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

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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.

dlohaiti14

Celebration & Service

Because he grew up in Cite Soleil, Robi doesn’t take birthdays lightly. And after the earthquake of 2010, Robi made a promise to himself to use each birthday as a chance to reflect on what he is doing on this earth, and how he can change. The past few years, he has spent his birthday fasting and doing community service – one year he spent reconciling groups of friends who were fighting, for another he took a group of young social leaders from various ghettos around Port au Prince and brought them to a part to reflect on social change.

This year, as hchancerelles 10e was planning for his birthday, Robi realized he needed something more. 2015 has been such a challenging year for young people in Cite Soleil, and so many of them have become discouraged because of the increased violence. He felt he needed to do something active, visible, and concrete to remind them that they still had something to offer their community. So Robi decided to turn his birthday into a volunteer day at the Chancerelles Maternity Hospital in Cite Soleil.

Starting early in the morning of April 1st, over a dozen of young leaders from across Cite Soleil showed up at the small maternity hospital. There were a handful of volunteers who were nurses and nursing students, and they got right to work supporting the overstretched staff. Babies were delivered, mothers were cared for, and medical staff were given time to breathe.

chancerelles 3

There were also a group of artists: the Soleyan musicians Gueldy and Belabre sang to exhausted mothers and newborn babies. The comedy theater troupe from SAKALA entertained anxious relatives out in the waiting room. They all walked around trying to lighten the mood and provide comfort to anyone seemingly under stress.

Everchancerelles 1yone who was not a medical professional or an artist was put on cleaning duty. The rainy season recently started, and the yard of the hospital was filled with standing water and blocked canals. Robi and a team of volunteers got to work clearing the hospital inside and out, and focused on getting rid of standing water that could breed mosquitoes.

After an 8 hour day, the hospital staff came out and thanked the volunteers. They said they had never seen the hospital so clean, or the staff and patients so happy. They said that after this violent year, they were beginning to lose hope that Cite Soleil could ever change, but that the young people who had showed up today had renewed their faith. Something good could come yet from this generation.

And that message had a strong impact on the people that were volunteering with Robi – it restored some of the faith they had in themselves. They had all been so used to giving to their communities, and felt that the recent violence had tied their hands, made them question who they were as leaders. This small action reminded them that they still had something left to give. Robi’s 8 year-old daughter Dayana was present the whole day, because Robi also wanted her to see the model of young people from Cite Soleil who hadn’t given up on making a difference.

chancerelles 7

It’s this need for validation and encouragement in these dark times is also the reason why Robi is launching a crowdfunding campaign to support the Cite Soleil Peace Prize, an initiative to recognize young people in Cite Soleil who have still held on to the dream of peace. If you can, please support this initiative and share it with people who believe that young people can make change happen. They certainly showed they could make a difference on April 1st, and that was the greatest gift Robi could have asked for.

Adding gas to the fire

Reflections and observations from Robi about the recent gas crisis in Port au Prince – and what it looks like on the streets of Port au Prince.

Rumors and knowledge spread like wildfire in Port au Prince. Everything else moves so slowly in the capital that most people lot of time to talk – in stalled taptaps, in the lull at the informal markets, on the curb when it is too hot to sit inside. The streets are a living university. We’ve seen carpenters and welders turn into political scientists, debating the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and how it compared to Haiti’s history of coup d’etat. We’ve sat with young people examining the mental illness whenever there is a school shooting in America.  And now, because of Haiti’s gas crisis, everyone in Port au Prince has become deeply interested in international economics.

Crisis may be the wrong word – Haiti’s gas prices have been around 215 gourdes (about $4.58 US) per gallon for about a year. But somehow, over the past few weeks, word has spread around Haiti’s capital that gas prices have been falling dramatically in the rest of the world – and Haitians have been asking why gas prices only fell by 15 gourdes (about 32 cents) to 200 gourdes a gallon here at home.

Robi has been amazed at how the debates have been unfolding in the streets: women in market stalls asking each other how large a barrel of gas is, finding comparably-sized containers, and estimating how many gallons would fit in it (42 it seems). People at street vendors buying fried plantains and chicken debating how much gas Haiti burns through every day (somewhere around 20,000 gallons). Young men in Cite Soleil using their internet credit on their cheap phones to find out what the global prices of gas are. Older men sitting on a curb calculating how many gas-guzzling SUVs and Landcruisers the Haitian government has, how much gas they use per day, and how much that costs the country.

And the debates have all eventually led to one point: PetroCaraibe, the Venezuelan government’s program to sell Haiti subsidized gas. Questions about what the terms of the deal were, why the cost of gas hadn’t come down more, and what the government was doing with the money in this program were everywhere. Tensions in the country were already smoldering after weeks of anti-government protests that came on the heels of the dissolution of Parliament less than a month ago – these questions were like pouring gas on the flames.

