Refusing Invisibility

December 7, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

Yesterday, Joegodson’s father Deland was to return to Gheskio medical centre in Port-a-Prince to follow-up his treatment for malaria and typhus. The hospital doesn’t make appointments; you have to line up with all of the other patients early in the morning to have a chance of being seen. So Joegodson and his brother Jhony put the old plan in motion. Jhony arrives at six in the morning to hold a place in line outside the hospital. Joegodson leaves at five o’clock to travel to Bon Repos where Deland is recovering with his niece, Joegodson’s cousin. He returns with Deland and takes the place that Jhony had reserved. Yesterday, it worked well. Jhony was already inside the hospital when they arrived.

Deland is indeed recovering, but he is extremely weak. He sat next to the line-up awaiting his examination. Jhony returned to Simon. Joegodson was left with the crowd of Haitians waiting for treatment.

In the line was a young man, Patrick, that Joegodson had befriended at the room for Incurables in the hospice in Cite Soleil a couple of years ago. At the time, both had been given up for dead. Patrick had AIDS. Now, he has recovered and is happy. He comes to Gheskio for antiretroviral therapy. He is working again as a cabinetmaker, like Joegodson. Both remembered the despair of confronting death in the squalor of that hospice. Joegodson, who was delirious and dying of a serious disease, recalled hearing his family and friends, who had gathered at his bedside, praying to God for his recovery. But Joegodson was also talking to God, asking Him not to listen to them. He told God that he didn’t want to live on earth anymore.

That revelation began a discussion that came to include everyone waiting at Gheskio. Eventually, it turned – as everything does – into a forum on Haiti’s predicament. Is Haiti destined to die the slow and agonizing death of an animal caught in a trap from which there is no escape?

Why, Patrick asked, did you want to die then?

Joegodson related a simple story, an experience on a taptap. At another time, it might have been unimportant. But as he soon lay dying, it seemed to encapsulate his life in Haiti. The people at Gheskio, waiting to be seen for serious medical conditions, listened attentively. They too saw that it revealed much about their situations and that of Haiti.

One day in the autumn of 2008, Joegodson was being jostled along with other passengers in the back of a taptap on the bumpy road leading to downtown Port-au-Prince. One passenger stood out. He was a white-haired old man who carried himself with dignity. He seemed to be more affluent than the others. He spoke. He said that he was from Les Cayes. He had come to Port-au-Prince to deliver bibles for a mission. However, in Petionville, thieves had stolen everything: the bibles, his wallet with all his money, and even his glasses. Not only was he in an unfamiliar city, but he could not see anything and had no money to get back to Les Cayes. He told the passengers that he was at the end of his rope.

Joegodson decided that, if he offered the man something, it might provoke others to help also. He had fifteen Haitian dollars; he gave the man ten (two dollars US). Indeed, that moved the other passengers to contribute. Before long, everyone had given the near-blind old man something.

When the taptap arrived at Aviation, many of the passengers who had helped him had already descended. The driver stopped and came around to the back. He asked the old man why he was still there. The man had recounted to him his story way up in Petionville when he asked the driver to drop him off at Carrefour Aeroport. Since they were well past that stop, the taptap driver said that he was going to take him to the commissariat of police.

Meanwhile, a woman embarked and was solicited to contribute by the old man’s story. She offered him ten of her fifty Haitian dollars. But she would have to get change. So, she descended at the next stop, which was the commissariat, to get change for the old man.

The driver told the police that this passenger who had first said he was going to Carrefour Aeroport was now continuing to downtown Port-au-Prince and had paid nothing. He left the man with the police and carried on his route.

Joegodson decided to stay with the old man.

Inside the commissariat, Joegodson watched the old man transform himself. He asked the police if they had been soldiers in the (now disbanded) Haitian army. They had been. He told them that he, too, was a veteran soldier. He energetically reproduced some old military manoeuvres to convince the police and to bond with them. It worked. He repeated the story of his theft in Petionville. He told the police that he was trying to get back to Les Cayes, but he could see almost nothing. The police decided to give him twenty dollars, veterans to veteran.

Then they left the commissariat. The woman returned with change and gave twenty dollars to the man. Before embarking on the next taptap to continue on her way, she asked Joegodson for a favour. Would he take the poor old man downtown to the place where the buses left for the countryside to assure his safe departure for Les Cayes? Joegodson agreed to do that.

