Bill Clinton, UN Special Envoy for Haiti, speaks to reporters in Port-au-Prince, 2010. Photograph by UN Photo/Sophia Paris
by Michael Thomsen
Bill Clinton spent his honeymoon reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, the Pulitzer-prize winner from 1973 which argues that human civilization is an elaborate attempt to avoid accepting its mortality through the creation of symbolic value systems, the meaning of which will extend beyond any one person’s. So humans strive to create great works within these systems in the hopes that it will, if not quite beat death, let one at least get a word in edgewise. Recounting his time with the book in the tranquil afterglow of his wedding to Hillary Rodham in his memoir, My Life, Clinton quotes Becker’s concluding lines as ones that stayed with him: “The most that any of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”
A week after returning from Acapulco, a friend of the Clintons who worked for Citibank, David Edwards, invited the newlyweds on what would be a second honeymoon, one that would later grow so full of symbolic portent that the first one to would be all but forgotten. Using the banker’s spare frequent-flier miles, the Clintons joined Edwards on a visit to Haiti. In 1975, Haiti was, in Clinton’s words, “the poorest country in our hemisphere,” which he attributed to the Duvalier administration’s mismanagement. Yet, Clinton “marveled at the way so many [Haitians] seemed not only to survive but to enjoy life.” The Clintons arranged to see a voodoo ceremony, during which a possessed woman bit off the head of a chicken. “I’ve always been fascinated,” Clinton wrote of the experience, “by the way different cultures try to make sense of life, nature, and the virtually universal belief that there is a nonphysical spirit force at work in the world, that existed before humanity and will be here when we are all gone.” When he and Hillary returned from the trip, he decided his defeat in the race for one of Arkansas’s congressional seats shouldn’t deter his desire to do something in the world that would outlast him, and so he began to preparing to run for governor.
I was in a similarly hopeful state when I arrived in Haiti last year, though I had less to be optimistic about. I had been living a downwardly mobile life in New York as a writer for the last six years, which in hindsight seems like the polite way of saying I was unemployed. This felt normal, as I’d never really expected to live an upwardly mobile life as a writer, and there was never any shortage of work. My days and nights were flooded with more assignments than I could handle, while the paychecks were either late, or too small, or held hostage behind tardy editors with erratic and often unclear standards. One publication’s kill-fee was another’s most-read front-page headline. I had begun to feel like a mole, scraping through an interminable tunnel where there was little direction outside of my own blind sense of purpose, which was so generalized and instinctive I couldn’t have explained it in the unlikely event that anyone cared enough to ask. Mercifully no one ever did.
After having accumulated close to $10,000 of credit card debt covering these erratic paychecks, I’d started working as a cleaner, adding 30-40 hours a week of work to the 50-60 hours of writing I was doing, and never averaging more than $2000 of earnings a month, even when I was owed thousands more. This was just enough to pay rent, feed myself, pay down my credit cards, and keep the electricity on so my alarm clock would wake me in the morning. Most weeks I found myself working in a whiteout state of exhaustion, running on four hours of sleep, lacking energy for second thoughts or self-editing, and instead hoping that whatever productive energy was coming out of me—an essay on the upsides of Internet neutrality or an hour polishing a former district attorney’s bathtub—had some purpose that would resonate beyond the act itself, even as both writing and cleaning began to seem uselessly theatrical and fundamentally unproductive. After more than two years of living in a spell of narcoleptic amnesia, my body slumping and buried beneath an extra 20 pounds of fat, my breath quickly running out after a flight of stairs, and all the old familiar pleasures of sex and drinking and long runs and late night walks across the city dimmed to thoughtless habits I kept in honor of a self I refused to think of as a former one. After reaching a point where my debt was no longer on the verge of being terminal, my writing schedule whittled down and I began to work on a book, a kind of intellectual Xanadu project about the triangular relationship between touch, vision, and touchscreen devices, which required reading through the dry and dense history of phenomenology, debates about cognition, the simulation theory of mind, and the wide open sprawl of debates about embodiment and intelligence, all of which seemed impossible to imagine ever finding time for in New York City, with its continual stream of interruptions and obligations.
