The idea that the more things seem to change the more they remain the same has been confirmed by personal experience. From the Great Depression of my childhood to September 11, 2001 catastrophic events have left our nation fundamentally unchanged. America's courage, productivity, freedom and democratic character are as resilient as the Pyramids.
However the belief emerging from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, and dominating our media, that from this day forward everything will be different, ignores our country's remarkable ability to survive the disasters of war and peace with democratic institutions and national character intact.
Also unchanged are the world's intractable problems. The root causes of International Terrorism. Overpopulation, hunger, disease and illiteracy have never been substantially alleviated by dedicated Idealists who are called unrealistic do-gooders or bleeding hearts.
Creating a better World is a dream viewed as hopeless by Realists with little faith in Man's ability to change. Human frailty, Realists insist, determines the circumstances of human life and to change Man's essential nature is impossible.
The eternal conflict between Idealists and Realists determined many critical choices. Such decisions as choosing One World or None. A choice emerging from the bloodbaths of two World Wars leading to the establishment of the United Nations at a time when such idealism was applauded and not disparaged by congress or the media. Hopefully, to paraphrase President Lincoln, the UN will someday prove to be the last best hope for Man on earth.
Benjamin A. Cohen, a 1950 recipient of the One World Statesmanship Award and Assistant Secretary General for the UN's Department of Public Information passionately believed in mankind's infinite possibilities of change. His faith in the United Nations' ability to change the dire circumstances of underdeveloped countries emerged from his childhood in Chile where he witnessed all the tragic problems of "Third World" nations. He focused the UN's search for a solution to conditions that were not just abstractions cited in the UN's Charter, but grim realities to be confronted and changed.
In 1951 the UN established the world's first Technical Assistance Program in Haiti's Marbial Valley. I had the good fortune to go to Haiti to research and write a documentary film script about this precursor of all Foreign Aid Programs addressing truly apocalyptic problems threatening life on earth.
Looking back more than fifty eight years I now realize I witnessed the first Act of an eternal conflict between Bleeding Heart Idealists and Practical Realists with the successful outcome of their cosmic struggle very much in doubt.
In 1951, Haiti was, and is today the world's most tragic "Basket Case". Three million people crowded into ten thousand square miles give Haiti the world's highest population density. Greater than China or India. The blacks and light-skinned Haitians have their racial roots in Africa and cultural roots in France. Only in geography is Haiti Caribbean. Governed by a minority of upper class Elites who do no manual labor, the 97 per cent majority are Peasants ministered by white French Catholic Priests or Prêtre Savans. Unordained Bush Priests. Haiti is cruelly divided by language, religion, and a rigid caste system that thwarts all possibility of reform.
From 1915 to 1934 Haiti was occupied by United States Marines who built the few rutted roads that survived in 1951. The Americans instituted the first Public Health measures coping with such epidemic diseases as Yellow Fever, Malaria, Hookworm, Small pox, Yaws, and Leprosy. For nineteen years American efforts at rural education were frustrated by a governing Elite who feared that with education Peasants would desert the land and no longer be subservient. Although French is Haiti's official language spoken by the Elite, everyone speaks Creole. The language of daily life and commerce.
In 1951 Jean Oser, a director at Warner Pathe's New York Studio assured me my imperfect French would enable me to understand Haiti's crude Creole variant and he insisted I would also benefit from hearing the elegant French spoken by the Elite, the world's most charming, cultured admirers of that "Universal Light of the World", French civilization. For Elite Haitians consider France their mother country and "The Declaration of the Rights of Man" their national birthright.
With this encouraging advice Jean Oser handed me a Pan American Airways ticket to Port Au Prince, three months expense money, and wished me luck.
Viewed from the air, Haiti's high mountains rising up out of the sea confirmed the accuracy of Christopher Columbus' letter to Queen Isabella describing the island as "Enchanting. A wonder of mountains and plains so beautiful and rich for planting and rearing cattle of all kinds, surpassing anything that would be believed by one who has not seen it."
However, looking out the window on final approach to Port Au Prince one sees a Haiti Columbus never could have imagined. Surrounding the airport a vast slum, a bidonville or Tin Can Village built of flattened kerosene cans, houses most of the city's population. Disembarking from the air-conditioned comfort of the plane into humid tropical heat I again discovered with my first breath the pungent odor of poverty and backwardness described to me by an American Diplomat as the characteristic smell of "The Turd World."
On the plane I read the UN report on Haiti describing thousands of once fertile acres ruined by desperate overuse and ignorant misuse. Haiti's once vast Tropical Forests were destroyed by land-hungry Peasants in need of farmland. Without trees to hold steep mountain slopes in place, the rich topsoil washed away by torrential rains silted up rivers and streams and flowed out to sea where the soil nourishes not even the fish.
