Surviving Port-au-Prince

Editor's note: Shortly before Christmas, UNCA senior Lorin Mallorie traveled to Haiti at the invitation of UNCA alumna Amber Munger, who gave a lecture on her work there last fall (see "Gratitude, Hugs and Tears," March 3 Xpress). Wanting to dig deeper, Mallorie returned to Haiti last month, using the contacts she'd made during her initial visit to guide her pursuit of "the real story of postquake Haiti." Here is her first-person account of what she found there.

This city is a graveyard.

The buildings stand skewed, as if they could topple at any moment. Many are completely flattened, become tombs for those buried underneath. There are tents everywhere: in yards, on roofs, blocking the streets. But the people with tents are the lucky ones.

Crowded into the encampments that have sprung up all over the city, thousands of victims struggle to survive. With nowhere to bathe or cook and no toilets, garbage pickup or psychological care, their schools and jobs demolished, the despair, the sickness and the stench increase daily.

This is a recipe for an epidemic. Allowing people to live this way is simply unfathomable.

It's late, nearly midnight, and though I've seen tent communities by daylight, I understand that in the darkness this will be a different place entirely. But I'm with my partner and guide, Sanon Bernard (aka Jagat Bandhu), and I have the utmost faith in his judgment.

"Where we are going, it's not pretty," his friend Denis Maritza warns me as we head for the refugee camp in Champ de Mars, once a park near the collapsed presidential palace downtown.

It's gigantic, looming. They're not tents, they're structures, thousands of them: cardboard boxes, tarps, aluminum siding, old food bags all strung together. Many people have nothing and simply sleep on the ground. Outside the park's gates, Port-au-Prince culture lives on, with food vendors and motorcycle-taxi drivers still hoping to make a living. But it's dark, desperate, like a homeless carnival full of amputees and sick with dejection and post-traumatic stress.

There are three things nearly everyone in this city seems to need: water, a tent and a job.

Sleeping at Denis', I am haunted by nightmares, the faces of victims, of children. But those who lost their homes, their jobs and their families, who lived through the quake and now live in the aftermath's squalor — I cannot imagine how they sleep at night.

Port-au-Prince was already overpopulated, a city of slums created by the lack of opportunity in the surrounding provinces. It was always a mecca for displaced people who were living away from their families due to school or work. But now, an estimated 1 million Haitians have fled the destroyed capital, seeking refuge with their families.

Port-au-Prince is not Haiti, and it should have been evacuated months ago. Haiti is a country, not a capital, and anybody who could get out of this city has already left.

Empowerment in Commune Anse Rouge

They call it "the Far West" — a community of 30,000 people living in an undeveloped desert region seven hours north of Port-au-Prince that even many Haitians don't know exists. In Commune Anse Rouge, some families who were already struggling to support themselves now house 10, even 25 refugees from the earthquake's epicenter. But despite the influx of victims, no disaster funds are being distributed here.

It is March 8, National Women's Day, and AEPA (an all-Haitian organization) has organized its second annual fête and solidarity march, celebrating the strength of the Haitian woman. AEPA members are professionally trained, but they work as volunteers, using songs, proverbs and stories to teach rural villagers about community organizing.

The daylong event hosts about 300 women from across the region. For two years, these women have been organizing, creating community gardens and investment pools, with help from AEPA leadership. Alive with song and dance, and ending in a march through town, the event is an absolute success.

"We realized our dream, and for that we are happy," says Obencian Louis (aka Raja Deva) at day's end.

And clearly, this is not just about empowering the women of Commune Anse Rouge, tired and hungry but refusing to be forgotten. This is about empowering a whole community — and the all-Haitian organization that works, unpaid, to help them learn to help themselves.

Breakdown in St. Marc

When I first saw the car, I knew we were in trouble.

Heading back to the city, it falls apart, piece by piece, at every pothole, every turn. First the back bumper, then a hubcap, a flat tire — and when the electric goes and we're holding a pocket flashlight out the window to light the way, trucks blaring past us in the dark, I can only think, "If my mother knew what I was doing right now…"

By the time we arrive in Saint Marc, I am steering, my four AEPA comrades pushing the metal heap all the way to town. Like the public-transit trucks one sees overturned by the side of the road, it shows how systematic poverty can lead to accidents that could easily be prevented, given a little money for repairs.

