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Essay: A Culture in Jeopardy, Too

January 22, 2010

This is from a great journalist who is also at the Olofsson.  Please read her other blogs and view her photos by visiting:

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/essay-11/?scp=1&sq=maggie&st=cse

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Ten days after the earthquake. Where to begin and what to say?

Port-au-Prince has collapsed, as if some clumsy, big-footed giant had walked through it. No video clips or photographs can really capture the extent of the devastation.

The main downtown street, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (called Grande Rue by Haitians), is almost demolished, although the daily frenzy that takes place there has returned. A large Haitian flag flies half-staff at the National Palace, which has fallen in on itself like a tired wedding cake. Streets and neighborhoods around the city are piles of rubble except for a few gingerbread houses — old wooden houses from the French era — that stand proudly erect while everything around them has fallen. Other cities and villages across the land, some small, some larger, have also suffered.

Devastated by the loss of its people and its places, Haiti stands on the precipice of losing something more precious — as audacious as that sounds amid all this death — because it is transcendent.

Haiti stands to lose its culture.

Culture describes a people more than anything. It stems from history. It is the glue that holds a nation together when all else fails. But now that, too, may be lost, in the well-intentioned rebuilding efforts by the international community.

In Haiti, culture is something ephemeral that floats just above the fray of daily life. In it is embedded an identity with ancestors who must be served; a history marked by unimaginable violence and a resounding victory over slavery; a character that might seem eccentric elsewhere but works very well here; a tradition of incredible art and music and story-telling and even voodoo which — despite the claims of missionaries — is perhaps the single most important aspect of life for peasants and slum dwellers.

So here I am, trying to photograph the news, the destruction, the far-too-slow rescue efforts of the international community. (At last, the medical teams arrived. But where is the sustenance that goes beyond a meager handout of biscuits and little plastic bags of water?)

All around me, I see a greater loss. And Haitians see it, too.

Haitians had their culture, if nothing else. If the world is going to rebuild Haiti, Haitians must have a say. And not just the bourgeoisie, who would most likely want to see Port-au-Prince become a modern city without character.

In the streets, in camps that fill every park and empty space, newly homeless people talk about the buildings that collapsed: the National Palace, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Taxation — all of which housed a culture of kleptocracy and corruption that has held Haiti back from becoming what it deserves to be. Maybe the fates decided the corruption had to be felled, even if the people suffered, so that Haiti could move ahead.

The building that remains? The Ministry of Culture.

Haitians are not waiting for handouts. They are rebuilding their homes and getting on with their lives, getting back to business in the markets and on the roads. They cannot afford to wait for foreigners who can’t get organized quickly enough. And so, when I am out looking for what all the other photographers and journalists are looking for, I also look for those quiet, surprising moments that describe a people and culture, that thing that gets them from one day to the next.

I am standing heartbroken in the streets, looking for old friends, appalled by the destruction and the filth. Suddenly and without warning, a little girl in a torn white lace dress and a red ribbon in her hair skips through the tortured scene and reminds me of the fortitude, the beauty, the mystery, the resilience of these people. In Haiti there is a saying: “petit pays, grand peuple” — small country, grand people. And they are.


Ms. Steber has covered Haiti for 30 years. Four of her pictures from 1980 can be seen in the Lens slide show, “Haiti, Alive.” Aperture published her book, “Dancing on Fire: Photographs from Haiti,” in 1992. She reflected on Haiti’s recent history last week before departing for Port-au-Prince in an essay for Lens, “No End of Trouble. Ever.

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