Cite Soleil gets indignant (about the Canadian Embassy’s latest travel warning)

This morning, a Haitian news outlet, LoopHaiti, published the latest travel advisory of the Canadian Embassy. In it, the Embassy warned its citizens against going to many of Port au Prince’s poorer neighborhoods, such as Belair, Martissant, and Cite Soleil, because they are “unstable and dangerous”.

Loop Canada

A few years ago, no one would have blinked an eye at this statement. But the past year and a half in Cite Soleil have been marked by a remarkable period of peace brought about by a truce between its major gangs, while security in the rest of Port au Prince has continued to deteriorate. In fact, the Haitian National Police recently declared that Cite Soleil was the safest municipality in the Port au Prince metropolitan area.

Another difference between a few years ago and now? Almost every young person in Cite Soleil has a smartphone, and they are all over social media.

So this morning, as the LoopHaiti article made its way across Soleyan Facebook and Whatsapp, people in Cite Soleil got indignant. They felt they had been working so hard for peace over the past few years, and felt insulted that their progress was ignored outright by the Embassy. Many felt it was a psychological attack on Cite Soleil’s youth, designed to discourage them and invalidate their efforts.

Open letters were circulated across social media. One was circulated in Creole:

Canada embassy 2

In English, it reads: “Dear Embassy of Canada in Haiti: Can you give the population of Cite Soleil an explanation of why our municipality is on this list? For the past year, our authorities, foundations, organizations, and population have given everything to keep the peace. Are you not aware of the negative psychological consequences of this note? We have the safest municipality in Port au Prince at the moment.  This note shows that no matter how much effort we make, people outside out community will not understand us. It was absolutely devastating this morning to see our community at the top of a list of places to avoid in Port au Prince. All this while we are trying to invite people to come and see the progress we have made. We hope that this is just a typo that can be corrected quickly. If it is not a typing error, then you should be aware that this is a social crime that builds on the structural violence our community experiences. Cite Soleil needs the understanding of everyone for it to change. Thank you in advance for correcting you error, and in the meantime, all of us in Cite Soleil will continue to work for peace.”

Another one was circulated in French:

canadian embassy response 1

This one says: “I am greeting you in the name of diplomacy, the men and women of the Canadian Embassy in Haiti, to inform you of my indignation regarding an article circulated this morning by Loop Haiti that revealed that you have instructed your citizens to not visit Cite Soleil for reasons of insecurity… I remind you that my municipality was recently classified by the Haitian National Police as the safest zone in the Port au Prince metropolitan area…Ladies and gentlemen of the Canadian Embassy of Haiti, I understand that you cannot reconcile the paradoxical idea, that the largest ghetto in the country is in fact its safest. But I assure you, it is true… We demand the Haitian State begin a process to retract this note, and the demand a formal public apology from the Embassy to the Haitian population, and particularly to the inhabitants of Cite Soleil for the negative psychological impact of this note.”

This sparked an exceptional debate across Soleyan Whatsapp groups and Facebook pages. There were those who felt it confirmed long-held suspicions that the world had no interest in peace in Cite Soleil, that this was a deliberate effort to destabilize current progress. Others said it was simply a lazy reliance on old stereotypes, a lack of effort to understand the changing realities of Haiti’s most challenged communities.  Still others used it as a chance to question what peace means: while they disagreed with the Canadian Embassy’s categorization  of the current reality of Cite Soleil, they agreed with the Embassy’s statement that “the authorities have no meaningful control” over the area and wondered whether the current peace was actually sustainable.

Regardless, this is a significant moment for Cite Soleil. This is a moment where an online, media-literate generation publicly rejects how it is categorized by a foreign government. It demonstrates that young Soleyans are conscious of their image and how stigmatization plays into structural violence, and are tired of being the automatic poster child of Haiti’s insecurity.

How long this peace will last, no one can be sure. But what is sure is that the youth of Cite Soleil are growing more confident and bolder, and are willing to fight for a new image of their community.


#KonbitBibliyotek reaches 1 million gourdes

Perhaps you’ve seen the pictures circulating around your Haitian friends’ Facebook pages. People taking selfies, holding up a few crumpled gourdes to a camera, with the hashtag #KonbitBibliyotek. If these photos have seemed pleasant but mysterious, let us explain: it is part of a movement that started in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s biggest ghetto. A place that is known mostly for images of poverty, gang violence, and trash, this movement is mobilizing thousands of Soleyans and their allies around something that symbolizes the Cite Soleil that they want to see: a library. For five months, a campaign has slowly been growing: it started among residents of Cite Soleil, contributing whatever they can to build a modern library in the heart of their community, and has since grown to include people from all over Haiti, and the world. And after 21 weeks, this improbable local initiative has reached a major milestone: they have raised 1 million gourdes (about $16,000).

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Every week, a group gathers in the local radio station to count donations that came in over the week. The counting is open to the public to ensure transparency. At the end, they post the new count of donors, funds, and books to Facebook. This is the post announcing the 1 million mark.

1 million gourdes is only a milestone: what is most important is the fact that it was raised without writing a proposal for funding, relying solely the initiative and solidarity of ordinary people. Everyone who contributes, no matter how small, is called a donor; most of the donors do not have bank accounts, and almost none of them have credit or debit cards. This was money passed from hand to hand, documented on social media for the sake of transparency. Behind the 1 million gourdes, there are almost 3,500 individual donors, most of whom are from Cite Soleil, almost all of whom are Haitian. This turns the idea of who is a donor and who is a beneficiary on its head, and it shows the strength of initiatives that are actually locally-driven.

