In 1983 I spent 4 months working in the north of Haiti. ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was in power, the Tonton Macoute struck fear in the hearts of every sane person, the Houngans and Mambos revered the Vodoun Loas and I was an ignorant white boy coming to terms with realities unknown in my life in the United States.
I lived in Cap Haitian and worked some 20 miles west in the verdant Plain Du Nord. Unrelenting poverty in every direction. Beautiful people working harder than any people I have ever met. Friendly faces despite hunger, fear and need. Daily life struggling with burdens I had no chance whatsoever of understanding. I was from a different planet, a different century, a different life.
It took me most of my 4 months to shake a few of the scales from my eyes. I went to Haiti a liberal, a believer in respect for all people and a champion for human rights. I left Haiti disappointed with myself, having come to a clearer understanding of what a spoiled child of the richest country on earth I really was. I saw many things that I found shocking or amazing that are part of daily life for the majority of people on this planet. I learned a little bit about what is possible in a land of privilege and wealth and what is not in a land that lives close, so painfully close to the bone.
There were many little things that are different about life in a country like Haiti. This story is about a dawning awareness, surmounted by a startling epiphany, regarding one aspect of those differences. Pets.
I flew into Port-au-Prince and drove up to Cap Haitian. (http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/lgcolor/htcolor.htm) After stepping off a DC-10 jetliner, the steady slide into the reality that is Haiti moved through an un-air-conditioned terminal and customs building, into a street of Tap-Taps, taxis and traffic. (There is a great set of photos of Haiti from a missionary group at http://precious.org/haiti/photos/Pictures%20of%20Haiti/) Then open markets, slums and hills denuded of trees for miles and miles. Eventually the blight of the city turns into a beautiful countryside of mountains and greenery. Haiti is the western half of the island of Hispaniola, one of the gems of the Caribbean.
As we drove through Haiti I noticed that animals were a frequent part of the view. Not wild animals, I’m talking about beasts of burden. Of course, people were the primary beast of burden, but donkeys came in a clear second. Donkeys loaded with huge piles of firewood or manioc, staggering down a road as their owners whipped them with sticks. To my horror, I passed a donkey awaiting a load. Rather than a blanket or a saddle or panniers protecting its back, there was a mat of coarsely woven palm fronds. As it slipped off I realized that the poor animal’s back was raw down to the spine. A glimmering of the differences in thinking about animals between my city life in the USA and a country life in Haiti slipped into my mind. The owner threw the mat upon the donkey’s torn and scarred back, loaded baskets of charcoal and struck the creature with a stick until it moved.
I began to wonder what I would do if I was in the farmer’s position and realized that if I walked in those shoes, I’d probably be holding that stick. I began to realize why my co-workers drank so much rum. I began to regret my inability to handle liquor.
I settled into a routine and spent my days in a small shack in the middle of nowhere, working with 3 Haitian men and a boy, desperately trying to learn enough Haitian Creole to communicate. We were deep in the utterly rural Plain du Nord, a vast grassy plain punctuated with stunted trees and plants with thorns or spines or spikes. Most surprising to me were the phenomenal numbers of lizards. Big lizards. Lizards that grew to nearly 4’ in length. I asked the Haitians if the lizards were good to eat and clearly lost a great deal of intelligence in their eyes. ‘Non.’ It became clear that sane people did not consider eating these lizards. Creepy. Big. Lizards. I flashed on stories of friends whose large monitor lizard pets had eaten their german shepards and hoped that sane lizards did not consider eating people as well.
Of more interest to my co-workers were dogs. Perhaps someone, somewhere on Haiti keeps dogs on purpose, but to the men I worked with, dogs were a scourge. Once or twice a week, at some signal I could not perceive, the men would instantly stop work, jump up, grab rocks and race into the grass lobbing the stones at some cur that had attempted to steal a morsel of food. The only dogs I saw were cadaverous, starving wretches that had been stoned to death by irate Haitians.
I began to ask the Haitians I worked and lived around about pets. Did they have pets? What kind of pets would they keep? Reactions varied from a complete lack of understanding regarding the topic to a grudging acceptance that someone, somewhere might keep pets, but no one knew anyone who did. The military had some dogs that were used to attack people, but I rejected that as an example of ‘pets.’
Nevertheless, as I explored Cap Haitian during a day off, I thought I’d finally found my grail, a Haitian pet store! Walking near the Cap version of the Marché de Fer, I stumbled into an alley and beheld my quarry. There, at the end of the alley, was a nicely dressed Haitian woman with cages and cages of cats! People would walk by and admire them. They mewed prettily, trying to find someone to adopt them. Soon, a young woman walked up and began haggling in rapid Creole (too fast for my poor understanding of the tongue.) Back and forth they went until a bargain had been struck. I watched as the selected cat was retrieved for the new pet owner. I imagined her taking it home to some small child, a happy moment for all. As I got ready to take a picture of this special Kodak moment, the shop owner picked up the cat, grabbed its head, twisted it with a single motion and an audible ‘SNAP’. As the dead cat fell limp, she deftly whipped out a skinning knife, removed the skin, gutted the innards and wrapped the meat back into the skin. All in fewer moments than I could count.
Yes, Haitians eat cat. Yes, I ate cat when I was in Haiti. Haitians were horrified that Americans ate horse (which had been being sold for a while in grocery stores in the late 70’s in the USA.) Different cultures have different dietary standards and (at least for the carnivores among us,) ours aren’t particularly more moral than anyone else’s. I realized that day that I needed to extend some similar degree of respect for cultural differences to the Haitian people’s treatment of animals. Undoubtedly the Haitians, given some slack in their own lives, would treat animals in a more humane way. Certainly there are likely to be some Haitians with enough resources to extend them to the animals around them. But that ‘SNAP’ changed me. It took me out of the last of my tourist mentality and forced me to quit looking for Kodak moments in Haiti. I realized that I had a long way to go before I could shake the mental blinders I had carried from the USA, but at least I now knew they existed.