A gecko’s tail of hope for an earthquake-broken Haiti

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 20, 2010

Geckos, such as the one represented by Mary Anna Harbeck’s indoor garden ornament, pictured above, have long been a symbol of good luck for Haitian homes in which they’re found. Photo by Warren Harbeck

My wife, Mary Anna, was only four or five when she reached out through her second-floor bedroom window of the house where she lived with her then-missionary parents in Jacmel, Haiti. Seeing a gecko lizard on the veranda roof, she grabbed it by its tail, only to have the shock of her life: the tail broke off. The gecko escaped, physically reduced but very much alive.

Over the past week since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated this poverty-stricken Caribbean nation, Mary Anna and I have reflected often on her experience with that gecko, finding hope for Haiti’s future.

Jacmel is a coastal city southwest of Port-au-Prince and about 30 kilometres directly south of the earthquake’s epicenter. With about twice the population of Cochrane, it’s the paternal home of Canada’s Governor General, Michaëlle Jean. The three-century-old town, in former days a centre for the cigar and coffee trade, has more recently become a popular tourist destination because of its white sandy beaches, relative tranquility, and accessibility for cruise ships.

Like Port-au-Prince, much of Jacmel lies in ruins now, with the dead and injured in untold numbers. But unlike the capital, Jacmel was cut off from any significant aid during the first days following the quake due to impassable roads.

Fortunately, that is beginning to change now that the Canadian Forces’ Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) has been able to make it ashore in spite of the damaged port.

What, then, about geckos and hope?

Geckos and other kinds of lizards are plentiful throughout Haiti. But geckos – “the home lizards” – enjoy a special reputation: they’re believed to bring good luck to homes in which they’re found. That’s because they feast on all kinds of nasty insects, like mosquitoes, termites and cockroaches.

A whole industry has built up around the legendary geckos. Tourists love the brightly painted metal gecko jewelry, wall decorations and garden ornaments for sale in Haiti. In fact, my wife has just such an ornament in her indoor garden, which has proven very lucky for me in illustrating this week’s column.

But it’s another feature of geckos and other lizards that I find especially inspiring at this time of tragedy in Jacmel and throughout Haiti.

When threatened, lizards can shed their tails, to regrow them later.

This can mean the difference between life and death when a predator chomps down on a lizard’s tail, thinking it has the whole meal deal, only to find that the main course has escaped.

In recent times, North American TV viewers have been treated to an insurance company’s ads featuring a gecko in discussion with a company executive. The Geico gecko has taken on new prominence recently with the news that the insurance giant is owned by renowned financier Warren Buffett through his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway. The acknowledgement was apparently intended to build confidence in economic recovery.

Well, getting back to Haiti’s recovery, the gecko just may have a lot to say. But recovery won’t be because of any sense of “good luck.” It will happen because of good governance, hard work, and the humanitarian assistance of its global neighbours.

And most importantly, it will happen because of Haiti’s sheer determination to survive as a nation, the primary lesson to be learned from the gecko. Yes, a disastrous earthquake has chomped down on Haiti’s tail. But like the gecko, Haiti can let go of that tail, diminished but not defeated, and get on with building a new and better future full of hope and promise.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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