‘They Listen to Me When Things Are Bad’ in Haiti
Speaker's Corner: Lisa Wixon on the man behind Port-au-Prince's Hotel Oloffson, protest rocker and Vodou priest Richard A. Morse
01.20.10 | 12:00 PM ET
When Bill Clinton first zipped up the steps of The Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, he asked its proprietor, an Ivy League educated Haitian Vodou priest and protest rocker, how long he’d overseen the gingerbread mansion and sometime home to intellectuals and writers and lunatics.
“I answered: about 25 administrations,” said Richard A. Morse. “That got his attention. Suddenly we had something to talk about.”
I’ve thought about Richard often since the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti last week, and also the Gothic, 115-year-old hotel he’s run for two decades. The crumbling inn has become a favorite escape of mine, a second home where I can write and think.
ALSO SEE RELATED STORY: Hotel Oloffson: Hope and Lodging in Port-au-Prince
In the days after the quake, Richard describes the hotel—one of the few still standing in the Haitian capital—as being overrun with reporters. He has been posting updates on Twitter—@ramhaiti—like this one: “The Oloffson looks like a refugee camp for journalists. So many people working and sleeping in the yard. I’m taken aback. I’ve never seen this.”
Richard has seen just about everything in Haiti, from death squads and riots to hurricanes and food shortages to civil war and stolen presidencies. For me, Haiti has always been a tumultuous place. But he reminds me that in better days—days when the guest list included Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando and John Barrymore—the city was said to be as safe as Geneva.
I learned this in 2008 when I checked in to the Oloffson and spent hours with Richard in the lobby chatting over coffee and rum. He is most happy when discussing his band, RAM, which became famous for its protest music—a type known as mizik rasin—during Haiti’s bloody Raoul Cédras era.
But getting him to talk about his proprietorship, which began in 1986, was no easy feat. I persisted and, one evening, Richard opened up about the hotel.
“When (Baby Doc) Duvalier left, I thought business would pick up, we would have a hotel in the islands. Have a nice business. I never expected 20 years of 25 governments and two U.S. invasions and U.N. occupying forces and OAS observers and coup d’etats. Never expected all that.”
And he never expected that the hotel would be a magnet for local intellectuals, writers from all over, and the criminally inclined.
Born in the U.S., Richard is the son of a prominent Haitian dancer and an American professor at Yale. He left New York to take over the hotel’s lease (it officially ended in 2002, but no one has bothered to reclaim it). He was eligible as a descendant of the Sam family, who governed the island from the gingerbread monstrosity in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“This hotel has made everything possible,” Morse said. “It gave me a home, gave me a business, gave me a place to raise my family, a place to rehearse and perform with my band. It brings everything together. I always wanted to get the hotel in shape, but I never expected all this 20 years of nuts.”
The singer, 52, has long been the go-to person in Haiti for those who yearned to help the country but find themselves frustrated. He counts the U.S. Department of State (which flies him to Washington for “ideas”) and Clinton, the U.N.‘s special envoy to Haiti, among those who have sought his opinion.
What struck me most in our conversations was how ambiguous Richard felt about being thrust into the role as ambassador between his two cultures.
“When journalists stay here, I try and influence the journalists. I didn’t used to. What would happen is journalists would write stories and they’d leave,” he said. “And if the story had no bearing on reality, it would have a big impact on my life. I figured it was best if the journalist had a better idea of what was going on so I would try and lead them in the direction of what’s going on.”
And do they listen?
“Yes, they listen to me when things are bad. They don’t listen to me when everything is good. They don’t listen to me when there’s (aid) money to spread around and no one’s asking where should we spend this and that. When things are bad they come to me.”
And things, of course, are very bad now. In response, Richard has rolled out his generator, plugged in his laptop, and begun to broadcast bits of news on Twitter.
Some of those bits include a worry for the future of Port-au-Prince and Haiti itself. Who will govern the country? Where will the two million displaced souls go? Who will count the dead?
“I look at the sky,” he wrote recently on Twitter, “I see the stars, and it’s as if nothing was wrong. The singing, the praying, and the sirens bring me back to reality.”