Ask the Expert: Dr. Dana Kress

What is the biggest challenge facing the people of Haiti right now?

The biggest problem for the Haitian people lies with us, not them. Haiti defies simple understanding. It is a nation of towering mountains and shocking beauty. Few Americans have seen this Haiti and fewer Haitians have ever met an American who tried to understand Haiti as it is. It is the rare Haitian who has seen an American who could speak Creole; they have never seen a Blanc (a white person) carry water, dance in the streets or go to a country market. The vast majority of American aid workers pass through the towns in their cars with the windows rolled up. They almost certainly never grasp that beneath the surface of what appears to be simple solutions there are unimagined complexities. A Creole saying captures the complexity of Haitian existence with stark simplicity: “Behind every mountain there are mountains.”

A few years ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, a staple in the national diet. When the U.S. poured food aid into the country, the market collapsed and local farmers could no longer sell rice to people who received it for free. Today Haiti is forced to import almost all its rice from the United States, and a major source of employment has been lost.

In Haiti, life vibrates with meaning because everyone knows how fragile it is. For a Haitian, a simple walk to the market can be a spiritual experience because every tree, stone, plant and animal is imbued with meanings that are hidden to the eyes of those who cannot see beyond the mountains. People talk to their neighbors; they pour into the streets on Flag Day and dance there for hours on end. These are not timid and anemic dances performed by people who are afraid to sweat. No. These are exquisitely choreographed, rhythmic, body-drenching celebrations of life unknown to Americans, but which are in perfect harmony with a people whose national anthem contains the words “To die is beautiful.” Behind every death there is a celebration.

Haiti has many problems, but knowing how to live and how to pass through this existence with a spiritual awareness comes naturally to most Haitians. Perhaps we could learn something from them.

Dr. Dana Kress is the Chair of the Foreign Language Department and Professor of French at Centenary.