by Wanda Sabir
Rea Dol and Dodo were at the airport with a sign with my name when I arrived. We then headed to the building site, where a wall is going up around the perimeter. [Rea is the principal of SOPUDEP School in Port au Prince, founded as part of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s National Literacy Project, and she’s building a new school to replace the one that was damaged in the earthquake.]
When I left six days later, it was about a third completed. Students and family members, as well as employees, are up early at the site working. Occasionally volunteers and other important visitors like former mayors also drop by to speak to this wonderful, dynamic woman, Rea Dol.
If the last earthquake was 200 years ago, then it seems like it marked the end of slavery and the beginning of a Black nation. Does this earthquake signal something similar?
There’s no active government in Haiti. President René Préval is missing, and the people are on their own, literally, which could be a good thing, until one sees nude madmen walking down busy streets.
“What would happen if the person threatened someone’s safety?” my friend asked Thursday when we saw another nude man sauntering down the busy evening street. Just around the corner we saw a policeman. Would he have the training to handle such an incident? I can recall so many times in the San Francisco Bay Area where the mentally ill were beaten and sometimes killed because police used excessive force in responding to calls for help.
What systems are in place in Haiti to handle the obvious shock and post-traumatic behaviors victims have experienced now that family and friends are lost, homes and possessions destroyed in an earthquake of a magnitude not seen in 200 years?
The Association of Black Psychologists made a recent trip to Haiti to take emergency relief supplies, but what of the short and long term psychological assistance to help the country heal? Are such conversations taking place and who will implement the resolutions?
California has earthquakes. Japan has earthquakes, Mexico has earthquakes, but not Haiti. Not in a long time. People didn’t know what to do: run outside or stay inside? Many ran indoors, while othesr already outside and clear of any falling masonry ran indoors to their deaths.
The structural integrity of a house and the safety of those inside also depended on whether or not one’s neighbor’s house was also stable. Many people I spoke to lost family to apartment buildings or houses nearby collapsing on them.
As we drove along Delmas 33, a busy thoroughfare in heavy traffic, a man stood on a leaning building relaxed, his arms holding a collapsed roof, his legs spread, feet on the porch just below – the entire structure, caved roof and housing tumbling down the side of the hill. It looked really unstable, yet there he stood, casually observing the traffic below on the street.
Driving along, Yvon looked up and asked the rhetorical question: Doesn’t he realize what danger he’s in?
In Cap-Haïtien I met a man in a store, a friend of my new daughter, Monica, who spoke of arriving home and evacuating his wife and two daughters. Afterwards the children were afraid to be indoors. They wanted to leave the country, so when he was able, he put his family on a plane to New York. Now he is alone working and sending them money.
Abel spoke of not having any money to go anywhere, living in his car until he got money for gas to drive to Cap-Haïtien where he is now working. He gave his wife’s car to a NGO working on earthquake relief.
Yvon said he’d put his car in a shop and the garage collapsed and there went the car. Insurance?
I could see the anguish in Abel’s face as he relived those moments. He spoke of how loud noises made him jump and how he often woke up from nightmares. When asked if he’d gotten any psychotherapy, he didn’t know where he might get such help. I told him I would connect him with some people I know in New York who might be able to help.
OK, so maybe mental health is not an immediate priority, because if it was there would be systems in place with access. On the other hand, perhaps mental health is a priority, but in a situation as chaotic as a country without leadership can be, perhaps folks are just trying to stay afloat until immediate needs like housing and food and water are met.
My hostess, Rea Dol, has teachers who are living on the streets and in their cars since the earthquake. I was happy I could leave my tent and sleeping bag, Imodium and toilet tissue. It wasn’t a lot, my resources are limited, but every little bit certainly helps.
Tuesday evening Rea and I went over to a collective consisting of nonprofit organizations like SOIL, which puts in toilets for people free of charge, and connected with Paul, a Haitian American, who brought her tents for those staff members who are homeless, along with shoes and a ball. He’d just arrived from Ft. Lauderdale that day. He spent the night with us.
I took some of the shoes the next day to Cap-Haïtien with BC or Junior, who lives with Rea’s family, Wednesday morning on the bus. BC’s from Cap-Haïtien and was excited to see his mother and brothers.
My daughter sent bubbles and Mardi Gras beads, necklaces and rings and crayons and coloring books and spinning tops and balls and tablets and pens and playing cards. The adults liked the party beads. We just wanted to take a little something to lift people’s spirits.
Considering the large amount of funds raised here in America, I expected people to have tents and support services three months after the earthquake, this Monday, April 12, 2010. How long does it take to put such systems in place?
In many neighborhoods, teams of people in yellow t-shirts sweep the streets, but to clear the debris one needs bulldozers, the kind that unconscionably are used to demolish houses in Gaza. In Haiti, though, the tractors and other heavy equipment would help people move on with their lives.
I have never lived in a place where the government supports random gunfire on citizens who do not support current leadership, but such happened in Cité Soleil in 1999 and again in 2004. It’s a community located on Haiti’s waterfront, what one might call prime property, yet there is no investment in the people before or since President Aristide. His government built a school and nearby started construction of apartment buildings which are standing. We didn’t know if they were occupied when we drove by, but they certainly did not suffer any damage.
The home of sugar plantations, the major factory was bought out a company which then closed it down and started importing the crash crop in the 1970s. At that time the company was a major anchor in the economy of the area. One can imagine the hit the community felt once it closed; also affected were the railways which transported the goods.
