Issue 2 : Spring 2011

About Author:

  • Opal Palmer Adisa

    Opal Palmer Adisa, an internationally recognized literary critic, poet, writer, storyteller and photographer, hails from the Caribbean, and is the editor of The Caribbean Writer, the literary gem of the Caribbean - More...

The Voices of Haiti: A Photo-Poetic Rendering

Perhaps I should begin with a disclaimer: I am neither Haitian nor poor.

Perhaps I could state that my only connection with Haiti is through Boukman, the Jamaican Obeah man who somehow made his way to Haiti and led a voodun ceremony that fortified and made Toussaint L’Ouverture resolute. Like Boukman, I too am Jamaican. And Toussaint and Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines have  long been my heroes.

Perhaps I should mention that I have only been to Haiti once, for five days.

Perhaps I should cite, as fate would have it, on my second day in Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka Baby Doc, the former dictator returned to Haiti; he stayed in Hotel Karibe,  the same hotel where I was in residence; and fate further aligned things that, not only was he staying on the third floor where I was installed, but he was just four doors down from mine, he in 303 and I at the end of the hall in 313 -- I had to pass his room to get to mine. The Tuesday when they came to arrest him, I had to walk down a hallway lined with eight police men, armed with M16, on both sides of the hallway. Perhaps, I should also mention, that I did want to interview Jean-Claude about why now his return, did he bring any of the money he stole to help the country get back on its feet? I did write my request on my university business card and slipped it under his door, and was often tempted to knock on his door, just to say hello, but not speaking any French, I refrained.

And perhaps, just perhaps the romantic notions I hold about Haiti are just that -and it being the first in the new world to victoriously win its freedom, while a fact, could very well be a footnote in history for after all, in the last 50 years Haiti’s profile in the news has been one negative heaping after another.

Perhaps I should mention that I had read and re-read and also taught Jacques Roumain’s Master of the Dew, which I love, as well as the Negritude poet, Jean Price-Mars and more recently have read and taught and interviewed Edwidge Danticat, the much celebrated Haitian writer.

And perhaps the people I encountered in Haiti, and whose images you will see are as far apart from you and I as people can be in the same room.

Perhaps this is nothing more than homage, but maybe it is also my way as writer and artist to find my way through language and imagery into the real voices of Haiti, those Haitians that I encountered… For what is the “role” of an artist in the midst of catastrophic, natural disaster? What are the stories that the reporter glides over in his overview? What stories call to the writer begging for a space to share, to speak another truth.

I have longed used my writerly disposition to make up stories about people, and sometimes after I am done and I speak to these people, I am amazed at the accuracy, or rather how close I came to capturing the kernel of their life. I spoke to many people on this trip to Haiti, interviewing them through my very able guide; I toured organized and make-shift camps, I watched people keenly, and often, I took their photographs, very quickly, sometimes sneakily, when they were unaware, partly because I didn’t want them posing, I wanted to capture them natural, in the act of whatever they wereengaged in. The camera is my other eyes and ears, and just like my own, it is very selective and bias, but it forges another path into people who pique my interest, people whose stories clamor to be told.

Perhaps I should say I am not a journalist, but I am telling a story about Haiti, and I would like to think these mini stories provide yet another composite in an infinite story of self determination, bravery, tenacity and the will to live. These too are Haiti’s stories. And after all, that is all history is, a series of stories that attempt to show what happened, the journey with all its mishaps and triumphs; and that is really all a writer/poet/photographer does, is to tell the same story from a different angle and leave it up to the readers to decide which point-of-view to believe, credit, retell and honor.

And perhaps I should say with all honesty that I left Haiti feeling drained, feeling overwhelmed, feeling both hopeless and jubilantly hopeful, but also terribly frustrated because I cannot image how Port au Prince can be ameliorated, I cannot see a way out for the majority of people, and I am truly puzzled. How can a people who take so much pride in their appearance, who are so enormously creative in all ways, who have such awesome spirit of survival, not have a collective will to not just rise up, but to change fundamentally their socio-economic conditions? How is that possible? Why do they think they need a leader, when they have been surviving without one? Don’t they recognize the Toussaint and Dessaline in themselves?

