It’s the morning of Corpus Christi, Fête Dieu, in Haiti. The sun rises early, along with a chorus of voices singing hymns all over Port-au-Prince. Altar boys in flowing white robes and girls in communion dresses weave rosary beads through their fingers. Their parents walk at their side, their faces glowing in the sun.
CORPUS Christi processions are meant to commemorate Christ’s body in pain, but many Haitians have their own pain. The procession circles a displacement camp where mothers are bathing their children in front of the layers of frayed tarp they call home. Before entering the crowd with her grandmother, my 6-year-old daughter, Mira, who is returning to Port-au-Prince for the first time since the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, repeats something she’s told us many times since we landed in the city: “I thought everything was broken.”
Built for 200,000 people yet home to more than 2 million, Port-au-Prince is a city that constantly reminds you of the obvious, as though you were a 6-year-old. No, not everything is broken. And no, not all the people are dead. It is a city that everything—political upheaval, fires, hurricanes, the earthquake—has conspired to destroy, yet still it carries on. The still-leaning houses and the rubble that has begun to grow weeds, the tent camps that have become micro-cities of their own, all bear their own testimony to a city that should have ground to a halt long ago, yet continues to persevere.
The republic of Port-au-Prince, as it is often called, is a city of survivors. It is a city where paintings line avenue walls, where street graffiti curse or praise politicians, depending on who has paid for them. It is a city of so much traffic that it has become a city of shortcuts and back roads. It is also a city of cell phones, where conversations sometimes end abruptly because someone has run out of prepaid minutes.
It is a city of entrepreneurs, a city of markets where the vendors are as numerous as the products being sold. It is a city of music, from the street pharmacists who sing the values of their wares, to the konpa music blasting from the colorfully painted tap-taps. It is a city of canal-clogging foam food boxes and discarded plastic. It is a city of trash being constantly burned, of dust-covered trees.
It is now, too, a city of tremors, tremors that are sometimes felt based on your level of experience with previous tremors, where you might be sitting with someone and that person feels the earth shake and you don’t feel a thing. It is a city where sometimes you both feel the tremors and panic equally, especially when others have dashed outside or leaped out of windows in fear.
It is also, you might be surprised to learn, a city of readers and writers, where at the annual Fête Dieu Livres en Folie book festival thousands of people stream into an old sugar-cane plantation to meet 135 Haitian writers. Among those who show up at the book festival are the former musician-president of the country, the chief of police, senator-authors, and a former Army colonel who has written a book profiling the current president.
What do you write when you’re asked to sign the colonel’s book?
You attempt in your best Creole, “Best of luck in your new career as a writer.”
My 25-year-old cousin Pat, who has just spent three days at a Port-au-Prince clinic recovering from cholera and is one of 800,000 Haitians who might get the disease this year, pensively watches this along with an older friend, Nèl, who like many Haitians believes that post-earthquake Haiti should have another capital, but is not sure it ever will.
“Port-au-Prince is one of the most indestructible places in the world,” Nèl likes to say. “People will live or die here, but Port-au-Prince will always remain.”
Danticat is the author, most recently, of Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. She recently returned from her Native Port-Au-Prince, where she participated in the country’s annual book festival, Livres En Folie. These are her reflections on a city where she spent the first 12 years of her life and that she visits often.