The country erupted in protests, with unions organizing a general transit strike on the 2nd and 3rd of February. Port au Prince shut down: the taptaps that the majority of Haitians rely on to get around were nowhere to be found, and some of the private vehicles that ventured into the streets were met with violence. After negotiations with the government, it was announced that the price of gas would come down 5 gourdes (11 cents) to 195 gourdes. People were furious – they accused the unions of selling out. Economists came on the radio to explain why the government couldn’t bring down prices more, and callers into those radio shows said that the state was paying them to tell lies. There is so much mistrust right now that what started out as a debate on the street couldn’t become a national dialogue – it has become a cacophony where no one can hear anyone else. The opposition has used this as an opportunity to call for more anti-government protests downtown.

Another strike was called for Monday and Tuesday, and it went quietly. The only cars in the roads were media and ambulances. Robi saw young boys using the main roads to play soccer. The streets were so empty he could finally see how much trash was everywhere – and he imagined how Port au Prince could be beautiful again if it just wasn’t so crowded. But by Wednesday, the streets were full of the noise and chaos of millions of people trying to make a living, and the price of gas was still 195 gourdes.

There are more strikes called for after Carnival.

An image promoting the strike, from EzileDanto.com

An image promoting the strike, from EzileDanto.com

Education as a weapon

“Education is a weapon” – this is a saying that rings true, but in more ways than you would think. In Haiti, education is often seen as a weapon against poverty, against misery – a road out of the slums or the mountains. But education is a weapon that can be turned against the poor too: the few that actually beat the odds and make it to graduation can be told that they are better than the people they’ve left behind, that they should get out and leave their neighborhoods while they can, that they shouldn’t ever have to work with their hands again. This can leave behind rifts and divisions in neighborhoods, and even families – this narrative is so ingrained that many high school graduates who want to go home to the ghettos or the mountains to help their communities are rejected by their families. We have a friend whose parents told him, ‘we didn’t sacrifice everything so you would come here and live like us – we sacrificed everything so you would escape’. They kicked him out of the house.

The question isn’t how education can help the educated – that much is clear. The question is how can education lift up families, neighborhoods, communities, and – dare we say it – a country like Haiti. It isn’t clear yet.

So when the graduating class – known as the Philosophe class – at the Lycee Nationale de Cite Soleil called Robi in to ask him advice, he was brutally honest with them. He told them that while getting to graduation was an amazing achievement, the road ahead would be rocky. And that they needed to find a way to move forward without kicking their communities to the curb – to use their education to bridge divides in the neighborhood, not deepen them. After a lot of brainstorming, the group came up with an idea: the 28th of January is the annual Fete des Philosophes, a time many graduating classes take to celebrate their achievements and success with a big party.  They would break with tradition, and instead of a loud celebration, make the theme of the day an important question: ki sa ki yon filozof vre? What does it mean to be a graduating student?

They asked that question with their actions this morning: at 7 am, the entire graduating class was out in the street, dressed in their neatly ironed, spotless school uniforms. They lined up outside of the school, as student leaders distributed shovels, buckets, rakes, and brooms. And without a word, the students got to work cleaning the canals and streets around the high school. Teachers, students, community leaders, random passersby – everyone got in the spirit, working side by side, getting their clothes dirty, getting the streets clean.

photo by Mackenson Ismail

photo by Mackenson Ismail

At 8 am, the national celebrity Met Fey Vet showed up – Robi had told him about the students’ ideas and invited him to come. This was the statement that the young people wanted to make: they were graduating, they had big dreams, but they weren’t too good for their neighborhoods. They could still get their hands dirty, and knew that books couldn’t fix everyone’s problems. And that even national heroes like Met Fey Vet could see that and respect that – and even join in. The work continued under the hot sun until about 11am, when everyone went inside of the Lycee, exhausted, dirty, and happy.

photo by Mackenson Ismail

photo by Mackenson Ismail

They went into the auditorium, where Met Fet Vet gave a speech about what he felt it meant to be a graduating student, how they now had more responsibility to be stewards of their environment, their culture, and their communities.  He spoke about Kita Nago, and the untapped potential in the Haitian people, what they could accomplish when they put aside the complexes that tie up this country and work together – like they had this morning. And he congratulated them.

photo by Mackenson Ismail

photo by Mackenson Ismail

Then Robi spoke – less than 10 years ago, he was sitting exactly where they were, as a graduating student of the Lycee de Cite Soleil. But he said if he learned one thing since he left this school, it was this: intelligence isn’t the ability to read. He’d met rich, educated people who were ignorant, and he’d met poor, illiterate people who were geniuses – he shared the story of Fenek, a peasant in the Artibonite that we’d met who never learned how to read, but who knew more about trees than any agronomist graduating from college. He said intelligence was how you took what you knew and used it to make a change for the better, that they owed it to their families and neighbors who protected them and allowed them to get here – and that they also owed it to themselves to celebrate a little.

photo by Mackenson Ismail

photo by Mackenson Ismail

Then local musician Gueldy Rene took the stage to perform for the young people, and a modest celebration began from there.

