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Helping Haitians tell their own stories of survival

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Students from the Universite d'Etat d'Haiti interview a woman who lives in a tent camp in Port-au-Prince.
More than two years after a devastating 7.0 earthquake changed the lives of Haitians forever, a group of Haitian university students is piecing together the story of what happened to the people displaced by the disaster in their own voices.
With the help of a UCLA history professor, the Haitian students have collected oral histories and interviewed survivors living in tent communities in Port-au-Prince and other locations to provide a permanent record of this harrowing moment in their personal history — their feelings about the disaster, their grievances and their frustration.
The effort to memorialize what happened has also provided a way for the Haitians to release long-pent-up emotions through these interviews. "It was a very moving experience," said History Professor Robin Derby, who led the oral history project in Haiti and, together with two colleagues from UCLA, taught the students interviewing techniques. "It was moving for us, and it was moving for the people who were recounting their distress, because nobody’s really listened to them yet."
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Teresa Barnett, director of UCLA's Center for Oral History Research, teaches interviewing techniques to Haitian university students.
In fact, Derby said, "It was quite clear to us from day one that there was an enormous kind of therapy for people living in the camps."
Derby is no stranger to Haiti. She’s been studying the people, music and popular culture of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic since she did a research fellowship after graduating from Brown University.
After Haiti was hit by the 7.0 temblor in January 2010, Derby turned her oral history research to the study of urban legends in Port-au-Prince — particularly the demonic animals ("lougarous") that were said to have snatched children from the makeshift camps that had sprung up around the Haitian capital.
Derby had already visited Haiti four times to do research when she met Fritz Deshommes, vice rector of the Université d’Etat d’Haiti (UEH), during his visit to UCLA in January 2011. In town to attend meetings sponsored by the UC Haiti Initiative, Deshommes heard about Derby’s research and suggested she develop a collaborative training program for students at the UEH, located in Port-au-Prince.
In the time it took Derby to obtain a modest, special-project grant from the Latin American Studies Association/Ford Foundation, she had organized a weeklong trip to teach a quick course at UEH on how to conduct oral histories with earthquake survivors. She traveled to Haiti last September with Teresa Barnett, head of the UCLA Center for Oral History Research, and UCLA anthropologist Andrew Apter, who had conducted a similar project with Congolese refugees in Zambia. In Haiti, they worked with UEH History Professor Watson Denis.
By the time Derby and her colleagues arrived in Port-au-Prince, 30 UEH students had enrolled in the class. In Derby’s eyes, the class had several important uses, including the fact that the students would learn skills that could land them jobs with non-government organizations (NGOs).
A UEH student interviews a woman at the entrance of her tent in a camp in Port-au-Prince.
"In working for NGOs or aid organizations, people need to know how to do oral history interviewing," Derby said. "Urban planners and tent-camp assistance organizations are going to need to understand what has happened to the Haitian family, for example, as society is being reconstructed in the camps."
Students’ schedules were crammed full: In the morning, Derby, Barnett and Apter would teach them how to conduct an oral history. The students spoke mostly Creole, so Derby enlisted the help of a translator in the classroom, even though she speaks Creole fairly proficiently.
"In a scholarly, academic situation where you’re lecturing, I don’t have the linguistic capacity to lecture in Creole," she said. "So we had a translator who was fabulous."
In the afternoon, the group left the campus to interview people living in three different locations: a tent camp (Champ de Mars), a traditional poor neighborhood (Carrefour-Feuilles) and a middle-class neighborhood (Pacot). Using tape recorders that Derby and Barnett had brought to Haiti, the students fanned out and found people who were willing to talk.
"The students had lovely social skills," said Barnett. "I couldn’t understand what was going on, but I’d hear them on the recordings: ‘Bonjour, madam!’ … They had that basic courtesy and the ability to connect with people."
Barnett recalled one well-educated gentleman who spoke some English. "At first he was very suspicious: ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ " Barnett said. He finally agreed to participate, but balked at being recorded. When he discovered that Derby was going to post it on the Web, he said, "Oh, well, maybe I will record, after all!"
"It was just very interesting. They wanted their story out there," Barnett said.
In the evenings, Derby and Barnett would repair to their hotel room, upload all the interviews on their computers and scrub their tapes clean for the next day. By week’s end, they had collected some 30 interviews, which they brought back to Westwood.
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UCLA History Professor Robin Derby (center) with some of her Haitian university students.
It’s not clear whether UEH has the resources required to maintain the archive, Derby said. For now, they are planning to launch the interviews on a UEH website while having UCLA serve as a long-term repository until a final home for the archive is found.
"I feel like we got the ball rolling," Derby said. "But I’d like to see the archive grow and maybe do some follow-up workshops with the [UEH] students, and also with UCLA students who might be able to use these interviews as a source for understanding what Haitians need in this post-earthquake moment. It’s Haitians telling their stories, and their grievances are there in black and white."
At least one UCLA undergraduate — Laya Reddy, director of the UC Haiti Initiative at UCLA — is eager to make use of the interviews. She heard about the archive when she took Derby’s History 199 course, "Haiti: Past, Present and Future," last fall.
"The interviews bring to light what Haitians themselves feel about how and why the earthquake occurred," Reddy said. "It gives a sense of cultural history that one cannot gather from textbooks. One of the main themes I learned when studying Haitian history in Professor Derby’s class was that Haitians have been silenced for centuries. It is nice to finally hear the Haitian voice."
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