#KonbitBibliyotek

#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:

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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.

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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.

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If you would like to find out how you can join the Konbit and participate, contact Robillard.louino@gmail.com

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.

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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

Burying friendships – a memorial to Gagot

It’s always hard to bury a friend – and it’s even harder to bury a friendship.

Gagot

Gagot

Almost all young men in Cite Soleil are part of a baz, a group of guys who hangs out in the same place every day and who are responsible for a piece of the neighborhood. The baz have gotten bad name because many of them are linked to politics or local gangs, but not all of them are. At their core, they are a band of brothers, friends who will defend each other against the many dangers that come with being a young man in Cite Soleil. If you got arrested, they would come to get you out of jail. If someone threatened you, they would close ranks to protect you. If you were hungry, they would share their food with you. When disasters hit – natural or not, earthquake or coup d’etat – they were the ones you turned to for survival.

Robi grew up looking up to the Bo Deny baz, who hung out by the school in his neighborhood of Ti Ayiti.  They were a bit older than him, were involved with the school, and never messed around with guns. One of the most popular guys was Jacinthe ‘Ti Ga’ Louigemps , who they called ‘Gagot’ because he liked to share and spend money on what he didn’t have. As he became a rising rapper in Cite Soleil, Gagot became his stage name, and then it became the name everyone knew him by. Gagot was like a king – he rode around on his motorcycle, working on his music videos, hanging out all over the block. He got into trouble, got out of trouble, but had this easy smile that made people forgive him even when he would get drunk and throw bottles at the end of street parties. But he stayed above the real violence going on around him – even after his brother was shot down by a local gangster, he never entered into the local gangs.

By the time Robi became a part of Bo Deny, Gagot had moved further down the street to set up his own baz. But he and Robi became close through volunteering for the Konbit Soley Leve movement, and Gagot began writing more social hip-hop. He wrote a song called Nou Bouke (we’re exhausted) about how tired the people of Cite Soleil were with blackouts, violence, dying early in hospitals. Robi loved this song so much he would play it nonstop for days on end, and when Gagot got the chance to perform in front of tens of thousands of Soleyans for the anniversary of the Soley Leve movement, he shared that song.

Gagot performing for a crowd of 10,000 at the Soley Leve anniversary

Gagot performing for a crowd of 10,000 at the Soley Leve anniversary

But the baz were breaking up – petty politics and jealousy had caused many of the baz in the area, including the original Bo Deny, to splinter off into sub-groups. Robi stopped being able to keep track of who was fighting with who, who was hanging out with who. It saddened him – these guys were ready to die for each other during the bad years of 2004, 2005. They had survived gang wars, police raids, and earthquakes – and now jealousy, unemployment, and boredom were tearing them apart.  Robi tried to stay friends with everyone, but things were not the same.

During this time, people started to notice Gagot getting skinnier. He broke out in strange rashes, and became weak. He went to the local clinics, but he said they couldn’t diagnose him with anything. People close to him thought it was AIDS, but if it was, Gagot stayed silent. So when he came home, the rumors started flying: maji. Magic. Dark magic. Someone was paying a voudou priest to make Gagot sick.

This is not uncommon: because few people can afford to go to hospitals, because diagnostic capacities at many health centers are so weak, and because there is great stigma around certain diseases, the cause of many deaths remains unknown to friends and family. If someone dies from something other than a gunshot wound, I’ve stopped asking what they died from – because when I do ask, there is inevitably a shrug of the shoulders, a sigh, and the word maji. And the thing about maji is that it doesn’t come from nature – someone had to send the magic. There seems to be no death from natural causes in most of Haiti. If a physical object (a gun, a car, a machete) isn’t responsible for a death, than a magic spell is. And the magic spell had to come from someone.

So the rumors started flying about who was after Gagot, and inevitably the fingers started pointing to the old Bo Deny guys who he was no longer friends with. This caused rounds of counter-accusations to other parties – this sparked a conflict that grew stronger and stronger as Gagot grew weaker and weaker.

For a while Gagot, seemed to have stabilized, and then last week, he died. The accusations flared as grieved friends and family searched for a reason for his early death. How could such a rising local star have fallen so quickly? It must have been jealous friends, they said. And the grief mixed with anger, which mixed with fear and resentment.

By the time the funeral came, many of Robi’s old friends weren’t speaking to each other. He showed up at the funeral, wanting to mourn his friend. He wanted to use the time to reflect on how his friend had survived so much violence to have died so quietly (almost all of the funerals Robi has been to for the past year have been from shooting deaths), how he could keep Gagot’s memory and music alive. But this was interrupted by the rumors and accusations that were still flying around, even at the cemetery. Even more disturbing was the absence of many of the men from Bo Deny, men Robi had grown up respecting, men who would have taken a bullet for Gagot ten years ago. But the rumors and resentment kept them away. Robi could imagine them, sitting on the street near the school, playing dominoes – while across town, a man slapped wet plaster on the bricks of their friend’s tomb.