Local artist Gueldy Rene, photo by Mackenson Ismail

Local artist Gueldy Rene, photo by Mackenson Ismail

Robi left with Met Fey Vet, visited the local hospital, and then went on to take care of some other activities he had on the other side of Cite Soleil. It was then that he heard the volley of bullets.

The territory war between Lower and Upper Cite Soleil was raging – there was a drive-by motorcycle shooting the day before, and it was time for retaliation. Even Soleyans – who are used to these almost daily outbreaks of violence – were shaken up by today’s street battle. Bagay yo pa te jwet, a friend told Robi – it wasn’t a game today, it was real. A young student from Cite Soleil who goes to school in Tabarre was on his way home and was hit by a stray bullet – while it wasn’t fatal, it was a reminder to the Philosophe students about how fortunate they were to have just survived long enough to be graduating. Many people – armed and innocent – were shot this afternoon, as the Lycee students cowered inside of the school compound, their party cut short by the reality they had been talking about overcoming.

Robi was crushed when he heard the extent of the damage tonight – he wouldn’t blame these young people if they ran away as fast as they could after getting their diplomas, and never look back. He couldn’t ask them to stay when nothing was sacred, and nowhere was safe. Education may be a weapon – but it was no match for the semi-automatic weapons in Cite Soleil.  Even the symbolic gesture of solidarity this morning felt ridiculous to Robi – brooms and shovels couldn’t clean up the blood on the streets. He remembered what education was to most Haitians – not a weapon to stay and fight with, but a ticket to get the hell out.

Yon ti grenn diri nan mitan sab – A grain of rice in the sand

Even though Cite Soleil is the most densely-populated place in Haiti, there are times when it feels abandoned. It feels abandoned because almost everyone with something resembling a career has left. Cite Soleil has raised engineers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, entrepreneurs, police – and none of them stay. And we’ve explored some of the reasons why before: external stigma, rejection from neighbors, and the very rational fear of stray bullets.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the fewer professionals in the neighborhoods, the more the few that are left want to leave. So no one who makes decisions about Cite Soleil lives in Cite Soleil – they don’t know what happens at night when the electricity is cut, they don’t have mothers who can’t sleep because of gunshots, they don’t have any real incentive to see things get better. The mayors and representatives of Cite Soleil don’t live there  – most of them wouldn’t be caught in Cite Soleil after the sun goes down.

This is most evident when it comes to police: Cite Soleil already has a rocky relationship with its police. Cite Soleil was practically abandoned by the police from 2004-2006 when the chimeres ruled the neighborhoods. And when the police did return – with the backing of UN soldiers – their relationships with the communities were marred by mutual distrust and fear.  After a child was shot not far from the local police station in 2007, Robi and a group of friends tried to shut the gate of the police station, telling them that if they couldn’t do their jobs, then they should just leave and let Soleyans police themselves (as they had been doing for the years the police weren’t there).  In 2011, an innocent friend of ours was arrested illegally by the Cite Soleil police, and when we went to the station to find out what happened, we were told we had to speak with the officer that arrested him. The officer calmly told us that he knew that our friend was innocent, but that to him, all Soleyans were dogs. He smiled as he told us that if he woke up tomorrow and every man, woman, and child in Cite Soleil was dead, he would be a happy man. Then he let our friend out of his holding cell.

So it’s an understatement to say that most Soleyans don’t trust the police – and this is a main driver behind the persistent power of local armed groups. When there is a conflict, a theft in the neighborhood, no one goes to the police – they go to the local chef, and he judges and gives out punishments. This reinforces their power, and is the reason that many neighborhoods not only tolerate, but actually protect the armed young men in the neighborhood. They serve to fill in many of the gaps left by the state.

There is a new initiative to try to address this called ‘Community Policing’, but in Cite Soleil, the term has become a joke – a few police showing up once and a while on bicycles. The last time we mentioned the word ‘community policing’ to someone in the Cite, they laughed.

There are currently no police officers in Cite Soleil who are from Cite Soleil – although that could soon change. A young man from Soley 17 named Octa Patrick was a member of the 25th class to graduate from the Police Academy this past week.  He wasn’t the only person from Cite Soleil to be in his graduating class – but he was the only one to admit he was from Cite Soleil. Octa recognized at least 5 other young men and women from the neighborhoods in his class, but they all gave the addresses of friends or relatives in Delmas, Petionville, or Carrefour, afraid to say where they came from. Octa kept quiet – he wasn’t going to ‘out’ them as being Soleyan.

