It’s no wonder the Haitians wanted Wyclef Jean
The star’s brief candidacy gave hope to people deeply in need…
The Observer, Sunday 22 August 2010
Wyclef Jean has been disqualified from running for the presidency of Haiti because he has not been a resident for at least the last five years. While Jean respected the decision as a legal matter, his disqualification highlights the longer-term tragedies that have made living in Haiti such a compromise, particularly for those with other options. The drain of brains, talent and money from this, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, is the sorry product of foreign meddling, domestic corruption, the Aids epidemic, deforestation, hurricanes and an educational system so dismal that 80% of the population is illiterate – all before the most recent cataclysm.
Jean’s brief candidacy underscored the reality that the luckiest survivors of this and all the previous miseries are themselves a scattered presence: some have fled the island altogether; many are traumatised or in deepest mourning.
Yet despite the devastation of the earthquake, one year later many people have forgotten the ongoing suffering in Haiti. And so if the Haitian government continues to wobble, it’s not much of a mystery. The only people in Haiti with enough running water to function at the level modern electoral politics requires will most likely be expats. And as against all the others – foreigners, foreign corporations, NGOs, missionaries and pirates – who are providing the services that have kept the population alive (in a hotchpotch of well-meaning outreach and felonious intent), it is no wonder that Jean captured the hearts and hopes of a nation so in need of spiritual resurrection.
Two weeks after the earthquake, I met a woman in Boston airport. She had just arrived from Port-au-Prince, and her story lingers in my mind. When I followed her hints and asked the pertinent questions, she fell open, a river of sorrow. So many dead, so many died, she said over and over. She had been sitting in her yard, the earth shifted, the buildings collapsed and everyone died. She told me the same story eight or nine times, each time with some new detail: she had been barbecuing meat; the flowers were in bloom, her daughter was doing her schoolwork. Then she looked over her shoulder, the earth moved, the house collapsed and everybody died.
Suddenly, after this terrible litany, the woman halted and told me a new story. The night of the earthquake there was a funeral for a nine-year-old girl. Just before the earthquake she sat up in her coffin and said: “I’m too hot.” Then she jumped out, ran around the church three times and into the night. And then the woman fell silent. I wondered what the story meant. It did not seem the tale of a madwoman. I concluded that it must be a parable about all the rules of mortality turned suddenly upside down. It was a story from the book of the dead, tombs tumbling open, the Earth stalked by ghosts. Of all that she had recounted, it was that image that brought home the horror and incalculable fear.
When I think about Wyclef Jean, I wonder if part of his appeal to the people of Haiti is that of an artist, whose gift might be mending national identity. If music speaks to the same part of the psyche that pain touches, perhaps it is no wonder that in a time when all natural law seems suspended, we humans reach for the tail of the nearest star and hang on as though in search of miracles.