Stories & impact

Local Community Rescues Haitian Heritage Affected by Earthquake

  • Date
    March 30, 2023
  • Country
  • Project coordinators
    Olsen Jean Julien, CCC - UniQ

Haiti has suffered six major earthquakes in the last decade.

On August 14th 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit southern Haiti and caused overwhelming destruction to the Tiburon Peninsula. Towns like Les Cayes situated less than 100 km from the epicenter were especially impacted by the earthquake, leaving people displaced from their homes, and worse. Haiti's history of chronic political instability and widespread corruption, exacerbated by the activities of multiple violent gangs, made the earthquake's impact even graver. Quickly, it became evident that the humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake further threatened the already vulnerable local cultural life in Haiti.

The earthquake destroyed critical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, hospitals, phone lines, and homes. According to sources from the United Nations, more than 52,000 houses collapsed and 77,000 more were damaged. Among them were precious cultural heritage sites, museums, collections, and cultural spaces. Multiple Voodoo temples, Catholic churches, and communal libraries were destroyed in the wake of this earthquake. In Les Cayes alone, more than 220 Catholic churches and chapels were seriously damaged or destroyed. As a country whose population is estimated to be 55 to 60% Catholic, the destruction of the churches meant a tremendous loss to Haitian communities. Many churches continued to hold service over the rubble of the destroyed buildings as Haitians, traumatized by the earthquake, turned to religion for recovery.

Haitian communities also turned to heritage- in the form of Voodoo temples - for recovery. Voodoo is a staple of Haitian communities and cultures: it is a syncretic religion that is usually combined by Haitians with other religions like Catholicism. Voodoo mixes practices from African traditions with local indigenous elements and European influences. The destruction of multiple Voodoo temples and sanctuaries deprived communities of space to keep their endemic religion alive. Voodoo practices, which involve performative arts like songs and dances, also hold essential importance for the Haitian communities’ death rituals. Following the death of at least 2,000 people due to the earthquake, many Haitian communities turned to Voodoo to cope with the repercussions of trauma and the loss of loved ones.

In addition to religious heritage, the earthquake also badly impacted Haiti's documentary heritage. Dozens of libraries were destroyed by the earthquake, meaning that once again the Haitian community lost an important access point to heritage and a communal space where cultural life was often celebrated. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Haitians’ connection to culture and cultural life was severed and the prospect of cultural continuity was seemingly difficult to attain. With 246 Christian Catholic churches, 147 Voodoo temples, and 733 schools affected, many cultural artifacts became endangered.

The silver lining of this particular story comes when our partner on the ground, Olsen Jean Julien, contacted us for support in an immediate cultural emergency response. While humanitarian aid remained crucial and ongoing, Olsen and his team at the CCC – UniQ came to Cultural Emergency Response (CER) with a plan to protect their culture in crisis. Operating under the same understanding that culture is an important lifeline for hope and vital for the resilience and well-being of both individuals and communities, we began our joint response with the help of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI).

CCC – UniQ and Olsen have longstanding, strong ties with major actors in the heritage field like SCRI. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Olsen was the Manager of the Smithsonian’s Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. The project treated more than 30,000 cultural items and trained more than 100 Haitians in conservation, and it was completed successfully on time despite the political turmoil and the cholera outbreak the country went through during the project period. In 2011, Olsen was awarded the Gold Medal for Exemplary Service by the former Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough. All of this is exactly what made Olsen and his team such an important factor in the first-aid response in 2021 with CER.

Once the situational analysis was complete, our mission became to provide first-aid with the following actions:

  • Training of locals on first aid to cultural heritage
  • Rescue and assessment missions to affected areas
  • Assessment, inventory, documentation of damages, and stabilization of damaged heritage
  • Supply of materials and human resources for assessment, inventory, documentation of damages, and stabilization of damaged heritage
  • First aid to the documentary heritage affected by the disaster

Just one week after the earthquake, Olsen and his team activated their local network and began training 18 people on cultural emergency preparedness and response. With a trained team of heritage heroes, together they safeguarded more than 7,000 artifacts including books, administrative records, parish archives, photographs, ritual costumes, musical instruments, objects of worship, paintings, and sculptures. The response was separated into four special projects in direct response to the region's cultural life: the retrieval of books from the rubble left behind at the IPDEC Library, the rescue and reconstruction of collections of costumes, musical instruments, and objects of worship associated with Haitian Voodoo, the stabilization and digitization of books and archival documents of the parish of Sainte Anne in Camp-Perrin, and the securing of archival documents of the “Séminaire Collège de Mazenod” run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI).

This project would not be possible without the participation of the local community at various stages.

Olsen Jean Julien, project coordinator

The Impact

The participation of the local community and their corresponding expertise were elemental to the success of this project. Since the first assessment mission, our partners on the ground relied on their network of partners for the identification of the most crucial needs and stakeholders. With the information provided by the collection owners and cultural associations, our partners were able to create their strategy to focus on collections, community libraries, and archival documents that held crucial importance to the local community's cultural life. For example, it was the local expertise from the KNVA, Camp Perrin, and IPDEC library that best advised on how to shape the response according to people on the ground. It was they who scouted young, motivated participants for the training and work on projects. In agreement with the words from our partner on the ground, Olsen, we too stress the importance of working together with local communities when it comes to providing first aid to culture in crisis. This project demonstrated three main areas of impact: strengthened local infrastructures, community outreach, and increased social cohesion.

All photos provided by Olsen Jean Julien

For this coordinated and joint support in Haiti, we are grateful for the contributions or collaboration of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) and Fondation des Fondateurs (CHAP Fund).