been a photograph from Huckleberry Finn. They had made a temporary home with no time for a chimney. These men would forever be building cabins on the run, but they were at least better off than those who slept rough in the woods. They rested by working and would be down in the village at dawn. On what side of the old woman's border of bad or good did these men stand? It was difficult to tell.
Back down in Duverge, Dany was complaining that the village was "très laide" - very ugly. "Even Saint Marc is prettier than this place," he joked. It wasn't true but we knew what he meant.
He talked incessantly, making the most of what would most likely not come his away again - an attentive audience. To most Dominicans, Dany was one of thousands of mosquitoes that gather by the stagnant pools of building sites, hospitals, fields and slums. It's true that Haitian labour is essential for the Dominican economy, especially in the countryside, but they are perceived as weighing down a ship that has never been seaworthy at the best of times. In a bar in Santo Domingo a girl was eager to tell me that she didn't want any more blacks in her country. She said it as though it was the most natural thing in the world and my non-reply consisted of a silent marvelling at her own skin of rusted gold. Tension between mulatto and negro in the Caribbean is just as bitter as it as it is between black and white elsewhere.
And yet, I was also wary of Dany, wondering when our meeting was going to turn sour, as surely it had to at some point. At least on past experience it seemed inevitable. A Haitian talking to a blanc is never a simple affair. Every exchange had to cross an abyss of mistrust, and up to now we had always ended up on the bottom of that canyon after so many conversations turned in their final course to a plea followed by a refusal followed by anger followed by the possibility of trouble. Not always, but often enough to recognise it as the product of desperation and anger at everything blanc. Why should they have so much when we have nothing?
Although Dany was the same age as us, this was about the only measure in which we were equal. Here we were, talking together in a village square, sharing a litro of beer, but inside our skulls plaques of knowledge told us that in this poker game, I had a full house while no had even bothered to deal him a card. Czeslaw Milosz may be correct when he talks about "the basic similarity in humans and their tiny grain of dissimilarity," but a cosmic number of beaches separated us.
From time to time he stopped to make sure that Céline could understand him.
"Qu'est que j'ai dit?"
When she paraphrased what he had just said, he beamed with pride. Few Haitians speak French and he was probably worried that he was a little rusty. But there was no doubt about it; she had repeated everything he had just said.
Then he tried English.
"If I get to the US or Canada it is important that I can talk to people." He spoke these words very slowly as though balancing on a tightrope. Then he returned to French to explain that he used to work in computers in Santo Domingo, earning a few thousand pesos a month; but not anymore. He passed over this part. Beer and women were mentioned. He laboured now, in the brick and cement yards around Duverge. He sold his sweets on the weekend.
"I love to work," he said. "It says in the Bible that it is good to work; no? If I could go to Canada, I would do the dirty jobs there. Construction, gardening, refuse, anything. No problem. I would be happy to do them, because they get more money than a computer person in Santo Domingo. If I could just get into one of those countries. But Canada is cold. That's not so bad; you can wear many clothes. But I love the sun. You can't die in the sun. It gives life. If you're poor though, the cold can kill. That's why it's okay here. I live off the sun."
When we asked him how he felt about Haiti he said simply "il y a beaucoup des chimeres." In the dictionary chimere means an illusion, a ghost, someone or something wild and idle, not pertaining to reality. In Greek legend a chimere is a fearful, fire-belching monster with a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail. For Haitians it means a gangster.
The cagoulards were perhaps the first modern chimeres in Haiti - hooded men from the slums that Papa Doc let loose on the mulatto class who were planning a commercial strike in rebellion against his rule. Like any species, they evolved over time. The hoods gave way to red handkerchiefs tied around the neck. They started to wear sunglasses, denim jackets and jeans. The new uniform originated from the costume of Papa Zacca - the vodou spirit of agriculture. These were now the feared Tonton Macoutes, whose name came from a character in Haitian folklore, Uncle Knapsack. Like the Tonton Macoutes, Uncle Knapsack was fond of carrying people off in bags at night. The old religions from Africa remain a powerful force in the country. Papa Doc himself was a vodouist, often dressing in a black suit and hat, reminiscent of Baron Samedi - the Keeper of the Cemeteries.
The Macoutes were a ruthless militia that dominated the peasants through extortion and torture. It was hardly surprising that a fresh wave of violence spread over the country when Aristide called for them to be disarmed. The life of a gangster is one of the few ways to rise above poverty in Haiti and those who lived well under the Duvaliers were unwilling to give up their privileges and return to the slums. Once the army was disbanded conditions were perfect for anarchy. Violence is as much a part of life in Port-au-Prince as taxes are in Paris. A gun to the head is about the only way that you can intimidate a people who own nothing except a few dry acres of land and a handful of pigs and goats.