My taxi from the airport was painted a kaleidoscope of dazzling colors of the most intricate designs decorating a battered 1938 Chevrolet. Roaring unmuffled through Port Au Prince's crowded streets, we blasted aside with a musical horn pedestrians, donkeys and street vendors who seemed indifferent to danger. As we drove through the great market square the scent of roasting coffee, the fragrance of brilliant patches of bougainvillea and hibiscus somehow, by their vivid beauty, mitigated this scene of depressing squalor.
Yet it appeared familiar. I was again seated in the Avalon Theater on Brooklyn's Kings Highway viewing a Biblical Epic. Noisy confusion everywhere. Hundreds of men, women and children buying and selling clothing, vegetables, live chickens, and other merchandise with tumultuous vitality. However instead of an ominous Hollywood movie scene I saw smiling faces and heard piercing cries and uproarious laughter as if each consummated transaction was a source of pure joy.
My dismay vanished as if the sun had come from behind a dark cloud spot-lighting this hustling crowd. I saw nothing but beautiful faces. All sizes. All shapes. Young. Old. Light, medium and dark-skinned people of color. Full of Life. Thriving despite poverty, hunger and rampant disease. I saw more vividly than ever before - The family of Man.
As we approached Oloffsons' Hotel, highly recommended by Pan American, we passed well-built, attractive homes of the Haitian Elite. Gated and enclosed by high garden walls, with iron shuttered windows and spacious verandas they seemed an urban sanctuary disconnected or unaware of the grim poverty of Port Au Prince. As the taxi drove off from Oloffsons I saw a hand lettered board in the rear window. Instead of a license plate the cab was identified by a name familiar to all lovers of classic French Literature. It was Heloise, the name of the recipient of the Poet Abelard's passionate letters to his beloved. In a few days I met another Abelard. Abelard Dessanclos. And the name of his passionate love was - Haiti.
Oloffson's Hotel deserved a reputation for romantic splendor. Enclosed inside a high-walled multi-colored tropical garden of tantalizing fragrance, the old Chateau was a remnant of Haiti's ostentatious colonial past when "wealthy as a Creole" described an Elite thriving on exports of sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton. In 1951, in the off-season of an impoverished Haiti, I was the hotel's only transient guest sharing the high-ceilinged dining room and spacious veranda with such permanent residents as exiled Royalty fleeing their East European homelands.
On the veranda that evening, at sunset, looking out over Port au Prince while enjoying the strong taste of Haitian Rum, I discovered the memorable beauty that exists beyond the overcrowded slum shanties of bidonville. Haiti's pervasive poverty and backwardness were for a moment forgotten as its spacious harbor bordered by cloud-covered mountains welcomed returning Fishing boats home from the sea. Gliding ghost-like across the water before the prevailing afternoon sea breeze, their tattered multi-colored sails were a picturesque Travel Brochure scene. The dismay I felt driving from the airport soon became the enchantment Christopher Columbus described. I was enthralled by this exotic land "surpassing anything that would be believed by one who has not seen it."
Max Seligman approached holding a tall Rum drink and sat beside me with the welcoming look of a compatriot meeting another American in a foreign land. He explained he was editor, publisher and reporter for The Haitian Sun the country's only English language newspaper. Max was one of many Americans "Hooked on Haiti". He loved everything about this impoverished land. After being unemployed for six months when New York's last liberal newspaper "PM" stopped publishing, he fled the Rat Race to find a better life for himself and family. Max now lived the great dream of all expatriates. Living in a tropical paradise in a spacious mansion with two servants, instead of enduring a crowded three-bedroom apartment in a New York City Housing project.
"What brings you to Haiti?" he asked. His distinct Brooklyn accent gentled by rum and a relaxed Caribbean life-style gave him the look of a seedy beachcomber in a Charles Laughton movie. He listened intently as I explained where I was going and what I would be writing about. "I wish you luck," he said. "I hope you are not too late."
"What's the problem?" I replied startled by his remark.
"Well the Marbial Valley where you're going is Haiti's 'Death Valley'," he replied, "where more Blacks die of disease and starvation than anywhere on the Island. For the Gens du couleur the People of Color, the ruling Elite, the Marbial is a humiliation and the United Nations project calls attention to what is, for these charming cultured Haitians, an embarrassment."
"President Magloire invited the UN here."
"He did," Max said. "And a coal-black Army Colonel as President also humiliates the proud lighter-skinned Elite living in their beautiful Petite Paris by the sea."
"But the UN project is run by educated Haitians. Certainly they are from the Elite."
"Considered traitors to their class. People of color, the Haitian Elite, never have and never will do anything for the overwhelming black majority of the population. The UN is threatening a Caste system more rigid than India's. Teaching blacks to read and write Creole, the language they speak in this French cultural paradise, is futile. Confronting Haitian history is like pissing into the wind. The UN can't change an entire culture. The Elite will always fear what the blacks would do with a little education."
