A Haitian experience in French Guiana
comment 1 Written by on January 20, 2010 – 3:02 pm

papillion

Photo: Papillion’s prison in French Guiana. Copyright: Vicky Baker.

In 2008, I celebrated Haitian Fête du Drapeau (flag day) on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t on the country’s own shore but in French Guiana, a magnet for Haitian immigrants, most of whom arrive ‘sans papiers’ (without papers).

Unlike Haiti, French Guiana never got its independence. It remains an overseas department of France. It has an economy in Euros, quality healthcare and, although it remains troubled and inhospitable, it’s a much better prospect for most Haitians.

It was my Going Local column that brought me to French Guiana and the idea was to spend two weeks there mixing with locals to gain some insight on their lives. As it turned out, meeting indigenous Amerindians proved tough and so my ‘locals’ were mainly longterm French expats. One of these was going out with a Haitian and this led to my unplanned diversion into Haitian culture.

For the Fête du Drapeau, we had a great time at a party in a small community hall (music pumping; flags waving; dancing X-rated). Another day they took me to some Haitian bars down by The Creek, the nickname for a southern district of Cayenne that guidebook tells you to avoid. It was rundown and undeniably edgy, but I was well looked after and more dancing ensued.

But it wasn’t all good times. One day I went to the home of one of my newfound Haitian friends. It was hidden out in the middle of nowhere and no better than a prison cell. In a sense, he was imprisoned. There are checkpoints all across French Guiana that aim to catch out those living ‘sans papiers’. Even though he’d made it into the country, he certainly couldn’t traverse it as he pleased. He was stuck in a very small radius. He was also completely without rights. His boss – a fellow immigrant – took full advantage of this, making him work obscenely long hours with unreliable payment. The boss knew the guy wouldn’t risk losing his precious, handful-of-euros job, however bad it got.

Then came the day that another Haitian friend got news of the death of his younger sister. It was a death that would have been totally preventable in our society but his mother didn’t believe in western medicine and so refused help. My friend thus unfairly ladened himself with guilt for being so far away and not able to step in and save his sister. Yet how could he leave? The money he sent home was supporting the entire family. The moment he left, he’d risk never being able to return and never getting a job again. He was such a gentle, sensitive guy. I  remember being there when he got the call with the news. I didn’t have a clue what to say. This was a world away from mine. 

I was in French Guiana with the Haitians for just two weeks, but it opened my eyes. In the back of my mind I had the idea to go there sometime and make some reports. In the meantime, I tried to keep up with news from Haiti. I found there were few reports. The ongoing poverty wasn’t newsworthy enough in itself. Although I do recall a completely horrifying story by the Guardian’s Rory Carroll about hungry Haitians being forced to eat cakes of mud.

Sometime ago, I was also surprised to come across a series of Haiti travelogues in the most unlikely outlet: Condé Nast Traveler. The site also pulled a clever SEO move to gain coverage for fundraising for sex education/HIV awareness by taking Anna Kournikova along for the ride. Putting the words “Anna Kournikova ” and “condoms” into the headline sent search engines wild. I’ve since read that was one of the year’s biggest traffic pullers for the site. 

It’s a pity we need to rely on Anna, or Angelina, or the artist-formerly-known-as-Ginger-Spice for this, but at least it has some affect.  And good on Condé Nast for not totally ignoring parts of the world that don’t have boutique hotels and won’t bring in any sort of advertising opportunities.

Of course, everyone is coming out of the woodwork now with their Haiti stories. It seems ridiculous to jump on the bandwagon with a ‘oh I met some Haitians once, therefore I have some insight’ story. That’s not my intention at all.  These are just thoughts on my mind. Tales I’ve never fully told. 

It took one of worst natural disaster in years to bring some attention to Haiti. Let’s hope it’s not forgotten again as soon as the initial horror has stopped bringing in the bumper website traffic.

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