So, Joegodson and the old man took a taptap downtown. When they arrived, Joegodson wondered aloud about a group of buses, a distance away, that were in very rough shape. “I wonder if those buses are working?” he asked rhetorically. However, the man replied in the affirmative. (‘Without his glasses, how would he know,’ wondered Joegodson.)

“I’ll be alright now,” he told Joegodson. “You carry on, young man. I’ll call you when I return home in Les Cayes to assure you that everything worked out alright.”

So, Joegodson gave him his phone number that the man didn’t write down.

A taptap passed in front them. Joegodson bid farewell and crossed the street to board it. However, once on the other side, he decided instead to hide himself behind some old buses and watch the old man’s progress.

Well hidden, Joegodson saw the old man watch the taptap drive away. Then the old man changed his manner. His aimless stare that suggested blindness disappeared with the taptap that he thought was carrying Joegodson away. He looked all around until his eyes settled upon a young man crossing the street. Then, the blindness descended upon him just in time to reach a vulnerable arm out and ask for help.

“Young man,” he said, “could you help me please find a taptap to Aviation. I have no money and I have lost my glasses.”

The young man, immediately concerned for the plight of the old fellow, slowed his pace and offered his arm.

The people waiting patiently in the hospital had listened attentively. Now they wanted to make sense of it. Joegodson explained that this and another similar incident that fleeced him of all his money had occurred as he was falling ill. He couldn’t shake the despair that overtook him. Who could you trust? When liars and conmen preyed on the noblest of human instincts, what was the use of doing anything? Whenhis illness offered him a way out of his despair, he was relieved. Now, he is recovered and happy, but with no more answers than he had in 2008. Moreover, the snare that held Haiti then has only tightened. If Haiti can’t find a way out, Haitians will never be able to live free.

“All of our little lies spring from a big one. The United States claims that it is helping Haiti. That is the most devious lie. It’s a different scam than the old man used on me, but it’s a con job. The United States only destroys Haiti first so that it can then say that Haiti needs help. And the help helps everyone but Haitians. The farther Haiti falls, the more it appears to need help to get up on its feet. Take the elections. Haiti has only one choice, which is therefore not a choice. It must elect a presidential candidate approved by the United States who will work in their interests, not our own. Why are we bothering to hold elections, then? Who wants the elections? There are two groups: first, people who, like me in relation to the old con man, are swindled into thinking that they are doing something worthwhile. Secondly, foreigners use them for propaganda purposes.”

The United States does not enter Joegodson’s analysis as a force exterior to Haiti needed to save Haitians from themselves. It is foreign, without doubt, but of the same ilk as those who poison life with lies intended only to enrich themselves and impoverish their victims.

The patients discussed the miserable state of the government services. They were facing fatal illnesses in a long line-up while wealthy Haitians flew to clinics to spend untold sums on plastic surgery. Nothing that the Haitian government did was worthwhile, said some. But the Haitian government is the creation of Washington, said others. The Haitian government is allowed to exist only insofar as it implements Washington’s programs.

One man argued that he preferred the foreign establishments. The hospitals run by foreign NGOs were competent. He was dismissive of Haitians. The General Hospital, run by the state, for example, offers terrible service. Joegodson answered that the doctors at the General Hospital went months without being paid. They had to strike for their salaries. There is no equipment. The foreign NGOs never have that problem. They come with money that the state never has. Their doctors are paid and live well in Haiti. No wonder the man could judge that the Haitian government was incompetent. If it is a product of Washington and it can’t pay its own doctors, then who is to blame? Washington.

The people agreed that the man’s response was exactly what the foreign colonists wanted to hear: when Haitians conclude that the government is useless and therefore they look to foreigners, then they confirm the racist thinking that underlies Washington’s agenda. The wheel keeps turning around.

“What can it mean that you, a Haitian, think that Haitians are inferior to whites? Do you mean that you think you are inferior?” Joegodson asked. It turned out to be a rhetorical question.

Washington controls Haitian elections, largely through the United Nations, to ensure American interests. It assures that the resulting government has no funds to work in the interests of the Haitian people. The resulting government, however, allows any investment that imposes Washington’s neoliberal agenda. People from all over the political and social spectra demand that the Haitian government (installed by Washington) be respected. The sleight of hand here is that the actual Haitian people were disappeared during the electoral process never to be seen again. And foreigners present themselves as the answer to Haiti’s problems.

The challenge is enormous: How do you make your voice heard by those who are deaf to you? How do you make yourself visible to people with their eyes shut?

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