But Octa was different, and he let everyone know where he was from – and it wasn’t easy. He was teased and mocked – told that the police were no place for a kid from Cite Soleil. During weekend breaks when there were protests in poor neighborhoods, his instructors told him not to go home. Octa wondered why – this is why he joined the police, to understand why his neighborhood was suffering from violence, and to fix it. He didn’t think he had to hide from it. So he defied his instructor’s orders and went home in secret.

In the last weeks of class, a form was circulated to ask the soon-to-be-officers where they wanted to work when they graduated – Octa was the only person he knew who put down ‘Cite Soleil’ as his first choice.

Octa not only didn’t hide who he was to the police – he didn’t hide who he was in Cite Soleil. This was even more dangerous, because if anyone in the neighborhood perceived him as a threat, it wouldn’t cost much to have him killed. But Octa still feels he has nothing to hide, and has been walking around his neighborhood in his uniform, talking to neighbors about why he decided to join the police. The other young recruits from Cite Soleil are planning to get out of the neighborhoods as soon they can – Octa says he won’t leave unless he’s pushed out.

Robi learned about Octa last week and was intrigued, because he also once had a vision of joining the police and making his neighborhood safe. On the day of graduation, Robi took Octa out to lunch and talked with him for hours about his dreams, his plans, and his strategy. They were real with each other – even if Octa could overcome the serious issues and conflicts within the police, the kind of change Cite Soleil needed went far beyond a single police officer.  But Octa wanted to do his part – even if it meant paying a heavy price.

Robi is afraid that Octa will fail, or die. The odds that he will succeed are slim. But then again, the odds that anyone will make any changes in Cite Soleil are slim. So all we can do now is applaud Octa’s courage, and his refusal to be ashamed of who he is – a young police officer from Cite Soleil. It’s the first step down a very long road.

Robi and Octa, on graduation day

Robi and Octa, on graduation day

January 12, 2015

Five years ago, on January 12th, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti at 4:53 pm. Robi was coming back from downtown Port au Prince, and was in a TapTap when the world went white with dust and began trembling. After realizing it was an earthquake, he managed to gather up most of his family and bring them to the most open space in Cite Soleil – Place Fierte, the enormous public square in the heart of the city. It turns out, that’s where everyone else had brought their families, and for a period of a few days, the normally fragmented Cite Soleil lived as one. People from rival neighborhoods slept next to each other, shared water and food, and helped search for family members. The normally rigid lines between blocks and zones and baz faded away. For the first time, Robi – and many other Soleyans – saw that these divisions could actually be overcome. It was this moment of revelation that many think was the motivation behind Konbit Soley Leve – to somehow reclaim that feeling of unity. So every year on January 12th, Soley Leve makes a big effort to bring people in Cite Soleil together to commemorate the death and destruction, and to celebrate the unity that was forged to face it. This year was the fifth anniversary, and even though the country was facing a paralyzing political crisis, everyone was committed to going ahead.

At 8am, around 150 people from all blocks of Cite Soleil – and a few from another marginalized area called Belair – gathered in front of Cite Soleil’s police station. They had on white and black t-shirts with this message: “kisa n’ap tann pou’n chanje?” What are we waiting for to change? They were carrying small white crosses in their hands and small black crosses around their necks, made in the workshop of Haiti Communitere by a local professional named Beneche. There was one enormous white cross, and several wreaths of flowers. As the bus loaded up, people all corners of Cite Soleil – Bois Neuf, Projet Droullard, Ti Ayiti, Brooklyn, Whaf, Boston, Cite Lumiere, La Plaine – crammed themselves into a bus, shoulder to shoulder. As per the tradition, the bus was heading to Titanyen – the site of the mass grave that held tens of thousands of earthquake victims that had been dumped there by the truck-full.

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We always went in the morning, because the afternoon was when the President always came to do the government’s official ceremony, and Soley Leve always avoids being mixed up in politics. However, because of the current political crisis, it seems the President had switched his plans and organized a morning ceremony as well, and by the time we arrived it was underway. With over a hundred people marching with crosses, we were stopped at the entrance to the memorial site at St Cristophe by police. The entire site was off-limits, they said, as long as the president was inside. We then watched as a LandCruiser filled with foreigners breezed past the security entrance – it seems that only a few specially invited people were being given permission to grieve during these specific hours. There were people in our group who had family members lying in that earth, and they felt outrage that a political ceremony could keep them from paying their respects.

