In a Small Haitian Village, Aid Efforts Take on a Human Face

02/19/2014 02:36

by Christine Parrish
Staff Writer

We turned off the paved highway onto a narrow dirt road running between banana trees and shacks selling Coca-Cola and bottles of acid-green soda pop. A deep ditch ran along one side of the lane, and at our approach skinny young boys in shorts scrambled across narrow log bridges that spanned it. Small houses and sheds hunkered in the shade beneath the taller trees beyond.

Michael Piasecki, a hydrologist from New York, was behind the wheel of the recent model extended-cab pickup. Lavaud Vernet, a Tufts-trained engineer who lives in Minnesota, was beside him in the passenger seat. I shared the backseat with a tool box and a pipe wrench.

We were headed into the village of Belloc, a farming community fifteen minutes from the city of Leogane and close to the epicenter of the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti four years ago almost to the day, killing 220,000 people outright and leaving 1.5 million homeless.

Twenty miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, Leogane was the city worst hit, with 90 percent of the city's buildings destroyed in the earthquake, thousands of its 134,000 residents killed, and most of the rest left homeless.

In the two years since I was last in Haiti, Leogane showed marked recovery. Piles of rubble had been removed and teetering buildings torn down. Electricity had been somewhat restored and somewhat extended through the seaside city which was known as the home of Haitian RaRa music and celebrated for its art, voudou culture, history, fishermen and agricultural village atmosphere.

City streets that had been dirt were now mostly paved with interlocking bricks, and the large central square was undergoing construction. Leogane's new library was about to open, and along with the shaky street stalls where vendors sold everything from Bon Gou canned milk to deep-fried pies fresh out of a pot of oil boiling over a charcoal fire, Leogane now had air-conditioned grocery stores staffed with young women who scanned Cheerios and pints of ice cream on modern computers at checkout.

The village of Belloc, with a population of about 1,500 people, had neither paved roads nor electricity. It had a mayor, a headmaster, and a voudou master. The village sugar cane mill pressed cane into sugar juice using an ear-splitting gas generator, then boiled the juice into Kleren - a take-the-enamel-off-your-teeth 100-proof rum - over fires stoked with sugar cane stalks by men who seemed resigned to the blast-furnace heat in a day that had topped 90 by nine in the morning.

Belloc also had a first-class village water station, which is no small thing in a country that has the least access to clean water and basic sanitation of any country in the hemisphere. On a trip over the mountains, I had seen people bathing, doing laundry, washing buses, watering wilted gardens, and hauling what I hoped wasn't drinking water out of a braided river.

The Belloc water station, built next to the village school by the United Nations Children's Fund, commonly referred to as UNICEF, had three clean water taps, three taps with unfiltered water for doing laundry, and a bathhouse. The filtration system was solar powered and maintenance was minimal. In a locked room not much larger than a closet, UNICEF had set up a cell-phone charging station so villagers could recharge their phones for a small fee. The proceeds were to pay for the maintenance of the water filtration system.

Michael and Lavaud were headed to the village to do some routine maintenance on the water system, among other things.

The landscape opened into sugarcane fields as we left the shacks near the highway. We weren't far from the sea and even though I couldn't see it or smell salt on the air, it likely added to the humidity of the low-lying flood plain, enhanced by the thick press of vegetation that gave off its own wet breath.

Lavaud, a native son of Belloc, belongs to what is referred to as the Haitian diaspora, a population that is mostly concentrated in the United States, Canada, and France. Around two million Haitians - equivalent to about 25 percent of the on-the-ground population in Haiti - live outside of the country. But their connection to their homeland remains strong: they send almost $2 billion a year in remittances back home to their families and communities. It's an amount that makes up to 30 percent of the country's annual GDP, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The strong barnyard smell of sugarcane silage and crowing roosters announced the entrance to the village. As we approached, Lavaud looked out at the small houses starting to emerge out of the greenery, his expression neutral beneath dark sunglasses.

Natural disasters seem to hone in on Haiti. The country ranks as one of the most vulnerable in the world to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides and droughts - all of which are exacerbated by erosion caused by mountain slopes stripped of trees that are converted into charcoal. The cheapest fuel available, charcoal is sold in markets all over the country and used to cook the morning and evening meals over small outdoor burners. It's cheap and that is important to Haitians, three quarters of whom scrabble by on less than $2 a day, according to the U.N., in a country where basic goods are not all that inexpensive.