This reminds me of what happens throughout America when urban removal is the goal – urban removal a code word for Black removal – something that has been going on since 1865, the legal end of slavery. The only thing is, Haitians don’t leave their land or communities; they just hang on.
Cité Soleil, the infamous city – one of the largest ghettos in Haiti, with perhaps the country’s largest population in such a small geographical area – is also the place that has a love for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas movement, measurably so great, it makes the knees of the political machine quake. Target of raids where children, elderly and adults were killed, their bodies covering the sidewalks and hallways and staircases, bedrooms and homes.
The buildings looked like loofah sponges, bullet holes covering the entire surface, like pock marks. The holes were so distracting and distressing recent attempts to spruce up the neighborhood has had crews filling in the holes – I hear it looks better. Hm? But if one knows where to look, evidence of the war is still there.
It is here where infrastructure would be a good thing. However, if the political system is apathetic and ineffective, then complaining about the health and welfare of the economy and community would do nothing because the citizen’s review or complaint department is run by the very people committing the crimes.
For many Haitians it’s almost like, hm, I’ll do what I can without access to resources because I can’t wait for help, help is too unreliable, too costly – not just monetarily; it could be too time consuming – and too slow.
Rea Dol is rebuilding her school, Pastor Frank is rebuilding his school, one of 15, Regine Zamor is getting ready to open her center for street kids next week, Jean Yvon Kernizan is expanding his afterschool program from 86 to 300 served, So Anne prepares a meal for her community daily, people who are homeless and hungry.
I only saw one line for a food giveaway the entire week I was in Haiti. I saw a lot of people going for water at the spigot or creek a few times a day, young and old, with different size containers. Most folks didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity, but they were making do and doing very well at that.
I saw huge blocks of ice, yes, for ice boxes. I’d heard of ice boxes, but hadn’t seen one before. The charcoal I’d heard about, its use for heating homes and for cooking food, and the soil erosion from cutting down the trees to make the charcoal came to mind.
There are things good government supports like public education, public safety and public health. The Haitian government is falling down on all of these things; is this the reason why former U.S. President Bill Clinton is in charge of rebuilding Haiti?
Why can’t the grassroots organizers get the funds so they can mobilize their communities and rebuild Haiti themselves? How would Clinton know what Haiti needs or wants? Give the people the money and leave them alone.
The money will create jobs and provide incentives to those without hope.
Many of the people I spoke to mentioned how President Aristide’s presence would do much to lift the spirits of his people. If people knew President Aristide were coming, Jean Ristil, Cité Soleil activist, journalist, said, they would start cleaning up the streets now.
In a large field in Cité Soleil, earthquake displaced residents are swatting on privately owned land. If there were an infrastructure in place, government could compensate the landowner, so that he wouldn’t make the temporary residents on his land feel unwelcome – dumping mounds of rocks in the middle of fields near people’s tents – aesthetically uninviting and humiliating.
Did I mention the tents? More correctly all the people donating money to “worthy causes” like the Red Cross etc. – do not think for a moment I believe the Red Cross is a worthy organization, certainly not the United Nations – should have been told that the tent is a piece of plastic held in place with sticks in all for corners. I have never seen a shanty town, but I think Cité Soleil (Kreyol: Site Solèy, English: Sun City) qualifies.
“The vast majority of residents of Cité Soleil remained loyal to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas movement. Unlike Haiti’s unelected past governments, Lavalas governments invested money into parks, literacy programs and medical centers in Cité Soleil,” says Wikipedia.
This is a running commentary. I kept a daily journal and will post the day’s musings and photos here as well. The huge tent city is a potential disaster waiting to happen. Young girls might get accosted by predators, which has been documented by visitors.
I was heartbroken to see so many children trying to make a buck for a meal – washing cars as they waited at a traffic light. I am glad there are so many people, like Jean Ristil Jean Baptiste, 29, www.freewebs.com/koleZepol, and Rea Dol, www.sopudep.org, who care about these children, many in Cité Soleil, orphaned when the shootouts occurred and their parents were killed.
As I stood in line at Immigration once we’d landed in Ft. Lauderdale, I was talking to Sam, who was in Haiti to check on his family in Jacmel. He was telling me that he lost I think eight relatives in the quake and was looking at rebuilding the family home at minimally $40,000. I told him about Constantine Alatzas, Institute for Creative Evolution: Tools for Peace, who is working with Rea Dol in designing a sustainable structure for her new school. The key is AERBLOCK, a light weight material which is earthquake and flood or hurricane resistant used in the designs proposed by Alatzas.
As we speak, I happen to mention the people I visited this past week, one of them Jean Yvon, and Roselene in the line just ahead of me says, Jean Yvon is my cousin. I’m like wow. Well, Yvon is Rea’s friend. Both Sam and Roselene know Yvon, but not each other. I give both of them Yvon’s information as well as that of Constantine. Sam also knows Jen and the project she has with kids with cameras.
Talk about small world. As I travel the African Diaspora, I am finding my role as facilitator of collaborations clear. It happened in Haiti, it happened in Dakar and The Gambia to a lesser degree, and it always happens here. I see connections which might not be obvious and easily connect the dots between people, organizations and projects. Not everything is followed up on; the people I am joining are very busy and always short staffed. But sometimes they do … at least I hope they do. However, even if they don’t, the idea that they are not alone in the community building processes is I’m sure a boost to morale.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com for an expanded version of Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m. and archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network, at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.