The closest to freedom I had ever felt came when I had worked for the government—as a Peace Corps volunteer, a decade prior—leaving behind the vice-like grip of money, career, and calling I had been slowly giving way to. I thought a similar escape, even just for a few weeks, might be restorative, scrubbing the plaque of American entrepreneurialism from my brain. Haiti seemed like the nearest and simplest place to escape to, a place where my schoolbook French might be useful, a short $300 flight from New York where the exchange rate might make my cleaner’s wage last a little longer than it did in America. Mirroring the logic of the Peace Corps, which expects prospective volunteers to put aside preferences for countries based on past experience or expertise and instead find a way to be helpful anywhere (so long as it’s outside American borders) I left for Haiti unconcerned by how little I knew about it.
Photograph by UN Photo/Marco Dormino
I knew things, of course, but mostly haphazard facts I’d absorbed free from any historical context, small factoids about the earthquake that had devastated the country in 2010, a magnitude that wouldn’t have been nearly as damaging in other parts of the world but which, in Haiti had revealed the decades of failed politics. “Two centuries of turmoil and foreign meddling,” Jonathan M. Katz wrote in his book on the enormous failures of the post-quake relief efforts The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, “had left a Haitian state so anemic it couldn’t even count how many citizens it had. Millions were packed in and around the nation’s capital, living in poorly made buildings stacked atop a fault line. People could not rely on police, a fire department, or schools. Even the rat-infested General Hospital charged so much for basic medicine that few Haitians could afford care.” Of the more than $10 billion for foreign aid that would be pledged to rebuild Haiti after the earthquake, a sum long-time Haiti reporter Jake Johnston notes was enough to have given every Haitian $1000, only an estimated one penny on every dollar made its way into the hands of local groups. As much as 50% of the money allocated to help Haiti had stayed in the US to cover contractors’ overhead costs. A Freedom of Information Act request to find out how one of USAID’s biggest aid recipients, the American firm Chemonics, came back heavily redacted with a note from USAID saying more specific information, “would likely instigate demonstrations and create an unsafe environment.”
The Clintons played major roles in this inept effort. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a partnership between Bill and George H.W., raised around $54 million in its two-year lifespan, overseen by a board of directors that included no Haitians but instead made space for Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s former Chief of Staff, and Bill Frist, the former Republican House Speaker who’d worked with the ONE campaign, a Gates Foundation-funded, celebrity endorsed non-profit famous for its role not as an aid broker that encourages other organizations to make donations while giving only around 1% of its own funds to charities. Hillary was Secretary of State at the time of the earthquake, and helped coordinate American aid to Haiti. She had already become unpopular in the country for leading the State Department in its opposition to Haitian workers, who had organized in an effort to raise the country’s minimum wage to the equivalent of $5 a day, a figure that would still have been less than half the estimated $12.50 a day a Workers Rights Consortium estimated was necessary for a three-person family to meet their basic needs.
After a visit to Haiti in the first week after the quake, Chelsea Clinton, who was traveling with Partners in Health, wrote an email to Bill, Hillary, and their chief aides, describing shock at the “mind numbing” incompetence of many aid workers. “There is NO accountability in the UN system or international humanitarian system,” she wrote, and went on to describe ways that aid organizations were sidelining the Haitian government’s plans and replacing them with an ad hoc flood of sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful, and always incoherent programs. Worse still she described how the rigid structures of aid organizations were used to block a quickly developing leadership and self-governance structure among Haitians living in temporary settlements. The following year, Hillary led an effort to bring presidential candidate Michel Martely back into a two-way run-off after he’d placed third in a first round of voting. Martely, a former Carnival singer famous for performances in drag and diapers, would eventually win the presidency on a populist platform led by a five-year plan to provide free education to every child under 18. After his election, Hillary Clinton joined the advisory board of a company that operates a gold mine in Haiti, a connection she made through the Clinton Global Initiative.