1 million is only one milestone – a few estimates show that Cite Soleil and its allies need to raise almost 10 times as much if they want to build the library they envision. Because the library they envision is truly first-class: it has a computer center, an auditorium, a conference room, and more. There are those who question the wisdom of building such an impressive building in such a resource-poor community that has more pressing needs. But the library has a powerful symbolism: the people of Cite Soleil, tired of being treated as second-class citizens for so long, believe that this is the kind of public service that their children deserve. It represents that the aspirations of Cite Soleil are shifting; its youth are beginning to shed the social stigma they have internalized and see themselves as the intellectuals and leaders of tomorrow.

KonbitBibliyotek model

The architectural plan, designed by a Jennifer Adou, who grew up in Cite Soleil.

It is a grand vision, and it may only be attainable if greater numbers of friends and allies join this initiative. The reality is that people in Cite Soleil are giving all they can, and it will likely not be enough without others coming in to help the community get the last miles to its goal (if you’re so inspired, you can contribute on the Global Giving site or contribute books by contacting  The road to achieve this vision is long, but it’s a journey that is being led by people from Cite Soleil. Yesterday,  at the sixth anniversary celebration of Konbit Soley Leve, Robi presented the architectural plan for the library and made the announcement about hitting the million gourde milestone. As thousands of Soleyans applauded, hundreds of them past or future donors, everything felt possible.

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A new donor, giving books during the anniversary celebration.

#KonbitBibliyotek on Global Giving!

The #KonbitBibliyotek campaign started with a simple idea: young people in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s largest ghetto, wanted a community library. Instead of going the traditional path of writing a proposal to an outside donor, they instead decided to start at home, asking their friends and neighbors (some of whom live on less than $2 a day) to contribute to this dream. The team takes a picture of each donor with their donation, whether it is money or books, and posts it on Facebook with the hashtag #KonbitBibliyotek.


While this may seem simple, it is revolutionary in several ways. First, #KonbitBibliyotek challenges us to look at people living in marginalized communities not as victims or beneficiaries, but as agents of change and donors. Second, #KonbitBibliyotek is an experiment in radical transparency – every donor and donation is published on social media, and the funds are counted in the local community radio station every Sunday, where anyone is welcome to come and sit in on the counting.

This initiative has taken off like wildfire. The campaign has been active for 19 weeks (as of the time this article is published), and already more than 2,500 people have contributed almost 1 million gourdes (about $14,000) and over 3,000 books. The Mayor of Cite Soleil has allocated land for the library, and local architects, engineers, and surveyors have all donated their time. Local musicians have made a music video for the campaign, DJs host parties whose proceeds go to the library, and the community has been organizing soccer and basketball tournaments and movie nights to raise funds. A local businessman has already promised that his company will provide the library with free internet for as long as it is standing.

This is an embodiment of an interpretation of the Haitian practice of konbit – that nothing is impossible when everyone chips in what they can. And now, after almost 5 months of local fundraising in Haiti, the volunteers at the heart of #KonbitBibliyotek have decided to open up the circle and invite people all over the world to contribute through a Global Giving crowdfunding page.

Global Giving banner

We chose Global Giving because it is a platform that is incredibly trustworthy as they vet all applicants and projects. As the group behind the #KonbtiBibliyotek project is Konbit Soley Leve, a social movement with no official registration, we had to search for a registered non-profit to back our application to Global Giving. Future Generations, an American 501c3 that has been a long-time partner of Konbit Soley Leve, volunteered to help us and partner with us on this campaign. They will collect the donation from Global Giving and will not take out any overhead – they will only take out what is needed to cover the cost of transferring the funds to Haiti.  All of us involved in #KonbitBibliyotek are incredibly grateful to Future Generations for this support.

For the past five months, people across Cite Soleil and Haiti have been giving whatever they can to help transform this community vision into the reality – and now it is your turn to join the konbit! Contribute whatever you can to the Global Giving campaign, contact to find out how you can contribute books, and share this with your friends who are interested in education, solidarity, and community-led development.

Mesi davans!

Cite Soleil Peace Prize – four years on

Leadership is homegrown. There are hundreds of books written in dozens of language about what it means to be a leader, but that definition is rewritten in each country, each culture, each community. In Cite Soleil, Haiti, for the longest time, leadership was defined as the number of guns you had under your control. As the largest ghetto in the Caribbean, Cite Soleil’s years of gang violence had created an archetype of leadership that was about control, violence, and power – the chief.

Robi had an issue with this image. He was a co-founder of Konbit Soley Leve, a social movement that brought people from rival neighborhoods in Cite Soleil together for community projects. He had seen many “civilian” (i.e. unarmed) young people begin to emerge as leaders, but he also saw that they lacked the community respect they deserved. When people thought of leaders, they didn’t think of these young people who were mobilizing their neighborhoods to build urban gardens, transform their streets, or mentor youth; they still thought of men with guns. And during the summer of 2013, the men with guns were wreaking havoc on Cite Soleil, sparking a turf war that left many civilians dead. Robi saw the confidence he had been building in these young people be drained away by fear and a sense of resignation.

