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Haiti: The Narratives Behind the Numbers

With an area of 10,700 square miles, the country of Haiti is roughly the same size as the state of Massachusetts, with a population (about 10 million) comparable to the state of Michigan. On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake killed over 200,000 people, which is equivalent to a city the size of Grand Rapids. One year later, more than a million people – double the population of Boston – remain homeless.

With an area of 10,700 square miles, Haiti is roughly the same size as Harney County, Oregon but with a population two-and-a-half times larger than the entire state’s. On January 12, 2010, all the citizens of Eugene and Bend died in an earthquake. On the first anniversary of the quake, the populations of Portland, Salem, Gresham, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Medford, Springfield, Corvallis, Aloha, Tigard, Albany, Lake Owego, Keizer, McMinnville, and Oregon City remain homeless. The town of Mt. Angel, just four miles from my house, has perished in a cholera outbreak. In other words, if I’m not dead or homeless, I know someone who is.

Haiti is in the U.S.’s backyard but it is still too remote from my heart. I try to put the unfathomable in a context I can understand, to shock my way through the abstractions, the distance and the statistics that obscure the narratives behind the enormous numbers.

Words help more, and I look, for example, to the writing of the Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat. She wrote an essay last year for The New Yorker about her family in Haiti. She’s back in the January 17, 2011 issue of that magazine, with a short piece about voodou, rivers and streams, and resilience:

But what I didn’t fully understand was that in Haiti people’s spirits never really die. This has been proved true in the stories we have seen and read during the past year, of boundless suffering endured with grace and dignity: mothers have spent nights standing knee-deep in mud, cradling their babies in their arms, while rain pounded the tarpaulin above their heads; amputees have learned to walk, and even dance, on their new prostheses within hours of getting them; rape victims have created organizations to protect other rape victims; people have tried, in any way they could, to reclaim a shadow of their past lives.

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