Political facts always seem to take place on a scale that makes them unreachable, too large and distant to do anything other than observe in awe and shame. Haiti seemed like a place where the symbolic virtues of empty political language could simply be let go of, recognized as something that had never worked and wouldn’t ever work. It seemed perfect. So I arranged for a month off, bought a ticket, packed some books, and flew out of JFK on a frozen mid-February afternoon, the heatless sun flaring off the dirty sidewalk snow banks. After a sleepless overnight layover in Ft. Lauderdale airport, we landed in Port-au-Prince in a bright bloom of morning heat, where the sun was no longer an empty symbol of heat but a proof of its inescapabile domination. I decided to walk into the city from the airport, my body filled with a burst of new energy after being freed from the cramped and crooked angles of airplane sleep. It was early, but already bright when the plane stopped at the gate and fed us into the immigration line. I waited, standing beside young surfers and Haitian families returning home with restless kid. As I looked at the framed posters of happy tourists on beaches, a single male traveler at 37, I had the thought that I probably looked like a sex tourist.
I passed through baggage claim with my overstuffed backpack and walked outside past a long line of taxi drivers I couldn’t afford to hire. After a few minutes, the thrill of arriving in a new country, met and mirrored by the busy crowd of fixers and tour guides, was gone and I was alone walking on a narrow cement sidewalk in a country I’d never been in before, watched by the skeptical faces of men sitting in the shade as I passed (who smiled and waved when I’d attempt a wobbly “Bonjour”). The narrow access road from the airport merges with Avenue Maïs Gaté, which then quickly turns into Boulevard Toussaint Louverture, a hectic four-lane road drivers treat as if it had six lanes. The smell of exhaust, dirt, and trash in the sun drifts up from a wide cement ditch that separates the roadside from a small cluster of blue tarp tent encampments along the side.
I felt happy there. It felt good to be off the plane, to have made it through the despairing middle-of-the-night layover spent in the Ft. Lauderdale airport with a group of travelers nested in their bags waiting on an early morning connection. The sidewalk was a blocky and uneven latticework, two narrow bands of concrete bracing irregular concrete slats over a wide channel of gravel below. Stepping from slat to slat felt like the beginnings of a hopscotch game. The road was lined with small shops selling motor oil and salvaged car parts, the air filled with dust gusted up from passing tap taps, spun around by the hot breeze coming from the bay hidden behind the old industrial warehouses and Cité Soleil, an encampment of tin shacks built up by people who’d come from the countryside to find work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which now housed an estimated 400,000.
I hadn’t planned to write about Haiti when I left, but almost as soon as I arrived I started telling myself stories about what I was seeing. I landed in mid-February, at the end of several months of strikes. Teachers had been fighting for months of back pay, taxi and bus drivers were protesting gas price increases, and a two-day general strike had merged both camps in January, which led to President Martelly to disband parliament and issue a new time table for elections in the fall—which would lead to two runoff elections, the uncertain declaration of victory by an interim administration headed by Jocelerme Privert, while plans for a third and final run-off vote (originally planned for April 24, but postponed after threats of protest from supporters of the Martelly-endorsed candidate, Jovenel Moïse) that would give the country a full-time leader again.