This saddened Robi more than the death of his friend – because it was the death of a friendship. And those are much harder to bury.

Gagot at a community march with local students

Gagot at a community march with local students

Water, life, & enterprise in Cite Soleil

dlohaiti1For the past several months, Robi has been working with an social enterprise in Haiti called DloHaiti to establish one of their innovative, solar-powered water treatment kiosks in the Bwa Nef neighborhood of Cite Soleil. And, like his experience working with Miyamoto Relief on the rehabilitation of the Lycee de Cite Soleil, he found that people’s reactions to businesses with a conscience investing in their communities was much more positive than how they typically saw NGO or government projects.

From the very beginning, community members liked the idea of DloHaiti investing in their community instead of coming to do charity in the community – this gave them more dignity. People equally appreciated the fact that the business model was designed to support local businesses (by offering them the opportunity to sell the treated water at the same price as the kiosk) instead of taking away by providing free things. And most of all, they saw that this had the opportunity to create jobs for young people in the community that would last longer than the length of a standard NGO or government project.

And this actually worried Robi a bit at first: there are so many talented young people in Cite Soleil that are unemployed, and job selection is usually done on the basis of patronage or favoritism, that competition over jobs can create real conflict. But he worked with DloHaiti and their team on designing a process that was serious and transparent – even though it took more time and energy to communicate. But the dividend on this investment in time and process paid off: people were happily surprised about how transparent the process was, and no conflict emerged. Here are some quotes from some of the people who ended up getting hired (translated from the Creole):

“When I heard about the recruitment for the DloHaiti position, I didn’t believe it was real because I thought they were just putting on a show. Because I know in Cite Soleil, [hiring] is never done like this, because there is always a question of ‘godmother’ and ‘godfather’ [patronage]. But I decided to take a chance, and I saw it was different. I learned a lot in the recruitment process. I found a lot of other young people who had competencies and dedication to learn and work” – Leger Wenso

“It was a neighbor of mine who told me that people are collecting CVs [for a job], and I didn’t believe her because I haven’t known any decisions in Cite Soleil to be made off of a CV. But because she told me this, I decided to follow her advice and bring my CV. When I arrived and saw how the process was working, I was surprised, because I had never seen something transparent like that in Cite Soleil.” – Jean Nickenson Antoine

dlohaiti12And these are not just sentiments expressed by the “winners” – Robi had heard similar sentiments by many people in Bwa Nef, including those who did not end up getting hired. They said that a part of them was just happy knowing that there had been a genuine chance, that someone who deserved it was going to get the job.

The other young people who were hired all spoke about how empowering this moment was: here was an opportunity for them to make a living, using their minds and their talents, that actually made a difference in the community. They spoke about the respect they now had in their neighborhoods and their homes:

“I am hoping that there are more opportunities like this, for young people to find things to do, because they aren’t doing anything.  They just sit around and have the time to get into arguments. I used to sit around in the area because I had nothing to do, and all of this time, I could have had many projects that I could have been doing.. Now I have a little job, I can realize all of my projects. I can help my family” – Rene Ronald

“This opportunity has made other people at home see my different, because there is a stigma about young people, that they sit around all day and don’t do anything. When people don’t see me during the day, they give me more respect when they do see me. They see me in a whole other way, especially when I am in the white t-shirt marked DloHaiti and Ovive. I feel like I’ve finally found respect in my neighborhood.” Esther Jackenson

“And I am happy to be a part of this team, because I know that there are a lot of people in Cite Soleil, especially Bwa Nef, who have never drink treated water and this is the cause of a lot of problems. Children are always sick.” – Falone Joachin

dlohaiti4Robi was also concerned at the beginning that the community would not be willing to buy the product – that they would expect that this is something that would be given to them for free. While one could argue that clean drinking water is a public good and should be free, in most of Haiti this is simply not a reality, and the only sustainable way to provide clean water is to create a market for it. So Robi was happily surprised when, a week before the opening of the kiosk, people were coming up to me and asking, “when will the kiosk start to sell us water?” They were not asking, “when will the kiosk start to give us water?” This showed that clean drinking water was a valuable service and product that people were willing to invest their resources in.

The kiosk opened on Robi’s birthday, April 1st, and he went a day later to local households and talked to people about the water. The appreciated the fact that they could see where the water was treated, and how they had been learning that clear water isn’t clean water. The biggest challenge most of them had was not being able to afford to buy as much of the DloHaiti water as they wanted to – but they didn’t see that as the fault of the business model, but rather the lack of economic opportunity in the area. Truly clean water was valuable, and they fully understood that.

This whole experience has reinforced to Robi that social enterprise is an essential part of social change. There is  a role for humanitarian and development NGOs, and of course an even bigger role for the government to play. But especially in places like Cite Soleil – where people feel overwhelmed by NGOs, exploited by certain businesses, and ignored by the government – social enterprise can be an effective way of bridging the gap. In a place where so many fail, DloHaiti has managed to succeed building trust and jobs, in addition to a solar-powered water filtration kiosk.

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