By Jean H Charles
On Thursday, August 30, 2012, my home town Grand River of the North of Haiti has just celebrated its 300th anniversary as the parish of St Rose de Lima. Located 24 km (15 miles) from the city of Cape Haitian and minutes from Citadel Laferrriere (a world heritage site), Grand River has a superb past that should put the city on the universal map of places to visit and maybe live in. Because, by tradition and in fact, it is one of the cities of Haiti where you find the most centenarians (my own father included) living easily beyond their one hundred years. Is it the climate or the water? More studies need to be done to find the root causes of such phenomenon.
Jean H Charles MSW, JD is Executive Director of AINDOH Inc a non profit organization dedicated to building a kinder and gentle Caribbean zone for all. He can be reached at: jeanhcharles@aol
Grand River is the home of the Gallifet plantation, the largest and the most profitable sugar plantation during colonial times. It was also there that the slaves started the insurrection after the voodoo ceremony officiated by Bookman, the Jamaican who ignited the Haitian revolution.
More recently, it is in Gallifet Grand River that the Adventist Church took root in Haiti. The Church just celebrated at that location its one hundredth anniversary of its introduction into the country. There is a more telling story of a nation builder parish priest Father Alexander Daricad who, annoyed at the procession of the newly arrived Adventist devotees, organized his own Catholic procession, to be rebuked by the military commander of the place to let freedom of religion play its part.
Grand River has its entry into the path of history with Vincent Oge (from Dondon) and Jean Baptiste Chavannes from Grand River, two delegates who returned from France to force the application of the decree of March 8, 1790, giving the same rights to the freemen than to the white colonists. After a small insurrection with friends and families, Oge and Chavannes were seized and hanged upside down while left to rot at the Cape Haitian plaza to warn those who would dare follow the same path.
Grand River is the hometown of Haiti’s founding father Jean Jacques Dessalines; it is also the hometown of Jean Price Mars, the ethnologist who is the father of Negritude and Pan-Africanism, the precursor of Harlem Renaissance. His signature book, Ainsi Parla L’Oncle -- As Told by the Uncle, set the tone for the Black Is Beautiful movement not only in Haiti and in the United States but all over the world.
The city has the distinction of having the most presidents of the country issue from its womb. Starting with the last one, they include General Henry Namphy, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, Tiresias Simon Sam, Jean Baptiste Riche, Philippe Guerrier and Jean Jacques Dessalines.
By rank, the city is the second most important one of the northern state of Haiti. When the Haitian army was in existence, the town was a military district, with a captain in charge. It has now a court of second instance, to rule on legal matters spanning several cities in the area going as far as St Raphael, a border town with the central state.
Its hospital, built by the Mennonites, is a first class health center manned now by a team of Cuban doctors. In terms of education, Grand River has always been a hotbed of intellectual activities. The Christian Brothers as well as the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny have for centuries produced young men and young ladies who receive an education equal to or superior to any boarding school of America or Europe.
Whether it is true or not, visitors to the town of Grand River have expressed the feeling that, at last, they have found an oasis in Haiti. Is it because the town is surrounded by mountains where the vegetation has not been cut and it is still green? Is it the town plaza with its centenary trees flanked by the majestic church of St Rose de Lima or the sentiment of less crowding? Anyway, arriving into the town has been for visitors a pleasant experience!
Grand River is dotted with a hydroelectric plant that used as fuel its seven falls (a touristic wonder by itself) located in the rural county of Caracol, one of the six rural counties (Grand Gilles, Solon, Jolitrou, Cormiers, and Gambade) that comprise the greater Grand River area. It has a spring water system that comes from the mountain and if commercialized could rival Evian or any luxurious water brand.
The town has a deficit though; its population is only 50,000 people. In my reasoning that people (when educated) equate growth and wealth, Grand River must find a way to retain its population from the phenomenon of the nomad, which is a feature not only of Haiti but most of the populations of the smaller islands of the Caribbean.
Its industries of the past, converting the Campeche wood into a dye for clothing coloring, or cashew nuts for oil are all extinct. Yet, I visited the large market, which is crowded as a honey mill with fruits and produce of all types. I bought a bunch of baby bananas (10) for 20 Haitian cents, which represents less than one American cent. Further away I got myself a basket filled with avocado and passion fruit, and an entire plantain stalk. I paid only $6.50.
In spite of this abundance, Grand River is, as the republic of Haiti, a failed city that does not reflect its three centuries age. The electricity is sporadic because the hydroelectric plant may need some minor repairs that have been neglected by past governments. The water system was mired in corruption and overrun as such it is not fully functional. There are no industries to keep employed the thousands of young men and women who would enjoy giving their labor for a decent pay.
To the credit of the present Martelly/Lamothe government, including the First Lady Sophia Martelly (who has a special devotion to St Rose de Lima), as well as the legislator of the city, Ocinjac Bien Aime, the town has been for the past month a hotbed of activity, where every willing young man could find a job if he wants to.
The church is being repaired to mint condition, the streets are paved, the river is being diverted far away from the city, and a multi-purpose stadium is under construction, as well as a theatre. A total of US$4 million is being injected into the city to ensure its urbanization. It is a model that should be replicated in each one of the towns of Haiti on the eve of their patron saint fiesta, ensuring as such a take off with sustainable benefits that go beyond the day of the festival.
Grand River, as the entire complex of towns and cities of Haiti (142 in total), is in a state of rebirth after some 60 years of complete neglect and lack of governmental interest in urban renewal and in development. The Catholic festivals galore constitute a unique occasion for Diaspora and family reunion. They represent also a gold mine for future tourism theme promotion. The potential tourist adventurer could take a peek and travel all over the country from January to December visiting Haiti on each feast day of the towns.
The fun, the excitement, the pleasant unexpected experience from untraveled places will remain forever!
Note. Grand River can be reach by flying directly from Fort Lauderdale to Cape Haitian. It is a half an hour drive from the international airport of Cape Haitian. One can also travel to Port au Prince via scheduled airline and from there take the commuter plane to Cape Haitian and then hop into Grand River.