The morning was also the first of three official days of mourning after the worst Carnival accident in years. A performer from Barikad Crew, a Haitian hip-hop group, had accidentally knocked a power line down with a long stick sewn into his costume as their parade float moved through the narrow streets around the Palais National, which was still under construction after the 2010 earthquake. The live cable writhed on the ground for minutes, leaving many with severe electrical burns and causing a panic during which at least 18 people were trampled to death. Retracing a route I had tried to memorize from Google Maps the night before, I walked down the wide industrial boulevards tacking toward the center of the city, where I thought I’d be able to find somewhere to connect my laptop to wifi and have a beer. Sweat soaked through my shirt in globular abstractions that looked like small European countries there hadn’t been room for on world maps. I could feel the back of my winter-white neck burning. Along the Avenue Haile Selassie men worked on half-made concrete buildings, stacking bricks, mixing cement. I stopped to buy a water from a stall shop on the road, and after a few sips a man who’d been working with four others to reconstruct a wall came over. I stammered through my 20 year-old memory of French while sifting through his Creole for recognizable syllables. He gestured for the water bottle and I gave to him, but I could feel greed already beginning to rearrange my thoughts as I wondered whether he had wanted only a drink or meant to keep the whole bottle. I saw the other workers he’d left staring at us in the sun, and thought I should buy them all water too.
The rectangular wad of money in my wallet, $300 I’d exchanged into Haitian Gourdes meant to last me for the next two weeks suddenly seemed like something I needed to protect. I had only a few hundred dollars of reserve in my bank account to draw from after that $300, and after that I’d be marooned. I imagined how easy it would be to spend that whole sum on $1 water bottles in the first few hours. I was as literate as a 2 year-old and that money was the only thing keeping me from surrendering to all out helplessness. Money would become my secret, the little string that I could turn around and follow back home when I’d decided I’d gone out far enough. I would keep it, safe and private, in my pocket. I dived on the chance to become the embarrassed outsider who can’t understand and won’t stick around to try. I waved goodbye as he finished the bottle, and when he began to speak again I said, Je m’excuse. Je ne comprends pas. Je suis Américain.
UN Peacekeepers patrol Port-au-Prince, 2010. Photograph by UN Photo/Pasqual Gorriz
Further down, I walked past the blue tarp roofs of an Internally Displaced Persons camp, one of many such clusters of short-term housing built after the 2012 earthquake that have become more or less permanent. 172 such sites were built around the city to accommodate the more than 104,000 people. Many of those who made it out of the camps wound up in remote areas, like Cité Soleil or the foundling city of Canaan on a hillside on the northwestern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, a neighborhood the government continues to treat as a temporary encampment, preventing the construction of more stable long-term buildings and essentially forcing residents to remain in their precarious short-term shelters for years on end.
As I got closer to the center of the city, cutting across the narrowing streets of Saint-Martin and then Bel Air, the landscape was choked in heavy French Colonial architecture, two-story cement buildings that seemed to swallow entire blocks, buildings designed to accommodate an order of magnitude fewer people than there were moving through the streets. There was a sense of spill-over to everything, many of the buildings were boarded up and locked, which a friend told me was common, most had been badly damaged in the earthquake and were too expensive to repair, but still too valuable to abandon or sell at a loss. Stripped of electricity and running water, they seemed ruinous not in the sense of disrepair but with the uncanny foreboding of a misplaced thing, evidence of a misunderstanding that couldn’t last.
I’d made plans to stay for a few days with an old friend who worked for an NGO before moving to the country’s southern coast, to read and think about anything other than where I was. We’d planned to meet for lunch in Pétionville, the wealthy hillside suburb overlooking the bay where many of the Foreign Service and aid workers lived. The longer I walked, the clearer it was that I wouldn’t be able to just wander into an Internet café or hotel lobby to reorient myself. I was already lost in the mutating minutiae of a city grid that had overrun the simplified series of map lines I’d tried to memorize the night before. After five hours of sweat, sun, dehydration and the comingled categories of downtown traffic—pedestrian, motorcycle taxi, wheelbarrow, car, bus, truck—braiding around one another in the middle of the street, while the sidewalks were filled with heavy cement columns and tables selling cell phone cases, cigarettes, car parts, and t-shirts—my fantasy of self-sufficient freedom in a foreign land caved in on itself and I retreated to my wad of money and waved down a motorcycle taxi to take me the rest of the way up the hill to Pétionville, speeding around blind corners with my sweaty hands sliding across the slick chrome of the luggage rack above the rear wheel, the weight of my backpack pulling me back whenever we accelerated.
