The 25th Annual Haitian Studies Association conference took place in Port-au-Prince, Haiti this year. It was a silver anniversary for the organisation and the first time the conference had been organised in Haiti since the earthquake of 2010. The location of the Karibe Hotel in the affluent area of Pétionville, meant that at times it felt as if it could have been a tourist complex situated on any Caribbean island. Whilst hundreds of scholars, some activists and a small number of community workers discussed representations, revisions and responsabilities of scholarship on Haiti, the setting seemed far removed from the realities of Haitian life today. We complained about the tourists making too much noise by the pool, ordered paninis and Prestige beer, and took long hot showers while we could. For two days I was in a Karibe bubble, with only the odd glimpse of Haitian reality. Stood on the balcony of our room I could view the hillside directly opposite the hotel and from a distance could see the pink, yellow, purple and blue painted facades of the precariously perched bidonville, Jalousie. Yet once the sun went down this cheerful palette, Haiti’s own favela chic, was plunged into darkness, reminding me of the lack of basic amenities available to the residents. Pretty shades of paint to make it look postcard picturesque for the tourists of Pétionville have been provided before sanitation and electricity. It was also quite nauseating to think what our brightly lit hotel must’ve looked like from where Jalousie is situated.
One of the questions I keep getting asked since returning a second time to Haiti , is whether the situation has improved since my last trip. I was last in Port-au-Prince for the Ghetto Biennale in 2011, almost two years after the earthquake. This proves a difficult question to answer as while on the surface, the visage of Port-au-Prince seems to have changed, I am not yet sure if the quality of life of its inhabitants has improved at the same rate. In 2011, I stayed in Champ-de-Mars, directly opposite the huge tent camp that encompassed all the statues whose pictures I had studied in Haitian history books. The statue of the Neg Mawon was being used to dry washing off and was entangled in strings holding up the tents and shelters acting as temporary homes. The inhabitants of this tent camp were moved soon after our departure. Champ de Mars in 2013 looks very different, with a new children’s playground – though I didn’t see any children playing there – and the MuPanah Pantheon re-opened, which I was able to visit this time. Yet I couldn’t help wondering about all those people and where they are now? Have they merely been displaced to the tent camps on the edge of town?
Even returning to Grand Rue, where the Atis Rezistans live, I was impressed by how smart the area looked. The front of the locale seemed to have been spruced up – and even the sales front of the artists had altered. I was actually quite keen to buy a sculpture while there this time around, but not an art hustler in sight.
As anti-Martelly demonstrations were heading our way during a study day at La Faculté d’Ethnologie, myself and other conference participants were hastily bused back to our hotel before the protesters and tear gas arrived. School children and old women rushed to get home to avoid the march, which was heading for the affluent suburb of Pétionville. A few days later walking in the streets of Delmas (where I stayed for the remainder of my time in Port-au-Prince), several people started to chant “Pé-tion-ville! Pé-tion-ville!” while walking up the hill. A few days later still, after I had flown back to London, these were the scenes, stretching from Delmas to Pétionville as Haitians demanded elections – that have so far been postponed.
This is nothing new for Haitians and so when people ask me about how Haiti is doing, I don’t even feel the need to mention the marches or these kind of scenes.
In the guesthouse in Delmas, a North American missionary worker asked us what we were doing in Haiti. It had been a couple of days since the conference and I was genuinely feeling like a tourist, having visited various sites and generally in a relaxed frame of mind. So I gave him the reply: “On holiday.” His response: “You came to HAITI on HOLIDAY!!!!!” Horrified he suggested Disneyland as a preferable destination next time. But I plan to stay well clear of Disasterland and return to bel Ayiti as soon as I can.