Finally, perhaps I should say, I love you Haiti, and I don’t want to be a stranger or a voyeur to your plight and your ways, but mostly, I must say I admire your fortitude, your creativity, and also what I see as your gentleness, your willingness to ride the tides until they settle into a sea of smooth glass. So these poetic photos are my offerings to you as love, as support, to give you back glimpses of yourselves, to say I am one with you and share a dream, for, not just a brighter tomorrow, cliché as it is, but I share your dream to dream beyond what is, to what is possible.



I Will I Can

hunger was a madness that sat in my

stomach making me think crazy thoughts


i had tried stealing to appease it but that

was dangerous madness turning me into


someone i feared yet being the oldest mama

depended on me since not even a glimpse of


papa we saw anywhere and all around us

life was crushing us like a trail of ants under


one’s foot without food laughter

left our cramped two-rooms mama vex


all the time my little brother always

sick/ his belly an empty balloon my sisters


and my skin ashy our eyes roaming like

wild animals facing off each other then


a boy like myself told me where i could

learn he said to feed myself with my own hands


i wanted to see this magic that hands could

make and now here i am with over thirty pieces


i make something even when i am not in the mood

then a feeling like happiness slips in sometimes


bringing even a smile here we help each other

we are shown how to touch wood and junk


and find their worth and make something that

is first like noise inside your head then it turns


into a song that you must sing and that’s when i

know i can and i will be more than the garbage

that surrounds me



Nothing New

it’s not just about making do

but rather making something


happen we women have always

understood this so are not thrown


by natural disasters or being born

behind a toxic dump we are our


own way and while others might

judge us as accepting our lot each


day that we go out to face existence we

dream a way to remove the litter


from our door-step to create a path cleaner

for our children to be more forgiven of


the men we love who often stumble and

in their fright abuse us and neglect their


offsprings we know more than we can articulate

clean water is a divine right but when


others pollute and make it a commodity

we must go within then surge and feed

this nation




regardless of devastation you see

i am here to remind you


that time is always available to those with

eyes washed clean and vision that stretches


like a telescope as long as i am present

there is more that hope there is possibility


for those who know life is sweeter than a

promise of coconut bread or bitter as a hot cup


of bile every moment of every day even in the rubble

that the earthquake left behind you can find verve


and no where is it more present that here where

artistic production out weighs the tons of food


we cultivate for the people are neither survivors

nor victims every time they choose breath every


time they dig deeper and transform their lives

they reflect my tenacity to live beyond knowing

and subsist in the realm of grace



Once Home

when you passed through

the door home was tender


touches and words more sturdy

that yam helped you navigate


the grays and potholes of life

it held celebrations and served as


meeting place where life got

created and born over and over


and tears and disappointments

were simmered and sauted into sauce


i watched babies become girls

become women son become


man and leave for florida

for education leave for brooklyn


for opportunity the same old story

of leaving

always leaving


but when it collapsed and they

were all gone i no longer cursed


the leaving i heaved a deep sigh

of relief and gratitude what is


home will never be destroyed

the tear drop a boil on my lid




when the earth shook like big

waves breaking against rocks


then cracked open like a precious

egg we can only afford on special


occasions mama papa little brother

baby and me fell over and rolled like


balls no one wanted then papa grabbed

hold and clutched me as tightly as the scraps


doll mama had sewed for me that i used to clutch

in sleep but that is long lost now papa eyes were


like hurricane rain wild and blinding forcing you to

huddle then the ground was the ground once


more and papa reached out and we all hugged

in a tight circle laughing and crying and


crying and laughing until we looked around

and heard the wails and cry for help


papa ran here and there helping all he

could a whole year we making do then


papa can’t eat anything his arms weak

mama spooning him water little brother


and me helping mama hair uncombed

no money for doctor papa body cold


cholera they say cholera and i don’t mind

that papa grabbed me so tightly

so tightly i couldn’t breathe like i’m breathing


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