In Pétionville, everyone knows what’s wrong with Haiti, especially the foreigners, who deconstruct the country’s politics like a television series running according to a grand design visible only to the cleverest audience members. People unconsciously imitate one another’s posture of managerial analysis of the country’s endless bureaucratic catastrophe over icy Dominican-style beer. It had been five years since the quake, and the last of the aid grants made for it were expiring. The sense of waste and unfulfilled promises were inescapable. A USAID project to build 15,000 new homes to house Haitian workers stalled after only 2,649 had been finished when the Haitian government demanded each home have a flush toilet, something for which the original plan hadn’t budgeted. The government asked that each home be 450 square feet instead of the 275 the USAID program had been using. The discrepancies led the Government Accountability Office to refuse further funding.
The Clinton Foundation contributed a portion of a $45 million plan to build a new Marriott in Port-au-Prince, in part to help deal with the paucity of hotel rooms for aid workers in the weeks and months after the quake. The government invested $260 million in a plan to raze the farmland on Ile-a-Vache, a small island off Haiti’s southern coast, in the hopes of converting it into luxury beach resorts to help revive the country’s once major tourist economy. Two years later entrenched conflict with residents unhappy about their land being taken away has prevented the beginning of construction for any of the proposed 2,500-room hotels.
Lotto stalls seemed to be everywhere in the city, sometimes labeled as “cash banks,” something that was enormously confusing during my first few days. There was a poetic symmetry in the lotto’s labeling as banks, an acknowledgement of an era of grand collective projects— Lotteries helped finance The Great Wall and service the military debts of the American colonies in the mid-18th Century— still operating in good faith even without any grand collective ends to feed into. People don’t dream of infrastructure spending and hospital equipment, but chance assembling itself into a moneyed sigil that spells out a fortunate new identity. Even my precarious $300 had lifted me out of the present and given me a private mental refuge two weeks into the future, something that was easy to retreat into every time someone called out, Hey blanc, give me money. I can’t, I’d think, I’m going to need that later, when I get back home.
I had no idea that walking into a city from an airport was a clichéd literary sub-genre when I decided to do it. Will Self was among the first to enact the cliché, drawing a few flecks of self-knowledge and spiritual deliverance by encountering the hostile impasses of urban infrastructure. In an interview with The Paris Review, Self described his first airport walk, from Heathrow to central London, for an article in the British Airways flight magazine. “I began to conceive of these ex-urban walks as a way of curing myself of the sense of dislocation that had come over me in my adult life,” he said. “I’d ended up not knowing where I was in a very profound sense.” Sigh.
Walking long distances across cities had never seemed unusual to me. In high school, some friends gave me a ride to visit a girlfriend who went to school on the other end of town. Having neither car nor bus fare to make the return trip, I spent three hours walking home across the scalding pavement of Fresno, California. I knew the roads well, but had only ever sped through them in cars, which warped my sense of both time and scale. There was a wastfulness and vanity to the city’s massive plots of land, a superhuman grid built around bloated suburban spaces that made crossing the city impractical by any means other than automobile.
When I left Fresno for Los Angeles at 18, I still didn’t have a car and would sometimes end up walking home after having missed the last bus. I once walked the eight miles back to my college apartment from an internship, always surprised to see how Sunset Blvd. runs out of sidewalk as it passes through the richest parts of the city—Holmby Hills and Bel Air—leaving pedestrians to press themselves against the high mansion walls that run against the street curb, cars flying around blind curves at 50 miles an hour. These experiences never seemed metaphysical to me, just the unavoidable labor that came from not having a car. I was poor and accepted walking long distances beside six lanes of surging traffic as an inevitable part of my life. I didn’t accept it but I chose to live with it, because I didn’t know how to choose not to.
