Heavy, loud, and concentrated. These are words I use to describe Haiti’s assault on the American senses. But its more than the intense atmosphere and lack of polish that keeps westerners away. People from developed countries are a rare sight in Haiti due to its poor security and lack of infrastructure. Those that come remain sealed off in walled compounds and are sped away in the relative safety of a tinted-window, 4-wheel-drive rent-a-car. The warnings of violent crime issued from behind the desks of those at the US embassy in Port-au-Prince are not unwarranted; kidnappings, robberies and murders of the wealthy do occur. But the situation here is one that requires vigilance and common sense, not paranoia and seclusion. For those of us who step beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone, the rewards seem endless. Investing in a good insurance policy is also recommended.
700 miles to the South-East of Florida, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Occupying the western third of the Island of Hispaniola, it is a microcosm of the world’s humanitarian problems: unclean water, lack of health care, environmental degradation and an economy in shambles. These problems are interdependent and where solutions are brought about, new troubles emerge. As the nation’s fragile new government slowly takes hold and security improves across the country, Haiti is opening a new chapter in its restless history.
I left Port-au-Prince with my interpreter Romel the day after I touched ground, though I would return later to spend several days there. My thinking was that as the capital is the most unstable part of the country, and I had a greater risk of having my camera stolen there, I would prefer to have that happen after I had at least a week’s worth of images safe and backed up. Riding the crowded tap-tap (public bus) to the North, our destination was the city of Gonaives. Despite Haiti’s small size, (its area is comparable to that of the State of Maryland) traveling from one end to the other by tap-tap can take an arduous 48 hours. I decided to break the journey to Gonaives in the valley town of Mirebalais. Click the map below to trace the route of my journey.
We were fortunate to arrive in Mirebalais on market day, when people come from the town and surrounding countryside to sell or trade their goods while stocking up on needed supplies. Despite its bustling streets, people in Mirebalais like Etide Francois (shown below in her sewing shop) complained of low wages and not being able to make ends meet. Madame Francois’ story echoes national statistics. Over two-thirds of people in Haiti are unemployed or underemployed. Most people in Haiti have jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that income is being generated. Therefore, the term underemployment has come to best describe the economic disposition facing the majority. Many days may pass without a sale made or a service rendered. While more than 80% of Haitians live below the poverty line, I seldom encountered beggars on the streets.
Below, a woman named Yvette makes cornmeal near the market with the help of her daughters.
Though it was hard to judge at the time, the outlook in Mirebalais was brighter than in other parts of the country I was to visit. It seemed most people had electricity in their homes because of the town’s proximity to the same hydro-electric dam that supplies power to Port-au-Prince. Consequently, Mirebalais’ streets and shops remained busy well into the night. While most did not not have running water, communal water stations like the one seen below piped in fresh spring water from the surrounding countryside.
We were hard-pressed to find affordable lodging in town that did not double as a brothel. Luckily, a woman named Dada offered to put us up for the night in her home. That evening as I was editing photos in my room, much of the neighborhood came by to watch the town light up on my laptop’s screen. Some curious residents are shown posing below. We departed early the next morning for Gonaives.
Haiti was pounded by Hurricane Jeanne in September 2004. The damage was particularly severe in the port city of Gonaives. Rushing water from the passing hurricane emptied off the mountainsides surrounding flood-prone Gonaives killing over 3,000 of the city’s residents. The flood damaged every building in the town and left 250,000 people homeless.
Charles Luders, shown above, lives with his wife and seven children in the mountains that surround Gonaives. From his house you can see the entire town: the dusty hills that ring the city, the winding avenues that lead you through the cauldron of downtown until you reach the shoreline. Charles and his wife moved to the hillside 11 years ago. Moving to the outskirts of the city was the only way that they could afford a home and education for their children. “I have struggled a lot to provide a better life for my children than I have had” says Luders, who has made education a priority for his children. “With education you can make a life for yourself and earn a living.” Luckily, their move up the hill also allowed the Luders family to escape the destruction of Hurricane Jeanne. While they experienced mudslides and minor flooding in their home, the heavy rains had a far-worse impact on the downtown area.
