Although international attention to the cholera outbreak in Haiti has dwindled, the effects in-country have not. The death toll is in the 4000 range and climbing. When I arrived three months ago, radio commercials regularly reminded listeners to wash their hands, fruits, and vegetables. I occasionally received kreyol text messages from the Red Cross, reminding me to wash my hands. While elections monitoring in Gonaive, the Red Cross gave out bags of water and offered free chlorinated hand wash. At one point we drove under a banner advertising a local water purification company, with the tag line of “0% Kolera.” Most recently, I heard of local commercials that advise people to avoid shaking hands, and instead to bump elbows, invoking the what I call the “No Hands” movement in Haiti.
What makes this a “no hands” movement is not just the physical act of avoiding hand contact to minimize the spread of cholera. It’s the treatment of Haitians abroad, the hands-off approach one might say, that materializes the No Hands phenomenon.
A few weeks ago I met members of the Haitian U-17 (under 17 youth league) soccer team who were on their way to Jamaica to play in a regional tournament. Today, I was saddened to find not only had they lost while in Jamaica, but had now been taken out the tournament and placed in quarantine due to what the coach says is malaria, but what seems to be being treated as cholera. An e-mail from the coach says that the players have been locked in isolation under 24/7 guard and told to await a charter flight to Haiti. Look Haiti, no hands.
There’s a history of a no hands mentality towards Haiti, ranging from an embargo soon after independence to the AIDS scare of the 1980s to the present cholera epidemic. And, of course, there’s the controversial no hands remark of the New York DJ, who was confident in his AIDS free status because he’s avoided sexual contact with Haitians. At each point, Haiti has been held in peculiar regard and arms length by others, with the same stalwart resistance of a club bouncer picking who gets into the club, determined to protect a certain integrity in the establishment.
As I move into my fourth month in Haiti, I wonder who really is losing out from the No Hands movement. Is it Haiti or the ones at arms length? Aside from delicious Barbancourt Rum, avoiding the No Hands movement gains one access to a world completely unlike the rest of the Caribbean. More specifically, one learns to appreciate a certain spirit that permeates the air, one that acknowledges the No Hands movement, and continues on with its own No Ceilings attitude (if you can’t tell by now, these are all hip hop analogies). No Ceilings in the sense that one isn’t limited by being Haitian, one is only limited by choosing to have limits. As much as the rest of the world sheds pity on Haiti, one might think Haitians spend their evenings in circles of consolation, attempting to trudge through the misery. Quite the opposite. Haitians move forward, despite what obstacles may lay ahead, undaunted by present day realities. Look world, no ceilings.
I don’t think I could do my job if I gave in to the No Hands mode of thought. To really understand Haiti, you have to take on a No Ceilings point of view. You have to know that, despite what seems impossible today, Haitians have a history of overcoming the impossible and dusting off their shoulders to move on to the next one. After enough time in Haiti, you don’t pity Haitians, you marvel at them.
When it comes down to it, given the choice between the two, No Hands or No Ceilings, well… let’s just say No Ceilings is a better album.