The island of Hispaniola, the western third of which is Haiti, is the most mountainous island in the Caribbean, with three mountain ranges separated by once-fertile valleys where yam, rice, sugarcane and mangos are cultivated.

But logging has left steep mountain slopes without tree roots to hold the soil. When the rains come, they take the soil along as water flushes down into the valleys and coastal plains, flooding them.

Since the earthquake, the country has been hit by Hurricane Sandy and tropical storm Isaac, a widespread drought, and a cholera epidemic brought to the country by U.N. Peacekeeping troops.

With 55 percent of the population living below the poverty line and 40 percent unemployment, Haiti is no cruise ship destination.

Michael parked the truck in front of the remains of the village church. Most of the rubble had been removed, and the residual ruins now looked like the remains of a stone cottage in Ireland, only less romantic. Schoolchildren in bright school uniforms clambered among them, shouting Bonjou - hello in Creole - and gathering around Lavaud as he got out of the truck.

The new water station sat next to the ruins, looking like the bathhouse at a state park. The school was to the right, a long one-story windowless building, open to the air at a gap between the top of the wall and the roof. Inside, a teacher could be heard leading a class in some kind of recitation, with the students responding all together.

Lavaud watched the unsupervised children running about on a school day and asked a woman why they weren't in school.

"The teachers didn't come to work today," she said.

He sent for the schoolmaster and, after politely introducing me, Lavaud took the schoolmaster aside for a long, measured conversation. Where were the teachers? And why wasn't the school master himself teaching since they hadn't shown up? It was his responsibility to educate the children.

Given the hierarchical power structure in Haiti, where status and power build from bottom to top, the discussion was probably more of a circuitous negotiation, with Lavaud acknowledging the school master's status while trying to get him to do his job. A direct American approach was unlikely.

Michael leaned against the tailgate and lit a cigarette. He could see the water station maintenance wasn't going to start anytime soon and he had practice learning to roll with the Haitian pace of progress.

He had hired Lavaud, as he had done many times before, to be his assistant and fixer on this two-week excursion to maintain scientific equipment that would feed data via satellite to the City University of New York Advanced Science Research Campus where he is a professor.

But in Belloc, where Lavaud has built a solid house for his extended family and is a favorite uncle with community standing, Michael was just the white guy, the blanc, that shows up with Lavaud.

I had no schedule so I wandered out into the school yard, practicing my broken French and practically non-existent Creole on the rambunctious schoolchildren in their formal uniforms. About 95 percent of the population of Haiti descended from African slaves, mainly from the bulbous part of the continent that makes up West Africa. Haitians typically have beautiful faces with high cheekbones, even features and defined jaws, and these children were no exception. After trying to communicate in French, English and Creole faltered after about 90 seconds, I played patty-cake with the pretty girls in matching dresses with barrettes and bows in their hair until they tired of my clumsy attempts and went at it together, as a group, in a circle, with the boys joining in, their complicated hand rhythms as a group so fast and so coordinated and so much fun that I laughed to see it.

Given its economic status today, it seems odd to think that Haiti was once considered the richest colony in the world.

After Columbus landed on the island, claimed it for Spain, and began wiping out the indigenous Tainos, the island eventually evolved into an ungoverned mountain hideout for pirates and runaway slaves. Adventurous French tobacco farmers followed, laying the foundation for a French colony. With the importation of slaves to work the sugar plantations in the most brutal conditions, the colony became a source of extraordinary wealth for whites and for mother France. Spain later reclaimed the eastern side of the island that later evolved into the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. The French colony evolved separately, with about 40,000 whites and ten times as many African slaves occupying what later became Haiti.

As revolution swept France, it echoed in Haiti as a slave revolt, with the slaves winning and establishing the first free black republic in the world in 1804 - still a source of considerable pride in Haiti.

The United States was still a slave-owning country and it shunned the new black republic, as did Europe.

For half a century, Haiti turned inward. Most former slaves became subsistence farmers. The half-caste offspring of former colonials who had been educated and trained in the military formed a tiny and exclusive elite still in place today.

