Joëlle Vitiello is a professor of French and Francophone studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. She also studies Haitian literature, and happened to be in Port-au-Prince on January 12, an eyewitness to the recent earthquake in Haiti. Upside Down World interviewed Vitiello about her experiences during the earthquake, the aftermath, and what the future of Haiti now looks like.
Upside Down World: First, can you talk about your background and how you got involved in Haiti prior to the earthquake?
Joëlle Vitiello: Early in my career I went a conference and met several Haitian writers who were living in Quebec. At the time, there were still some discourses about Quebec being independent. I started to work on these issues, and discovered that there is a whole new body of literature that no one knew outside of the island.
UDW: And what brought you to Haiti this time?
JV: This time I was joining a French festival organized with a focus on Haitian literature. I was going to participate in a TV debate about Haitian writers who had recently passed away. I was also going to finish research to prepare a course on Haiti and human rights. I had spent the week before in Quebec, and so I took the early flight that day.
UDW: So you arrived on the same day?
JV: Yes, I arrived on January 12. I had gotten to the hotel and was just texting to my friend that I arrived safely when it started. I was on the second floor of the hotel, and at first there was a sound like automatic gunfire or a jackhammer. Then it was hard to stay up, so I realized it was an earthquake. I’ve been in earthquakes before so I went to the door and held onto the walls.
UDW: Your hotel wasn’t damaged too badly?
JV: The hotel had no damage at all. It’s one of the few buildings that is built with Italian wood and has a very light structure. There was some water coming from the floor above, but they repaired it fairly quickly that night.
UDW: What about outside?
JV: Outside, people were running in the streets. Mostly people were in a hurry to get home to check on their loved ones. We stayed on the square so there were no high structures around. It provided a safe space to be, and that’s where thousands of people slept during the first few nights. People organized very quickly. It was remarkable. There were a few people injured, so we took them into the hotel.
UDW: What did you see on the ground in those first days?
JV: At the hotel there were teams of doctors, French and American. One of the American doctors specialized in trauma, so right away they treated the injured. The hotel also took in people who lost their houses, children who were worried and didn’t know where to go. The first night there I met everyone staying at the hotel. I don’t know if it was my way of comforting myself or dealing with my anxiety. I had no idea what had happened out there. We soon learned that the palace had crumbled, and all of the main streets. The next day we went into town to see if we could find communications, and that’s when we first saw some of the worst sights.
UDW: You mentioned solidarity amongst Haitians immediately.
JV: Honestly, I didn’t see anything that was not solidarity. All the people were comforting children, inquiring constantly about their families. Without communication it was very hard. Also, this happened in the first week of a carnival season. During Carnival, there are neighborhood bands that go around singing and having offerings. So you could hear them going from neighborhood to neighborhood and see them in the hills. There were also lots of people praying and shouting religious songs and drumming. All of these indicated people trying to come together as communities.
The first coverage I saw was at the embassy. They had CNN twenty four hours a day. So that was a little maddening, to be glued to CNN. There were also journalists at the hotel. It was hard for them because they don’t speak French, they can’t communicate. I suspect it was hard for many journalists to get access to the Haitian government, which may explain what we didn’t hear much about the government right away.
UDW: Why do you think the focus was on the negative aspects, such as how prisoners escaped from jail or looting, rather than the resilience?
JV: What was shown on TV did happen, but it was very isolated. Remember that many people lost their entire families. There was no water, no food, and soon sanitation would become a problem. They were amazingly patient in the face of adversity, but tempers flare and that’s normal. It’s unfortunate that’s what the media captured, because I sincerely believe that it doesn’t reflect the experiences of the majority of Haitians. Haiti has always suffered a negative image because of disease, poverty, and a lack of understanding of the culture. Those are the familiar images, and they are now what we expect to see.
UDW: You said you’re working on a human rights course now. Are you going to be incorporating anything from this experience?
JV: I imagine so. The earthquake is a natural phenomenon, but it leaves devastation that has nothing natural about it. The hills are porous because of five hundred years of deforestation, which affects the water supply and the way building are constructed. In Haitian literature, very often natural phenomenon is linked to social injustices.
UDW: What’s important to know as we watch the re-building efforts?
JV: Journalists need to understand the political geography of the city and the country. They need to understand the neighborhoods of any city that has been damaged, which neighborhoods are or are not getting aid, and to have a realistic idea of what the Haitian government can do.
The Haitian president is an agronomist, and he said something important- that Haiti needs to produce its own food again. In the US, we have a responsibility because we a lot of agribusiness exporting to Haiti. We affect not only the diet of Haitian people, but also the economy. We need to let this country get its richness back. Haitians have a great historical sense of who they are, and are used to an informal economy. It’s important to trust them and to go at their pace.