When I chose to become a Peace Corps volunteer a few years after finishing college, my preference for walking held up even though the alchemy of exchange rates and a regular monthly stipend from the government left me able to afford vehicular transport. Outside of America, walking became a daily routine, part of the unquestioned labor necessary for non-symbolic necessities like water—which had to be carried home, sloshing and heavy—and food—which had to be waited on for hours as coals suffused their heat through an iron pot that would bubble and steam on its own timescale. By comparison, the cavernous chill of American infrastructure felt to me like its own catastrophe, produced by a culture that turned work into metaphysical property around which cities erected their grids, channeling millions of counterposed lives its immovable circuitry—home, office, shop, office, shop, home shop, office. You don’t locate yourself by surveying this stucco-fronted landscape of American prosperity so much as you exorcise the anxious torpor it produces, pantomiming an escape as you traverse from one blank spot to another—a roaring freeway overpass to a fallow quarter of farmland outskirts.
The melancholy of living in the four-lane void of the developed world breeds a hunger for worst-case scenarios, a reminder of how much worse life without modernity could be. International development has always preyed on natural disasters as evidence of the necessary virtues of modern living. The basic structure of the international development industry as an unattached charitable endeavor separate from Imperialist occupation began to take shape after the 1931 summer floods in China, which devastated the country from Chongqing to Nanjing. Death tolls were estimated anywhere between 145,000 to roughly 4 million, a statistical uncertainty that demanded one imagine catastrophe at an unimaginable scale. The country had already opened itself to international help in the years earlier with the formation of the China International Famine Relief Commission, which worked with the rapidly growing American Red Cross to distribute food and supplies to famine-prone areas. Yet, the flood was such a catastrophic event, affecting more an estimated 53 million people, it required not just food shipments, but massive and wide-sweeping effort to reconstruct much of the country’s infrastructure, from roads and water supplies to schools and new homes.
The Chinese government petitioned other countries for help and soon the League of Nations had organized an influx of relief workers and “foreign experts” (a bureaucratic designation that persisted all the way through my time there in Peace Corps) who would help rebuild much of the devastated countryside. Following World War II, an even larger cluster of organizations sprang up to aid the “under-developed” regions of the planet, many of which had been directly attacked or further immiserated by the countries building up this new machinery of assistance: the World Bank, The International Monetary Foundation, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the United Nations Development Programme. In The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterly, argues that these tendency toward meeting poverty and suffering with mass mobilizations of development programs as a “technocratic illusion,” in which the political causes of poverty and vulnerability are erased by the simpler explanation that it is instead caused by a “shortage of expertise.” Through this sleight of hand, the autonomy of those in need is claimed by the aid workers, who whittle away generations trying to build up enough technological and infomatic efficiency to lift a community out of poverty. These programs are almost always dependent on rigid authoritarian forms of government that clear the way for a benevolent class of didacts to enact their ideological assumptions with minimal resistance from local populations.
The Peace Corps was formed from this tradition a generation after the end of World War II, offering government-funded pilgrimages into the unmodernized world as inverse proof of Western progress narratives. The group was organized around three fundamental goals: to provide skilled assistance to countries in need; to improve American understanding of other countries; and to improve other countries’ understanding of America. It was always clear the work of international development was far more meaningful to those doing the developing than to those being served. In China, a country of rote disciplinary education and government-dictated university admissions, we brought a group of English teachers heeled in the freewheeling, improvisatory curricula of America. For every one student who excelled with this approach to learning, there were nine others who shut down completely, losing important class time that could have been spent preparing for the unforgiving gao kao exams with frivolities like vocabulary “Jeopardy!” and pop song sing-a-longs (The Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More” was an ironic standard).