With no assistance forthcoming from either Europe or America, Aristide took matters into his own hands and began funding militias. Recruits came from slums like Cite Soleil where 300,000 people live in an area of two square miles without proper sanitation or health care. For many young men joining a militia was an obvious career move. Thus, a new breed of chimere was born.
But the allegiance of the gangs is personal not political. They support whoever gives them money and they are indifferent to ideologies. Their creed is domination and annihilation of rival gangs, and they are efficient in their work. In a world of little dignity, the sense of power that comes from holding a gun is a force to be reckoned with. Armed with a weapon they can control a tiny portion of the future. They kill whoever needs to be killed, they help whoever gives them support. It is much like politics, except that words are replaced with bullets.
And Aristide's militias were only one species in a vast ecosystem of violence. The circles of predation are as complicated as the human genome. There are errors, deletions, mutations, repairs. But the cell line is immortal. In America and Europe, the word chimere was splashed all over the headlines. But blaming Haiti's trouble on these groups is like saying that Lichtenstein is the cause of global warming.
Dany was so sick of it all that the Duvaliers didn't seem too bad to him. He was five when Baby Doc flew away to the south of France on the night of the 7th of February, 1986. He said that it was better back then, that there were not the problems of today. I didn't believe him, but it wasn't the time to start arguing. For him the only politician who had a grain of decency was Rene Preval, and even there the praise was ambiguous.
"Preval kills all the chimeres," he said, "he cleans it up. But the Americans don't like him because he's a friend of Aristide's."
This kind of autocratic clean up is popular. Decades of poverty have led to a tolerance for mob justice. It is the only kind of justice. If someone steals from you, there is no judge he will be brought before, no prison to put him into. The people are tired and hungry. If someone promises to improve things by doing a little uprooting, or dechoukaj, no one minds.
All Dany wanted was to work. But his country was floating belly up in the water and it didn't look like he'd be able to go back to Saint Marc for a long time. He hadn't seen his family in three years. American kestrels flew overhead. They have a winter migration of thousands of miles, but Dany couldn't even manage the hundred miles to Saint Marc.
"I'm intelligent," he said. There was a defiance in his voice as though he was answering back, or turning his face into a gale.
"I want to work. It's good to work. After I finish at the block factory, I sell pistachios. I speak French, Spanish, English. I know German. The people around here speak differently. They drop letters. I learned Spanish from Spain - Castilian, but round here it's different."
He started to write in Céline's notebook, carving out letters, crafting them carefully, delighting in this act. It was a joy to him to use his intelligence. It was a weight of gold countering the years of labour and drudgery.
"How many letters are there in English?"
"And in Spanish?"
"Twenty-nine; there is this (˝), this (ll) and... I've forgotten the last one!"
From time to time he would make a mistake in his writing and look up anxiously as though he might be reprimanded. "That was a mistake; you understand?"
It was true that he was intelligent. Clearly, he loved learning, he loved reading and writing. It was a luxury to do this instead of shovelling cement or walking the streets selling pistachios. Every word was a sort of haiku. His pencil tapped at the shell that surrounded him. He knew that there was no chance that he could turn this into a way of living, but he wasn't stupid and he wanted to prove it to us. I struggle to express myself through violence: that was the message from the television and the newspapers. Dany was the true enemy of this stereotype.
To demonstrate his English skills, he picked up our guide book, leafed through it and started to read. Although his pronunciation was quite good it was clear that he didn't understand what he was reading. We were glad of this, for here is the passage that he chose at random: most people who visit the Dominican Republic stay at an all-inclusive resort where they soak up the sun on a white-sand beach during the day and wine, drink, dance and dormir at night. Though some guests spice up their stay with excursions provided by the resorts at additional cost, the majority are content to stay within the resorts' confines... many of the all-inclusives are situated so that their guests can stay in a gated community and take advantage of some of the best sights that the country has to offer."
Dany was the all-inclusive deal, quite firmly gated onto the island. When we asked him for his address, he had to think for a while. There were so many people on that island who had to think before coming up with an address. He chewed the pen before explaining that he lived in front of a petrol station. It must have been the nearest finished structure to his home. He wrote out the directions.
Céline took two more tubes of pistachios and gave him a 25 peso piece. Two local kids sitting a foot or two away were watching us intently. Dany stood up to give us change, there was no need for this but he did it anyway. When he sat back down, he reached around to the pocket of one of kids. The boy lurched away, but Dany had a firm grip on his elbow. Reaching into the boy's pocket, he retrieved a tube of pistachios.
"You see; they're voleurs here!" he laughed.
We had to get a gua-gua to Neiba before dark so we shook hands with him and left. For an hour we had been suspended over the canyon and we had not fallen. It was the first time, but it wouldn't be the last.