Friday, January 29, 2010

Knapsack 2-18

Notes From My Knapsack 2-18-10

Jeff Gill


Haiti Today, Granville 1886




When I look at Haiti today, whether just before the catastrophic earthquake, or now in the tragic aftermath, it seems all somewhat incomprehensible, and nearly beyond incredible.


Terence, the Roman playwright, said "Nothing human is alien to me." OK, Latin fans, he actually said "humani nil a me alienum puto," and for Black History Month, he was born some 2200 years ago in Africa before coming to Rome, almost certainly as a slave but ending his life as an acclaimed freeman.


We look at Haiti, the first free "black-led republic" in the world after the 1804 slave rebellion from France; their freedom in the wake of the American example opening a door for the rest of Latin America, but one that took long years to enter for most of the rest of their neighbors.


So when Granville was being staked out by the first official settlers in 1805, Haiti was just beginning as well; not settlement, which had been going on for nearly 300 years on their end of Hispaniola, the island they share with the Dominican Republic, but establishing a free & independent government, and autonomous economy both trace, in the Caribbean and in the Midwest, to almost the same year.


Of course, the differences are significant, but not beyond understanding. Looking a little more widely, to understand the size and population of Haiti, take Ohio, and divide it in quarters. Take one-fourth of Ohio, and shove all of our population, Cincinnati & Columbus & Dayton, into that part, say around Cleveland and Ashtabula County and down to Canton, maybe over to Elyria. But put all 11 million Ohioans into that quadrant, and you would have about the same population density; Haiti is estimated to have a bit over 9 million residents, with a fourth of the square miles, so there you go.


What does take a painful imaginative leap is to go from an average household income of $46,000 to one of $1,000. Not having Ohio winters is a help for Haitians, but not so much as to counterbalance that. There is no comparison that helps those numbers ring anything but hollow.


Where the echoes do resonate for me is in looking back at Granville, and back to 1886. A distant time, but not beyond our records, our photos, our collective memory.


In 1886, a well-educated young community leader, a pharmacist of 37 named Charles Webster Bryant, asked his community some questions. Granville was busy and energetic and filled with educational institutions and fledgling industry, with horses on the streets and animals in backyards, often destined for the dinner table, pecking around garden plots that filled most of the property. Outhouses were the norm, and wells for each house.


As the population grew, Bryant noticed the increase of infectious illness, sickness that he knew, as a pharmacist, could be prevented. The trees had all been cut down for firewood years before, the hills eroded away in each rainstorm, and there was an annual increase in diseases like cholera and typhoid.


Bryant had already helped organize the new Granville Historical Society, and was in the middle not only of recording the eroding tombstones in the Old Colony Burying Ground, but of helping incorporate the Ohio Archaeological & Historical Society. He was a doer. So he said to the community: why not a municipal water system? Let's tend our sewage and pump our water safely, and work together in the interest of health and well-being. If each paid a bit for every property, Granville could have a system as a few cities had begun earlier in the century: so Bryant suggested.


But the famous "pump handle" cholera outbreak in London was just 32 years earlier, and "miasmal" theories of contagion were still common, and Bryant's suggestion was ignored.


Then, at the end of August, 1886, Bryant fell ill: with typhoid. There in his house, which still stands at the corner of Pearl & College, he died. Soon after, a chastened community decided to begin a public waterworks, and to plant trees and tend some public parks. Electricity and interurbans and the automobile all had their own effects in the next century.


My point is that Granville in that summer of 1886 was visually and economically and socially not too different from even Port-au-Prince itself today, or at least just before the quake. 124 years later, Granville is quite different. With some shared effort, this time in collaboration with more distant partners, what might Haiti be like in 2110?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at or follow Knapsack

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