A Long Road Ahead: Leveraging Culture in Haiti's Reconstruction an Interview with Michele Pierre-Louis

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What progress has been made since January, and where is Haiti now?

Haiti is still in an extremly difficult situation because all the millions of people who lost their housing, belongings, and loved ones are still in the street. I'm not sure that we have even counted the dead properly because there are lots of neighborhoods where the dead are still under the ruble. Usually after two months, a country that has been hit by an earthquake is already in the phase of recovery. We are still in the phase of a relief effort: providing food, water, and medicine. We are not even in the phase where we can get temporary housing for the people who are in the streets or in the camps.

Also, we must think of the funding that is necessary to undertake the incredible process of reconstruction that lies ahead. There is still a lot to be done, and my real fear is of what will happen if nothing is done rapidly enough for all those people who are in the street. The rainy season has started, so they are in the mud. If nothing is done and the level of frustration keeps on getting higher, the situation can turn into something very volatile. There is a need to act more quickly in order to respond to the needs of the people. Also the kids are not back at school; 500,000 schools collapsed, and all the universities collapsed. There are a lot of fragile aspects of the situation. I hope that we will see things moving more rapidly so that we can measure the progress, if any.

How are the Haitian people coping? Are there any cultural, social, or religious elements that made dealing with the earthquake particularly difficult for people?

That's a very interesting question. It's the first time that question has been raised in all the interviews I've had. The answer is yes and no. On the day of the earthquake, it happened around 5pm, so everyone in the city just slept in the streets, including me. My home had collapsed, and I was trying to get by. Everyone was scared of staying inside buildings because of the repeats and the aftershocks. We had aftershocks almost every day for months, and what you could hear in the evening were religious songs, sung all over the city. People used their religious belief to ask God to save Haiti, and that's what was repeatedly said in the songs: "Save us." "Save Haiti." "Save the country." The songs were really nice, and it was really soothing, even for me, to hear them.

But in Haiti there are lots of religious sects, mostly Protestant, mostly American. I don't know, but I've heard that there was a religious preacher in the United States who said that the earthquake was the result of Haiti's having signed a pact with the devil. It was a US preacher who said so, one of those TV evangelists. And it's been repeated in Haiti by a lot of Haitian preachers: we are paying for something. There has been a big debate because even the Catholic church did not agree to that posture. In a way it's very damaging to hope; it's very damaging to the traditional resiliency that Haitians have. At the time some of these preachers were coming with this type of talk, they were booed by a good part of the population, but the belief did exist in places.

We had it both ways: people were going to church--or since most of the churches had collapsed, going around the churches--and trying to regain hope, and others were saying that it was our fault and we deserved it. But where do we go from there? That was the situation, and I think its still like that. My personal position is that most of the people were praying for things to change finally.

Has that been a different reaction now as compared to in the past? Is this earthquake any different or similar to previous environmental disasters?

The magnitude of the disaster is just mind-boggling. When I was in Haiti right after the earthquake, I went into the streets, and when you see dead bodies piled in the streets--even a week after, dead bodies everywhere--that's incredible. …

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