It takes about 45 minutes to cross from one side of Port au Prince to the other by car. It is a depressing journey. You pass straight through the city slums.

And see for yourself, close-up, the images which have poured out of Haiti over the last month. Poverty, squalor, and quite probably, violence.

Jacmel, Haiti (Photo by Tiana Markova-Gold)
Citizens of Jacmel worked together to stop looting
By the time you have completed the journey it is difficult to avoid coming to a bleak conclusion. That this is a city, and a country, without hope.

But keep going, leave the capital, and another side of Haiti begins to emerge.

As the winding southern road heads into the mountains that surround Port au Prince, the city’s ugly breezeblock buildings give way to wooden ones, painted in bright colours. Gentle reminders that this country is in the Caribbean.

Drive on another two hours and you will even see a palm tree. On the outskirts of Jacmel.

This seaside city is so different from Port au Prince that it feels like another country.

Its atmosphere is distinctly laid back. Its architecture is grand. French ironwork adorns its elegant townhouses.

Above all, it seems a calm place. And that is very rare in today’s Haiti.


So what has been going on in Jacmel, during the chaotic days surrounding President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s departure?

Jacmel artist, Patrick Boucard (Photo by Tiana Markova-Gold)

The community is more intertwined in this city so everybody learns to rely on each other and there is a lot less hate

Patrick Boucard, Jacmel artist
This city did not entirely escape the violence. But it did deal with it in a different way.

When news that the president had gone reached the city, armed men took over the police station, like they did all over Haiti. There was some looting.

But then Jacmel’s citizens went out onto the streets and called for calm. They even made an appeal on the local radio station, asking the looters to take back what they had stolen. Almost everything was returned.

Patrick Boucard, a Jacmel artist in his late forties, was one of the residents that helped to calm things down in those precarious hours.

“Things are a bit more civilised here,” he said, sipping a beer in a converted 19th Century coffee warehouse, overlooking the pale blue Caribbean.

“The community is more intertwined in this city so everybody learns to rely on each other and there is a lot less hate.”

He said Haiti would be far better off if its leaders did something to stop people flooding to the slums of the capital to find work, and instead encouraged them to stay within smaller communities like Jacmel.

Creative spirit

He hopes this city could become a pilot project for the new Haiti. He is doing his bit – setting up a small art school to train local artists to develop and sell their work. Haitian art is renowned throughout the world, and is one of this desperately poor country’s very few exports.

Jacmel is a seductive place. But it is not a pure paradise. It operates on a semi feudal system, with most of the houses and land owned by a few rich families.

And some of its wealth undoubtedly comes from drugs. All along this coast cocaine shipments from Colombia are discreetly dropped off before being sent on to the US.

But its people do have something which is conspicuously lacking across this country. Pride.

Cleaning up

It was in Jacmel that I saw the first rubbish collection truck I have ever seen in Haiti. When I went to have a closer look I met Chery Dieumaitre, a mechanic, who was also watching the men pick up the waste.

“They do this every day, you know,” he said.

The pride he felt for that small detail, was tangible.

After a month which has left the only president they have ever elected in exile, and foreign troops patrolling their streets, many Haitians have abandoned all pride and resorted to the anarchy of looting and violence.

Maybe something can be learnt from the story of Jacmel.