To Madagascar, a country with a barely functional government still recovering from a violently contested presidential election in 2001, we brought a group of public health volunteers ready to encourage women to buy birth control, vaccinate their children, and use proper posture when breastfeeding. These arrangements bordered on clownish, with me, a white, childless college graduate explaining to women who’d already raised as many as six and seven children how to breastfeed while encouraging them to spend what little surplus they had on western latex for their partner’s genitalia. It felt like answering someone in a rainstorm who’d asked to share your umbrella with a lecture on atmospheric science. The idea of “developing” other people’s lives and communities has become a collective vice of the wealthy, a vulnerability to the narcissistic over-inflation of one’s least valuable qualities. The absence of running water, toilets, electricity, grocery stores, and hours of entertainment-driven brain stasis seemed like slights against a new kind of natural order that the stubborn poverty of the undeveloped was stifling.
Photograph by UN Photo/Marco Dormino
When I left for Haiti, I was in much the same state of mind as when I first left for the Peace Corps. Without an office or any regular schedule to structure my days, the division between work time and non-work time had eroded to the point where I was editing sentences and formulating pitches in my dreams. I was performing my own narcissistic theater of labor for an audience of uninvested and often antagonistic strangers. It was what I had always wanted to do, though I hadn’t imagined what else would come with it. I began to see just how inconsequential my goals had been, how beside the point the ends were from the work required to achieve them.
Whether this huge disparity between imagined purpose and practical outcome was a historic failing of some socio-economic superstructure or a flaw in my own malformed ego, something was out of place and like any good narcissist I assumed it was me. Even without having read Will Self, I slipped into a project identical to his, seeking to rid myself of the dislocation I felt by trying to discover some new destination, ideally one that seemed arduous and unknowable, a place to walk and wait patiently for pots to boil over. The fantasy of being delivered from the alienating endstates of the developed world turn international aid into a process of imprinting the unknown world with the structural dysfunctions of the known one –to find one’s self through the process of overwriting everything that suggests one’s present self is untenable, while the erasure itself becomes the measure of progress. Development wipes things out—diseases, illiteracy, poverty—clearing space in people’s lives into which new demands for productivity can be transfused.
When I went to Haiti, I had no intention of writing about the country or trying to burrow a linguistic effigy of my pain into a fleeting but somber mischaracterization of another place’s misfortunes. It was an escape from that reflexive mechanism, the lidless writer’s eye that scours everything for new material to feed into the printing press. But the fantasy of a new narrative was irresistible, the idea of something new to discover became a kind of embodied hope for me that there might still be another plateau to reach, another more improved product to take into the market and propel myself forward for a little further. I had found a new way to tell my own story again. Within a few days, I was obsessed, making notes about everything I was seeing and hearing argued, recording my escape in the disordered receipts of another place’s stockroom.
These stories always come to the same conclusion, with the teller disappearing into the developed non-space where the fantasy of other people’s tragedies hardens into an archival wall. Development is the business of discovering new things to wall in and leave behind. I remember crying hard and ugly when I finally finished my three years in Peace Corps, sitting in the window seat of an early morning flight out of Antananarivo, the hot sun filling the cabin as we pulled away from the green rice paddies and red hillsides below. I opened the Air Madagascar tourist magazine and saw a picture of a few young Vezo boys smiling on a blue water beach in the south of the country where I’d lived, the image edited into a perfectly meaningless truth, the smiles of the shirtless and skinny young men about to paddle a small wooden canoe into the Mozambique Channel was right, but they had framed out of the unpassable mud roads, the undrinkably salty well water, the money that had passed so many hands it had started to molder, the sun that was so hot it pinned everyone into a daze every afternoon, the small mudbrick houses that dissolved during cyclone season every year, the days-long walk to the nearest market town.
Having lived there for two years, these hardships hadn’t seemed like tragic crises of modernity but facts of life as immovable as a Starbucks on every corner, a landlord guarding every apartment, or an eight-lane concrete overpass cutting across a meadow. As the plane lifted away from the ground, I felt an overwhelming sensation of loss, an imprecise but blunt realization that the preceding two years, not an especially long period of time, had held in them a compressed intensity of life that had come from my absolute dependence on those people who’d helped my survive in a place I couldn’t have survived in alone. Development is imagining the terms under which you might one day be able to leave a place, to never think of it again, to forget everyone on whom you once depended and who remain there where you left them, while you depart into a void of roaring minutiae that has no memory, no past, no future, and, least of all, no visible present.