10421371_795211087226649_153964106731438164_n On the sidelines, people in white t-shirts with pink lettering – Martelly’s signature color – were trying to push t-shirts and leaflets with the president’s face on our group. The t-shirts weren’t even about the earthquake – they had political messages like “eleksyon – tet dwat!” on the back. As we regrouped out of the reach of the political t-shirt pushers, Robi recounted his failed negotiations with the police officers. He had told them that we didn’t want to go into the walled-off area where the ceremony was being held, but rather a dry hill behind it, where we have gone for the past few years to plant a cross.  Someone shouted out that his family lived nearby, and that he knew an alternate road to get to that hill. A spontaneous plan was developed, and we walked off single file into the brush. We arrived at the base of the hill after a hot and dusty walk, and scrambled up the back side, thorns and brambles tearing at clothes and feet. 10386757_795211163893308_3641442605062924661_n Finally, when we arrived at the top of the hill, we were greeted by two heavily-armed police officers – it seems they had been stationed there as lookouts and were not expecting to see a crowd of people scrambling up this desolate hillside. Their immediate reaction was to scream at us to get down the mountain and they aimed their guns at the people in the front of the group – one of whom was Robi. Those at the front heard the click as the safety went off. 1922380_795211343893290_5428319632356016480_n But Robi knows how to handle these situations. He took the gigantic white cross from the person next to him and steadily advanced, step by step, all the while saying in a loud, clear voice who we were and where we were here. He knew this was a fragile situation – we’d been in situations like this before. If anyone balked, screamed, or ran, it would spook the officers and they could shoot. But the people behind Robi stood strong and stayed calm – every step forward he took, they took one step forward as well, holding up their hands in a gesture that were reminiscent of the Ferguson protests in America. All the while, the guns were trained on Robi and the people at his side. But finally, he reached the top of the hill, turned his back on the police officers, and motioned for someone to bring the pickaxe we had brought with us. Someone began swinging the pickaxe to make a hole, and Robi planted the enormous white cross in the ground. By the time he turned back around, the guns were pointed at the ground. 10406886_795211443893280_7152441901505075582_n Robi invited Manno and Bill Gates, two musicians from Bois Neuf, to come to the front and sing the music they’d written about the earthquake called “anba dekonb” – under the rubble. Everyone knew the words. As the song faded, Robi asked for 35 seconds of silence to remember the 35 seconds that their country shook, and we were silent. 988455_795211723893252_3020098469028048494_n Then someone came through the crowd and handed out scraps of paper and pens – it was a member of Cle D’or, an organization from the neighborhood of Boston that was a strong part of Soley Leve. They asked everyone to write down the names of the people they lost in the earthquake, and after about ten minutes of passing around pens and pencils, people held their pieces of paper to the sky. Then the organizer told everyone to hold onto the memory of that person, and then let go of their pieces of paper. The wind whipped the papers into the sky, and we watched them disappear. 10672196_795211673893257_8258473747583290559_n Someone called for a group picture, but to do that we needed to get to the hill where the police were still standing. An older Scout leader with graying hair made the first tentative step towards the police officers, explaining that he was just trying to get in a good position to take a picture. The police bristled and began to raise their guns. It was an odd image, this older man in a khaki Boy Scouts uniform that seemed to unnerve these two heavily armed men in their blue camouflage. But then, we heard the sirens of the presidential cortege and saw a series of black vehicles speeding out of the memorial site onto route 1. The officers must have gotten their order, because within a matter of seconds they were gone bounding down the mountain. 1462876_795211840559907_5682181387056609036_n We took our pictures and headed down the mountain and back into the big yellow bus.   A few of us, Alashkar, Gama, Sabina, and Robi’s daughter Dayana assembled in the Cite Soleil High School as Robi went to get the gigantic tank of helium that we’d arranged to have brought in from the Dominican Republic.  We spent the rest of the afternoon blowing up balloons in a classroom in the high school, as more and more people from the morning’s activities came in to help us. The conversation turned to where everyone was exactly five years ago when the earthquake hit. As usual, the stories were filled with the dark humor of those that had survived, and the storytelling went on, punctuated by the occasional bang of a balloon popping. 1450953_795212087226549_4011962554915266611_n By 4:00, the classroom’s ceiling was filled with hundreds of balloons, and the yard of the high school was filling with people. People from the morning’s pilgrimage came to the high school – which was a serious risk for some of them because the high school is in Lower Cite Soleil and many of them were from Upper Cite Soleil. One of the guys from Cite Lumiere greeted everyone with a nervous laugh, saying, “I was scared out of my mind to come, but I came.”  50 children from SAKALA and other youth clubs came in. A collection of foreign volunteers and a journalist from Haiti Communitere showed up, as did Louis Henri Mars of Lakou Lape, Philippe Armand of CAH, and someone from the American Embassy.  Everyone grabbed a handful of balloons, and the motley assortment of 150 people from all corners of Port au Prince spilled out of the high school’s gates and onto the streets. 10309129_795212200559871_8125875474573852250_n Every other year, we had always gathered at Place Fierte to re-create the coming together of everyone in the aftermath of the earthquake. But Place Fierte was under construction, so we decided to arrange ourselves in a different symbolic place: Carrefour Brooklyn, the intersection between Upper and Lower Cite Soleil, the line that was currently dividing the neighborhoods. We had written the police to help us block off the intersection, and we formed a large circle, shutting down traffic.  We had been unable to find a megaphone, so Robi shouted out a speech about why we were here, and the unity we were attempting to recover. Then Manno and Bill Gates sang their song, which was amplified by the countless people in the crowd who knew all the words and sang “anba dekonb” at the right moments. At 4:50, a trumpet sounded out a funeral song as we stood in silence, and at 4:53 precisely, Robi called out to everyone to let their balloons go.  All of a sudden, hundreds of balloons lifted into the air, symbolizing the hundreds of thousands of souls that were lost in that exact minute five years ago.  The balloons disappeared into the beginnings of the sunset, and we all went home. 10931446_795212390559852_1219900727350641109_n That night, Haiti’s parliament dissolved. The message of unity that the day should have brought seems to have fallen on deaf ears . It seems it will take more than an earthquake for Haiti to change.

