“Dèyè mòn gen mòn” – Haitian proverb

When I arrived in Port-au-Prince last Thursday morning I had no idea what to expect. Danica, who leads the blogger trips for Heart of Haiti, handed each one of us a leather-bound journal with a personal note. My friend Leticia, A Heart of Haiti veteran brought along her eleven-year-old daughter Emily. Inside Emily’s journal was the Haitian proverb: “Dèyè mòn gen mòn” which means “beyond the mountains, more mountains.” Danica informed young Emily that her goal of the trip was to figure out what this proverb meant. She also said that it had not one but many meanings.

Hotel Montana memorial Haiti

Entering the memorial at the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince where 100 people died during the January 12, 2010 earthquake.

The weeks before my departure the news from Haiti was more or less the same. Protesting, political instability, and the usual ongoing extreme poverty that gives Haiti a bad name. Being the poorest nation in the western hemisphere is not a status any country desires. Decades of political fighting, instability, foreign meddling, natural disasters, and poverty has left the country in shambles after the devastating earthquake a little over five years ago.

Reading all the terrible news that never seemed to shred a ray of light on Haiti obviously worried me. I honestly had no idea what to expect when I signed on for my trip with Macy’s Heart of Haiti program where I would spend five days in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel learning about the amazing partnership between America’s largest department store chain and Haitian artists. Would it be safe? was always my number one question as I finished reading the pages of Paul Farmer’s harrowing true story of the aftermath of the earthquake. Would I feel threatened? was another alarming fear I had in the back of my mind when I heard about the recent rioting and protests over the government and fuel prices. Lastly,  Would it be depressing? I wondered as I pictured enormous squalid tent communities, slums and rubble.

How would Haiti truly be?

For me, that is the answer I wanted to find out. Whether “Hay-iti” or “the mountains place” as it was named after the long gone Taino people, was the frightening, poverty-stricken desperate place I’d read about over and over again in the media or was it a place of beauty, resilience and strength.

Pétionville Haiti

The “Gingerbread” homes and slums that raise up the mountains behind luxurious Pétionville.

As we landed in Haiti’s rebuilt airport in Port-au-Prince, I had just turned the last page of the powerful book “The Big Truck that Went By” by Jonathan Katz. Katz is a journalist who was based in Haiti during the earthquake and stayed on afterwards to document the enormous missed opportunity of governments and aid groups to help truly rebuild Haiti.

Despite the billions of dollars sent in aid money, Katz pointedly argues that Haiti is no better off than it was before the quake that killed over an estimated 220,000 people. Much of the promised aid money was never delivered, while Haitians scramble to rebuild, create jobs, and repair the horrendous lack of infrastructure that lead to such devastation in the first place. Five year later, running water and electricity remain a luxury to the lucky few. Haitians continue to leave the countryside and come to overcrowded Port-au-Prince to live in one of the many growing slums. Tent communities, although reduced in numbers, still exist. Medical care and treatment remain overwhelmed. And deforestation that makes the rains sweep away cities during the rainy season, destroying thousands of homes and killing people in its path, continues.

Haitian metal art

Yet, there is hope. The rubble is finally cleared, and some of the largest tent cities in Port-au-Prince have been dismantled. Roads have been rebuilt. New homes are going up along the steep hillsides of Port-au-Prince and in Pétionville. When you look around the city, as a newcomer you would maybe never see remains of the death and destruction from the earthquake save for the absence of the Presidential Palace that has never been rebuilt or the random clusters of homes that are being constructed.

One of the members of our group, Kathy, was stunned to see the changes that have occurred since she was last in Port-au-Prince four years ago with Heart of Haiti. As we drove from the airport to our hotel in Pétionville, Kathy pointed out to me where the enormous tent communities once stood, and the large piles of unneeded donated clothing was laid in one giant heap. Reconstruction was happening and continues to go on.

But “Dèyè mòn gen mòn”…beyond the mountains, there are mountains. 

Haiti has a long way to go in rebuilding and ensuring that another devastation won’t destroy the progress that has been made. Haiti needs a stronger economy providing sustainable jobs. Haiti needs better infrastructure on every level. Haiti needs investment in education, health care, water and sanitation, electricity, and transportation. Haiti needs political stability and a government that works for its people. And Haiti needs us to not forget her.

The mountains remaining are enormous and often seem almost impossible to pass. Yet the one thing that I learned after five days in Haiti is that the people are some of the strongest people on earth. They have witnessed so much hardship for centuries yet they persevere. Their strength and resilience is astonishing.

Dèyè mòn gen mòn. 

Beautiful flower in Haiti


Some statistics on Haiti:

Total population: 10.3 million (WHO 2013)

Total population based in the capital, Port-au-Prince: Its population is difficult to ascertain due to the rapid growth of slums in the hillsides above but some estimate that the population is well over 2 million. (CIA Factbook) 

Haiti ranks 161 out of 187 countries in the 2012 United Nations Human Development Index (HDI).

Around 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line, earning less than $2 per day.