"Well," I said. "That's what I'm here to write about. If the UN succeeds in Haiti they can succeed anywhere in the world."
"Don't bet on it. The Church feels the UN threatens their hold on education which is really no education for the blacks who rarely speak French. The sooner the UN leaves Haiti the better. That's what the Bishop has been saying."
The next morning I visited the Haitian Culture Exposition built by Haiti's previous President Dumarsais Estimé to attract Tourists. Estimé, now exiled in Cuba with embezzled treasury funds, left as his legacy a handsome white Pavilion now housing the Tourism Minister's office.
The walls of the high-ceilinged hall were murals depicting Haitian history. Nothing I had seen in Mexico City's Diego Rivera murals portraying the events of their bloody revolution, or the Orozco murals at the Dartmouth College library depicting a returning Christ chopping down the Cross matched the shocking impact of these walls. The murals were a celebration of death. For on August 20, 1791 five hundred thousand abused plantation slaves revolted indiscriminately slaughtering every white man, woman and child in France's most prosperous colony. As a result of the accumulated hatred of a cruel century of French rule, white women were raped and their children disemboweled with machetes. The slaves revolt more than exceeded France's revolutionary Reign of Terror as Haiti's ravaged white population fled or were killed. The murals depicted every grisly horror. The violent blood red colors on mutilated bodies glorified the carnage accompanying the liberation and birth of the Haitian nation. The Hall commemorated a holocaust preceding Auschwitz's horrors by more than a century.
The murals also dramatized the ongoing conflict between the cultured French-speaking Elite and freed Creole-speaking blacks. A sharp division that still determines Haiti's tragic history. For Toussaint L'Ouverture, Haiti's first president, born a slave, was a military genius who defeated Napoleon's efforts to regain his prosperous colony only to have his great achievements betrayed by people of color who wanted to have slaves work their plantations. This never-ending struggle between blacks and Gens du couleur I realized, will decide the fate of the UN's Technical Assistance Program in Haiti. A daunting thought.
The next morning Army Sergeant Poisson parked his Jeep in Oloffson's driveway waiting to drive me to Jacmel, a day-long hundred mile journey to a small town on Haiti's Southern coast. Here another Jeep or truck would bring me to the United Nation's Marbial Valley Compound. Sergeant Poisson greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile. Like many Haitians fleeing the drudgery of farming into the well-fed security of the Army, he acquired the commanding look of a soldier. As he secured my luggage on the back seat he explained with a hand gesture and a few words of French that our trip would probably be rough. As we drove from Port Au Prince on the route to Leogane I saw what he meant as we bounced along a highway constructed by US Marines during their 19 year occupation of Haiti. Not maintained since 1934, when the Marines departed, bone-shaking potholes and terrifying ruts were deepened and made permanent by years of neglect. Haitians can also thank the Marines for more than Medical Clinics or road-building, for Marines fathered many lighter-skinned Blacks elevating their status in Haiti's color-conscious Caste system. What was resented by Haitian blacks was the manifest American prejudice in favor of the light-skinned Elite who during and after the occupation held political power until the election of Colonel Paul Magloire, Haiti's first black President in sixteen years. Just before the town of Leogane we left the American built highway along the Bay of Gonave and turned onto a narrow track climbing up over the mountains to Jacmel, a small city on Haiti's southern Caribbean seacoast. No more than a widened footpath, our road followed a river occasionally crossing the shallow stream to drive along the banks and for many miles our Jeep travelled axle deep in water, a groaning sea-going mechanical monster charging into the unknown at three to five miles an hour. At each lurch or shocking blow to our tormented vehicle Sergeant Poisson laughed or shouted encouragement promising that in a few more miles the road would improve. That those few more miles never arrived in a few more hours was never mentioned as the good Sergeant enjoyed our bone-jarring journey. His good will was irrepressible. He even began to sing a little.
At noon we stopped, and under a blazing hot sun shared plantains and mangoes washed down with Taffin, raw Haitian Rum. After a few sips we agreed the road was a bad joke travelled by fools who seem to be under the protection of an all-forgiving Deity who protects drunks, children and American built Jeeps. For what else explains our survival?
With a personal bond now established I learned he had five children and a common-law wife, for in a holdover from slavery, marriage was dispensed with as an impediment to their Masters ability to sell their slaves. And so Plaçage rather than holy matrimony prevails, accepted and respectable, even among the lighter-skinned Elite who, with no disrepute, often have several such relationships.