To end the economic isolation of the country and to avoid a French military invasion that would have re-enslaved the population, Haiti agreed to pay a king's ransom to former French slave-owning families for their lost human property. The amount was ten times as much as the country's annual income. The debt of 90 million gold francs took 140 years to pay off, with the final payment made in 1947 - 80 years after France declared slavery illegal. Many claim it impoverished Haiti in the process and set the stage for the brutal dictators and foreign intervention that followed.
From an outside perspective - an American perspective, in my case - the UNICEF water station looked like the perfect solution: drinkable water in volume off-the-grid, powered with solar cells and infrequent routine maintenance which could be done by a Belloc villager who could be paid with the small income from the cell phone-charging station.

In fact, it didn't work that way.

The mayor of Belloc claimed he was responsible for bringing UNICEF to the village and getting the water station built, so he took and kept the cell-phone charging fees. The village man designated to clean the filtration system refused to do it for free and when the filtration system plugged up, villagers simply starting using the non-potable water taps and waited for someone to come fix it.

It wouldn't be UNICEF. Maintenance wasn't their gig. Their role was over. In this case, it would be Lavaud, because he cares about his village, and Michael, because he cares about Lavaud; they are related by marriage and, in the roundabout way of extended Haitian families, are cousins.

The U.N. no longer talks about building Haiti back better as it did in the year following the earthquake. In its 2014 Haiti Humanitarian Action Plan, which was released in January, the U.N. focused on more immediate concerns.

According to the report, Haiti had made remarkable progress in the past few years, with 85 percent of the population displaced by the 2010 earthquake now in housing, infant mortality rates down, cholera cases declining and primary school enrollment (which isn't public or funded by the government) up 25 percent over a six-year period. Gang warfare in Port au Prince is on the decline, and United Nations Peacekeeping troops had been scaled back several times.

That was the good news.

According to the U.N. assessment, political instability is mounting as President "Sweet Micky" Martelly delayed parliamentary elections and students began demonstrating in large numbers against teachers who had gone on strike. In a recent visit to the United States, Martelly pledged elections in 2014.

Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is waiting in the wings. Once an American darling, he was later forced into exile, it is rumored, by the American military at gunpoint. A former Roman Catholic priest, Aristide returned to Haiti in 2011 and now has the support of the disbanded Haitian military.

Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, famous for his paramilitary Tonton Macoutes who brutalized the population, is also back after a long exile, though his influence has reportedly waned.

Of the two million Haitians displaced by the earthquake, 172,000 desperate people remained homeless in January. They are not hidden. The sides of the highway south out of Port-au-Prince are still lined with tilting cardboard and plastic shacks. Nearby, dry canals filled with garbage flood when the rains come, turning the slums into a muddy breeding ground for disease.

Not far away is the Marché de Fer, or Iron Market, the largest open-air market building in the country. The historic structure was rebuilt after the earthquake with $12 million donated directly by the Irish mobile phone billionaire who owns Digicel, the largest mobile phone service in Haiti.

It is one of the bright spots in the Haitian reconstruction effort, but the vendors selling their wares outside on the ground, beside the Route Nationale #1, give a snapshot of work that remains undone.

Out there, piles of lemons and mangos spill onto the same ground shared with rooting pigs, half-feral yellow dogs and women picking through opened bales of third-hand clothes that Americans have shunned at Goodwill stores and that have been sold by the ton to middlemen, then shipped to Haiti for resale.

Out there, men and women who serve as their own beasts of burden carry sacks of charcoal as big as Volkswagens on their heads and pull heavily laden wooden carts with wobbly wheels that look like leftover props from central casting for a PBS period-drama on the Middle Ages.

And there, the stick-legged and maimed survivors of either a natural disaster, such as the earthquake, or a garden-variety one, such as getting hit by a motorcycle, hold out their hands looking for a handout from people who have little or nothing to give.

Nestled among the honking horns, the swerving tap-taps, the RaRa music, the smoke from burning garbage, the vendors, gang bangers, and masses of people just trying to get by, white U.N. tanks stand watch in the traffic circles. The guns on their snouts point out at the proletariat, and the blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers stand by in full flak gear, guns at the ready.

With other fresh disasters across the globe, Haiti's problems have grown stale. The non-governmental organizations, the NGO's, were pulling out, including the effective ones. Private and government donors were weary. As of Wednesday, February 12, not one cent had been pledged to fund the humanitarian needs designated in the January U.N. report as crucial to stability.

