"Looking for life" in Haiti, surrounded by crisis

January 31, 2019

Greg Beckett, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

Story and Photo by Rob Rombouts

“Haiti is dead, there is no more Haiti”

This idea, repeated to Greg Beckett many times while he was in Haiti, is reflective of how Haitians live their lives, while surrounded by crisis.

It also inspired the title of Beckett’s forthcoming book “There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince.” Beckett, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, has written an ethnography of crisis in Haiti, focusing on how it feels to people in Haiti, living in a state of crisis, every day.

By giving voice to Haitians, Beckett looks at how people recognize crisis and live with it.

Life in Haiti involves living with layers of crisis, and the book investigates different versions or locations of crisis, including environmental, urban and political crisis.

Beckett spent a decade researching the book, from 2002 to 2012, speaking with Haitians and seeing first-hand how they live with these layers of crisis.

The Haitian portion of Hispaniola is almost completely deforested, which leads people to move to the city. This leads to an urban crisis, Beckett explains. Port-au-Prince is largely self-built, without centrally organized services. Haitians spend much of their time “looking for life,” with people building their own houses, establishing their own connections to services, and finding their own jobs. This led to a political crisis in the country.

When the country experienced a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010, an already vulnerable society and country was further fractured.

“Outside of Haiti, the understanding of the earthquake is shallow,” said Beckett. For outside observers, the earthquake was seen as a single point of crisis. For Haitians, “crisis is not an event, but a structure of daily life.”

“Haitians understand their current situation through events from their history,” said Beckett, associating their present situation with the past, including parallels between living people and historic figures. Haitians connect the ongoing crisis with crises of the past, with continuing impacts of the slave trade, the revolution and international punishment after the revolution.

For Haitians, their crisis reflects the damages caused by imperialism, racism and predatory capitalism.

These ongoing damages led Haitians to say “Haiti is dead, there is no more Haiti,” even before the devastating earthquake.

While many outside of Haiti may see this statement as being fatalistic or a term of resignation, Beckett said, for those in the country, it was a realization that they could not go back to a situation that existed before. Instead, they would have to move forward and build a future that was still recognizably Haitian.

Beckett’s book looks at how Haitians “live with crisis, how they feel it, in their bodies and in their relationships.”

Beckett hopes that his book will add nuance and complexity to the kind of international intervention happening in Haiti.

“We need to understand that these stories matter,” said Beckett.

International organizations that respond to crisis have the same template that may not be appropriate to all situations, Beckett said, “If we understand that people who live with crisis everyday have a different theory and understanding of crisis,” it can help inform international responses.

Beckett feels this approach to crisis could have global impact and importance, pointing to possible changes caused by climate change.

“On a global context, how do we think of a crisis so total it shatters a way of life and yet we have to go forward and build a meaningful life and future,” said Beckett. “It’s a profound statement that a cultural world is over and that have to re-build something that is different than what was in the past.”

On February 20, Beckett spoke with CBC London Morning host Julianne Hazelwood about his book and the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis.

There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, is published by the University of California Press, and will be released in March 2019.