Poisson had but one wife. His only other passion was painting. I had visited Peter DeWitt's Art Gallery in Port Au Prince and seen an astonishing collection of primitive Haitian Art purchased by tourists from visiting Cruise Ships. I was delighted by the painting's child-like vitality and colors, their native self-taught artists' imaginations inflamed by folklore and an intense religiosity. And Poisson now shyly confessed he was also a struggling Peintre whose work Critics say resembled Gauguin. An artist whose work he had never seen.
Jacmel's Hotel Excelsior was once the handsome residence of a departed wealthy Frenchman, and as Sergeant Poisson drove off for his return to Port Au Prince I marveled at his unquestioning acceptance of Haiti's neglected roads, fallen bridges, abandoned irrigation ditches, and burned-out Chateaus. Gone With the Wind would understate the devastation. It was as if maintaining or repairing any of the colonial infrastructure would be unpatriotic. A vote in favor of, or a nostalgia for, Haiti's tragic past under slavery. The Hotel Excelsior, where I was the only guest, was an exception to this rejection of all remnants of Colonialism. Two storey white-washed walls under a high-peaked Caribbean-style tin roof overlooked the harbor. Le Propriétaire a tall, light-skinned Elitist had the elegant manner of a Maitre de at New York's Four Seasons restaurant.
After showing me my room, assuming I shared all the expected white American prejudices, he assured me with a charming smile, "Pas de négre ici. Jamais."
I nodded and replied "Je comprens, Monsieur. Je comprens," as if relieved to hear the good news about this all-white sanctuary in the world's oldest black Republic.
Dinner that evening would delight the most critical gourmand.
After an excellent wine and several demi-tasse cups of Haitian coffee, Le Propriétaire arrived at my table with a bottle of Cognac and offered a complimentary nightcap. Touching my glass in a pledge of new-found friendship, he asked if I would care to see something Trés interessant. I nodded and followed him to the far end of the dining room where, mounted on the wall, he proudly displayed a framed photograph of a Merchant Marine crew holding a Life Preserver bearing the name of an American Tanker torpedoed a few miles south of Jacmel. The survivors were guests of the Excelsior for several weeks before returning to the United States.
Then, with the sly smile of a stage Magician about to perform an astounding trick, he led me to the opposite wall of the dining room and another framed photograph. Posing in front of the Excelsior were other war-time guests of Jacmel's finest and only hotel. Backs straight, smiling triumphantly at the camera, their white tropical uniforms immaculate, I saw the crew of the German U-Boat that sank the American tanker. Le Propriétaire explained that in 1942 German submarines prowling the waters south of Jacmel, unable to resist the lure of his fine French cuisine, dined at the Excelsior several times. They were charming guests and next morning, before dawn, they returned to sea to resume their deadly mission.
Ti Jean was a handsome twelve year old Bondservant serving as the hotel's waiter, bus boy, and porter. I guessed his age to be eight or nine, his normal growth stunted by years of starvation. Le Propriétaire explained he was one of many Marbial valley's children whose only hope of survival was in cities where they were sold by desperate parents unable to feed their families. At eighteen, when their Bond-contract expired, they usually remained at their jobs as paid employees if not replaced by unpaid Bondservants. My Host ignored this resemblance to slavery by challenging my discomfiting questions. "Don't you think servitude is much better than seeing children with swollen bellies swallow dirt to stifle their hunger pangs?" he asked. I nodded, agreeing I had much to learn about such extreme poverty. And so once again I was witness to a world divided between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, privileged and humiliated without any possibility of change. Perhaps Max Seligman was right. Fighting for the dignity and sanctity of every human life is like "pissing in the wind." A futile task for Idealists.
Next morning, at sunrise, awakened by a triumphant Rooster crowing under my window, a cup of hot Haitian coffee at my bedside, I recalled Robert Louis Stevenson's statement - "Every day is a fresh beginning. Every morn the world is born anew." Looking out at the Caribbean, as the rising sun slowly abandoned for a day the black hole beyond the horizon where it rested all night, I experienced the innocent happiness of a child who believes everything is possible. Forgotten for a moment were Haiti's intractable problems of poverty, backwardness, starvation and human bondage that seemed at this moment diminished by early morning laughter and song as Jacmel, like a sparkling jewel set beside a silver sea slowly came to life.
Abelard Dessenclos, an Agronomist from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, arrived at the Excelsior in an ancient pick-up truck to drive me to the UN's Marbial Valley Compound several miles north of Jacmel. Handsome, with the detached appearance of a thoughtful Academic more comfortable in a Lecture Hall than in a rural impoverished valley, he drove with impressive skill avoiding the road's deepest pot holes and ruts.