Like the rest of Haiti’s countryside, the hills surrounding Gonaives have been stripped of the trees that once enlivened them. In fact, 98% of Haiti’s original tree cover has been lost due to the common practice of harvesting trees for lumber and charcoal. Neighboring Dominican Republic passed laws back in the 60’s outlawing commercial logging. Haiti followed suit by outlawing logging by unauthorized individuals but was never able to enforce such measures. Today, Haiti’s lumber regulation consists only of educational programs and minor replanting efforts instituted by the Ministry of Environment. Knowing the lack of trees in his neighborhood causes increased soil erosion and exacerbates flooding downtown, Luders and his neighbors have made an effort to plant trees throughout the neighborhood.
Although the residents on Gonaives’ hillsides have managed to escape the worst of the city’s flooding problems, the outlook for some appears no less bleak. Sylvia Hertel sells vegetables in the market while her husband is a tap-tap driver. She is shown above with three of her children (youngest to oldest: Wilson, Kenkenn and Dieukinet). Her and her husband’s combined income is not enough to send their four boys to school and two of them have had to stay home this year.
During my interview with Sylvia Hertel I noticed one of her boys, Dieukinet, had a nagging cough. Sylvia, rather gaunt herself, explained that two of her sons, Dieukinet (above) and Kenkenn are kept up in the night with coughing, fever and sweats. My interpreter Romel, himself a medical student, suspected the children of having Tuberculosis when Sylvia stated that they have been coughing up blood. Even though Haiti lacks universal health care, government hospitals will treat anyone diagnosed with TB without cost. Stressing the urgent need for care, Romel and I made arrangements to meet the family the next morning in order to accompany them to the hospital and cover and any fees that are incurred. (They didn’t show.)
Down at the waterside, Goniaves’ port is bustling as a handful of rusty freight liners and a shell of an American school bus lie grounded along the shore. It seems only the old wooden sail boats, some propelled by motors, continue to traverse the waters. The boats bring in goods from around the country and some goods from afar. As workers unload large oblong bags of charcoal from ships by the hundreds, buyers come to haggle with the managers. The charcoal sold here comes from the North-West province – places like Bombadopolis and Anse Rouge. As in much of the developing world, in Haiti charcoal is made from wood and is used for cooking in every household, street-side eatery and many restaurants. Imitating a practice begun by European colonists for the expansion of agriculture, residents obliterated Gonaives’ surrounding forests long ago. As demand for charcoal and lumber continues, new sources must be found further afield.
Above center, Tifamm Val, 30, has sold charcoal in the market since she was ten years old. Below, lumber vendors await a sale in Gonaives’ market district. With the exception of a couple of small protected (not necessarily enforced) areas, wood is free game in Haiti.
50 kilometers north-west of Gonaives, the town of Marmalade is the hometown of Haiti’s president, Rene Preval. Surrounded by brown, barren hills, Marmalade is an oasis of waterfalls and shade below towering trees from the blistering sun . Lush as it may be, Marmalade is the origin of the charcoal sold by an old woman on the street just outside my hotel in Gonaives. As Marmalade was only two hours away, I decided to make a day trip of it.
There I encountered what I had set out to find; though they weren’t the ruthless tree-choppers with gnashing teeth that I had expected. Charcoal makers worked all over the hills surrounding Marmalade, most of them on their family’s plot of land. Like other poor farmers in the area, Fritznel Silvain, harvests trees from his land, buries them under limbs and brush to keep the air out, and sets the mound to smolder. The process is a tricky one and if any oxygen gets inside, the batch is lost. Mr. Silvain has made a business out of selling charcoal to restaurants in Gonaives for the past two years. Between his charcoal business and growing bananas, he is able to provide for his family of five, as well as the two children (shown below) of his deceased brother and sister-in-law.
It should be mentioned that the FAO, (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) has a small office in Marmalade. They are responsible for environmental education and replanting efforts in the area. Despite their presence, Mr. Silvain, shown below, has never been contacted by anyone from the FAO or the Haitian government concerning his charcoal business.
Back in Gonaives, UN soldiers patrol the dusty streets where revolution flows in the blood of the city. It was here that Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. Exactly 200 years later, gangs opposed to the authority of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began an uprising that led to the leader’s ouster. Gonaives has seen a return to near-complete calm in recent years and appears at peace with the Preval administration.
It seemed like the Haitian government was taking a proactive step in preventing another Jeanne-like catastrophe. In February of 2006, private contractors commissioned by officials in Port-au-Prince began to construct a series of gutters and canals throughout Gonaives to channel floodwaters pouring from off the surrounding mountainsides. Entire roads were shut down and bulldozed to make way for these massive canals. Somewhere along the way, officials forgot to finish the project; or perhaps more likely, used the funds for personal expenses.
