Isaac in Haiti: Snapshots From the Storm

They say Isaac is not a full-blown hurricane. Don’t they know that in Haiti one drop of rain can kill ten people? “Listen to that wind,” says Saint-Louis E. “I am ready to evacuate, but where am I supposed to go? Another tent camp?”

I have to anchor myself to something that won’t blow away. But nothing here is solid, not even a rock. Isaac won’t leave until he  swallows at least a  few lives; this time, it might be mine and my children’s. Just listen to that rain slapping the ground.

Photo courtesy of Ornelia Cabrera

Thirty-two months after the earthquake, I still live under four warped sticks and a tarp. I am not alone. There are hundreds of thousands like me. We’re waiting to see what Isaac will do. The storm is just another head of the same misery that visits Haiti morning, noon, and night. When you cut off one head, three more grow in its place.


Snapshots from Isaac

There’s an elderly woman standing by the tree that had fallen on her front porch. Her former roof–rusty sheets of corrugated tin–is now on the ground. The woman’s hands are cocked on her hips. Isaac had come to get her, but left without her. She’d survived hundreds of tropical storms and full-blown hurricanes all her life. The storms come like thieves that steal from her. They’ve left her destitute numerous times. Each time one comes, she digs her feet deeper in the ground. No hurricane-force wind will take her. She’ll leave only when she’s ready.

The day after Isaac lashed Haiti, a beautiful young man–with a towel draped over his flawless face–toured the damage in Jacmel. He came with an armed entourage that kept watch over him. The beautiful young man strutted like a peacock. There were blinding headlights from the line of SUVs following closely behind. The young man hadn’t walked far before his “Isaac Picture” was taken. Rain was coming down, but the young man’s shirt was mostly dry. He walked like an actor on a set. He seemed confident. He must have rehearsed his role for a long time. He must have known his lines by heart.

Photo courtesy of Ornelia Cabrera

The young man and his crew visited a makeshift shelter for a few evacuees. The cameras took pictures of everything and everyone. Some of the people in the room shielded their faces; they did not want to be seen like this.

Someone distributed shiny cans of food. The hungry evacuees held the cans and smiled for the cameras. A few defied the armed photographer, and kept their heads down. They asked for a can-opener. Did anyone remember to bring a can-opener?

Kreyòl for Speakers of Other Languages (KSOL)

If you’ve ever tried to learn how to speak a new language, you’ve undoubtedly shot the breeze with blanks. English was my third language; there are still plenty of words I do not know. So, yes, I get it.

When I came to the United States, for example, I had just two English words in my pocket: “Ten” and “Chew.” When someone asked: “Where are you from?” I said, “Ten Chew.”

“How old are you?”

“Ten Chew.”

“Where do you live?”

“Ten Chew.”

It didn’t take long to figure out that what I’d been trying to say was Thank You. And, as polite as it was, Ten Chew was not the answer to every question.

The airplanes that will land in Haiti today will be packed with folk whose native languages sound nothing like our Kreyòl. Those whose businesses require the advantage that communicating with the natives brings become KLLs (Kreyol Language Learners). They ride to the countryside with their arsenal of shiny new words, ready for that tête-à-tête.

Since ours is a language like any other, KLLs try and do come close to mastering it. Now and again, though, a word comes along that might be best left unused. One of those words is “bèk.”

A KLL I hadn’t seen in a long time said this to me recently: “A, pitit, I’m happy to see you. Banm ba w yon gwo bèk, non.” My heart tightened, though I sort of knew what the person meant. So, we leaned in and did the kiss on both cheeks thing. Now, language is such a moving target that words are like transmorphers: Yesterday friend was a common noun; today, the word is a bona fide verb. But a bèk, unless you’re a bird, does not involve kissing. In fact, it is the opposite of kissing.

When someone greets you with “Bonjour” and you fire back with “Lanmèd,” that’s a bèk. If you ask: “Kijan w ye? How are you?” and receive a “Get the hell away from me!” in response, that’s also a bèk. How a bèk or any other insult became a compliment I do not know. But if that is the case, fantastic!

The second word for today is Malfwendengism.

As hard as those consonants look, they’re surprisingly easy to negotiate. What exactly is a malfwendeng you might ask? Artists–particularly musicians and actors–do a fantastic job of defining the term; that’s because malfwendengism is a serious crime that targets the creative work of hard-working people.

One of the original definitions of a malfwendeng involves a mad dog with flies on its open sores that tries to snatch food right off your plate. Today’s malfwendeng comes in human form. Sometimes it’s a friend who sees a movie that is so funny and wonderful he/she can’t wait to tell you about it. But rather than just tell you about it, the friend makes you your very own copy. Since you can’t keep that great movie all to yourself, you make copies to share with your own best friends. They make copies for their friends, and so on. . . Meanwhile, the artists can’t feed their families, even though they work morning, noon, and night.


If you’re a new KSOL student, you’ve just added two shiny new Kreyòl terms to your djakout (straw bag carried by a farm worker and the lwa Kouzen).

Now you know that if someone calls you a malfwendeng, chances are it’s not a compliment. But just in case the definition changes in the next few hours, simply lean close and give the person a bèk.

After the Olympics: Haiti’s Still Got Game

Take “Haiti” out of “Haitian,” and you’re left with “an”—the indefinite article that stands for nothing in particular. Perhaps this was why attempts to dehaitianize Team Haiti at the 2012 Olympics were unsuccessful. Linouse Desravine, Moise Joseph, Jeffrey Julmis, Samyr Laine, and Marlena Wesh stood for Haitian the flag; who could take that away from them? Gold, silver, and bronze medals would have been nice, but the athletes’ presence in London was a welcome reminder that Haiti’s still got game.

The competition may be over; the stages and all the tents (in London) may have been dismantled; the clock may have run out of time, but Haiti’s race for the gold is still going on. With massive amounts of dedication and the participation of every compatriot, including first, second, third, or fiftieth generation Haitian-N’importe Quoi, that new golden era is quite possible.

May each member of Team Haiti continue to excel! Wherever the stage may be erected, put on the day’s uniform and go play. Whatever your expertise, run with it–and run strong. No matter what your passport says, everybody knows you’re still the genuine article, l’article défini. Be encouraged. An entire country is cheering for you. And, yes, that flag looks fabulous, fabulous on you!


New INNERview with Leyla McCalla

Leyla McCalla’s parents are from Haiti; she was born in Queens, New York. “I guess that makes me a first generation Haitian-American,” she says awkwardly. Perhaps she’d never given  much thought to the subject of her nationality. Leyla has other things on her mind. She and the Grammy Award-winning group Carolina Chocolate Drops were on their way to a gig when we talked. “This is so exciting!” Leyla gushed, like a kid on a rollercoaster. Check out the new INNERview with this gifted musician. (Below: Leyla performs Rose-Marie in Central Park 8/11/12. Video by J. McCalla. Enjoy!)