Born and raised in Haiti, Abelard Dessenclos graduated Cornell University's School of Agriculture returning to his homeland to teach rural Haitians how to feed their families on rehabilitated farmland. Like other Elite Haitians participating in the UN's Technical Assistance Project, he was an exception to a rigid Caste system where French-speaking, cultured, light-skinned Haitians usually cared nothing about the fate of Creole-speaking, uneducated black Peasants living and dying unseen and without hope.
Abelard, like other Haitian Instructors I met at the UN Compound had seeing eyes and a feeling heart and his devotion to his less fortunate countrymen was inspiring. "Starvation in Haiti comes from ignorance of conservation or fertilization methods," Abelard Dessenclos explained. "Our once productive land is worn out. Every available acre is farmed by successive generations struggling to grow more from less and less productive land." He continued talking as we followed a shallow mud-colored river into the valley. "Planting the same crop year after year reduces yields below what hard-working families need to feed themselves."
Pausing to expand his thoughts he turned and nodded, his eyes a flashing intensity. "Starvation in Haiti is Man-made," Abelard Dessenclos insisted, tightening his grip on the steering wheel as we hit another bump in the road. "And Haiti can eliminate famine in less than a generation," he continued, "with no more than a little basic education." Then, turning his head away as if embarrassed by this display of unrestrained emotion, he fell silent concentrating his attention on the road ahead. For several miles his reluctance to speak persisted and I sensed something awkward distancing us from each other.
I thought perhaps he saw me as another white American burdened by all the cruel racial prejudices of the 1950's. Trying to correct Abelard's unwarranted assumption, to somehow regain some personal contact, I told him my brother was class of 1942 at Cornell, a friend of Brud Holland, the University's Black All-American football star. He replied with a disinterested nod. Didn't much follow football, he said. Soccer was his game. After another mile of uncomfortable silence, hoping to break through his cool reserve I tried again. "How did you like Ithaca?" I asked. "Cold. Very cold," he said, and all I could think about was how awkward human encounters become when complicated by the question of race. Obviously living in the United States was not an experience an intelligent, cultured and Elite Haitian wanted to talk about. Not after residing for several years in Paris where his human dignity was respected in a beautiful city where the tyranny of skin color did not rule.
"I count it little being barred from those who undervalue me," wrote Poet Langston Hughes fleeing to France to raise children undamaged by racial bigotry. "I have my own soul's ecstasy," Langston Hughes insisted, writing: "No man, my son, can batter down the far-flung ramparts of the mind." True. True, I thought, thinking about the man seated beside me retreating into his fortress of well-educated dignity.
Passing a small village near the UN Compound, a cluster of white-washed shacks, the road forded the river we followed from Jacmel. Abelard Dessanclos stopped in the middle of the shallow stream and pointed to the women washing clothes, gossiping, and bathing themselves and their children in the muddy water.
"There's the problem," he said. "that must be changed. Our people use that filthy sewer for everything. They wash clothes, bathe and drink the water animals pollute."
I saw an ancient tableau. A dozen women and children, some naked. Innocent beauty. Biblical. Without anticipating the impact of my words I commented: "The pencil of God has no eraser."
Dessanclos turned and stared at me astonished. Then laughing a full and joyous laugh he poked his finger into my arm. "You have read the Marcelin brothers?"
"Yes," I said. "The Pencil of God and Canape Vert. They won the Prix de Goncourt last year."
"How about Jacques Roumain's Masters of the Dew?" he asked.
"No. Haven't read that book"
"Well read Jacques Roumain and you will understand Haiti."
So that's how our friendship began. Two citizens of The Republic of Letters driving along a miserable rural road in Haiti's Marbial Valley discussing French Literature. What the African Poet Senghor called sharing "the Civilization of the Universal". We held a college Bull session on wheels bouncing over pot holes and ruts on our way to understanding each other and the world we live in.
Abelard was hungry to talk. He missed cosmopolitan Port Au Prince. Living and working isolated among peasants combined his great sense of Noblesse Oblige with intellectual boredom. He welcomed my visit.
On my last night in Port Au Prince before travelling to Jacmel, Antoine Bervan, a Haitian Diplomat and friend of a college classmate, during a gracious gourmet dinner explained although Haitians dance and sing to African rhythms their minds are dressed in French clothing. They also maintain a closeness to nature and a strong bond with ancestors unknown to Europeans.
Which led me to consider the clothes my mind wears. I like to think myself liberal, tolerant, without prejudice about race or color. But here in a remote Haitian valley, as the only white in a sea of négritude I didn't feel conspicuous as much as I sensed my humanity being tested. To be seen as another prejudiced white would preclude all possibility of winning the confidence of the Haitians I hoped to understand and write about.