The night before I left, UN helicopters spent most of the night hovering over Cité Soleil shining bright spotlights down to guide armored vehicles through the muddy streets. The sound of the truck engines stir the night air as the squad motors back to the UN base near the airport, a presence I can’t see but feel dimly shaking the ground a few hundred yards away from the road, drinking rum in the warm night behind a high-walled hostel with an American aid worker. Nobody seemed to know why. There were no stories about it in the local news or on the radio. Days later, the Centre for Research on Globalization reported that two gangs in Cité Soleil had been fighting with one another that last week in February. The government estimated eight had been killed while Cité Soleil residents counted at least 20.
“I think one election really can make a difference,” the aid worker told me as we listened to the intermittent truck wheels pass on the main road a quarter mile away. In his late forties, he’d lived in Port-au-Prince for a little over two years trying to replace the carbon-monoxide producing charcoal briquettes—a leading cause of the country’s high infant and maternal mortality rate—with briquettes made of compressed paper and cardboard. Less than 2% of Haiti is forested, he said, something the production of charcoal briquettes hastened. The lack of new trees to feed the briquette producers has raised the price of charcoal and eroded the topsoil in the country’s steep mountainous regions, where every new rainfall steepens the hillsides making it difficult for crops to take root. Some of the country’s charcoal comes from people crossing the porous border with the Dominican Republic to cut down their trees to keep the stoves lit. Earlier in the year, the Dominican Republic had begun an aggressive revision of its immigration policy in an attempt at “cleansing” that targeted mostly Haitians, requiring immigrants to either register with the government as migrant workers or face deportation. Persuading people to use a different kind of cooking fuel could change the entire country, he says. The only problem was no one wanted to buy into his story.
It all made sense to me when he said it, and I wanted to make that sense permanent, to possess it as my own little thing on paper, to put it in words that would be even better than his, irresistible and electric. I stayed up for hours writing and reading after he’d left for the night with one last story cautioning against trying to buy a house in Port-au-Prince as he’d done the year before. Because of the antiquated records system, deeds were easy to fake and after he’d signed over cash for a small house on the outskirts of town a Haitian woman had come to the door with a completely separate deed claiming that he was squatting in her family’s house and that it was his deed that had been faked. A set back for him, I supposed. But maybe progress for her. However you looked at it, there was no arguing it was a development.
The next morning, I woke at sunrise and walked along the dusty open sewer back toward the airport, past a public laundry space wet with dozens of flowing faucets, an empty field turned into a trash dump, and the UN’s own separate hangar at the far end of the airport, a high barbed wire fence blocking everything but the hangar roof from view. Inside the airport, I went through four separate security checkpoints. My bags were opened and searched at the ticket counter, then I walked through an X-ray scan, then passed through a ticket-check to reach the waiting area, and finally had one last open bag check and metal detector walk-through at the gate just before entering the plane.
As we started our descent into New York half a day later, I remembered the last ride I’d taken in Haiti on a motorcycle taxi to the hostel the night before I’d left. As we sped through the streets from a bus station on the other end of the city, swerving into oncoming traffic and turning up pedestrian alleys, I was afraid to hold onto the torso of the young man driving the motorcycle. I braced myself against the machine instead, pressing my thighs against the chrome frame. Every time he accelerated from a stop my body lurched, as if the machine itself wanted to throw me. When we arrived, I opened my wallet and gave him the fare plus everything I had left, which was about $4. He held out his fist and I brushed it with my own, the bony grooves of our knuckles fitting together as lightly as eyelashes. Then he drove off into the storm of cars and trucks and other motorcycles, almost all of which had come from some other country, and almost all of which would almost certainly never leave here again. The only thing leaving was me.
About the Author:
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Adult, and Aeon.