the 5th anniversary of the earthquake

Robi had so many thoughts and feelings about Monday, which is the fifth anniversary of the earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12th, 2010. Here is the best we could do to get them onto paper:

Five years ago, around 5:30pm on January 12th, 2010, the earth was still shaking. I had managed to find most of my family and herd them into the biggest open space I could think of – Place Fierte, the enormous public square in the middle of Cite Soleil. The ground shook again, and everyone threw themselves down, screaming to Jesus to make everything stop. When a little boy began running towards his parents, people yelled at him ‘pa kouri! W’ap souke tè a!’ – ‘stop running, you’re shaking the ground!’ We didn’t know why the earth was shaking, when it would shake next, so we yelled at the little boy to stop running. We couldn’t sleep that night – the aftershocks kept us awake, off-balance, uncertain.

Five years after the earthquake that flattened a great deal of my country, there will be grand stories and reports and commemorations about the few dozen seconds that the earth shook. These somber reflections will be coming from international reporters, diplomats, and humanitarians, but not from Haitians – because we know that, for us, the earth never stopped shaking.

That may sound strange- but these were not the kinds of tremors that could be recorded by scientific instruments or felt inside walled compounds. These were tremors that only we could feel, things that kept us awake, off-balance, and uncertain.

In Cite Soleil, it wasn’t only the aftershocks that kept us awake, but gangsters who had escaped from the earthquake-damaged national prison and had come back to terrorize the neighborhoods they once ruled. We formed brigades to search for dead bodies, and brigades to make sure the escaped gangsters did not add to the body count. This was our aftershock, and it had a face, and ammunition. Every neighborhood had its own challenges and conflicts before the earthquake, and the disaster did not give us some proverbial clean slate. It made things messy.

However, the earthquake did remind us of something that I remembered old people from the countryside talking about: something they called konbit – an old system of solidarity, reciprocity. In the days after the earthquake, when there was no one to help us but ourselves, this thing inside of us seemed to stir into action. We were sharing our water and our grief, we were searching for and pulling strangers from the rubble, we were sleeping in the streets next to people whose names we didn’t know. People from the slums were helping the wealthy dig out their children from collapsed houses, the wealthy were helping the poor dig out their children from collapsed schools. Our doctors and nurses worked until they were on the verge of collapse, and then the foreign relief workers who came in those first few days did the same. Four people and a door became an ambulance. Hotels became hospitals. Neighbors became family, and strangers became neighbors. For those few days, we managed to hold each other up when everything else was falling down.

Many of us even felt something like hope – maybe this is what it took for our country to change.  But we could never get our bearings, because the disasters kept rolling in – cholera, tropical storms, elections.  The world was trying to build us back better, and we were just trying to stand.

The aid itself kept us off-balance. We didn’t know when the aid would be coming, when it would be going, why it was there, or what it would look like. It felt as arbitrary as the aftershocks, and we often felt just as powerless. We saw so many cars and logos and clipboards, and so little change. And we were at fault as well. That magical sense of solidarity melted into jealousy and competition over the tarps and tents that we knew wouldn’t be enough for everyone. Sometimes, we tore down the very things that people had built to help us, because we didn’t trust it. But when the very ground beneath your feet starts shaking, what can you trust?

Our government kept us uncertain. The UN had been in the country for six years before the earthquake trying to ‘stabilize’ the country. We hadn’t had a stable government in practically two centuries of history, with the exception of a few dictatorships, if you consider that stability.. So how were we supposed to trust that our government could fix our country when it couldn’t even hold itself together? Even President Preval said at the time that the Haitian state was too weak to tell the international community what we needed after the earthquake. If they offered us water, we had to just say thank you for the water.

