Morse code: The man behind the amazing Twitter updates from Haiti

After coming to some terms with the human scale of the current disaster in Haiti it dawned on me that some, all or most of our artistic treasures might be destroyed right now. The Centre D’Art, the murals of Bigaud in St. Trinite, the Presidential Palace itself (a gift from the US) and many other places. And what of the famous Hotel Oloffson? The place around which Graham Greene’s famous novel on Haiti “The Comedians” took shape and which also served as the center piece for the Hollywood film by the same name. Amazingly, the sturdy wood-frame Hotel, stood its ground during the 38 seconds it took for most of Port-au-Prince’s brick structures to collapse.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Oloffson’s manager lo these past 25 years, Richard A. Morse was among Haiti’s few links to the outside world. He moved his guests from their rooms to the hotel driveway for the night and kept busy documenting the developing situation on Twitter (@RAMHaiti). The world’s news organizations immediately locked into his accounts and pestered him for more information and the permission to share his growing narrative with their publications.

As of Jan. 21, Morse has some 11,500 followers on Twitter. The most famous of the tweets was among the first, “all my guests slept in the driveway last night, people came up from the streets thinking they were [dead] bodies. Neighbors helping neighbors.” Once aid workers started arriving he noticed that those who survived the quake slept outdoors while new arrivals sought shelter even with ongoing tremors.

Richard powered his only link –an apparently slow and overworked PC – to the outside world using a gas powered generator. It was interesting to follow Richard’s tweets; here was an American-bred man who was managing to take life’s rotten twists with a bit of Island humor – the way Graham Greene was perhaps alluding to in his famous novel. The tweets ranged from the dramatically alarming, to the sarcastically humorous. In one instance he’s relating to some news agency: “I can confirm that many government buildings and homes of the poor are destroyed” and then a bit later, “I just got a cancellation for a reservation at the hotel” or “I asked a priest why so many churches had gone down and he replied, God works in mysterious ways”.

I found the “Church” tweet interesting because if there was any truth to American tele-evangelist Pat Robertson’s claim that Haitians were now suffering God’s wrath because of a pact with the devil, then the Oloffson should have gone down first! After all, since 1985, Richard and his band RAM have religiously entertained guests to the Oloffson with the drum laced, Vodou rhythms of Haiti’s eccentrically Afro-centric countryside. The very heart of darkness!

Richard A. Morse is almost a character from Graham Green’s insightful novel. He was born in Puerto-Rico to a scholarly American father and the first Haitian woman to have been awarded a professional recording contract, the little known Emerante de Pradine. It is peculiar that Morse was born in 1957, the year of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s triumph over Haiti. More peculiar that he should find himself in Haiti by 1985, one year before the total demise of the “Baby Doc” Duvalier regime. What a nice twist that he should find himself at the Oloffson at a time when it was in need of a new hero-manager.

Richard, a Princeton grad, was led to Haiti as a result of a deep-seated interest in Caribbean music. Yeah! The Oloffson gig was a way to earn bread, while he acted on a hunch to check out Haitian music from some French record producer who probably felt sorry for a guy who couldn’t figure out he’d never make it in New York in a band called “The Groceries” of all things. I’m simplifying of course. But only a great author would think to eventually turn this unlikely character into one of the Island’s celebrated roots musicians; he’d even recover from a bad break up to an American socialite (whose father was ashamed she was dating a musician), by marrying a pretty Haitian girl who was as crazy about Haitian roots music as he was.

Well, it doesn’t end there. The Hollywood adaptation of Graham’s “Comedians” has its protagonist get roughed up a few times by local macoutes for his brave stance against injustice. Richard too has irked his Haitian hosts for having the same penchant for justice and faced thugs supporting Cedras on one end and then eventually those supporting Aristide on the other. He’s likely to get into trouble with Clinton too for recent rants on a popular Haitian website, decrying investments that - from his perspective - stand to benefit an island elite that gets rankled at the mere mention of a fair minimum wage for the average Haitian. But that’s on hold for now with this earthquake business! His current nemesis is the UN contingency itself that has declared the area around his hotel “unsafe” - dropping off aid workers who want to stay in the Island’s only hospitable hotel wayyyyy down the block in an effort to isolate the hotel from their protection.

I’m sure they’re hoping to send the right message to would be thieves and murderers about where to go if they’re serious about getting away with any looting or killing. Will our hero and his guests survive? Log in, a suivre…a suivre les enfants, a suivre!

Oh and I almost forgot, the title to this piece. Isn’t it interesting that at our darkest hour —well one of our fine collection of dark hours— is a character whose role is to link us via some piece of technology to the outside world? His last name just happens to be “Morse”.

Steve Desrosiers has served as a contributing editor to the Boston Haitian Reporter since 2001. He is a musician who lives and works in Boston.