The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) hosted the second installment of its “Free Thinkers” lecture series Thursday night in Barnum Hall featuring author and journalist Amy Wilentz.
Wilentz’s lecture, entitled “Dependence and Liberty: What’s at Stake for Haiti” was centered around Wilentz’s experiences in Haiti, ranging from the large topic of humanitarian missteps to detailed descriptions of powerful “charcoal ladies” who sell fuel to the community.
After an introduction from Osher LLI Director David Fechtor, Wilentz began by first discussing her introduction to Haiti. While working on what she described as “boring stories” for Time Magazine, she began to look into the files on Haiti of the former Time reporter for the country. Her interest was piqued, she decided to learn Haitian Creole and began her journey in Haiti.
Wilentz discussed at length her experience arriving in Haiti exactly when Haitian President-for-Life and perpetrator of crimes against humanity Jean-Claude Duvalier, colloquially known as Baby Doc, was fleeing the country for France in the dead of night in 1986.
“Airplanes don’t take off at three in the morning in Haiti, so the entire city knew he had left,” Wilentz said.
Wilentz also discussed being present as the country underwent its subsequent uprising.
“I’ve seen a lot of death by machete, and it’s not something you ever want to see,” she said.
As the lecture progressed, Wilentz moved into vivid descriptions of the country she grew to know, such as the senses evoked by walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince, from the smell of Haitian cooking, which Wilentz describes as French cuisine with spice, to brooding charcoal merchants who doubled as priestesses and neighborhood leaders.
Wilentz’s descriptions of Haiti seemed to surprise audience members who were more familiar with an image of the country as given by news sources that focus coverage on Haiti’s natural disasters and political upheavals.
As Wilentz moved from Haiti’s history to its tumultuous relations with both the United States and France, the theme of her bittersweet relationship with foreign aid emerged.
Wilentz was both critical and sympathetic to the institution of foreign aid in Haiti. To highlight the contradiction between the romanticization of donation and actually providing aid, she shared a tale from her 2013 book “Farewell Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti,” of when a student group posted on its website saying that it had “an awesome adventure in Haiti.”
“Your disaster, our resume-builder!” Wilentz said.
From her multiple stories about white journalists and aid workers making mistakes and experiencing triumphs, Wilentz makes it clear that there was no one answer, or potentially any answers at all, to the challenges aid workers face in Haiti.
“Haiti is not for amateurs,” she repeated often.
The statement was both a description of her views on how the rest of the world should educate themselves on Haitian culture before interacting with it, and her trepidation at being considered an “expert in Haiti” while being from suburban New Jersey.
“Unless you know the charcoal lady in the corner, it’s very hard to get things done in a proper and respectful way,” she said.