Help for Haiti: Vietnamese and Indo-Canadians pitch in
Unlike many Canadians I can speak of no strong personal links to Haiti – although I had the privilege in the 90’s to work with a very fine journalist originally from that country. However, as a poet, I have long been … well … obsessed by Jonathan Demme’s movie, The Agronomist — a film about another journalist, Jean Dominique.
That film explores the ramifications of one of Haiti’s central tensions – the split between a landless Creole speaking majority and its opposite, the French elite – something that investigative journalist Mark Danner touches on in his book, Stripping Bare the Body, a review of which is currently online and free much to the credit of the writer, Charles Simic, and the source, The New York Review of Books.
Apparently, “stripping bare the body” is a phrase used by former Haitian president Leslie Manigat who assumed power in 1987 after the “Duvalierist officers” and refers to the way “political violence ‘strips bare the social body,’ allowing us to see beneath the surface to the real workings of a society.”
This real politik seems absent from recent feel good coverage of what rich countries like the U.S. and Canada have been doing for Haiti. How supercilious was it, I wonder, that earlier in the month, when a group of B.C. students stranded in Haiti were mercifully evacuated, in the midst of rejoicing, I also pulled open my copy of Memory of Fire: Genesis, by Eduardo Galeano, who came to prominence again last year when President Obama attended a conference on the Americas, and in that Galeano book, I read about “our first conquest,” we of the West, what we have wrought, 1492-2010 in Haiti.
Until last night, I had not yet made a contribution to the relief efforts for Haiti. In fact, in researching the role of evangelical Christian aid groups in the area of Grand Goave, I was hesitant about too readily dipping into what felt, with the greatest respect to well meaning people everywhere, a kind of Haiti Hysteria, where we the privileged few rush in, with our money, our good intentions, our need to compensate for, well, for everything. Why is it that in both Haiti and in Guatemala, in the wake of decades old American military involvement in some of the poorest countries in the world, American based evangelical Christian groups – with many Canadian off-shoots, are robust in their involvement in building the infrastructure of these countries, in creating a de facto health system for example? “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love” was a refrain in a hymn I once sang, as a believer. And perhaps that is reason enough. Squeamishness about ways and means in the face of calamity runs the risk, no doubt, of veering into lazy cynicism.
Happily, this weekend I supported a local Help Haiti event sponsored by Vancouver’s Mekong Delta Fellowship Society in Greater Vancouver. The Mekong region in South Vietnam saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the Vietnam war, and those from the South, who fought against the Viet Cong, often Catholic, often affluent, were among the numbers incarcerated in camps and then who fled, by boat, under terrible conditions, and so became “the Boat People,” and if they survived, eventually as refugees, sojourned to North America and Australia. Many were sponsored by Canadian aid groups and churches. That they now give generously to Canadian civil society and to other peoples in suffering, speaks volumes about this hard-working community. It is always interesting to see at Mekong Delta Fellowship events in Vancouver, reminders of the sensibility of these Canadians, many of whom served in the South Vietnamese Army: Ho Chi Minh, of course, viewed as a tyrant and the Viet Cong not romanticized.
Here in Vancouver, another religious/ethno-cultural group with complex ties and associations, the Sikhs and many South Asians, also rallied for Haiti this month. Each of the leading Punjabi language radio stations participated, and thousands of dollars were raised in a less than a day. This well organized politically engaged community will often mobilize in less than 24 hours to aid charitable causes, and often for those who don’t attend either church or temple and who aren’t South Asian.
What a fascinating nation we are: generous, religious and not, ethnically diverse, or “Old Canada,” complex, and thus resistant to too many generalizations. And that’s a good thing. What do you think? What efforts do you support for Haiti? I’d be interested in hearing reactions to the media blitz on disaster.