This story appears in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Haitian student photographers ranged in age from 14 to their mid-30s, and they’d come from all parts of the country and from all backgrounds. Their mandate was so simple it verged on radical: To show the world Haiti as it is rarely seen—as they saw it. Not just a country of disasters, shocks, and aftershocks but also a place shot through with sunlight and glittering sea, a place stunned into focus by a child in an impeccable school uniform, rollicked by music and the seemingly spontaneous eruption of dancers blowing on bamboo trumpets through the haze of a street party. A place of pride and possibility.
“That’s good, because Haitians are tired of seeing stories in foreign papers about how helpless we are,” said Junior St. Vil, my translator and a travel consultant who has also embarked on a law degree. “There is so much beauty here, so much power.” St. Vil suggested I visit a Vodou priest, or houngan, in Arcahaie, a coastal town about 25 miles from Port-au-Prince. “He has the most elaborate temple in all of Haiti. And I think he is a very impressive man,” St. Vil said.
I arrived at the temple on a sweltering mid-August afternoon. Dogs roused themselves from the shade of banana trees and barked apologetically. An assistant hurried out to hush them. He explained that the priest was tired, that he’d been up much of the night performing telepathic services for a client in Miami. Nevertheless the venerated man, who asked me not to give his name, emerged from an inner room of the temple in a black wool beret, a polyester leopard-print T-shirt, black surfing shorts, and a gold chain. He reminded me of a Hollywood depiction of a minor African dictator on vacation.
“So many people work in the Iron Market. I was happy it was rebuilt after the earthquake.”
With photography, a message can be passed without words.
I buy bread from her every day, and I took this picture because they’re a happy family and work hard to be happy.
“Are you one of those who agree that Haitians are incapable of running their own affairs?” he asked. “That we are children in need of supervision?” He spoke slowly and unexcitedly, in the manner of one not used to being contradicted, much less supervised. The scent of perfume recently offered to Vodou spirits hung in the air. Puddles of candle wax dotted the sprinklings of flour—intricate invocations to the spirits, called vèvès—at the center of the temple’s floor.
Vodou recognizes the existence of a supreme god, Bondye, which is Creole for Bon Dieu(Good God), but leaves most of the day-to-day heavy lifting—success in business, happiness in love—to scores of spirits, or lwas, that are manifestations of Bondye. Most were borrowed from West African and Congolese pantheons and were made to correspond to Roman Catholic saints. Vodou originated as the religion of the island’s slaves, and it remains deeply embedded in the culture of those slaves’ descendants—in other words, almost everyone.
A ubiquitous religion that outsiders find difficult to comprehend and impossible to control is a threat to those who hope to have total power. When French colonial masters tried to suppress it in the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice went underground. After the country gained independence, in 1804, the Haitian elite did all they could to eradicate Vodou. It went underground again. From 1915 to 1934, when the United States occupied Haiti, U.S. Marines destroyed Vodou temples, confiscating sacred drums, and the religion went subterranean yet again.
Today Vodou is visible everywhere. In yards and private homes there are altars devoted to Vodou spirits. Whole sections of the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince are dedicated to Vodou potions, Vodou art, and buckets of live turtles—“Vodou pets,” a vendor explained. Although its mere existence is proof of its power of endurance, Vodou still feels secretive and elusive.
“No, we don’t need promises of outside help,” the priest said, gesturing toward the temple. “This temple was built and decorated entirely by the community, voluntarily.” He leaned back in his chair. “The spirit of Haiti cannot be destroyed. Even the worst disaster cannot eradicate us.”
Haiti is the country in the Western Hemisphere most vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. Hurricanes and floods are common. The first recorded earthquake hit in 1562. Quakes aren’t nearly as frequent as hurricanes and floods, but since the early 1900s concrete block and reinforced-concrete construction—which hold up better than wood against wind, fire, and rushing water—has been used for houses, hospitals, and schools. Yet when the ground shakes, concrete buildings crack and collapse easily.
Haiti’s latest and most catastrophic earthquake—a magnitude 7—struck just west of Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. Untold thousands perished in the disaster. The Haitian government eventually put the figure at 316,000. A team funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimated that the number could not have exceeded 85,000. A group of American academics calculated fatalities at 158,000. The quake also exposed the weakness of modern Haitian buildings. In minutes the overcrowded city folded. Structures that represent the statehood of a nation—the presidential palace, the National Assembly, the main jail, the national cathedral, the central tax office—were all destroyed.
