A London café revealing the true face of Haiti

Written by Emily Leeming
February 05, 2019

We had a chat with Richard Macien-Clarke the owner of Haitian café Kafe 1788, freelance photographer and all-round-nice guy. You’ll find him at Kafe 1788 in Poplar, the only Haitian café in London that offers Haitian coffee and food.

There’s a quiet murmur of satisfied coffee drinkers in Richard’s Kafe 1788. Kafe simply means ‘coffee’ in Creole, with 1788 being the year where Haiti supplied half of the world’s coffee. It’s nestled off a thoroughfare near Chrisp Street market in Poplar, rubbing shoulders with the sky rise bankers of Canary Wharf and the multi-cultural residential estate around the corner. Leaning together in hushed tones over their brew are two friends locked in conversation, a group of suits and a smattering of laptop-workers and life-contemplators. As Richard says, ‘It’s an area where people from all walks of life meet.’

Richard has a soft manner, and he clearly enjoys bringing people together. You would think it’s not the most obvious place to open a coffee shop but I get the impression that’s what Richard likes about it. There’s his framed black-and-white photography and bright colourful paintings hanging on the white brick walls. It’s a frank candid statement of comfort, creativity and down-to-earth-ness. In a way, the essence of Richard it seems. He’s been accused of bringing gentrification to Poplar, which seems to faintly bemuse him. For Richard, it’s just about offering good proper coffee and a place to bring people together. I do like to say to people everything’s about your tongue. And if your tongue likes something, it’ll come and have it. And yeah, so for me, it's based on your taste’.

Kafe 1788 isn’t just a coffee shop. There’s an underground basement with a makeshift wooden bar where they hold pop up jam sessions, movie nights, yoga classes and art installations. ‘That's the idea - to get people together and maybe to interact. You know the link is Haiti, because the idea for me is to support Haiti through the coffee. But for me it’s also about getting people who would never meet on the street to interact. You have a chat and find something in common’.

We move on to talking about Haiti. Richard left Haiti when he was five, but went back thirty years later for the first time, a defining moment to him starting up Kafe 1788. ‘Before I left I met somebody from the embassy and he was like, everything is cool there.’ In 2010, an earthquake devastated Haiti, killing thousands of people. Richard spoke about his experience of the aftermath years later. ‘When I was there even though it was five years after, I just felt like, is this 2010 still? I mean, what changed after the earthquake? What shocked me is that you’re gonna have charities who go there to do work and there’s [still] no electricity, no clean water, rubbish on the streets. And for me that was a shock. You have lots of people who want to do things but if you don't have the electricity, then you can't connect, if you don't have access to a computer you can't do this [start a business].

Richard points to the black-and-white photos hanging on the wall above the sugar and teaspoons stand. They’re a mix of smiling children and landscapes but without any description tags underneath like you’d expect to see. ‘You have a lot of stigma attached to Haiti. You see Haitian people and you are going to be like voodoo, earthquake, poverty and corruption. I’m trying to give another image of Haiti and that's what I'm trying also to translate when I take pictures. Just trying to show something different. I don't put titles in the pictures because I feel like titles drag your imagination to a conclusion.’

He tells me about a customer who asked about how one smiling kid with dust on her face could look so happy coming out of the earthquake. Richard quietly tells me that the picture was taken five years later - the girl was dusty from playing with her friends. ‘It’s a way to get people to start a conversation by saying this is what I see and then it gives you opportunities to be like, well, actually... It's nicer to have this than trying to explain things to people because yeah, it's nice when people are trying.’

The fact that coffee, the music, is a thing that I think just can get people together. [And the art] I really like to think it’ll just help you to think differently.’ It’s clear that Richard does so much more for Haiti than buy their coffee beans. He’s uniting people, bringing them together and rewriting the conversation around Haiti. All around a common love of a great cup of coffee.

You can find Kafe 1788 at 4 Vesey Path, Poplar, London, E14 6BT.

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