Joy and Insecurity in Port-au-Prince | Jason Allen-Paisant | Granta

Joy and Insecurity in Port-au-Prince

Jason Allen-Paisant

1

We approach. A grey mountain, its surface like the top of a molar, with its ridges and crevices. Brown-grey undulating earth. High and timeless like all mountains. I wonder about all the people walking there; they’re right there, though I can’t see them. Their number is large, much larger than I can imagine. Everywhere there are people walking. Real people. I mustn’t stop imagining them there on the mountain. They live a life that I can’t make up in a detached story, can’t know from where I am, so far up, in this plane. They live a life that only they know. I can know it, perhaps, if I go in. I’d like to go in, into that picture, into the mountain, to see what can’t be seen from the outside.

I’m the only Jamaican here, the only one not going home. We fly over the sea again. The sea becomes brown. We move again over land, real land that a human being can know. I can see corrugated rooftops, a canopy of them, and a road that stretches to infinity, a silver silent line. Brown rusted rooftops interrupted by a large factory that makes some kind of statement within this rusted canopy. Around it, space collapses. The factory evokes a feeling of familiar strangeness, a stickiness, a network of interconnected places.

Western media and writing have defined Haiti as a land of catastrophe. But I am interested in knowing what lies beyond the surface of the known, beyond the narrative of catastrophe. The thing is that I approach this land with love, with respect for what its people have done for us, Black people in the diaspora. And this love produces an openness, an open desire for this landscape.

2

It is 20 November 2018. The organisers of Quatre Chemins, the theatre festival I’m here to attend, forbid me from going out on my own. Even the most mundane trips, to the grocery store or to the restaurant at the bottom of the street, must be organised with my designated driver, Préserve, a local taxi man ‘assigned’ to me and whom I’ve befriended. A jovial father of four, Préserve constantly warns me not to be deceived by the apparent calm of the streets; they are not safe at the moment, he says, and tells me off every time I walk to the restaurant on my own. The atmosphere here is more tense than I had imagined. There have been many protests in recent weeks. I see ‘Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?’ (‘Where’s the PetroCaribe money?’) graffitied on the walls of buildings. The government of Jovenel Moïse is mired in what Haitians are already calling the ‘PetroCaribe scandal’.

PetroCaribe is the name of the strategic oil alliance which Venezuela signed with a number of Caribbean states, including Haiti, in 2006. The agreement promised that these nations would need to pay only a fraction for their fuel upfront and could defer the bulk of the payment for up to twenty-five years. An incredible boon. The 2 billion US dollars which have accrued to Haiti as a result of this oil alliance are now unaccounted for, and people are demanding answers. They’re not just demanding that heads roll; the demonstrations are a kind of uprising against systemic corruption. Thousands of anti-corruption demonstrators, who call themselves ‘PetroChallengers’, have taken their anger onto the streets in a collective uproar, and this tidal wave of opposition to Moïse and his allies has been met with violent, deadly crackdowns by the police.

The streets pull at me anyway, and I can’t help but go out. Besides, I feel deeply embarrassed to have someone come to walk me from my hotel to the main performance area, a bar, less than two kilometres away, so I sometimes walk alone, in defiance of the organisers’ instructions. On walls and street corners, I see graffiti referring to ‘Petwo’, meaning, the scandal; though I can’t help thinking of the family of warring spirits or lwa within the Vodou pantheon who bear the very same name.

3

In Port-au-Prince, I walk looking down. On the pavements, uncovered public sewer pits are common. They impose a different way of walking and produce a kind of terror. I could easily fall in, I think to myself. It doesn’t seem to me that others are looking down as they walk, that they are visibly exercising my kind of care. I wonder whether the people who walk these streets experience the terror I do, of falling.

Terror is certainly not my only emotion on these streets. I also experience a sense of identification, of kinship. Kinship with the insecurity that shapes life, with this sense of litheness on one’s feet – almost of aerodynamism – of turning hand to make fashion. This litheness that’s produced when lack of safety (net) is coupled with a deep-seated determination to defy death. I think of Anansi, the West African trickster deity who often manifests in the form of a spider: in moments of difficulty or crisis, Anansi switches from his human form to his spider incarnation. Some say Anansi crossed the Atlantic in the hold of the slave ship. He is the perfect illustration of what I see here, in the way the people move their bodies. It is an engineering of space that’s renewed every day, life lived as a choreography.