With each disaster, in an effort to help, foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and missionaries flood the country with such predictability that some locals call the period in the aftermath of hurricanes “missionary season.” Of course, not all do-gooding is created equal. Though many foreigners stay for only a few days, in what amounts to a mercy vacation, others remain for years of grueling, often vital, work in a country that lacks basic services. Haiti has more than 4,000 registered NGOs, but there is no effective oversight of foreign aid institutions, no formal impartial measure of the efficacy of the aid, not even a tally of how many missionaries are in the country. All anyone knows is that there are thousands.
“We haven’t learned how to shut the door to the mechanics who want to come and fix us,” Nixon Boumba, a Haitian human rights activist, told me. “They change the parts, but they don’t fix the car. And of course, things got worse after the earthquake. People were so desperate for relief. They put out their hands for help.” He stretched out his hands in an impression of the walking dead. “But after too long like that, you can become a zombie.”
Of the more than six billion dollars in international aid donated to the country for humanitarian and recovery work following the disaster, only 9.1 percent was channeled directly to the government and less than 0.6 percent went directly to Haitian NGOs and businesses. The U.S.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research found that most of the USAID money it could follow went to U.S. companies and organizations, more than half in the Washington, D.C., area alone. “Money visits money,” St. Vil said, citing an adage of his mother’s.
What is not in dispute is that more than a million Haitians were displaced—as their ancestors had been by slavery, by natural disasters, and by despotic leaders. The most infamous of those leaders, at least in recent times, were the U.S.-backed Duvaliers: François “Papa Doc,” whose dictatorship lasted from 1957 until his death in 1971, and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” who took over his father’s misrule.
Baby Doc was just 19 when he came to power, a pudgy teenager with a taste for the fast life. Most Haitians assumed his tenure would be mercifully short-lived. But the U.S., which had been sending up to $3.8 million a year in aid when Baby Doc took over—as a reward for the country’s anticommunist stance—hiked that figure to $35.5 million in 1975, because of Baby Doc’s pledge to continue his father’s anticommunist ideology and because the son was more blatantly sycophantic to U.S. business interests. Baby Doc used most of the U.S. aid to keep himself in power, bankrolling a force of up to 9,000 soldiers and tens of thousands of Tonton Macoutes, the private militia formed by his father. (Tonton Macoute is Creole for Uncle Knapsack, a character in Haitian folklore who snatched mischievous children and made them disappear into his knapsack.) Baby Doc went further, creating the Leopard Corps, his own elite counterinsurgency and personal security force trained by the U.S. military.
By the time Baby Doc was ousted in a popular uprising, which culminated in his fleeing to France in February 1986, Haiti was an unmitigated mess. During the nearly three decades of tyranny under the Duvaliers, an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Haitians were killed, many by the Tonton Macoutes, who also raped or tortured countless of their fellow citizens. Up to a million others fled, most to the U.S., elsewhere in the Caribbean, or to France.
Ten months after Baby Doc left, the International Monetary Fund loaned Haiti $24.6 million. In return the Haitian government was required to reduce tariffs on imported rice and other agricultural products. A trade liberalization push in the mid-1990s—championed by President Bill Clinton, a longtime visitor to Haiti and a self-proclaimed supporter of its people—pried open Haiti’s markets even more, and rice tariffs were lowered from 50 percent to 3 percent. Heavily subsidized U.S. rice flooded the Haitian markets, much of it from Arkansas, Clinton’s home state. Haitian farmers’ rice couldn’t compete with the cheap and donated imports. Many farmers, after chopping down the last of their trees to sell for charcoal, gave up and flooded the cities, crowding into slums.
In March 2010 Clinton apologized for his role. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked,” he told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to … I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.”
Since there is less insecurity in town, there are more people in the streets at night and even more on weekends.
I love my roots, and I take a lot of photos that represent what my roots are.
In 1492, when Christopher Columbus first saw the island of what became known as Hispaniola, he called it “a wonder.” But you can’t eat beauty, so the Spanish did the next most ruinous thing: They mined every ounce of gold they could easily find, enslaving the native Taino to do so. As a result, almost all the Taino subsequently died, either from overwork or introduced European diseases, especially smallpox.
