Port au Prince saps energy: the heat, the noise and the people. At the market it’s difficult to know whether there are more buyers or sellers. Every few yards, women and men stand in groups. Each group is selling the same items: onions, bags, pens, avocados. If I shut my eyes, I could be in Lagos or Port Harcourt; everyone is on a hustle, involved in a struggle.
My own personal nemesis in this city is the tap tap (share taxis). I try to sit on the seat at the edge: even though it means being exposed to the blazing heat, at least I am not squashed between two elbows and backsides at least as large as my own. I have to admit that I sometimes get frustrated and jump out to catch an okada (motorcycle taxi) instead.
The dangers of okadas, however, became evident when one crashed into a truck I was travelling in. Neither the driver nor passenger fell off, but I know for sure I would have gone flying. One thing Port au Prince has taught me is that I have no balance. On another occasion, a family member returned with cuts and bruises after a crash in which she fell off the bike. Still, the temptation is too great when faced with the choice of arriving in 10 rather than 90 minutes. Whatever bumps and dust I experience is better than been squashed and burned on a tap tap in the midday sun.
If forced to take a tap tap, I try whenever possible to take the front seat. For this ploy to be successful, one needs to dress appropriately. The driver will then notice you, whether out of pity or because he believes you to be a potentially attractive proposition. The alternative – and this is my preference – is to take control and assertively open the door with a ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ and climb in. Even here, you run the risk of having to share your seat with someone else, but it is not quite as bad as sitting in the back. If I had the money and the courage I would buy my own scooter or bike and have the freedom to roam, weaving in and out of traffic at will. But a fantasy that will stay, as there are too many steep hills for me to brave motorcycling along the streets.
Still, as my time here ends, I know that I will miss Port au Prince. When I visited a friend to say goodbye, he asked a profound question: How optimistic was I about Haiti? I thought for a while, but I must have taken too long to reply, because he interrupted my thoughts with ‘I’m not optimistic… We’re near finished.’ I know what he means. The popular masses had their moment in the 1980s and 1990s when Lavalas was indeed a revolutionary flood, but things are different now. USAID and Clinton and their Haitian puppets are busy consolidating their power. Many of the missions and NGOs have gone or been stripped down to the bare bones. Those that remain maintain control of their sector, which does not include the poor neighbourhoods. Millions of the city’s residents are not even on the margins; they are forgotten, hidden from view in Cité Soleil, Carrefour, Jalouzi, in camps on the outskirts of town, or off the dusty beaten paths. Yes, there are pockets of support; yet the odd clinic staffed by 10 people and catering to 50,000 is so far from meeting the needs of the people that its hardly worth mentioning, even though it is literally a lifesaver for those who are able to attend it.
The presence of police armed with automatic rifles and the ubiquitous security guards (also armed with automatic weaponry) raises alarm bells. The presence of these forces gives us the impression we are in the midst of danger. Watch as three or four people gather on the street: within minutes the police will intervene. So assembly in public becomes a de facto civil disorder. Granted, this situation exists in other countries too, but Haiti’s uniqueness lies with the concerted government policy to disenfranchise and exclude the popular masses from society and governance.