And so Robi launched the Cite Soleil Peace Prize. It was an initiative to select a handful of young leaders who used nonviolent means to change their neighborhoods for the better, and to give them the recognition they deserve. This would serve two purposes: one, it would hopefully give the encouragement that these young leaders needed to keep on the road of social change, and two, it would begin to change the image of what a “leader” meant to the rest of Cite Soleil.

That summer, Robi assembled a committee of respected individuals from Cite Soleil and they selected four honorees. These four people were honored in front of a crowd of thousands of residents of Cite Soleil, and a tradition was born. Every year, a committee selects four to five honorees, and they are presented with honorary plaques and gifts that help their work (such as tools or English lessons). These events are always powerful and meaningful to everyone involved – to the honorees because they are recognized for their hard work, and to the observers because they can think to themselves, “that could be me one day.”

And now, almost four years on, we are beginning to see the results of those shifts in mentality. First, many of the young people have emerged as full-fledged leaders. There isn’t enough space to tell of their stories here, but we can highlight a few:

  • Sadrack Joseph from Soleil 4 was among our first honorees, and he was recognized for forming a basketball team that brought people from all neighborhoods together in the middle of the turf wars of 2013. They scraped together resources and often struggled to get home after matches when gunfire was erupting in the streets. Sadrack’s scrappy little Cite Soleil Basketball Team is now an established institution in Cite Soleil, with summer training camps for children, formal coaches training, and civic education activities. Sadrack has developed a partnership with a group called Spring to Cite Soleil and he travels to the United States to speak about his experiences and raise support for his initiative.
  • Alashkar Millien from Brooklyn, Cite Soleil, was also among our first honorees. She was recognized for taking a leadership role in the Konbit Soley Leve movement during the violence of 2013, when many others were afraid to step up. Cite Soleil is a hyper-masculine culture, and she overcome a lot of push-back for being a woman taking a leadership role. Not only has Alashkar maintained her strong leadership of the broader movement, but she has also launched Konbit Fanm Leve, a women’s wing, to encourage more women to get involved and develop their leadership capacity. She has also been supporting Konbit Timoun Leve, a youth and children’s wing of the movement, to train boys and girls to become the future leaders of Cite Soleil.
  • Samuel Cadet from Bwa Nef was honored in the second round of honorees. He was recognized for his commitment to transforming his neighborhood through urban gardening. Since being honored, Samuel’s level of confidence in his work increased dramatically. He became an expert at using social media to promote his urban renewal projects and encourage others to do the same. He then decided to go beyond social media and trained to become a journalist at Cite Soleil’s Radio Boukman so he could tell stories of urban resilience and renewal to everyone.
  • Frantz Francois was also among our first honorees, and was recognized for years of quiet dedication to SAKALA, Cite Soleil’s largest youth center. SAKALA uses sports, arts, and education to teach young people about peace and civic engagement; it is also home to Haiti’s largest urban garden. Since being honored, Frantz has maintained his dedication to youth empowerment but has become a lot less quiet. He has become a powerful spokesperson against violence in his neighborhood, and has spearheaded initiatives to unite youth from different ghettos across Haiti. Frantz has become a ubiquitous presence at any event that brings young people together to build a common vision of peace.

These are just a few stories from the extraordinary individuals who were honored in just the first three classes of Cite Soleil Peace Prize. This year will be the fourth – and time will tell how this next set of leaders will grow.

Update on #KonbitBibliyotek

It was a simple and impossible idea: build a library in Cite Soleil, Haiti’s largest ghetto, entirely through community contributions. Crowd-source thousands of dollars in a place where formal employment is rare, where a lack of credit cards make online platforms like Kickstarter impractical, and where foreign aid agencies pay for most major infrastructure. But this was the idea behind #KonbitBibliyotek, launched by young people in Cite Soleil just two months ago: if enough people join together in solidarity and transparency, they can accomplish the impossible. You can learn more about the origins of this initiative here.

In the first 8 weeks, the momentum has continued to build: 1,304 people have contributed a total of 527,122 gourdes (approximately $7,530 US) and 1,406 books. The vast majority of those donors are people from Cite Soleil, but other contributions have come from the Haitian towns such as Les Cayes, Jeremie, and St Raphael, and from as far away as Slovenia, Brazil, and Afghanistan.


Cite Soleil’s local authorities have stepped up too: the mayor and deputy officially designated a piece of land in Place Fierte, the public park in the heart of Cite Soleil, for the future library.

The media has also begun to join in: so far, three national radio stations have broadcast about #KonbitBibliyotek, and Robi was invited to discuss the initiative on one of Haiti’s most popular television talkshows, Kalfou on TeleGinen.

Kako, a famous Haitian artist, lent a mobile screen and sound system to the committee. They went around almost every block in Cite Soleil, playing the music video for #KonbitBibliyotek, answering questions, and collecting donations.

Gardy Girault, one Haiti’s most respected and innovative DJs, hosted a second show in Petionville in which a portion of the proceeds will go to #KonbitBibliyotek.

Others are giving away bracelets marked #KonbitBibliyotek in exchange for a contribution, which have ranged from 25 gourdes to 1000 gourdes.

In these first eight weeks, #KonbitBibliyotek has challenged assumptions about who is a beneficiary and who is a donor. One doesn’t have to be rich to contribute financially to improving their community, their country, or their world. Given the opportunity, thousands of people are willing and able to give what they can – whether it is 5 gourdes, 500 dollars, or a 5-minute song.