Then came the French colonists, who took over the western third of the island for 140 years and made themselves among the wealthiest people on Earth at that time. They brought up to a million African slaves to the colony they called Saint-Domingue to raze the land’s legendary forests—“tall trees of different kinds which seem to reach the sky,” Columbus had written—for hardwood to furnish their mansions in Europe and to make room for lucrative sugarcane and coffee plantations. The incipient environmental disaster—Haiti is now one of the most deforested nations on Earth, with less than 2 percent of its land covered by forest—paled in comparison with the human rights catastrophe that was under way.
French masters in Saint-Domingue treated their slaves so brutally that they died in the thousands. To replace their dead slaves, the French imported more. By the night of August 22, 1791, when a Vodou priest called Boukman gave the signal to begin the uprising that would become the most successful slave revolt in history, slaves—two-thirds of them African born—outnumbered masters by ten to one. In 1804, after 13 years of bloody insurrection, Haiti emerged as the world’s first independent black state.
The impression of Africa in Haiti remains indelible. Almost as soon as I landed at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, I had the disquieting sense that I’d landed not on a lobster-claw-shaped chunk of island in the Caribbean but in a small sub-Saharan African nation. Or rather in an African country of the imagination, as if Haiti were a mythical chip off the mother continent, adrift in the wrong hemisphere.
It was the smell first and foremost: carbolic soap; charcoal smoke from the street-food kiosks selling fresh conch, corn fritters, and roasted pork; and the scent of tropical foliage emanating from irrigated gardens in the suburb of Pétionville. In one of these pockets of affluence, an ailing Baby Doc, having returned in 2011 from a 25-year exile in France, was living out his last days in unmolested peace.
The presence of the failing ex-dictator, who died on October 4, 2014, did not seem to be exciting much local attention, perhaps because people had enough current political incompetence to cope with. Parliamentary and municipal elections were already three years overdue. Nevertheless the electoral council of President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who once sang konpa, a modern Haitian merengue, announced that the elections would be postponed indefinitely. Preliminary parliamentary elections were finally held in August 2015. (By the time you read this, follow-up parliamentary and presidential elections may—or may not—have happened.) In the view of some of her citizens, Haiti had become less democratic than anarchic.
Wittily desperate graffiti was splashed across the capital city. “Occupation = Martelly,” a reference to the ongoing presence of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which since 2004 has kept thousands of troops in the country. “Martelly = cholera,” a reference to an ongoing cholera epidemic that first hit Haiti in late 2010, presumed to have been brought by a Nepali contingent of MINUSTAH. “Martelly = pink flea,” a reference to his pale complexion and his perceived bloodsucking propensities. And “Martelly = the colonists’ servant,” a reference to his subservience to Washington, D.C.
“The government has created a big hole, and then it does nothing to stop that hole being filled by those who come to extract every last drop of energy, initiative, and wealth from us,” Nixon Boumba told me. “We can’t keep giving ourselves away. We must continue to stand up for ourselves, for our land, for the wealth beneath our feet.”
When he spoke of the wealth beneath Haitians’ feet, Boumba wasn’t speaking in metaphor. The value of the gold and other minerals—copper, silver, iridium—under Haiti’s ground isn’t known, but exploratory drilling suggests that they may be worth $20 billion. In December 2012 the Office of Energy and Mines issued the first three permits to mine gold and copper. A member of parliament later complained that he’d learned about the permits from the radio. Two months later the senate passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a moratorium on mining. To get around the deadlock, Haitian government officials invited the World Bank to redraft the mining law, which it did, in close consultation with mining-company officials.
In January 2015, with the assistance of the New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic and the California-based Accountability Counsel, the Haiti Mining Justice Collective lodged a complaint with the World Bank. It alleged that Haitians had been left out of World Bank–funded efforts to draft new legislation intended to attract foreign investors to finance extraction of Haiti’s gold and other minerals. In February the Inspection Panel—a body established to address complaints by people affected by World Bank–sponsored projects—refused on technical grounds to register the complaint.
Some Haitian activists see the World Bank’s cozy relationship with foreign mining companies and disregard for the concerns of Haitian civil society groups as an exhausting repetition of the disastrous arrival of cheap U.S. rice. “Recolonization comes in two forms,” Boumba warned. “Either the foreign entities use your space to invade your markets with their own products, or they simply steal what you have. But there are a group of us prepared to fight the extractive habit.” He told me about Samuel Nesner, a young farmer and activist in the country’s remote northwest who volunteers in his spare time to help farmers better understand their rights and the language of those who would remove minerals from their land.