Although the Marbial Valley in no way resembled Harlem's 125th street, both places contradicted conventional white knowledge about racial tensions. In 1941, ignoring warnings about being mugged, I went to hear Louis Armstrong at Harlem's Apollo theater with a friend who was an accomplished Jazz pianist. We were two white teen-agers in an all-black audience caught up in Armstrong's music without feeling threatened. So ignoring frightening newspaper reports we discovered all Blacks do not regard all whites as oppressors or think of themselves as victims. And so, after a few days in the Marbial Valley I learned that despite 19 years of occupation by United States Marines, who were predominantly prejudiced Southerners, Haitians do not view all white Americans as incorrigibly racist, cruel and unjust.
I found I was regarded as just another human being who evoked laughter when I tried to speak Creole and looked ridiculous riding around on a small, emaciated mule. I was neither a white nor a Gen de couleur. I was only L'Écrivain. The writer.
Emanuel Gabriel Francois added another dimension to my understanding of the tyranny of skin color. A graduate of Columbia University's Teachers College, author of a Creole language text book, Headmaster of the UN school and Project Director, Professor Francois was handsome, black, and qualified to be a member of Haiti's Elite by intellect and the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Devoted to teaching Peasants to read and write Creole, he defied the power of the Church and the Elite political leadership who dressed their minds in European clothing insisting all education be taught in French. Like Abelard Dessanclos he was a traitor to his class. An Elitist who believed the UN's attempt to eliminate illiteracy was only possible for as long as Paul Magloire, the first black President in sixteen years remained in office. He saw the coming year as a window of opportunity. Haiti's future would hopefully be determined by more than a tragic past.
The most imposing building in the UN Compound was a one-room schoolhouse open on all sides shielded from the sun and rain by an enormous tin roof sheltering more than one hundred students. The girls in spotless white blouses or knee-length pinafores. The boys in short-sleeved white shirts and blue shorts assembled in front of the school as Professor Francois explained the purpose of my visit. Well-fed, smiling, they politely repressed laughter as I greeted them with my primitive Creole. Absent were the spindly legs and swollen malnutrition bellies I saw on my tortured journey to Jacmel. They were healthy, literate children with a future, and if Emanuel Gabrielle Francois was their Pied Piper leading them towards a promising tomorrow, the instrument he was using was Haiti's maternal language. Creole.
Also at Marbial, two World Health Organization specialists in Tropical Medicine combated Yaws, Hookworm, Malaria, Yellow Fever, and other debilitating intestinal infections that caused the dispirited lethargy of many adults. What the Elite called lazy, shiftless Peasants without ambition were in fact men and women suffering from chronic illness that could be alleviated with Penicillin. Dr. Leon Bingham, a US Public Health Service doctor from New Orleans, and Dr. Dallaire from Algeria, toured the valley to inject the sick with hypodermic needles and were affectionately known as "The Two Pricks". But no antibiotic could eliminate re-infection from Hookworm in barefooted Peasants forever walking on toxic soil.
Henri Martineaux who taught carpentry and rope-making from Sisal fibers, or finding wells or springs of drinkable water, was my escort, translator, and eloquent guide to the mysteries of rural Haiti. Growing up in an Elite culture that looked down on anyone working with their hands, he nevertheless labored comme un cheval to give his people what they needed to escape unbearable poverty. Weighing near three hundred pounds, his volcanic energy and enthusiasm seemed truly un force de nature. An exhausting day with Martineaux under a blazing tropical sun tested my determination to see everything he insisted on showing me.
I could hardly wait for sunset when the entire UN Staff assembled at Madame Durand's table to enjoy one of her exquisite dinners in the cool of the evening. Madame Durand, daughter of a former Haitian Supreme Court Justice, managed the several Cays or one-room cottages, adjacent to a dining Pavillon where hours of brilliant conversation accompanied our meals. As I listened to the Staff talk I felt both ignorant and enthralled by passionate disputes about poetry, philosophy and the latest cultural news from Paris. Everyone at the table participated intellectually in a world foreign to me and, as I struggled to understand their classic Parisian French, I was again reminded of the absurdity of employing complexion as a criterion of human value. Accepted and valued when in France as superior human beings, these Haitians were critical of their humiliating experiences in the United States. I made no attempt to defend the indefensible and mentioned the prejudice expressed by Le Propriétaire in Jacmel. "Prejudice," Madame Durand replied, "provides the last line of defense for the status quo. Keeping things as they are, insisting it is futile to educate Peasants maintains the aristocrats' monopoly on jobs and wealth. Upper class Haitians bitterly oppose our effort to improve the well-being of Les Noirs. The Blacks. They fear a social revolution."
Armed with nothing more potent than a Creole textbook, a hypodermic needle, a shovel and a hoe, these idealistic revolutionaries, financed by the United Nations, were addressing the intractable problems of their homeland with intelligence and passion. They worked without assurance their project would eliminate illiteracy and starvation in the Marbial, and then expand to other regions. But they did hope the skills they taught in this impoverished valley would someday become a permanent part of Public Education in Haiti. A very high hope indeed.