And this is only the beginning. If you would like the opportunity to participate in this konbit, in whatever way you can, write to

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#KonbitBibliyotek is a community crowdfunding campaign to build a library in Cite Soleil, which is Haiti’s largest ghetto. By combining Haitian traditions like konbit with the modern tools of social media, this initiative has spread like wildfire across Cite Soleil and beyond. It has already brought over 300 people together to raise $2400 and collect over 600 books. To find out the whole story of how it evolved, and why it is important, keep reading below:


If money could have fixed Haiti, it would have done so by now. If we think about the sheer number of dollars and euros and pounds and pesos spent in Haiti to save Haiti, then surely Haiti’s future is not tied to the budgets that are written for it all over the world. It can be hard to make sense of that tired question, “where does the money go?”

Unless we start to ask the question not about how much money is spent, but how, and by whom? In case you are unfamiliar with the status quo in Haiti, it goes like this: (primarily) well-intentioned people in other countries decide they do not like the state of poverty in Haiti (which is kind), and design projects based on what they believe to be best for Haitians (which is condescending but practical), then come to Haiti and find a community to work with (who will inevitably say yes to the program even if it isn’t their priority). The project will generally go well (with certain logistical issues), and then pictures will be taken, reports filed, and planes will be boarded. And then the project will fall apart, because it never belonged to the people it was supposed to help. While there are exceptions to this rule, I have seen this same dance play out countless times in my short life in Haiti. It is still the rule.

There is a wonderful quote from an indigenous grassroots worker from Ecuador in the book Time to Listen by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. It goes “This is how the verb ‘to participate’ is conjugated: I participate. You participate. They decide.”

Inspiration and konbit

So when a group of bright and eager young people from Cite Soleil, the neighborhood I grew up in in Haiti, came to me with an ideal for a library, I listened. In an area known for its gang violence and poverty, their group (Flamn-Art Club Haiti, or FACHAITI) wanted to a space for young intellectuals to come together and read, discuss, and teach younger children. It was their vision for their community. And while we discussed the idea, the conversation inevitably turned to one thing: money. A library would take money to build. Not a lot of money, but certainly more than these eager young people had in their pockets.

There were a few choices before us: the typical route would be to write up a proper tidy project in French or English and submit it to an NGO (likely international), and hope for funding. In the very slim chance that the request would be responded to favorably, the money would be spent, the library would be built, and even though the idea originated in the community, it would never belong to the community. It would belong to the young intellectuals and the donor, and not to the broader neighborhood. So I pushed them and asked: if this is truly something to serve the community, why don’t you ask the community?

Haiti has a tradition called Konbit – it used to be a system of cooperation in the countryside, where peasants would assemble to help one farmer each day, and then move on the next day to the next farmer, and so on until every farmer had the help of many hands on his field to help him accomplish tasks that would be impossible on his own. Konbit has now taken on a broader meaning in contemporary Haitian society: it means solidarity, participation, and reciprocity. It means that together, people can accomplish what they never could dream of on their own. I have studied Konbit for the past 7 years, and wrote my Master’s thesis on the way the principles of Konbit could be applied to modern issues in Haiti. And this is what I suggested to the young people of FACHaiti: this dream is too big for you to achieve it on your own. Start a Konbit.

I had previously had success in collecting hundreds of small donations for a magazine documenting positive stories from Cite Soleil. I gave the young people the cardboard box that we had used to go door to door, which still had a few hundred leftover gourdes. They took the box and, with great enthusiasm, began soliciting support from their neighbors, in the form of both money and books. It should be noted that Cite Soleil is one of the most economically marginalized areas of Haiti, which is itself the poorest country in the Caribbean. Almost no one has a formal job, and many families scrape by on less than $2 a day in the unstable informal market. A contribution of 10 gourdes (about 15 cents) is an incredible sacrifice for most families in Cite Soleil. And so it would take the collective effort of hundreds and hundreds of families to collectively build what none of us could build on our own.

Grassroots social media

In other places, there are online crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter. But to use these platforms, you need credit cards or a Paypal account, which would have excluded almost every family in Cite Soleil. That may have been the easiest road to raise funds for this campaign, but that’s not what we were looking for: we were looking instead for a road that everyone could walk together on. We had wanted to capture the transparency, energy, and momentum of these crowdfunding campaign, and combine it with our deep, rural Konbit roots.

And so, we developed an innovation with this community campaign that didn’t exist before. Every time a community member reached into their pocket to pull out a couple of gourdes for the library, we would take a selfie with that person and their contribution and post it on Facebook with the hashtag #konbitbibliyotek, adding a sentence about why they thought the library was important.

This filled several purposes:

1) It gave instant and equal recognition to every donor, no matter how big or small their contribution;

2) It was a mechanism of transparency, of showing everyone how much money was being raised every day (this is incredibly important in a place like Cite Soleil, where there is deep and strong skepticism of outside money, which often sparks conflicts);

3) It spread the word, and helped inspire other people to see themselves not just as aid recipients, but as donors. It gave in-person donations access to online visibility.

I was stunned to see the campaign take off with such energy – I had never seen so many ordinary people put their hands together in our previous collective efforts behind neighborhood cleanups and the community magazine. People across Cite Soleil began contributing what little they had, proudly holding up a few gourde notes to the camera and smiling. School children gave their lunch money. Mothers gave books that they had hustled to buy for their children in years past. Men gave the money they were about to spend on a cold drink to relieve them from the heat. People were not just giving their money: they were giving their love of their neighborhood, their support to these young people, and, most importantly, their consent for the project. A great number of the people who contributed would never use a library – they may have been illiterate. But they liked the idea of a community-built space, the idea of innovative and construction in an area known for destruction. And so their contribution came with something far more important: their blessings.

