I was in Haiti a couple of weeks before Christmas—11 months after the devastating quake hit near Port-au-Prince. Not much had changed in those long months since my first visit in January 2010. Reduced to rubble, the cinder block city teemed with hundreds of thousands of people camped in tents and under tarps.
It was a time of political instability as Haitians wrestled with who would become their next president. Campaign posters coated the capital and in the most direct way possible, people voiced their sentiments—in slogans dashed with paint across the city’s walls and sometimes on the cloth of their sagging tents.
It made me think about how people communicate, about the power of brevity. Nowhere is that power expressed with more elegance than through proverbs, and Haiti is fantastically rich with them. So I began asking the people I met for the proverb that best described how they felt at that moment, in that place—sitting on a rough wooden bench in the shell of a building, pumping the peddle of a sewing machine in a resettlement camp, glancing from the door of a tiny shop next to a rubble-strewn alley.
Roseda Dorvilien looked behind her at the steep path still jammed with rubble—and the long line of workers hired to remove it, bag by bag. She was participating in an Oxfam cash-for-work program to clear this central way of the earthquake debris that had made it so difficult to negotiate for 11 long months. In a place where it seemed nearly impossible to get heavy machinery—if any were even available—the work required many hands.
What proverb came to mind? Dorvilien didn’t skip a beat.
“Yon sel dwet pa manje kalalou,” she said. It means you can’t eat okra with one finger.
“Nen pran kou je kouri dlo,” answered Frederic Bonny, a math, physics, and chemistry teacher living in a camp where people were waiting anxiously for word on whether the owner of the land was going to evict them. Already they had moved three times, scooping up what few belongings they had left. Many had no work. Bonny had found a part-time teaching job, but the commute consumed his earnings. His proverb summed up the hardships of the past year: if you get hit in the nose, water comes out your eyes.
But Charitable Pierre, who runs a small restaurant and packaged goods shop in greater Port-au-Prince, counseled patience. She lost her business when the quake hit: She had been running it out of her house, which is now a heap of rubble. Determined to recover, she had re-opened in a makeshift building constructed of rusted metal on a borrowed piece of land. Oxfam had given her a grant to restock her store, and a fuel-efficient stove to help with her cooking. On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of customers came and went.
“Two prese pa fe jou lov vri,” said Pierre, reciting a proverb that guides her: Impatience doesn’t make the sun come up faster.