I am old in Haiti
I am old in Haiti. This fact dawns on me slowly over the six days I am there, because there is so much to take in. Mostly I figure it out because I am constantly amazed by how beautiful and healthy everyone looks. But then again, I keep finding myself thinking, people who are 24 often look healthy and beautiful. It’s when you’re 54 that you begin to show signs of wear and tear. I will reserve judgment until I see older folks.
But then, after a while, I realize how few people I’ve seen that are 54, or even 44, or even 39. Almost nobody, in fact. Every now and then a very old person will cross the street slowly, hobbling with a stick for support. On my 6th day there I tried to figure out exactly how old such people were. Maybe not much older than me, in fact.
The statistics, which I don’t look at until afterwards, back up my observation. A third of the population is below the age of 15, half of the population is below the age of 20, and 70 percent of the population is below the age of 30. Probably the places I went, the cities, skew even younger. It looks like about 25% of the women of childbearing age are pregnant, and all of the women are of childrearing age. The population has tripled in Haiti since 1950 and it isn’t slowing down. If anything it’s bumping up because of the devastating 2010 earthquake – women tend to replace their lost babies by even more babies after such events.
This matters because the Haitian land is overpopulated. In fact it’s worse than that: the land suffers from a severe erosion of its topsoil, due to deforestation over the years. In part – get this – Haiti was deforested to repay the debt to France for letting them be free back in the early 1800’s after the (world’s only successful) slave revolt. But it’s continued since then, and when you chop down all your trees, the rains take away your topsoil, which means your land slowly becomes desert. For the most part that’s what it looks like when you drive through. The result is not very much agriculture, and when you combine that with a fast-growing population, you get an horribly unsustainable situation.
In spite of all these problems, and in part because of them, the Haitians I came across seem incredibly nice to me and to each other. Trucks, people, motorcycles, cars, and 4-by-4’s compete for space in the one-lane roads in Port Au Prince but everyone stops dead when a young child needs to cross the street. It is a society that cherishes safety and looking out for one another.
When the water and soda sellers come to our public bus window to offer us drinks, and someone wants a cake instead, or to buy minutes for their cell phone, there’s a scramble by the nearby vendors to find the cake seller or the roaming Digicelwoman. The sellers at each stop form a collective that look out for each other, because if they didn’t look out for each other they’d all be screwed.
The same is true for with any resource. A UN worker we met explained that microfinance researchers are frustrated by Haitians when they try to estimate the impact of their loans, because they keep finding that a family has borrowed money and given it to another family. But if they didn’t share resources locally, all the families in a given neighborhood would be risking too much. It is better to be known as a generous person so that in a time of scarcity people will be generous to you. Your reputation is your most valuable asset.
When I think about how we live here in New York – where I don’t know most of my neighbors’ names, and nobody can see what happens behind closed doors, and we hoard resources except in our most immediate family – I feel like we’re missing out on something valuable. At the same time, privacy is nice, and I don’t think most Haitians have much of that. Not to mention a healthy middle age.