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And their blessings also came with their vision. The young people from FACHAITI first thought of purchasing a small space in their neighborhood by the docks, but it became evident that this space now should belong to all neighborhoods in Cite Soleil. As the only space that is owned equally by everyone is Place Fierte, the public square in the heart of Cite Soleil, people began to advocate for building the library on this common space.  This has engaged local authorities, including Cite Soleil’s mayors and deputy. Their contribution to the Konbit could be donating the land to build the library.

And others contributed in other creative ways: a group of artists and musicians created a song to raise awareness about the initiative, which was broadcast for free by our community radio station, Radio Boukman.  A local filmmaker donated his time to create a music video for the song, and local journalists have used their words and platforms to spread the story far and wide.


The artists that released the #KonbitBibliyotek song

Expanding the circle

And once other Haitians began to see people from Cite Soleil, a place they associated with crime and gangs, coming together for such a simple and positive idea, they wanted to be a part of this too. First, contributions came from other ghettos such as Belair and Martissant, who have long been building links of solidarity with Cite Soleil. Then, as the story spread, Haitians from across the country began to contribute. I was on a trip to hurricane-affected Jeremie, and I came across taxi drivers and passersby who heard me talking to someone about the project and begged me to take their contributions too. People in wealthier areas of Port au Prince searched out leaders in the ghetto of Cite Soleil in order to participate.  One of Haiti’s biggest DJs, Gardy Girault, will give half of the proceeds from his next show. It even spread to Haitian Diaspora overseas, who saw the momentum building and were proud to be part of something positive back at home.

And then, people around the world asked to participate. Although the idea of this project was to build this project on the contributions and wishes of the people of Cite Soleil, the reality is that our community is economically depressed and could only go so far on its own. An older woman told me one day, “we have given as much as we can – now we must ask others to help us reach our destination.” And so it was that outsiders began to contribute, building on the solid foundations of local initiative and contributions instead of on the shaky foundation of good intentions and imported ideas.  And people began to contribute from around the globe: America, Brazil, the UK, France, Slovenia, and the Dominican Republic.

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As I write this, over 300 people have participated in this Konbit, and we have raised over $2300 and 600 books. It continues to build momentum, with contributions coming in every day. If and when this library is built, its value will not be in the number of books it holds or the number of chairs that are filled, but in the number of hands it took to build it. And each person who has contributed, whether it is 1 gourde or 100 dollars, 1 book or 1 song, will have their name written in the library to honor their part in this community Konbit.

Just as our efforts belong to everyone who contributed, our success will belong to all of Haiti. If we succeed, we will be demonstrating an inversion of the typical way development is done: building on a foundation of community vision, leadership, and resources, and gradually opening up space for allies and outsiders to contribute. If we build the future together, it belongs to all of us.


If you would like to find out how you can join the Konbit and participate, contact

Written by Louino Robillard, translated into English by Sabina Robillard.

Where there is no water

I was born in Gwasimal, St Raphael a remote corner of rural northern Haiti, and I grew up in Cite Soleil, the largest ghetto in the Caribbean. I grew up with hunger, with gun violence. I have traveled the country as a researcher and community mobilizer, and saw communities barely holding onto the bare sides of mountains, people drinking water that their goats wouldn’t drink, villages wiped out by tropical storms. I always thought I knew what misery looked like.

Then yesterday, I found myself in the 1st Section Parisse on the abitasyon Planton de l’Estère in the Artibonite, and I found myself confronted with a kind of misery that I had never seen before. In my travels, many communities have told me, “there is no water”, meaning they had to walk several hours to get to a spring, or that the water they had around them was not safe. But when the residents of Planton de l’Estère told me “there is no water”, they were being literal. The only water available within 20 kilometers is one meager spring that barely has the strength to push water out of the exposed earth. It can take almost an hour for it to fill a gallon jug. Many residents of this village wake up at 3am to walk 20 kilometers over the mountains to find a spring capable fill a 5-gallon bucket – the round-trip journey takes over 12 hours. The few who somehow scrape together 50 gourdes can pay a motorcycle driver to go the distance for them to fill up one 5-gallon bucket. I think these motorcycle drivers are heroes: 50 gourdes are nowhere near enough to compensate them for the dangerous journey along rocky mountain paths that run along steep cliffs – the kind that Haitians call chyen pa jwenn, meaning that if you fell down them, not even a dog could find your bones.


The nearly-dry local spring

The local kasek, Jean Pierre Rochenel, told me that there are 8,000 people living in Planton de l’Estère, who have scraped by on these precious few gallons for years. I asked how they bathed, and the kazek responded: “if we do not have enough water to drink, where would we find enough to bathe?” They save as much water as possible to clean the children, and pray for rain. But the seasonal rains have failed for two years now. The kazek told me, “it is as if Haiti has forgotten us.”

It is almost 2017. Even in a country as developmentally delayed as Haiti, families should not be living in these extreme conditions. The government finds millions of dollars to build a short overpass in the capital, to host Carnival celebrations, to pay for expensive cars and gas for state officials, to build a duty free shop in the airport. And we have Haitian citizens who are splitting a gallon of water between an entire household. This is not possible. Our country is only 27,750 square kilometers – it is too small for this kind of misery to be invisible.

