First Person

Haiti: One man, six hats, and a proverb about hope

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In May, rubble clogged the steep hillsides of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Ami Vitale/Oxfam America
In May, rubble clogged the steep hillsides of Port-au-Prince. Photo by Ami Vitale/Oxfam America

I read yesterday that the rubble that has been clogging the streets of Port-au-Prince since the earthquake in January may finally begin to disappear: A private company has secured a multi-million dollar contract to start carting off mountains of collapsed buildings. Thank god.

In the nine-plus months since that devastating day, the debris strewn across Haiti’s capital has served as a reminder of all that was lost—and a major impediment to the city’s recovery. The crumbled concrete has sat in heaps for so long that erosion has begun to soften its edges, scouring away the memory of blocks and mortar.

“Do you think it will just become part of the landscape?” asked my husband when I returned from Port-au-Prince last week and described how little had changed since my previous visits in January and May. This time, the mounds seemed even denser, and layered with the detritus—shredded plastic, flecks of paper, citrus rinds—of a city crowded with people who have no permanent place to live.

It’s the impermanence and uncertainty of each long day, and the one that’s to follow, that must be so wearing for people and that compels them, maybe, to stock up on bits of comfort and security in any way they can. On the flight down, I sat across the aisle from an old man with a Haitian passport who was wearing what I thought was a tall hat. When I looked closer I realized it wasn’t one hat but six—two woven, two black, a white one, and one covered in camouflage. He had stacked them on his head for safe transport back to a sun-pounded place where any relief from the heat that requires electricity, like fans or air conditioners, is in short supply.  At least hats keep the sun off.

The man sat quietly. He seemed almost grave—and intent on his mission. Were the hats for family members? For friends? For sale?

I lost track of him in the crush of passengers pushing to get off the plane. I don’t know if anyone was there to meet him at the airport, if his hats found other heads the moment he stepped into the tropical sun. But later I heard a proverb that made me realize just how precious every one of those hats is in a city boiling with mounds of gray rubble: Depi tet pa koupe nou espere met chapo.

The literal translation for those words is “as long as our heads aren’t chopped off we will continue to wear hats,” but it’s their meaning that gave the six-hatted man such dignity: “As long as you’re alive there’s still hope.” Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+