Nevertheless, I cannot get rid of this sense of terror, and I am not thinking only of myself. One day, walking along Avenue Christophe, in the direction of the FOKAL, the famous cultural institute in Port-au-Prince, I turn to my friend Miracson Saint-Val, an actor and theatre-maker, and ask whether these ‘holes’ mean nothing to people here. Are people not affected by them? I can’t remember his exact reply; however, it had something to do with the idea of knowing – of a kind of kinetic familiarity with the space, a sense of this being part of the landscape. These pits that range in depth from the relatively shallow to the seemingly bottomless manhole are permanent fixtures on the landscape. But Miracson did not romanticise the issue for all that. He went on to tell me about people who disappear – simply disappear: one day, they do not show up, and are never seen again by their friends and families. He cannot put a number on it, but some people conjecture that the pits, many of which are filled with water, may account for some of these disappearances, when, late at night, a hapless walker falls in, and there is nobody around to aid or rescue.

I speak of kinship but realise that to be terrorised by this reveals my own sense of security – the way the space imposes itself on me underscores the fact that my body is not native to this landscape. All over this space, people embody the choreography of moving with the hole, contrary to me. I am analysing.

4

I’m thinking about body praxis as I watch a man board the minibus I’m travelling in. He carries a sewing machine in his hand. He cotches his backside on the narrow ledge behind the driver’s seat and with his right hand he supports the sewing machine that’s now on the roof of the bus. All this has an aura of the temporary and the evanescent, of the moment within a flow, as in a choreography. The door is, of course, left open, as the bus moves along, sometimes scuttling, sometimes hurtling, in the frenetic heave and hum of the Port-au-Prince traffic. I am not trying to exoticise this. I’m familiar with this minivan. So often, I’ve travelled on one just like it back home in Jamaica. I’m familiar with the door left open simply because there are so many bodies at the exit that it could never be closed; I’m even familiar with the potentially dangerous hanging of hands outside. But now, I look at this scene with different eyes. This is also a different country, and I have never been struck by this choreography of movement as I am in this moment.

It’s all normal – nothing could be more normal in this moment and in this space – the man balances his sewing machine for a few minutes till he reaches his spot and calls to the driver, who lets him off, he pays, and continues on his way. I want to plumb the significance of this choreography to me, how it forces me to read the space in a different way. Some may speak of resilience and how it conditions the operations of the body, the way the body adapts to space and its particular constraints. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Without idealising it, I am beginning to feel that this sort of balancing allows people to see each other in a way that’s more present, more open, than the way people see each other in Leeds, where I live. It may be because the way our bodies occupy space conditions what sort of self we are or think we are: moving in choreography involves a heightened awareness of the presence of other bodies. The way traffic moves in Port-au-Prince seems to provide an illustration of this. It’s a flow you enter and exit; things do not stop: no stopping, no hesitating, no doubting; there is no room for that here – there’s a rhythm and all the participants are entering that rhythm, sensing each other.

5

I have noticed, sitting in a restaurant in the busy city centre of Leeds, certain things about the street outside: pathways and pedestrian crossings neatly marked out, traffic lights regularly punctuating the thoroughfare. But above all, the smoothness of the streets, the way paths are designated, marked out, the way the city is labelled for the walker. Outside the broad window of the restaurant, the pavement is neatly bordered by railings. In French, the word for railing is garde-fou. If safety is already associated with the border in much of our thinking, then this word immediately associates a certain kind of safety with the border between rationality and madness. The railing and the marking make me think of how landscape shapes different ways of being a self, different ways of feeling a self.

6

I’ve learnt, I think, that one of the secrets of Haitian existence is the joy of creativity and the joy of being creative through this danse de l’araignée – this joy of what Dénètem Touam Bona calls ‘l’indocilité du vivant’, the indomitableness of the creative instinct.

In this sense, re-storying the landscape seems important, not in that it erases the reality of struggle or insecurity, but in that it reframes how we read the landscape, what we are able to see in it. How much can we see the vivant? After my first trip to Haiti, I felt that I had never experienced the vivant as much as I had in that moment. It is that moment that produced in me a desire to understand the source of this vivant. Imagination is not only born out of insecurity; it is part of the endless process of transforming it.

This trip is making you better, I hear myself say; it is drawing you into love. It’s drawing you into a different way of carrying the body.

7

Pòtoprens fou. A big-car driver won’t stop or slow down even after I’ve signalled to him, asking him to let me cross. Nobody will slow down here. Nobody takes it easy; the city is never easy. The city is never slow. And yet there is a slowness in the manner of people. People take their time, make you wait; everything starts ‘late’. Strange intimacy. A director of a government department tells you to come at a certain time, turns up over an hour late for the appointment. Here, everything is happening at the same time. To be able to hold different things in one’s mind is its own aesthetic. Port-au-Prince never rests.

And yet . . . there is a kind of slowness at the centre of things, a kind of radial movement.


Jason Allen-Paisant

Jason Allen-Paisant is a Jamaican poet and non-fiction writer based in the UK. He is the author of Thinking with Trees, and of the forthcoming memoir Primitive Child: On Blackness, Landscape and Reclaiming Time. He is also an Associate Professor in Aesthetic Theory at the University of Leeds.

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