I can count the number of times I have cried in my life. When you grow up around death and fear like I have, you learn to control your emotions at all times. But I could not stop the tears from coming to my eyes as I spoke with the residents of Planton de l’Estère. I had to put on a pair of sunglasses to hide my tears because I was ashamed – even crying felt like a waste of water in this place. I was thirsty but refused the cup of water they offered me. I cannot remember the last time I felt so useless and without hope. As someone who has grown up with misery as my closest companion, who has received news of friends being murdered without batting an eye, I find myself shocked and disturbed.

Behind mountains there are mountains, and behind those mountains there is Planton de l’Estère, the place that my country forgot. But I will not forget them. I know there may be hundreds of other villages like this and I cannot fix them, but I will keep telling the story of Planton de l’Estère until I find someone who is willing to help them find water.  I know that this will not fix the deeper problems of water in my country, but everything human in me refuses to let me forget this.

If anyone else wants to find this community, the GPS coordinates are 19.331188, -72.532880. The kazek’s name is Jean Pierre Rochenel and his telephone is +509 33 41 36 66.

15399023_1365713646812214_327844643_o Post written originally by Robi in Creole. Translated by Sabina into English.

Seeing the effects of Hurricane Matthew up close, and through a different lens

Reflections from Robi, translated by Sabina


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Robi and Carlos Celestin in Mayard, not far from Les Cayes


Yesterday, I was standing on the banks of the Grey River in Vodrey, a rural community in the north of Cite Soleil who was badly affected by the flooding of that river in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. I hadn’t come alone – behind me were over 200 volunteers from urban Cite Soleil, where I grew up, the Caribbean’s largest ghetto. Konbit Soley Leve, a social movement in Cite Soleil, organized a day of Haitian solidarity, extracting Vodrey from the debris and muck that Matthew left behind, digging canals, and being there for whatever our neighbors in Vodrey needed. The day left me with a sore back, dirt on my hands, and a reaffirmation that the Haitian spirit of Konbit could be a key element in our country’s recovery from Matthew. And the question was: how far could this solidarity stretch before it breaks? Could it reach all the way to the affected areas in the Grand Sud?

So I hitched a ride south with Haiti Communitere (Samuel Alcide) and Global Groundwork (Mitch Lown) to find out. They were going to distribute rice, oil, and pasta to 110 families in a community that one of HC’s staff members comes from. I was going to listen.

We drove to the communal section of Torbeck outside of Les Cayes, to a small village called Mayard. At first glance, you could see everything that the media had been reporting for the past week: the remnants of houses, the trees on the ground like matches thrown out of a box. I had a chita pale with some local residents, who tried to paint the picture of the night Matthew hit: some crawling on the ground like snakes to get to the safety of the village’s two concrete houses, afraid that if they stood up, the wind would carry them away. And despite the fact that 90% of the houses were destroyed, people would shake their heads and click their tongues and say, “if you think this looks bad, keep going west – the communities around Port Salut are so much worse.” I spoke on the phone today with a young doctor named Blaise who went to Abricot to help a local organization (Association of Young Volunteers for the Advancement of Abricot) – he told me they are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of need, and I could hear him choking back tears as he described rain-soaked babies crying and cholera mounting. But I am not going to stay on these images – enough has been written about them already to give you an understanding of the scale of human need and suffering. I am here to give you a different view.

I see my country with a different lens than most: I’ve been trained in several approaches (asset-based community development, SEED-SCALE, community health) that have taught me to not look just at needs, but at resources. The needs and damage are so clear they can be seen from a helicopter, but I wanted to look deeper. As I walked around the village with 22-year-old Carlos Celestin, I saw opportunities growing in the spaces between the wreckage.

First, the youth of Mayard are an amazing source of energy and organization. Barely a week after the hurricane, they had already dug out most of the roads. They had an informal assessment of the destruction in the village and had evaluated local priorities. Anyone coming into the community would be able to build on the foundation that these young people have already built, if they figured out how to ask the right questions.

Second, the environmental devastation wrought by Matthew presents a serious threat to the region in the mid-term and long-term – as someone deeply disturbed by the deforestation in my country, a part of my soul died when I saw countless trees strewn like matchsticks on the ground.  The few coconut trees that remained standing seemed somehow ill and half-dead, like zombi. But looked at through a different lens, these trees are already dead, and the communities would be foolish not to make use of them as resources. These trees could provide planks for rebuilding their homes, or enough charcoal to sell not only locally but on the markets of Port au Prince. We can mourn the death of these trees, but this community is still alive, and has the right to salvage what it can from the disaster.

And I saw enormous space for solidarity. This community was thirsty for connection. They saw the vehicles driving around doing assessments, but it was an enormous comfort for them to see fellow Haitians reach out to see how they could help. What we brought was small: food for 110 households and a Solevolt solar system to allow this community to charge phones and flashlights. But there was so much more that could be done: I shared with Carlos that we had carpenters and others in Cite Soleil who were willing to come and help, if there was space, and we started to discuss possibilities. At the end of the conversation, he said a proverb I had mentioned in the last post I wrote about the hurricane: apre dans, tanbou a lou. After the dance, the drum is heavy. He knows the rebuilding is going to be a long, painful path, and wants reassurance that someone will stick by Mayard’s side until the end of the road.