With all this, it is easy to sum up Haiti as an occupied land of perpetual misery without a prayer in the world of standing on its own.

I wasn't so sure. It was a little too easy to write Haiti off.

On this trip I had noticed a powerful entrepreneurial spirit among many of the Haitians I encountered. One of our paid interpreters, Watson, had put together a Creole language study guide to sell to the foreign aid workers he translated for. The money was helping put him through school. Another interpreter, Robenson, had started a cinema in one of the two rooms in his house. His wife sold snacks to movie-goers. From professionals to students to street vendors to art gallery owners, in Jacmel and Leogane and even in the mountains, there was a youthful, energetic, creative vibe. The desperation of two years previous was still there, but muted, and I was becoming acquainted with Haitian pride.

The most obvious example of it was in Haitian dress. Appearance mattered and denoted more than cleanliness; it denoted social rank. Schoolchildren wear uniforms, women wear dresses, nurses wear crisp white uniforms, men who work dirty jobs are likely to show up in clean work clothes, those with professional status routinely dress in pressed white shirts, ties, and trousers.

It must take considerable effort. They manage it in a country where running water is scarce and most laundry is scrubbed by hand, outside, in a tub.

Michael tells me that village women he has met on his many trips to Haiti often complain of washerwoman's elbow and aching necks from carrying basins of heavy laundry on their heads.

As to international aid efforts, sloppy coordination was a problem, according to the U.N., with overlapping and sometimes haphazard efforts diminishing the effectiveness of the aid offered.

At one mobile clinic where I helped prep over a hundred patients to be seen by clinicians, most were deemed healthy by the visiting doctors and not really in need of a clinic visit. That afternoon an unrelated NGO medical group stopped by for a look-see and there were rumors that a mobile clinic had been held in the same location the week before.

In Belloc, yet another NGO had come to the village to set up a micro-credit loan program for women. It had failed, according to Lavaud, in part because the loan amount wasn't enough to start a street-stall and in part because the village women hadn't come up with particularly good business ideas. They all wanted to sell used clothing and there simply wasn't enough of a market.

Another NGO wanted to build a stone wall around the Belloc school for no apparent reason with money that could be used for more important things, like making sure the students were fed. But aid money doesn't always work that way; sometimes food money and construction money don't overlap.

The discussion between Lavaud and other villagers dragged on over whether building the wall was the right thing to do and, if so, where it should go.

I wandered up a path, my eye caught by the flicker of an iridescent turquoise bird near a cluster of small neon-pink flowers and leathery plants that looked medicinal, though there was no one left living in Belloc that could tell me their uses.

I mused over the proposed wall. It wasn't clear why it was even wanted. Was it a status symbol? I couldn't tell. It seem indicative, on a very small scale, of larger aid efforts that had been bungled.

But Lavaud was thinking more broadly; building the wall could provide local jobs and that alone would benefit the community. He had hired local men to work on his house in Belloc, to build a small concrete bridge that spanned the ditch to it, to wash the rental truck in the village before he and Michael returned it to the owner back in town, even though the boys didn't do as good a job as could be had in Leogane.

Lavaud's focus was on building community pride in Belloc. He paid the school fees for several village children and collected money on a very small scale from his American friends to pay for other students to go to school, barely advertising his efforts on his website He brought small sums of Haitian money to the village and gave small amounts away and when it was gone, there was no more. Lavaud preferred to pay people for work.

Haiti needed to shed itself of its large-scale dependence on outside aid. That was his position, but he didn't shun all humanitarian aid efforts. There hadn't been a mobile clinic out to the village in a long while and he had been advocating for Belloc, pressing the American nurses and doctors who came down to staff roving health clinics for a week at a time to put the village on their list.

"Are these your kids?" I asked him, when the boys and girls circled around him for the second time. He bought them small snacks from the rickety stall next to the water station, told two of the boys to stop playing in the ditch, then asked his brother to slice open some coconuts with his machete so we could have some fresh coconut water.

"Are they nieces and nephews?" I asked again, with coconut water running down my chin.

"Yeah, they're my kids," he said, then clarified. "They're the community's kids. They belong to all of us."