Average life expectancy: 61 years male/64 years female (WHO 2012)

Percentage of population with access to safe water and sanitation: Forty percent of the people in Haiti lack access to clean water and only one in five have access to a sanitary toilet. (Water.org)

Percentage of population with access to education: 50% of primary school age children are not enrolled in school. (UNICEF 2009)

Food insecurity is persistent in Haiti and today nearly a third of the population is considered food insecure; of these 600,000 need external food assistance to survive. Currently, one in every 5 children suffers from chronic malnutrition, 6.5% percent from acute malnutrition, while more than half of women and children suffer from anemia. (Word Food Programme)

World Bank stats: Haiti remains the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world (with a GDP per capita of US$ 820 in 2013) with significant needs in basic services. According to the latest household survey (ECVMAS 2012), more than 6 million out of 10.4 million (59%) Haitians live under the national poverty line of $ 2.44 per day and over 2.5 million (24%) live under the national extreme poverty line of 1.24 dollar per day It is also one of the most unequal countries, with a Gini coefficient of 0.61 as of 2012

Further reading:


  1. Oh Nicole! What a beautiful post with so much heart. It was so incredible to spend time with you! I truly appreciate you taking a risk and bringing your global perspective to this journey that isn’t over yet. Mountains, my friend. Mountains! 🙂

  2. Your description of the people leaves me with goosebumps ‘Their strength and resilience is astonishing.’ It is difficult to imagine form the comforts of our homes what hardships these people have endured.

    1. Thanks Lucy! Haiti was really an eye-opening trip. Sadly it isn’t really ready for tourism yet I’m truly glad I got to see it. I can’t wait to share more.

      1. Yes I read an article on G Adventures and did see the Marriott. I honestly would not feel good about going to Haiti now as a tourist though unless it had some humanitarian or volunteerism aspect to it. I was safe with my crew of security guards and in the van, but still got to interact with Haitian people. I would honestly not feel at all safe going as a tourist. It just isn’t ready. I never saw a single tourist there either and as I’ve traveled to many places around the world, it felt very odd to not see a single tourist walking around the streets of Port-au-Prince, and honestly I’m not sure yet how safe it would be. The Marriott again brings a bit of unease to me as the contrast between rich and poor in Haiti is very hard to swallow. Going to a gated Western hotel where meals are the price of a month’s salary just doesn’t sit right. I had to deal with my own feelings of guilt while I was there and even at our Haitian-owned hotel, I felt guilt with its gorgeous pool, electricity and expensive meals. So I honestly think it is good that Haiti is developing, but I think going there as a tourist has to be done in a special, sensitive way.
        Cruise ships currently dock in a gated port in Haiti but I’ve heard that none of the money goes back to the people.
        If tourism can develop in a manner to help the average Haitian I think that would be great. Kind of like when I went to Cuba on a cultural tour, I think if G Adventures does a program like that it would be really good for both tourists and the people. I am interested to learn more about what they do! Thanks for getting me thinking about all this! 🙂

  3. Great post, Nicole! We lived in Petionville. After the earthquake it was the place left with the most intact structures, so a place where aid workers would make homes. But the disparity between the way expats and the Haitian elite live in Petionville and the rest of Haiti is massive–not to mention criminal. I never got used to it. A place inside me still aches for Haiti.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    1. I would love to talk to you more about Haiti Kathy! Perhaps I will go back on your blog and re-read past posts. Yes, it is disturbing the contrast between rich and poor. That was very very difficult for me to see.

  4. I’m sure you have read or are planning to read a pile of books on Haiti, but one of my favorites is (aptly enough for this post!) Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book by Tracy Kidder on Paul Farmer’s early (and of course ongoing) work in Haiti. It has a more public health slant, but it is inspiring and compelling.

    1. I did read that a few years ago and I actually met Paul Farmer at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis. I loved the book and of course follow his work since I also write about global health issues. Thanks for mentioning! 🙂

  5. Great post and pics, Nicole. The Haitian people must be so resilient, as you say. One can only admire their strength of spirit and determination, whilst living through such terrible devastation and extreme hardship. It’s great that Macy’s have created this awareness and initiative to help rebuild the country. There are some really lovely gifts on their site. I love the metal angel votive holders. Thanks for sharing your experience. xx

    1. So glad you liked the post Sylvia! Yes the program there to create sustainable living through the arts is wonderful. I can’t wait to share more stories and of course the beautiful art!

  6. This was very interesting insight. I just want to make a correction. Behind in Kreyol is “Deye” instead of “Dye.” The proverb reads “Deye mon, gen mon.” The word “Dye” is the Kreyol word for god (not the Christian God, just the general idea of a god).

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you for catching the error! Apparently Danica wrote “Dye” not Deye. I doubled checked again and corrected the error. Sorry about that! I will let her know that as well. Glad you enjoyed the post. Are you Haitian American? I loved Haiti.

      1. No problem! I am Haitian American. I was born in New York but lived in Haiti for thirteen years up until after the earthquake. This saying made me think about my username (and blog URL) “Kiskeya”. Kiskeya was the Taino word for the island. The English translation is “Mountainous land”. I enjoyed your post because you were able to identify really one of the main characteristics of Haitians: their resilience. “Deye mon gen mon” could be depressing in the sense that you’re never really completely done but in our culture, we’ve always used it to encourage ourselves and others to keep going. “Deye mon gen mon” can mean that you’re never done with your work. Have you completed your project? Have you accomplished your dream? and the answer to these questions is “not yet”, as there is still more that you can do.

      2. Absolutely beautiful! I have read that there are a lot of Haitian Americans in New York. That is probably nice to have some of your culture nearby. I really fell in love with the Haitian people and culture. The people were very lovely.

  7. It does beg the question about international aid and its misuse, doesn’t it, Nicole? So hard to ensure that the aid goes where it is needed. But how can you ignore it when such disaster befall? Looking forward to reading more about Haiti. 🙂

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