As we drove back, it made me think about all of the potential around us. Disaster and opportunity are two sides of the same clichéd coin. Far too often, the opportunity that surrounds disaster is the opportunity to turn a profit or to pad a resumé. But Matthew has given Haitians a different kind of opportunity. It gives the state an opportunity to, for once, act like a state and mobilize all of its resources to support citizens in crisis. As we passed downed electrical poles, I wondered how many EDH electricians and technicians were sitting at home in Cap Haitian and Hinche and St Marc who could instead be here, reconnecting people to the power grid. As I passed canals overflowing with debris, I wondered how many tools from our Public Works departments were gathering dust in some warehouse in port au Prince. As I hear about limited resources, I think about all of the departmental governments that got “pre-Matthew” emergency grants and never used them, and wondered if they would ever send those funds to governments in the Grand Sud. I know it has only been nine days since the hurricane, less than a week since we understood the full extent of the damage, and that the logistical constraints are massive. But the people I met today deserve to know that their government is moving, mobilizing everything it can to meet their needs and dispel their doubts that they are on their own.

And Matthew presents an opportunity for all Haitians to step up and demonstrate what solidarity looks like. If people from Cite Soleil, who our society labels as being poor and dangerous, who perhaps suffered the most hurricane damage in Port au Prince, can give their time and energy and skills to their brothers and sisters in the south, almost anyone can. To everyone using their hands to pray and post sympathy on Facebook, at some point, your hands will be needed to replant trees, rebuild roofs, or simply to comfort a family that has lost too much.  I know there are questions of coordination and not adding to the resource burden in these tight times, but this is the beauty of being Haitian: we are not going anywhere. We can provide help in the minutes after a disaster or years afterwards. So it may not be now, but I want everyone to commit to going to Sud, Nippes, or Jeremie before the next year has passed. We should be inspired and humbled by the young Dr. Blaise and his friends who are right now in Abricot, volunteering and fighting to keep fellow Haitians alive, even when they have to hide tears of despair from their patients.

Three years ago, we carried the Kita Nago from Les Irois to Ouanaminthe. It took thousands of us to carry this heavy burden step by step for months. But we got to our destination because we worked together, everyone doing what little they could. Les Irois was not far from where Hurricane Matthew landed – let’s commit to helping the Grand Sud carry this burden, step by step, month by month.  

I haven’t seen this much destruction since the earthquake hit my country almost seven years ago, but since then, I have begun to see the world through a new set of lenses. I have to, because without these lenses, I would go blind from witnessing the struggles and pain of my country every day. And through these lenses, a fallen tree becomes the plank for a new roof.  A fallen electrical pole becomes a chance for a government to prove itself to its people. And a disaster becomes an opportunity for us to write a new social contract that binds us together, through solidarity in action, through Konbit.

Solidarity in the storm: Hurricane Matthew

hurricane-matthew-cite-soleilIt has been a strange past few days for Haiti, waiting for the landfall of the powerful Hurricane Matthew. Yet perhaps the strangest thing was how familiar it all felt – the impending danger, the skepticism and fatalism of my fellow Haitians, the news headlines with “Haiti” and “crisis” and a few foreboding adjectives. Every year it seems, there is a new crisis that we as Haitians are called upon to be ‘resilient’ against. And we are. We are resilient. We are too resilient. We are crisis professionals.

And during every crisis, there is an amazing metamorphosis that takes place among Haitians. In normal times, we are a complicated mixture of the extreme competitiveness that survival and hustle brings, and a kind of mutual assistance that comes with recognizing that we are all at the bottom of the same barrel. But at the first gust of rain or drop of wind, at the first shake of the earth, we awaken not only resilience but this wellspring of solidarity inside of us. I saw this most clearly after the earthquake that rocked my country in 2010: for the days after the earthquake, I saw people struggling to pull strangers out of the rubble, sharing what little water and food they managed to salvage, sleeping in the open next to people they’d never met before. This was especially stark in Cite Soleil: my hometown, a place normally divided by gang conflict and territories and allegiances. On the night of January 12th, 2010, all of the blocks slept together as one in the public square in the heart of our municipality. That solidarity disappeared as soon as we began fighting over relief supplies a few days later.

I saw this again during Hurricane Matthew. Contrary to what many picture, Haitians are anything but passive victims during a disaster, especially during a hurricane. Yes, some people did decide to stay home, but they chose to do so. There were dialogues happening on street corners about whether to search for higher ground or stand their ground. Some decided to trust the government, some decided to trust God, and some decided that they simply didn’t trust anyone. They were not paralyzed like deer in headlights – they had agency, and were making decisions based on the information they had.

And other Haitians understood that and went to speak with people to have those conversations so they could make decisions. I spent the two days leading up to the storm walking around Cite Soleil, just talking with people in their doorways, on the football pitch, on the docks. Others across the country were doing the same – taking time to meet people where they were, trying to get them to understand the danger. And others did this through social media – spending hours communicating with people to alert them to where the storm was, to be vigilant, to search for higher ground. Haitians are naturally (and for good reason) skeptical of authority, and so ordinary people took the time to reach out to neighbors or even strangers on social media. We didn’t always succeed in convincing people, but we will also never be able to calculate the number of lives saved by Haitians taking the time to talk to Haitians. When the radios were playing music, we were talking to each other.