Begun nearly two years ago, today these would-be canals dotted throughout the city are giant cesspools where people throw their waste and where mosquitoes breed. They stand as giant pools of filth and stench. Unconnected to any drainage network, the pools stand idle, save for the occasional passer-by falling in.
The canal that runs down what was once Vernet Street seems the most egregious of them all. Vernet Street borders Gonaives’ central market to the north. The Vernet canal bisects the former roadway leaving a small sidewalk on each side for the busy market traffic to negotiate. On the south side of the canal, waters run nearly to the doorsteps of houses and shops, climbing into the dwellings during the rain. Harold Previse, 31, who sells mattresses on the south side of the canal is especially incensed over its presence. Up until 2006 he owned a shop on one Gonaives’ busiest streets. Now he sits within two feet of the rank sewer and business is no longer booming: “My business has decreased since this was installed. No foot traffic, no tap-tap, no cars. So no one can see my business.”
Along the same block, a group of bored Haitian youth hang out on their doorsteps, most sporting white t-shirts. Among them is Desmite (above left), whose front doorstep faces the canal. Asked how life has changed since the building of the canal, he complains of flooding in his home and subsequent health problems for him and his family: fever and diarrhea and other digestive problems. Desmite goes on to tell that he sees people fall in the canal daily, especially at night as there are no streetlights to illuminate the area. As the canal is over 8 feet deep, several have even lost their lives doing so.
It seems officials have already forgotten about the destruction of hurricane Jeanne. Gonaives’ drainage system has remained incomplete for nearly the past two years and is now a ticking time bomb waiting to unleash squalor and sickness throughout the city at the next passing hurricane.
At the port, the bawdy seafaring mob continues on as it has for centuries past. The women smoke tobacco pipes as the dockworkers load sugar cane into old sail boats. An itinerant preacher bathes along the shore while calling out to the indifferent crowd for repentance. After washing his hands of them he moves along. I left Gonaives with a feeling that a force majeure more imminent than the Judgment was at hand.
Busy, chaotic Port-au-Prince has one foot in the door of progress. The other one will take a while to catch up. Take for instance trash cans. More than just a novelty here, they actually exist on street corners for people to dispose of their garbage. Furthermore, they are collected regularly. But that’s only for some neighborhoods. The automatic weapon-toting police presence on the street is also a sign that Port-au-Prince is entering a new era, however sluggish. Though many officers are more interested in flirting with women or trying on sunglasses than walking the beat, their actual presence on the street is something not seen a year ago. Even once impenetrable neighborhoods like Cite Soleil have shown improvements in security. This week Doctors Without Borders announced it was turning over operations in the dangerous seaside slum to the Haitian Ministry of Health due to the improving situation there. However, the announcement came back to back with a plea from President Preval to gang members that they may release child hostages and cease abductions in the city. Violent crime, while still rife in the capital, has decreased significantly in the last year.
Like many capitals in the developing world, Port-au-Prince has seen an influx of migrants from around the country, drawn by its wealth and infrastructure. Makenson Pierre (below left) is known by his peers as Baby. He left his home near the market in Gonaives several months ago to come live on the streets, taking his place along side what UNICEF counts as 7,000 other street children in Port-au-Prince. Baby looks to be around 9 or 10 years old, but he doesn’t know for sure how old he is; he’s never been in school or celebrated a birthday. The street kids always travel in numbers here for protection. Older boys often prowl the streets looking for kids to beat up just because they can get away with it. Baby admits that life in Gonaives was much happier for him, but he won’t return: “I won’t go back home because my mother cannot help me.”
A middle class was ubiquitously evident for the first time in Port-au-Prince. In Plaza Champ de Mars, just a block from the presidential palace, primary school children in uniform play on the steps while couples clad in business attire take an evening stroll. Men gather every evening under the shade of a large oak tree and form several circles debating politics. Listening in on their conversation, they are infuriated by the state of their country and the corrupt practices in the government ranks. Below, a man known as Petit Marx (hat) who spent several years in Cuba, argues the advantages of a communist system.
Port-au-Prince seems stricken with an identity crises. It is the most economically prosperous and at the same time the most crime-ridden place in the country, home to a large middle class but also home to one of the largest slums in the hemisphere. Yet as I watched the men debating politics in the park, or the youth painting a street mural on the eve of World Aids Day (see below), I encountered a spirit that I had not witnessed in other places in Haiti: an unyielding passion for change and the dedication to make it a reality.
…with thanks to Guillet Adolphe.