Solidarity is strongest in death in Cite Soleil. Not showing up to to a birth or baptism is brushed aside, not visiting someone in a hospital is understandable. But not showing up at someone’s funeral is disrespectful, neglectful. When a young man is shot, as they often are, his friends will pool their money to throw a wake that lasts all night, put flyers all over the city proclaiming ‘farewell’ to the one who died, make white t-shirts with his face and death date, and have lavish funerals. All of that money would have been enough to maybe have gotten the deceased through school and out of the Cite so that he would never have been shot to begin with, but that kind of planning is not an option for most people. They jump from death to death so quickly that it seems that you hustle to make money for food, shelter, and funerals. Because the funeral is the last call – the last chance to see who shows up. The last chance to see who is on your side, who your real family is. It’s not for the dead – it’s for the people the dead live behind, for them to see that they’re not alone, especially when an early death seems both random and certain. Funerals are the ultimate roll call – when you lose someone close to you, you get to see how many people you have left.
Today there was a funeral, but it wasn’t for a young man. It was for a middle-aged woman, Andelise Rafael, mother to Alexandre Sonel (known as Snake), a talented young graffiti artist who is a long-standing volunteer in the Soley Leve movement. Andelise was a typical Soleyan woman: hard-working, bringing up her children in difficult circumstances. Two years ago, she finally saved up enough to marry the man she had loved, lived with, and brought up two children with for the past two decades. Last year, she became a grandmother. And then she died. Like many deaths in Haiti, the cause is unknown, and will remain unknown. Answers are expensive, and so are funerals.
Snake had been such an integral part of the Soley Leve movement from the earliest days – he started a movement of transforming graffiti that glorified American rappers into graffiti that honored Haitian heroes like Dessalines and Toussaint. When a wave of neighborhood transformation swept through Cite Soleil, every block called on him to write something inspirational on their walls, which he did without asking for money. Whenever he was called on, he showed up, asking for nothing, giving everything. And now that he had lost so much, Robi believed it was time to give him what he knew Snake needed, even if he would never ask for it. Robi went around gathering donations from friends and colleagues, and presented Snake with 10,000 gourdes (about 250 US dollars) to help with the funeral costs. He also arranged for 70 white t-shirts to be made with Andelise’s name on the front. On the back, it said, ‘konbit soley leve se fanmi’. Konbit Soley Leve is a family.
The funeral took place today, on the 21st of November, and Snake was able to finally see who would stand with him on the way to the cemetery. 350 people showed up, many of them friends he had made through the movement, many of them from neighborhoods and blocks that were rivals of his own. People from neighborhoods as diverse as Boston, Cite Lumiere, Ti Haiti, Belekou, 3BB, and Waf Soley showed up, all for a kid from Soley 17. But at some point in the past four years, Snake had shown up to their neighborhoods to offer them a service, and they were returning it today. The march from the church to the cemetery was quiet, except for the rustling sounds of 350 bodies walking together.
At the entrance to the cemetery, Robi gave a speech praising Andelise for raising such strong, brave, and creative children in the midst of so much chaos and hardship. The local musician Belab played a few songs about death that he had written as a young man that had witnessed so much of it. Evens Pierre, the famous boxer from Cite Soleil, had heard from Robi about this talented young graffiti artist who had lost his mother, and came down to offer his condolences in person. Snake, this scrawny young man who is more used to painting than talking, stood by his mother’s grave and told the crowd how grateful he was that everyone had shown up. He said he felt like this was his family.
Robi said later that night that this is what community-building looks like. This is what peace-building looks like. Hundreds of people who would never have normally known each other, standing in a cemetery, honoring a good young man and the mother who raised him. This is what aid agencies and dialogues in fancy hotels will never be able to do: create these painful but genuine moments when relationships are cemented. This is up to the kinds of people who get calls at night about a death in the family, and know that they will show up.