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Praying for Haiti

January 25, 2010


Our son Scott spent a month in Haiti in 1999. He worked with other volunteers to provide clean water for several villages. It was from Scott that I learned much about the most improvised country in our hemisphere.

Haiti was once a lush island nation. Over the years, its people have cut down almost all of its original forests to make charcoal for cooking fuel. In the process, fertile farmland was destroyed. Deforestation has caused soil erosion and periodic flooding. Tropical storms frequently batter the island, often causing thousands of deaths.

Less than half of the population of Haiti has access to basic health care. Many of its children are not vaccinated. Ninety percent of Haiti’s children suffer from waterborne diseases and intestinal parasites.  More than half of the deaths in Haiti are attributed to HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, meningitis, cholera, and typhoid. Each year some 30,000 people in Haiti suffer from malaria.

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. The epicenter was west of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. This is yet another blow, adding misery to misery.

The Prime Minister said that as many as two hundred thousand people may be dead because of the quake. The devastation included the Presidential palace, Parliament, other public structures, countless homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, and shantytowns. A second tremor shook the island nation on January 20.

Five days after the initial earthquake, the New York Times carried an article by Madison Smartt Bell, “Haiti in Ink and Tears: A Literary Sampler.”

Bell writes, “Today is a good day to remember that in Haiti, nobody ever really dies.” According to the precepts of Haitian Vodou, spirits of the Haitian dead do not depart as in other religions but remain close to the living, invisible but tangible.

Bell writes, “That extraordinary spiritual reservoir has enabled Haitians to laugh at death, as they have too often needed to do.”

The United States is a near neighbor to Haiti, but in terms of our understanding of suffering, we are worlds apart.

That Haitian spirit is the source of energy that has produced an extraordinarily optimistic culture. Haiti has given the world a panorama of visual art, a wealth of hypnotic music, and a sophisticated body of literature. It is that indomitable spirit that enables the people to survive even the most difficult circumstance.

Haiti has experienced a turbulent history. Along with the Dominican Republic, Haiti occupies the island of Hispaniola. Christopher Columbus landed here in December 1492, claiming the island for Spain. The indigenous people, the Taíno Indians, destroyed the first Spanish settlement. Columbus moved to the eastern side of the island and established La Isabela.

The Spaniards exploited the island for its gold. The Taínos who refused to work in the mines were killed or sold into slavery.

The first recorded smallpox outbreak in the Americas occurred on Hispaniola in 1507. Europeans brought with them infectious diseases. The indigenous people had no immunity. 

 The Taínos who evaded capture fled to the mountains and established independent settlements. The Spanish governors began importing enslaved Africans for labor. Taínos survivors mixed with escaped African slaves to produce Creoles, a mixture of European, Indian, and African ancestry.

Hispaniola became a haven for pirates. Several French buccaneers settled on the western side of the island.  Jean Lafitte, a pirate who operated in New Orleans and Galveston, was born in Port-au-Prince.

The Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 divided the Island of Hispaniola. France received the western third.  The eastern side was given to the Spanish. French colonists soon arrived, 30,000 strong, to occupy the western part of the island. French became the official language, though most of the population spoke Creole.

Over the next one hundred years both Spain and Great Britian attacked the French colony.

Toussaint l’Ouverture, a former slave, led a revolt. He drove out, not only the Spaniards, but also British invaders. He restored stability and prosperity. He invited the return of European planters.

When l’Ouverture created a separatist constitution, Napoleon Bonaparte sent an expedition of 20,000 men to retake the island. The French achieved some victories, but within a few months, yellow fever had killed most of the French soldiers.

At the end of the decade-long battle for emancipation, former slaves proclaimed their independence in January 1804. The new nation was named Haiti, a Taíno name for the island. Haiti stands alone in world history as the only nation born out of a slave revolt.

As an independent nation, Haiti has experienced depravation at the hands of ruthless dictators and corrupt officials.

The Haitian world is not all suffering. It is full of human treasure. John James Audubon, renowned ornithologist and painter, was born in Haiti. French author, Alexandre Dumas, was Haitian. His high adventure novels include The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Haitians have excelled in music, literature, and art. A surprising number of professional athletes are of Haitian descent. Indianapolis Colts receiver Pierre Garcon and Philadelphia 76ers center Samuel Dalembert excel in their respective sports. The New Orleans Saints have three players of Haitian descent – Stanley Arnoux, Pierre Thomas, and Jonathan Vilma.

I pray for grace and mercy for the people of Haiti.. I am grateful for the response of the global community to the recent suffering. I pray for a growing humanitarian spirit toward all people in need.  I am thankful for the indomitable spirit of our Haitian neighbors.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2010

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