PORT-AU-PRINCE – For years, residents of Cité Soleil, have found themselves marginalized in a marginalized country as they attempt to find help.
Their lives have been upended as armed gangs have made the area a virtual no-go zone for much of the last two decades. After the earthquake, international aid organizations built a few camps here, but fearing for the security of their workers, many organizations have since pulled out, choosing to help Haitians in more accessible and safe locations instead.
Some aid organizations, however, have found a way to help residents of the area – by relying on community leadership to run small infrastructure improvement projects.
The scheme with which the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (better known by its German acronym THW) is trying to help is simple: supply the tools, technical knowhow and wages and let members of the community organize and carry out the work.
The key is finding a respected community elder who can organize the project.
“It’s a model that is becoming more popular with aid organizations,” said Peter Kussmaul head of the German government’s disaster relief effort in Haiti.
In the case of a small ditch-dredging project started on June 25 in Bois Neuf, a neighborhood of Cité de Soleil, the community elder was 35-year-old Pastor Johnny Bonhome. Born and raised in the area, the assistant Pastor has the clout to mobilize the workers, the authority to orchestrate their efforts and the necessary trust from the community to guarantee that the hard work will result in fairly distributed wages.
The meeting set up to organize the project was short and to the point. Kussmaul and Pastor Johnny were clear on what was needed to make the blocked drainage ditch work again.
“We start tomorrow. 1000 Gourdes [~25 dollars] for 20 men who are willing to work five days a week,” said Kussmaul and shook Pastor Johnny’s hand.
Kussmaul had distributed enough pitchforks, shovels and wheelbarrows for workers to dredge and clear a small wastewater ditch on the edge of the zone.
Bois Neuf is a desperately poor community of about 8000 people in Cité Soleil. It reaches from Rue Soleil, the main thoroughfare, to just about 300 yards from the ocean. Though it is slightly less crowded than neighboring zones, flooding, especially during the rainy season, is a big problem.
Small projects like the ditch-clearing efforts allow members of the community to improve their own infrastructure, while injecting the community with cash and a few valuable tools, according to Kussmaul.
Pastor Johnny explained that he has been trying to help his community any way he can. In 2007 he started lobbying aid organizations for help. He wrote letters and showed up at aid organization offices. Finally, he said, the American governmental organization, USAID, listened.
“All I told them is that they should visit the zone,” he said. The visit resulted in a new road running through the community, according to Pastor Johnny.
When aid organizations do come to the neighborhood, Pastor Johnny acts as liaison between them and the community.
Pastor Johnny’s matter-of-fact description of his trying to lure aid to where it is arguably needed the most belies the notoriety of Cité Soleil, often called the worst slum in the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Smith Lyron, the Haitian THW engineer providing technical expertise for the project, grew up in Cité de Soleil, not far from Bois Neuf. He explained that while the area has been impoverished and dangerous for decades, it descended into outright lawlessness in the mid-nineties.
“The gangs were handing out guns to kids,” said Lyron, “no one here was safe.”
According to Lyron the controversial military presence of the UN blue helmets under MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) command has helped make the area slightly safer – though not safe enough for many international aid agencies.
“For now they’ve put away the guns,” he said, referring to the many gangs of the area “but they are not disarmed.”
Before the project began, the ditch – which was built years ago to help keep the area dry and carry out much of the community’s sewage – was so overgrown that it had ceased functioning. A job that would take 20 men a month to complete was left undone, because the few resources and organization required were not available. The clogged ditch resulted in flooding of fetid wastewater on an almost daily basis during the rainy season.
A week after the tools, promise of wages and technical know-how had been delivered, the men of Bois Neuf were hard at a work, knee-deep in muck. Under the hot mid-summer sun, they were using the shovels, pitchforks and their bare hands to clear the ditch. Progress had been made: the filthy water, which just a week before stagnated, now moved towards the ocean.
“They’re really doing good work there,” said Kussmaul, who was pleased with the progress of the project.
The lands around the ditch were dry, despite the previous night’s heavy rainstorm.
Litamène Delva lives with her daughter Théofil Dieula in a tin hut, just feet from the ditch. She was surprised to find that her tiny plot of land, on which she grows cane, corn and plantain to feed herself and her daughter, was not flooded.
“Usually the water goes to here,” she said, gesturing to about six inches above the earth.
Pastor Johnny is quick to point out that dredging the ditch is just one minor item on his list of things this impoverished community needs. The biggest priority is the building of latrines. “Right now many are forced to do their business any place they find,” he said.
With THW leaving Bois Neuf after the successful completion of the project, Pastor Johnny vowed to keep knocking on doors of aid organizations, trying to find an organization that was willing and able to help.