Reading Haitian history however was not encouraging. During the occupation American authorities were accused of establishing a rival educational system. In 1934, when the Marines withdrew, their plans to improve education were dismissed as a foreign intrusion into Haitian life. Training teachers willing to live a hard life in rural isolation among illiterate Peasants was as daunting an obstacle to overcome as the political and social implications of mass education in Creole. A language without schoolbooks, literature, or established spelling before the arrival of the United Nations. Underdeveloped, plagued with the problems of a Third World country, predominately rural Haiti was roadless, with few industries or urban centers to provide jobs in tourism or manufacturing. Migration or exile deprived Haiti of educated professionals who rebuild their lives and careers abroad and rarely return to their homeland. Abelard Dessanclos and Professor Francois were exceptions, educated abroad and now working to change Haiti's future, they were hopeful about the UN project's fate. "History does not have to repeat itself," they insisted, referring to the failed reforms of the American occupation. Within ten years the improved infrastructure acquired during 19 years of assistance; the new roads, schools, and clinics crumbled and soon were abandoned. Haiti became what it is today. A human and political disaster. Unable to feed itself.
Looking back more than 58 years I realize I witnessed the first test of the question: "Can any Technical Assistance or Foreign Aid Program succeed without transforming the social and economic culture of a country?" A crucial question being tested today.
Tonnelles, an open-sided Palm thatched shed where we were to attend a wedding. On slopes so steep I could reach up and touch the ground, my sure-footed mule humped and swayed sending shock waves up my spine with each heavy step. No doubt we were a comic sight. Looking like an overweight Don Quixote, Henri Martineaux's enormous bulk overflowed his saddle as I, feeling myself a loyal Sancho Panza twisted and turned on my wheezing mount to ease the pain of each unforgiving blow to my rear. Our mules miraculously never stumbled as we jogged along the precipitous path without speaking.
On my mind was last night's dinner where Professor Francois, after a second glass of rum, insisted the Marcellin brothers created a truer portrait of Haiti than could be found in Jacques Roumain's Masters of The Dew. Abelard Dessanclos passionately disagreed and I was a fascinated witness to a polite literary brawl. A heated discussion I struggled to understand.
"Haitians are not, and will never be a rural proletariat," Emanuel Gabriel Francois said. "Haitians, like most uneducated Peasants live in their imaginations in a world of ever-present beliefs. Or myths. Their world is our Elite world turned upside down. Haitian peasants do not always see what we see. What is immediate and real for us is for them something above and beyond what educated people call reality." He concluded by saying "most Haitians blame everything bad in their lives as coming from the displeasure of their Gods."
When we stopped to rest our backsides and our mules, I asked Henri Martineaux what he thought of last night's argument. He laughed explaining that's the way town intellectuals talk when they flee the sophisticated world of the cities to return to the people. "Such abstract discussions do little for the lives of the poor Ti-nègres," he said. "President Paul Magloire made few speeches. He came to the Marbial valley and built a concrete three foot high Butcher's Block so pigs and chickens could be slaughtered and butchered off the ground. Actions not words are what Haiti needs. Dig a well. A latrine. An irrigation ditch. Or terrace a slope to hold the soil. Leave the talk to the Haitians who write books. Did you know our Bibliotheque National has more than five thousand books written by our intellectuals and still our people are starving?"
Arriving at our destination, a Tonnelle erected in the center of a small village, Henri Martineaux was greeted with great respect and honor. Under this large palm-thatched shed the women of the hamlet dressed in ankle length spotless white dresses and wearing large wide-brimmed hats served coffee to the guests. Nearby, sipping something stronger than coffee a Ra Ra band of drummers, musicians travelling from village to village to accompany Saturday night dancing, awaited the festivities.
Henri Martineaux explained the exceptional significance of a formal wedding ceremony where, unmarried common-law relationships, a custom imposed by slavery to benefit slave owners, is almost universal. A Prêtre Savan, an unordained Bush Priest presides with a blend of Catholic and Voudon rituals that satisfy all aspects of the Peasants faith in a supreme being.
Women pray for fertility at statues of the Virgin Mary also called Grand Ezile, the black Venus or Goddess of Love and St. Patrick, who drove the snakes from Ireland is also Damballa Ouedo, the African snake God, Master of Heaven. Belief in the power of one God does not preclude faith in other Gods. In their ancient wisdom Les nègres enjoy the protection of both religions.
The proud wedding party arrived on foot, the bride wearing a white full-length dress beside the groom in a double-breasted linen suit, white shirt and bow tie. The family in dazzling white suits and dresses were led by a father wearing an eye-catching bright red necktie. A truly royal procession.