And during the storm, while we all hunkered down and prayed that our roofs stayed on, we weren’t passive. Again, social media provided an incredible platform for us to connect even while we were shut inside. We were of course watching how the media portrayed the event (and shutting down reporters who spread strange stories about us eating trees and people posting fake images), and were frustrated by not knowing where the funds being raised online were going. So instead of waiting, a WhatsApp group called AYITI INFO started its own pledging campaign among its 150 members, all Haitian. Every member committed to at least $50, and that will be going directly to local groups in Jeremie. $7500 may not look like much compared with $400,000 from USAID, but these were large donations for the people who gave them, and will get quickly to the affected area.

And this went beyond words and into action. Myself and a few friends went out during a quick lull in the hurricane to deliver clean water sachets to people stuck in Cite Soleil. Most families make the money for food each day by selling, and the markets were closed, so we knew there would be hungry families. We couldn’t feed the half a million inhabitants of Cite Soleil, but we could buy 3000 gourdes worth of crackers and snacks for neighborhood children, and people appreciated it. It wouldn’t fix their food insecurity, but it was a comfort, and given by neighbors in dignity and friendship, not charity. The action itself was a collective effort, a blend of solidarity and participation we call konbit: myself and Fedras Jerome (a fellow Soleyan) driving around in his girlfriend Jess Laporte’s car, the water donated by Haiti Communitere (a community resource center that functions as a grassroots disaster response base) and the snacks bought with money sent from my wife’s parents. Haiti Communitere would continue to help us provide hundreds of meals to affected neighborhoods in Cite Soleil, following our direction, our priorities, our leadership. That is the kind of partner communities want after a storm.

A few hours later, a friend named Romel who hails from another ghetto, Grande Rue, called me, saying he had 25 containers of hot meals that he wanted to send to Cite Soleil, which we delivered before the winds had completely died down. Each one was given neighbor to neighbor, the comfort of a warm meal given to you by a friend. Again, this may have only fed 75 people out of hundreds of thousands, but these small acts of solidarity were being replicated across the country, and from Haitians living abroad. Some were as small as a phone call: I received a call about Cite Soleil from Odette Roy Fombrun, a 99-year-old Haitian intellectual who pioneered the idea of Konbit as our national social contract. These are two examples of solidarity for my community – one from another ghetto, one from the heights of Petionville. Konbit crossing class lines.

These acts may seem small to you, but already we are hearing stories of neighbors helping neighbors escape damaged houses, strangers sheltering strangers, actions that save lives. What I shared above were simply a few small examples from my experience as one person on the edge of this storm. Multiply this by thousands if not millions of other people who were in the path of Hurricane Matthew and were drawn together by these acts of solidarity. No, this assistance was not systematic or scientific or scale-able or even sustainable. But it was real, and we were there for each other, and were cemented together by the strange mix of solidarity and fear and grit. We were the state when the state was absent. We were the aid when the aid hadn’t arrived. We were the comfort in the storm.

But I am afraid that this next part will also be familiar: the fading of that solidarity. As the crisis fades and the merchants return to the markets and relief comes from the outside, those bonds will fade. There is an election that will be rescheduled in the near future – either we will return to being bitterly divided partisans, when for a few days we were simply Haitians, or we will return to being apathetic about the future of our country, which we somehow cared about when it was threatened by Matthew. And I wonder when one day we will stop being so resilient, when we will get tired of transforming into heroes in every crisis. When we will learn to show this same solidarity every day, to prevent crises, to build our country so that it can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes and market shocks and elections without crumbling?

There is a Haitian proverb: “after the dance, the drum is heavy”. After the excitement of the crisis fades, we need to confront the fact that we have a ravaged country to rebuild. Roof by roof, farm by farm, wharf by wharf. We don’t yet know the extent of the damage in the southwest of the country, which took a direct hit (Cite Soleil and Port au Prince as a whole were spared from the worst of the storm). The rebuilding is not driven by adrenaline or surges of solidarity. It is hard, heavy, tiring work. Our state currently cannot lift that burden on its own, so people will come from all over the world to give us aid. They will help us carry the weight this time. But it is our weight to carry, our burden, our heavy drum. How many more times until we carry this weight ourselves? How much longer until our solidarity isn’t dried up by the first ray of sunshine? How much longer until we can keep our promises to each other long enough to rebuild a nation?

We will find out when the next storm hits.

A message from Haiti to Nepal

nepal haitiWhen I heard about the earthquake in Nepal and saw the pictures, it made me remember the earthquake that hit my country Haiti 5 years ago. I remember what that felt like: I remember the dust, the panic, the fear because you can no longer trust the ground beneath your feet. Even though Nepal is halfway around the world, I feel you are my family because I know some of the pain you are going through now.

Even in the photos and videos, I see so much solidarity between Nepalis – and I would like to ask my Nepali brothers and sisters to hold onto that. We Haitians stayed strong through solidarity in the few days after the earthquake, and then we became divided. Don’t let that happen to you – you are a proud people with so much history and culture, so hold onto that and you will emerge strong.

I said this to my friends in the Philippines after the typhoon: you are more than the disasters you suffer. You are not victims – you are survivors, you are heroes, and you will rebuild your country. Your brothers and sisters in Haiti are here to tell you that the ground will stop shaking, the dust will settle, and you will live on to build a new Nepal. And for those who have been lost today, the world will honor their memories.

In solidarity,

Louino Robillard

बल र प्रेम