Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti

Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti (Reissue)

In 2014, four years after the earthquake, Ian Thomson returned to Haiti.

Reissue of the classic 1992 book, with a new post-earthquake foreword by the author.

 

From the Foreword

On 12 January 2010, René Préval was Haitian president when the country was devastated by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Downtown Port-au-Prince had been teeming as usual that Tuesday afternoon with cigarette vendors, ambulatory salesmen and marchandes. On the Rue du Commerce, office workers were making last-minute purchases before returning home. It was 4:53 pm, and a fug of burning refuse hung over the city, as always. The convulsions lasted 35 seconds but they were enough to reduce rich and poor alike to a state of homelessness and despair. “God has chosen Haiti to test out his concept of Hell”, the Haitian novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé has written.

The death toll is still uncertain but the numbers range from the official Haitian tally of 316,000 to much lower estimates of 46,000. Probably we will never know quite how many died. Even so, the earthquake remains probably the worst natural disaster in Caribbean history. The National Palace collapsed in on itself. The twin-spired Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (along with its Vodou-inspired murals by Wilson Bigaud and other Haitian artists), the Palais de Justice and the Palais des Ministères: all were damaged beyond repair. Aristide’s Bicentennial Monument – an ugly tower in concrete  – survived.

Of all the eye-witness accounts, Imajine, by the young Haitian artist Claudel Casseus, stands out. The British music producer and writer Bill Drummond had met Casseus in Haiti just two weeks before the earthquake and was keen to know all he had seen and heard that terrible Tuesday afternoon. Drummond asked Casseus to write down his impressions as a record for posterity. Casseus began to send bulletins to Drummond from an internet café in Port-au-Prince; five thousand words were eventually published as Imajine.

Port-au-Prince seemed to have “lost all sense” of being a capital city, Casseus wrote. Along the Grand Rue and Rue Pavée the old, ‘Syrian’-owned warehouses had collapsed in the aftershocks that radiated for days from the epicenter ten miles away in Léogâne. By a fluke, the tottering Hotel Oloffson where I had proposed to my girlfriend in March 1990 had survived. There was no electricity and water supplies were contaminated. The municipal cemetery had become a dumping ground for corpses. “We know what life is about, how sweet it can be, but we don’t know about death”, Casseus continued, adding: “The one thing we know about it is that it is contrary to life.” Through it all, movingly, he clings to the hope of going to university one day.

As the dust settled, the shattered National Palace stood as a painful reminder of what had happened. Should the building be demolished entirely? In 2012 the Hollywood movie star Sean Penn (who runs a Haitian aid charity) recruited a demolition team and with bulldozers carted off what remained of the fractured columns and dislodged white domes. Some Haitians were aggrieved that a foreign celebrity should have taken away their symbol of statehood. Haiti was merely a dependency of the US, they protested, and still so far from self-government.

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