A family display of honor and dignity like that of Kings. A rainbow of happiness in black and white and red. "Give me a rainbow, you who have given us the rain" are the lyrics of a truly poignant song. And this family was that rainbow in living Technicolor.
And what of the bride and groom, I wondered? How aware are they of rising in Haiti's rigid caste system by rejecting Plaçage? A cohabitation most Haitian's accept as respectable? Can the honor, dignity and enhanced self-respect of sanctified marriage somehow mitigate the socially destructive consequences of centuries of white-on-black humiliation? Does Holy Matrimony celebrated by an unordained Bush Priest vanquish a cultural habit imposed by slavery?
What Sociologists call Upward Mobility is rare in Haiti. Each generation of Les nègres rarely rise above their parents' destiny. Sacramental marriages, however, unlike learning French are more than an effort to move up socially and professionally but rather are a statement like chanting "I am a Man! I am a Man!" by Civil Rights marchers in the streets of Alabama. In 1951, in Haiti, a legally sanctified peasant marriage is a precursor of change. Touching the future with a promise to love, honor and obey.
The next morning, after a night of dancing energized by Taffin, raw Haitian Rum, Henri Martineaux led our return to Marbial. Continuing last evenings festive mood he began singing "Pata Mama Tombe" a sorrowful Creole lament that is also somehow light-hearted. Courageous. Henri translated into French: "Mon Pere and Ma Mère sont Tombe", "My mother and Father are dead" rendered in sing-song Creole as "Pata Mama Tombe." And so began another Creole lesson: "Je suis malade" in French, "I am sick" became in Creole "Moins malade." "Me sick." A short, clear statement without a verb.
After joining Henri singing several verses about an orphan boy who happily accepts life with no possessions but a mule and endless drudgery I began to yodel. Overcome with laughter Martineaux nearly fell off his mule. He then insisted I teach him the trick of sliding back and forth from a whole note to a falsetto. A skill I acquired imitating Sepp Rusch, an Austrian ski instructor at Vermont's Mount Mansfield. Martineaux was particularly fond of a Swiss "Cuckoo Clock" song insisting I repeat it several times. Somehow, gentled by laughter and yodeling our return trip was less agonizing.
Dinner at Madame Durand's table that evening was most welcome although a constant shifting in my seat made the painful condition of my saddle-sore bottom a subject of amused comment. And again another well-mannered political brawl accompanied our meal. A heated argument about the 1915-1934 occupation described the mixed blessing of well-meaning American intervention. The roads, bridges, schools and hospitals left behind soon deteriorated. What remained, a memory of Mississippi-style racism supporting the privileged position of the light-skinned Elite who were maintained in office by prejudiced American authorities who believed blacks were incapable of governing.
The racial and cultural barriers to economic progress persisted during decades of corruption under black politicians who replaced the Elites in 1934. As one corrupt and repressive regime succeeded another, Haiti's expanding population struggled to survive on a shrinking food supply.
Emanuel Gabriel Francois spoke of the future. "When we leave what happens afterwards is the question. After so many cruel foreign interventions Haiti remains unchanged. No matter how successful we are at Marbial what Haitians and their government do for themselves when we are gone will be decisive."
In 1918, during the occupation, President Wilson's under secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt drafted the Haitian Constitution. In October 1934, as President, he announced the American withdrawal in a charming speech in French stating: "When I die, I think Haiti is going to be written on my heart because for all these years I have had the most intense interest in the Republic of Haiti and the development of its people in a way that will never mean exploitation by any other nation."
Eloquent words, said Henri Martineaux, do little for the lives of the Ti-nègres. Actions not words are what Haiti needs. Dig a well. A latrine. An irrigation ditch. Fine words are for books in the National Library in Port Au Prince.
And so, sadly, with the demise of Paul Magloire's Presidency, the UN's Technical Assistance Program terminated with a shift of power to the Elite. Once again Haiti's intractable caste system overwhelmed all efforts to bring about social and economic change. Then, for thirty years, the Duvalier dictatorship empowered by Ton Ton Macoute Death Squads ravaged an already desolate nation. The next fifteen years of coups by Masters of Misery, corrupt Politicians and Generals, destroyed all hope for a better life. Today, desperate Haitians risk their lives at sea in decrepit sailboats rather than remain and starve in their impoverished homeland.
Sergeant Poisson's painting, presented to me the day I left Haiti and now on my wall, depicts a young girl gazing out her bedroom window down an empty road leading to a solitary Palm tree. Whatever may or may not come of her romantic dreams of the future, I am certain that in the Marbial valley survives, despite 58 years of callous indifference, a three-foot high concrete Butcher's Block where Haitian mothers once came to beg food for their starving children.
A legacy, they say, paid for not from the National Treasury, but from President Magloire's own pocket.