It takes about six hours to drive from Port-au-Prince to Chansolme, a community on the Trois Rivières, but it feels like a country apart from the city, more like the Haiti seen through the eyes of the students who took photographs for this story—a place of refuge and nurturing, as home is supposed to be. Mango and palm trees fringed the rough dirt road. There was also the occasional stand of ceiba trees, giants up to 200 feet tall with buttressed trunks like pylons. Sacred to Vodou’s Loko—spirit of vegetation and guardian of sanctuaries—the trees haven’t been chopped down. The wide river flowed clear and strong, coming in and out of view as we drove along its bucolic banks. Small herds of sleek cattle grazed its shores; villagers and their children bathed and swam.
Twenty-eight-year-old Nesner met me in Chansolme. The rest of his family has the surname Nelner, but when Samuel was born, his mother, who’s illiterate, had someone else put his name on the birth certificate. “I think I am the only person in Haiti with this name,” he said. When Nesner was six, his father died of heart problems, and perhaps because of this, the child was always in search of a father figure to inspire him. When he was 17, Nesner met Hansy Vixamar, now 55, a longtime community activist who had settled in the region three decades earlier as a newlywed.
Leading me up to Vixamar’s home, Nesner explained that the older man had inspired him to become a volunteer in his own community. “He reminds me that it is all about education and empowerment,” Nesner said. “Historically mining has negatively impacted the environment, poisoning water and soil. The problem is, if you are an uneducated, illiterate peasant, how can you argue with someone with an engineering degree, someone in political power, someone from the World Bank?”
When we reached the house, we found Vixamar sitting almost motionless on his veranda, frail and slim, dressed in a clean white undershirt and matching shorts. He has diabetes and recently had suffered a stroke. He’d been hospitalized in Port-au-Prince, but his situation had appeared hopeless. “He seemed near death,” his wife, Micheline, told me. But then, she said, Vodou spirits came to him in the hospital and told him to return home. It had proved something of a tonic.
As I asked questions, Vixamar replied softly and haltingly but with a gentle persistence, while his face remained infused with a peace that became all the more extraordinary as his story unfolded. In August 1988, during the shaky period following the Duvaliers’ reign, with its series of short-lived governments dominated by henchmen, Vixamar had been arrested for attempting to help farmers negotiate a fair price for their coffee. “The peasants worked so hard to grow coffee, then the big guys—ex-military, lawyers, judges, people in power—would export the coffee and pay very low prices or pay nothing at all,” he said. “I realized we have to come together and resist the ways in which others can so easily take advantage of us.”
The farmers massed at the jail and demanded Vixamar’s release. “That inspired me more,” he said. “There was a unity among the peasants then. This was before the influx of aid and missionaries came and disrupted that unity. But the seed of that spirit remains.”
Side by side we have shared a lot of beautiful moments through photography. We have had no regrets.
Then Vixamar lifted a shaky hand and gestured toward his garden, as if his mind had suddenly slipped off its tracks. “When my wife and I came here,” he said, “there was just one mango tree. So we built our house near the tree and started from there. Always planting and planting. This can happen all over. From one mango tree to a forest of mixed trees.” I understood then that he was speaking in metaphor. He was the mango tree. Samuel was the beginning of a new indigenous forest.
By early afternoon Vixamar was clearly tiring. Before I left, I asked him if he had any message for the world beyond his shaded Haitian refuge. He smiled. “Please tell the U.S. government to stop bothering our country and give us a chance to take destiny in our own hands. That will contribute to peace in the world.”
Vixamar’s solution seemed unlikely and at the same time an understandable response to a history that experience would suggest is programmed to repeat itself. Nesner agreed, but he had an answer. “If ordinary Haitian people have a say on whether and how Haitian mineral wealth is extracted, that may finally change the pattern.” He appeared undisturbed by the overwhelming odds against his endeavors. “Haitians are rooted in resistance. Logically, if Vodou is what took people from slavery to freedom, anyone who wants to dominate us again will have to take away our Vodou. But you cannot eradicate that which is secret, that which is everywhere. Imagine what we have survived already. No one can eradicate us.”
I understood then that Nesner was casting deep into what it means to be Haitian, which is to say, where outsiders might see a history of defeat and disaster, he saw a history of struggle, instigated by African slaves and inspired by a collective culture.
Founded in 2010, FotoKonbit is a Haitian-run, U.S.-based nonprofit organization that teaches photography to youths and adults in Haiti.