And then there were the little tremors that happened in everyday life that kept us from regaining our sense of balance. While the international community was planning its great resettlement experiment in Corail, a few kilometers away in a squatter camp, a pregnant woman almost bled to death from a hemorrhage because the local police would not take her to or even tell her where the nearest hospital was. While debates about elections were going on in temporary government buildings, there were community leaders being shot in Cite Soleil.  When the prices of transitional shelters were being debated in the UN logistics base, women were afraid of the rapes happening every night in the tent camps. So to all of the hard-working people who were trying to fix Haiti – sorry if we didn’t seem to be paying attention, but most of us were just trying to survive.

We knew the stakes were high. Former President Bill Clinton claimed that this was Haiti’s best chance to emerge from the dark chapters of its history. Haiti’s Prime Minister at the time, Jean-Max Bellerive, warned that our failure to rebuild would have repercussions for other poor countries throughout the world.  It was now or never, they said. But we have heard this before, and we will hear it again – that Haiti will rise from the ashes, that this time, things will change.

But they haven’t really changed – at least not yet. Yes, we don’t see the rubble anymore. Yes, there are buildings being rebuilt, reinforced, and renovated. Yes, Haiti is no longer a patchwork quilt of tents and tarps. On the surface, the country looks healed. But the majority of my neighbors are still living in the same weak houses that would snap like twigs if another earthquake came through. They should know better, but knowledge doesn’t come with the money to buy more cement and rebar, so they close their doors at night and pray that they wake up tomorrow. The government itself is collapsing: Haiti has over a hundred political parties, and they have fought their way into a political gridlock that is paralyzing the state. The mountains surrounding Port au Prince have fewer trees and more shacks. The camps are gone but new shantytowns are growing. Haiti is a house with a pretty exterior, weak walls, and crumbling foundation – it is simply not ready for the next shock.

And everyone will exclaim in their articles that Haiti has not been “built back better,” and there will be fingers pointing blame every which way. Well, let me save you the time, because the fault is for everyone to share. The state is at fault for not standing up strong enough, the humanitarians for not sitting down to listen.  Foreign governments are at fault for promising aid that they never gave, as are donors who threw money at things that would make themselves happy. Also at fault are the Haitians in the camps for fighting over aid, and the Haitians working for international NGOs who only cared about their paychecks. I’m tired of the blame game; everyone needs to just sit down, shut up, and move on.

And most of you will move on – the media will go elsewhere, because the sixth anniversary of the earthquake will be so anticlimactic after the fifth. The NGOs will begin to leave, because they have little to show for these five years. The government will transition to another government, which can claim that they’re not to blame for how broken the country is – they just inherited it that way.  The donors will turn elsewhere, because what sane person wants to spend his life throwing rocks into the sea?

But the rest of us can’t move on. We still feel the tremors, every day. We don’t know when the next aftershock will come, or how long it will last. So we move slowly, stand cautiously, and hold on for dear life.  We cannot leave, so we have no choice but try to salvage what we can.

So five years on, most of me is bitter – only a small part of my soul still remembers that feeling of hope from the night of the January 12th, 2010, when I saw what we were capable of as a people. That small part of me wishes this: that we learn to help each other survive the small earthquakes that we live through every day, and that we don’t wait for another disaster to remember that this country’s fate is in our hands.

Robi 12

A sad update

We had a sad update to our post Funerals & Family that we had been not wanting to share, but feel we should, because it shows so clearly how arbitrary death seems to be in Cite Soleil. Our friend Snake lost his mother to some unknown illness in mid-November, and less than three weeks later, he lost his father as well. His father had been riding in a taptap, a pick-up truck outfitted with benches that serves as public transportation, coming into Cite Soleil. In the taptap with him was a young man involved in a local gang. Someone from a rival gang saw him, and shot into the taptap – the four shots all missed the intended target, and hit Snake’s father instead. He died on his way to the local hospital.

People in Cite Soleil are unnervingly used to death – it’s practically a part of everyday life. But even Soleyans were at a loss for words here – losing both parents within the space of a month was something even they had a hard time swallowing. All that could be done was follow the routines and rituals that everyone knows so well: a delegation from Konbit Soley Leve went to the father’s funeral, wearing the same shirts they had worn to the mother’s funeral just a few weeks before.

Paradi deyè mizè – how misery protects paradise

Distances can be deceiving in Haiti. Haiti is a tiny country, but it seems much larger than it is. There are places that are less than a few dozen kilometers away but take hours to get to – poor roads that wind you around mountains like string on a spinning top. We once had 13 flat tires over the course of a three-and-a-half day trip to Anse a Pitre – just going the few miles up the mountain could take us over an hour depending on how many of our wheels were punctured on the way. In many cases, you are better off on a horse or a donkey than on a car or a motorcycle – horses don’t lose air in their hooves when they hit a sharp rock at the wrong angle. And when a Haitian peasant tells you that someplace is ‘pa lwen’ – not far – that means that you have at least a few hours ahead of you.

