Home > musing > I am old in Haiti

I am old in Haiti

November 20, 2014

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.

Categories: musing
  1. macdundas
    November 20, 2014 at 7:40 am

    The lack of a “healthy middle age” in Haiti and the moonscaping of the country has plenty to do with outside interference, don’t you reckon? Surely you looked at some of the history before you went there – beyond the “world’s only successful” slave revolt.
    It’s a slog, but try David Graeber’s Debt the First 5000 Years http://www.amazon.com/Debt-First-5-000-Years/dp/1612191290/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416486340&sr=1-1&keywords=debt+the+first+5000+years which will explain much of what you saw in Haiti
    or much easier http://willthomasonline.net/Murder_In_Haiti.html
    or http://emoglen.law.columbia.edu/twiki/pub/AmLegalHist/ThaliaJulmeproject/Mulatto_Machiavelli,_Edward_Baur.pdf
    or http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/importance-haiti
    That should be enough to start with.


  2. Jack
    November 20, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Sadly, the UN brought Cholera to Hati a few years back by not using proper sanitation techniques:



  3. Mel
    November 20, 2014 at 11:27 am

    “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.”

    Wow. David Graeber again. This time a credit economy rubbing against a debt economy.

    Similar thoughts yesterday chasing a link out of Naked Capitalism: http://edge.org/conversation/the-myth-of-ai . It’s a good paper on its topic (society’s response to/use of AI and computerizing thought and discourse) but on the way through it takes the debt economy to be humanity’s natural state:

    “””The usual counterargument to that is that they are being paid in the sense that they too benefit from all the free stuff and reduced-cost stuff that comes out of the system. I don’t buy that argument, because you need formal economic benefit to have a civilization, not just informal economic benefit. The difference between a slum and the city is whether everybody gets by on day-to-day informal benefits or real formal benefits.

    The difference between formal and informal has to do with whether it’s strictly real-time or not. If you’re living on informal benefits and you’re a musician, you have to play a gig every day. If you get sick, or if you have a sick kid, or whatever and you can’t do it, suddenly you don’t get paid that day. Everything’s real-time. If we were all perfect, immortal robots, that would be fine. As real people, we can’t do it, so informal benefits aren’t enough. And that’s precisely why things, like employment, savings, real estate, and ownership of property and all these things were invented—to acknowledge the truth of the fragility of the human condition, and that’s what made civilization.”””

    The choice ot the term “real-time” is interesting. In the credit economy, needs are met when they arise. In the debt economy the needs are met (or, at least, paid for) when the bill is made up and comes due. I think the point about AI will survive losing this definition.

    I suppose now that I’ve read “Debt: the First 5000 Years” twice, and it’s lead to these thoughts, I’ll have to read it again.


    • November 21, 2014 at 3:12 am

      What is the difference between a credit and debt economy? I usually think of those credit/debt as opposites sides of a single transaction.

      I read Graeber’s book once and would refer to it, but I loaned it to someone who never returned it. Fitting, I suppose.


  4. Mel
    November 21, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    That’s why i need a 3rd reading of Graeber’s book — to make sure I’m clear on this. As I’m using the words, a credit economy is the sort of thing that runs in a small community. People get favours from people around them as they need, and a kind of loose accounting by reputation tends to keep the community generally in balance.
    Debt comes about when communities are broken open. People become accustomed to dealing with total strangers, whom they never saw before and may never see again. To-the-penny accounting is used, since there’s no relationship in which balance can be re-established if it’s broken. There is no society, only individuals 😉
    In the original article I was struck by people contracting loans (strictly accounted, legally enforceable debt) and then giving the money to their neighbours who need it (favour done, repayable someday, somehow when the donor needs a hand.)


  5. Sara
    November 22, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    Without intending to detract from the uniqueness of Haiti’s slave revolt, it is not the only successful slave revolt. A revolt in St Croix hastened emancipation in the Danish West Indies in 1848.

    There were also other ultimately unsuccessful but long-lasting revolts in the Caribbean. Typically multiple European (colonizing) nations would team up to put down these rebellions because they were terrified that their colonies would also go the way of Haiti. This fear and the collective European attitude to Haiti is one of the factors that explains how Haiti was transformed into what it is today.


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