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17017: From: MJPROCOPIO: "The Benefits of Cultural Exchange"
"The Benefits of Cultural Exchange"
The following is an initial account of two trips that I made to Haiti, the
first for three weeks in January 2003 and the second for one month in July
and August 2003. It focuses primarily on Mirebalais and areas in the
Central Plateau, as well as some parts of the southern tier, including
Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel.
As a graduate student in ethnomusicology, I felt that I had a good idea of
what to expect when I arrived in Haiti, but nothing could have prepared me
for the level of poverty that we saw as we drove past Cite Soleil. The
strong smell of garbage and burning charcoal took me several days to get
used to, as did the sight of garbage, open sewers, emancipated animals and
thousands of people crowded into what often looked like inhumane living
conditions. As an educator whose primary goal is to learn and teach about
the music and culture of Haiti, and as someone who is frustrated with the
stereotypes and negative propaganda surrounding Haiti and Vodou, I wanted
to document as much of my trip as possible. Yet, as our bus made its way
out of Port-au-Prince, I found that I was unable to take photographs; it
felt too much like a violation of people who had already endured so much.
That, plus the fact that I was a stranger and unsure of how others felt
about my being here, made me reluctant to do any documenting until several
days had passed.
While in Haiti, I resided at the Leocardie & Alexandre Kenscoff Cultural
Center (C-CLAK) in Mirebalais, along with a group of students from
Wellesley College in Massachusetts. C-CLAK, a multi-purpose institution
devoted to socio-cultural development, is owned by Gerdes Fleurant and
Florienne Chevry Fleurant. Many programs are held at C-CLAK throughout
the year, including the Gawou Ginou Elementary/Secondary Schools, the
Summer Day Camp, the Teachers' Education Institute, and the U.S./Haiti
Cultural Exchange Program.
As I traveled around by car and walked through the streets of Mirebalais,
I found that people looked at me with very serious expressions on their
unsmiling faces. Much to my surprise and happiness, I found that as soon
as I smiled and said "bonjou, bonswa," or "kouman ou ye" (the limits of my
knowledge of Creole at that time) peoples' faces lit up like the sun with
the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen. Almost without exception,
every person that I passed and greeted gave me a huge smile and warm
greeting in return.
As the weeks went by on that first trip and I came to learn more about the
people of Haiti, I wanted so much to do something that would help to make
a difference. From the beginning, I felt completely comfortable and at
ease here. It is hard to explain to family members back home what a
profound effect that first trip had on me, but it was obvious that Haiti
would play an important role in what I wanted to do with my life.
One of the most important things that I wanted to do on this trip was to
attend a Vodou ceremony. As someone who was very interested in learning
about ceremonial music and drumming, I was looking forward to attending as
many ceremonies as possible. Unfortunately, the group that I was with was
only able to attend one ceremony, which was held especially for us.
Though it was an abbreviated ceremony and didn't include everything that
usually takes place, the priest, officers and constituents of the temple
on the outskirts of Mirebalais gave us a warm welcome and made us feel at
After our three weeks had passed, several of the students were elated to
be heading home. I, on the other hand, was very depressed to leave. I
had come to Haiti with dreams of returning for a year to study, and had
worried that I wouldn't like being here-that I wouldn't be able to deal
with the sadness and despair that I assumed I would encounter. Instead, I
found a people who were warm, caring, and extremely proud, with a
wonderful sense of humor-even in the midst of such poverty. In the
beginning on my trip, traveling to Mirebalais, I had been thinking about
all the "bad" things that I saw-the garbage, the poverty, and the misery.
On the trip back to the airport, I was pondering all that was good about
Haiti-the resourcefulness of its people, the beauty of the land, and the
hope that things could be better; Haiti was not hopeless, nor was it a
After taking an intensive three-week course in Haitian Creole in Boston, I
returned to Haiti on 13 July in time for the pilgrimage to Saut' eau. The
purpose of this trip was to conduct preliminary research and to plan a
proposal to fund a study I wanted to undertake in the Central Plateau
region for one year. My proposal is in collaboration with a project that
Dr. Fleurant intends to do which involves a study of the temples within a
fifty-mile radius of Mirebalais. As an educator, my interest extends to
the educational system in Haiti as well. I am interested in exploring the
possibilities and benefits of an educational system that utilizes peasant
agency and indigenous cultural models as a basis for curriculum
development in rural Haiti.