So when peasants told us that our destination was actually far, we knew we were in for a real hike.  It was January 2nd, , and we had decided to celebrate the new year and Haitian Independence Day (a day late) with a hike to a historic abandoned fort that lay between St Raphael and Bawon, two towns nestled between the mountains of rural northern Haiti. We were in St Raphael because that is where Robi was born and where most of his family is, and spending Independence Day with family is an important gesture. We had heard about this fort, Fò Rivyè, several times before, and Robi was determined to see it.  We assembled a ragtag group of nine people – Robi, myself, his sister, his cousin, two young students from the area, and a few wizened country men who had always wanted to see the fort.

We set off around nine in the morning – already delayed an hour due to a flat tire – and scrambled up a mountain side. Most of the crew, although they were hearty Haitian peasants, were from the valley, and were out of breath after several steep climbs up mountain paths. After about two hours, we arrived in what everyone called Ogad. We were told it was a village, but we arrived in the yard of one house and hadn’t seen another for the past few miles of walking.  The local casec, somewhat like the local town councilman, welcomed us and asked if we were thirsty. After we said yes, he pointed to the trees that surrounded us, which were heavy with ripe grapefruit, and told us to eat our fill. Exhausted, sweaty, and thirsty, our crew scampered up the trees and threw down grapefruits the size of softballs. We ate until our stomachs were full and the corners of our mouths tingled with the bittersweet aftertaste. We filled our bags, and it seemed as if we hadn’t even made a dent in the number of ripe grapefruits hanging just at arms’ reach.  Robi’s sister was stunned – yesterday she had wanted to buy grapefruits at the St Raphael markets and  hadn’t found any, and here they were, rotting on the trees because there were so many. Why? Because they couldn’t make it down the rough mountain roads. Robi shook his head and said what he always does – Haiti doesn’t have a food problem, it has a roads problem.

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It was at Ogad that we told the peasants we wanted to reach the fort and they told us it was actually quite far. From the ridge, we could see it in the distance, nestled along the clouds – but the sweet grapefruit made us forget the pain in our feet and keep going. Robi’s sister’s boots had broken, so she had taken them off and was walking in socks. But we pressed on.

After another two hours and slipping down and scrambling up rough mountainsides, we arrived at the fort. On one side of the mountain, we could see the Grande Riviere du Nord, and on the other, St Raphael. Clouds swept in around the ruins of the fort, blocking out the amazing 360 degree vistas we had been enjoying just moments before. The peasants shivered and mentioned how cold it was. We spoke with local people about the history of the fort and the reality of the area – when we offered to share our water with them, they laughed and told us they had all the cold water they needed, and that we should save it for the hike back.

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And they sent us back a different way – we were to follow the ravine that would lead us to the Bouyara River in St Raphael. The hike began gently, skimming over the tops of grassy mountains that we had been seeing from the distance. And then the descent into the ravine: it was at once beautiful and terrifying. In the crack between two mountains, everything was lush and cool. Bird song and tumbling water and towering trees with hanging vines. But the road itself was treacherous – in fact, it wasn’t a road at all, but rather finding the least slippery and steep set of rocks to climb down. One section was actually called ‘the ladder’ because it was an almost vertical slope that one had to slide down, and presumably climb up. We spent the next several hours crawling from rock to rock, alternately crossing the ravine and tiptoeing alongside it. Our group of valley peasants was stunned and unnerved – and yet we watched young boys and old women balance basins and jugs and pots on their heads as they skipped down the mountain. All of the old peasants were amazed that the children from Ogad and the communities we passed had to climb up and down this path every day to go to school – rain or shine. They shook their heads in sorrow.

Except for the young agronomist who was with us. He saw the lush ravine and valleys and said he was happy there was no road, that it was so challenging to cross this ravine. If it was easy, he said, there would be no trees left here, no lush foliage, no gurgling river, no birds. The local people would have already cut the trees down and carried them out to make charcoal long ago, and we would be slipping on dust, not smooth, water-washed stones. The rough terrain protected what little nature remained.

And it made us think of roads – the lack of roads is what was causing the grapefruit to rot on the trees in Ogad, what made old women risk breaking their necks to bring what little they could carry to market, what made small schoolchildren climb over rocks everyday on their way to school. And yet it was this same lack of roads that protected the lush, cool ravine and all of the lives it nurtured. If we could build a road to save the grapefruits and the grandmothers and the schoolchildren, would we be exposing the river and the birds and the ancient trees? As we finally emerged into the valley of St Raphael, just as the sun was setting, eight hours after we began, we were too tired to attempt an answer.

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