Haitians heap the nation's burdens on a half-ton cross

In a grassroots initiative that is bringing Haitians together across the country, men, women, and children are carrying a half-ton piece of wood roped together like a cross for some 435 miles.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
Relatives of those who died in the 2010 earthquake walk in single file to place a cross on a hilltop to remember those who died in the devastating earthquake three years ago, prior to a memorial service at Titanyen, a mass burial site north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday.

Thousands of people dancing in the streets of Haiti’s capital is not that unusual, especially leading up to Carnival. But two days after a somber gathering commemorating the third anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, last night's bumping, grinding, dancing, and singing was far more organic and, some say, purely Haitian than the minimal weekend memorial.

Last night's crowd was gathered to greet a Haitian pied piper parade of sorts, for all ages, sizes, and strengths. From the southern tip of the country to the far northeast, some 435 miles, Haitians are relaying a half-ton piece of wood roped together like a cross.

The locals who dreamed up this quirky initiative refer to it as Kita Nago. Nago is a dance. Kita doesn’t mean anything, but the Creole phrase yon pa kita, yon pa nago means, loosely translated, "I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying right here."

The “why” behind this unlikely phenomenon seems to be a parenthesis. The movement has taken on a life of its own: It's a Haitian pilgrimage of sorts, but doesn't quite fit into one religious category. As the saying goes in Haiti, the country is "90 percent catholic, 100 percent vodou," and that was before the arrival of the evangelicals. In fact, Kita Nago organizer Anelus Jules says the wood by itself means nothing.

“It’s the energy it represents, the unity, the sacrifice, and determination for the country to work together – that’s the meaning,” Mr. Jules says.

By the time Kita Nago arrived in the capital last night the crowd had swelled to thousands. 

Heavily armed security pushed back the people who came out to welcome the group, whose trajectory has spread by word of mouth, the Internet, and Facebook, where pictures are constantly updated. The cross carriers placed the wood down for the night in front of the famous statue of le Marron Inconnu. The sculpture depicts a runaway slave blowing a conch shell symbolizing his freedom and sits across from the grounds of the National Palace, which was leveled during the January 2010 quake. The distinctive white building's rubble was recently removed from the site. 

A man in a grey shirt with RUN on the front and the back agrees that the cross represents Haiti. He’s walked more than 25 miles so far and intends to go all the way to the last stop in Ouanaminthe.

“It’s symbolic,” says Juno Francoise. “We Haitians have to create our own destiny. This is bringing us together to be able to do that.”

So many people standing shoulder to shoulder was reminiscent of the unity felt in the hours and days after the earthquake, a time when people worked together to rescue a neighbor – and a country – from the implosion of some 10 million cubic meters of rubble. Three years later, there’s a sense that the unity itself has crumbled. Lack of progress in reconstruction, political jockeying, and frustration with aid distribution has contributed to exhaustion and a tendency to focus on one’s own needs.

But maybe, just maybe, Kita Nago will be the kindle that reignites that flame of togetherness.

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