The first thing that I noticed driving through Port-au-Prince was that I
didn't notice the smell of burning charcoal or garbage-I was elated to be
back in Haiti! Upon arriving in Mirebalais, I was surprised at how much
progress had been made in only six months. One of the main streets in the
center of town had been paved which made a huge difference in how the area
looked (and in keeping the dust down). A brand new bank had been built
which opened my second week in Haiti, and a new computer school opened
around the same time. The local radio station, Radio Excelsior, 92.3 FM,
which had resembled a black hole when I visited in January (there were no
lights in the hallway and most of the station was pitch black) was now
well-lit and painted white, with a welcoming atmosphere. The elementary
school at C-CLAK was well on its way to having the first floor completed
and work was beginning on the second story. All in all, I was very
impressed that so much progress had been made in such a short time. The
only thing that saddened me was the garbage that still littered the
streets of Mirebalais and the beautiful park at the center of town. There
was also a huge, unsightly pile of trash on the side of the road not far
from the Mirage Hotel that had grown considerably in size since my last
visit. Each time I passed the garbage I questioned how Mirebalais can
take pride in the progress that it is making, yet simple problems like
garbage collection and disposal are still not addressed.
On this trip I also traveled with a Haitian friend to Port-au-Prince,
Leogane and Jacmel on every form of public transportation that Haiti has
to offer. This was probably the best part of my trip, as I had the
opportunity to meet and interact with many different people. While in
Leogane I attended a wonderful performance by students attending the St.
Trinity music camp, held on the grounds of the St. Croix Hospital. Once
again, no matter what circumstances I found myself in, whether it be
walking through the streets of Leogane in complete darkness (due to
black-outs) or riding on a crowded bus full of strangers, I felt
completely comfortable and never once felt threatened or in danger.
I was disturbed by the lack of tourists in all three cities. I am sure
that there must have been many Haitians from the diaspora visiting Haiti
while I was there, but I only came across a dozen or so non-Haitians, most
of whom were either missionaries or peace corps workers. Americans, as
tourists, seemed non-existent in Haiti. Unfortunately, the negative
propaganda in the U.S. advising citizens not to travel to Haiti, combined
with the unrest here that is making headlines, has apparently succeeded in
keeping tourists away from Haiti. I am not nave enough to think that
Haiti is completely safe, but there are many countries throughout the
world where Americans are targeted-this is not the case in Haiti. I came
across numerous people from all class levels who were very warm and
gracious towards me-from the tap-tap driver who drove us from
Port-au-Prince to Leogane (who could have charged us more for sitting in
the front seat but didn't) to the mid-upper class gentleman that I met
while at the waterfall in Saut' eau (who, while clad only in his briefs,
had a conversation with me about the purpose of my trip and told me that
he was glad I was visiting his country); from the mid-upper class man in
the front seat of a taxi we took in Port-au-Prince (who, when he found out
I was American gave me a huge smile, welcomed me to his country, and said
"God bless you" when he got out of the taxi) to the women in the crowded
kamyonet that we took back to Mirebalais (who looked out for me, even
though she didn't know me and we didn't speak each others' language).
Unfortunately, the American public doesn't hear about experiences such as
these; they only hear about the unrest that takes place in various parts
of the country.
The warmth and hospitality of the people in America doesn't come close to
that which I have encountered in Haiti. In big cities like New York and
Boston, many people are afraid to make eye contact with people that they
pass on the street or sit next to on the subway, let alone extend a
greeting to them. In Haiti, not only are people on the street polite and
friendly (once you extend a greeting), but total strangers thrown together
in a kamyonet or tap-tap end up laughing, sharing stories and seem like
life-long friends within minutes of meeting one another. Haitians have a
level of tolerance that human beings should never be called upon to
demonstrate-jammed into buses like cattle on a trailer-they sit three
people to a two-person seat in cramped, hot and extremely uncomfortable
quarters. Yet, I didn't hear anyone complaining, didn't see anyone lose
their temper. It is with a quiet dignity that the people of Haiti accept
this way of life-a way of life that no one should have to endure.
Cultural exchange is a way in which people from outside of Haiti can
experience the country and see for themselves what Haiti has to offer.
Institutions like the Leocardie & Alexandre Kenscoff Cultural Center
provide both Haitians and non-Haitian scholars, educators, researchers and
people interested in Haitian music, dance and culture in general with the
opportunity to learn, study and interact with people from many walks of
life. Perhaps through institutions and programs such as C-CLAK, some of
the negative discourse on Haiti can be arrested and new, accurate
commentary can emerge.
It is with great humility and gratitude that I thank the people that I
have encountered, for they have taught me lessons more important than any
I have learned in college-lessons about humanity, dignity, and endurance.
Lessons like those I was taught as a child-to treat others as you would
have them treat yourself. It would do Americans well to visit Haiti with
an open heart and an open mind, to learn from Haitian resourcefulness,
humor and hospitality, to bear witness to the deplorable living conditions
that so many people living here must endure, and to individually and
collectively do everything in our power to help make a difference.