In America, I say (thinking back on a road trip or two), we'd be fighting among ourselves by now. This statement is met with utter shock and disbelief.

In Haiti, Raja Deva explains, we find solidarity in our hardships. And now that we've shared this experience, we're all closer than ever.

"You see, all of our troubles are fun troubles," he says, grinning. "So when we have trouble, it's not really trouble."

And when every day is a struggle, how could you live any other way?

So they took me to dance the kompa at a little disco on the main road. We shared a few laughs over beers, ate egg sandwiches and sang (of course). That night we stayed at their friend's home, who insisted on giving me their room and bed, while they and the boys slept on the ground.

And I understood how a country without industry or infrastructure or economic opportunity can, and will, prevail in the hardest of times. In Haiti, relationships trump all, and with the help of family, communities and friends, this country can survive anything.

The Mountains of Kenscoff

In the days after the quake, they came walking up the mountain in droves, carrying what possessions they'd been able to salvage on their heads. An exodus of refugees leaving the crumbled capital behind, seeking asylum the cool mountains of Kenscoff.

The United Nations came through days earlier, giving tickets to the women registered for aid. Now the trucks have arrived, and it's clear that most of the hundreds surrounding the gated food distribution don't understand the process. Nor do I. Everybody's hungry, but only some get to eat. The U.N. workers, dressed in riot gear and wielding batons, make a strange contrast to the old peasant women in ragged clothes rubbing their bellies. "Grangou," they say, touching my hands, pleading: "Hungry."

Through the fence, I speak with a man named Robenson Cesar. He had been taking English classes, but now his school is closed. Food would be nice, sure, he says, but what he really needs is a job. I leave with a list of translators and security guards, all hoping for part-time work, any work, I might help them find.

It's undeniable. Everyone in Haiti needs a job, or at least better pay.

I'm staying with Jane Wynne, whose organic farm stands as a model for agricultural development in Haiti's deforested mountains. The air is cool, the trees are plentiful. There's a calm, peaceful feeling here, high above the suffering city. Jagat calls it "the natural," the earth's fertile presence, a rising current you can feel in the mountain air. In the gardens of bamboo, there is music and dancing and love.

James Vergenau (aka Rebel) of the Haitian reggae band Yizra'el tells me how it was long ago, when they even taught children how to plant trees in school. "This is an agricultural country," he explains, echoing the grandfathers. And if development goes against "the natural," it is destined to fail.

"It's true," he says. "I want my hands in the dirt!"

On Saturday evening we stage a "live" concert via satellite call to White Horse Black Mountain, which is hosting a Haiti benefit. Rebel, on guitar, sings an original tune called "Mother Nature"; Jagat accompanies him on the hand drums. The smaller venues here are still closed for reconstruction, and it's Rebel's first performance since the quake two months ago.

They tell me the White Horse audience was in tears. But what stays with me from that night in Kenscoff is the look in Rebel's eyes, alive and inspired to once again be playing the music he loves — this time for a little town in far off America.

Homeward bound

As the plane takes off, I'm thinking of Asheville.

Haitians have built a culture based on relationships, where value isn't always something you can hold in your hands, and a little dignity goes a long way. Communities support one another, family ties hold strong, and empowerment comes from within.

They're not so different from us after all.

And here in Asheville, we can understand the Haitians' plight. As the international community pledges more than $45 billion for redevelopment, there is too little talk of local agriculture, decentralization or paying a living wage in the new industries they'll build.

Can we ask others to live in ways we ourselves would not? Because I've yet to meet a Haitian who wants to spend their life working in a newly built Port-au-Prince factory earning $2 a day.

So if you want to know what to do for Haiti, please don't ask me. And don't ask Bill Clinton, the national media or the United Nations.

Ask a Haitian. Because they're perfectly able to speak for themselves — if anyone's willing to listen.

[Asheville resident Lorin Mallorie is working on a documentary and a novel on sustainable investment in Haiti's rural provinces. Her blog is at http://haitilivesnow.com.]

SHARE

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.