by Amy Watts and Manuel Padilla
Haiti Project Co-coordinators
A warm hello from Port-au-Prince! We sit here, writing to you from an enclosed porch at the house of our friend Gigi from graduate school, watching the rain pour down in sheets and enjoying the gust of fresh air that comes as the storm front descends upon the city. Gigi is Haitian-American and is the Country Rep. for Trocaire in Haiti, the Caritas of Ireland. We are fortunate to have her hospitality and the refuge of her house, its richly flowering bushes and trees, its two cats and new puppy. In Haiti, the direct link between an environment, dulcet, and the space for one to think and work can be keenly felt. But the definition of these transforms over time, the more time one spends here. Where one finds a moment of harmony, engagement, vividness, familiarity, brother and sisterhood is fluid, varied, abundant. Looks are not exactly deceiving, but they are not defining.
We feel like we should always answer the implicit question on people’s minds, to the best of our ability, “Has anything changed?” We are coming to feel that what constitutes evident change in Haiti, but especially in Port-au-Prince (PAP), must be reexamined to a degree. It is a mistake for anyone to judge Haiti by the standard of Port-au-Prince. This city is iconic of many things, and that is the danger. Where it is appropriate, and natural, it is also unfair and myopic to look at this country only through the prism of contested ground, the epicenter of competing visions, processes, and potentialities. The way out for PAP is slow; some changes are seen and some are heard.
There is a new customs area in the airport, very much resembling what one expects landing in a foreign country. We have seen, for the very first time, a completely paved section of road, small but striking. There is a new tourism magazine called Magic Haiti. Many of the more visible camps are completely gone, in Champs de Mars, around the airport, and in Petionville. The presidential palace has been completely dismantled and one of the poorest neighborhoods in PAP, Jalousie, on the mountain just above Petionville, has a bright new coat of paint over its tenuously placed, fragile structures. Well… at least a few of the houses are painted, drawing a stark contrast between the flashy yellows, blues, greens, and oranges and the rest of the hillside, dull concrete grey. Billboards proclaim the theme ‘Beauty over Poverty’. Are these indicative of change?
On the street we hear talk of the failure of the Martelly government from more and more people while ‘election victory’ celebrations are carried out by the office of the president. We hear, on the radio, piercing criticism of the structure of development in Haiti, still only 10 cents of every dollar being felt by the average person. We hear the story of the evolution of Haitian art and how its unique aesthetic is more and more closely driven by commercial considerations, creativity born of necessity. We hear that the less-seen camps are growing bigger as those who were in more visible locations were pushed out or given a year’s worth of rent in another part of the city if they would leave. No one knows what happens after the year is up. We hear that Martelly’s cousin, Richard, owner of the famous Olefson Hotel, has resigned from his position out of frustration with the corruption taking place. We hear the Managing Editor of the paper Haiti Progres was gunned down in front of his home. We hear Haiti has made it back onto the tourism index, although it is at the bottom. Are these indicative of reality?
What we know is what we experience working with Pax Christi PAP and what we can catch in listening to others of their efforts, their perspectives. Indications of change, of progress, of reality come to us in both Polaroid and chronic exposure. At this stage, it still feels as though determining change is less reading indexes, more reading tea leaves. There is an art to it. What we know is people are struggling, there is passion, there is quiet determination, there is a matter-of-factness in the attitude of locals working for justice here. It is not a matter of if, but when. Finally, we know it is important not to try to dissolve the tension and the incremental nature of Haiti’s path.
What is growing in Cite Soleil is participant of this tension and voice in the chorus of competing ideas for Haiti. But we feel it is special in that SAKALA, like Haiti, has made a decision: that they will not live under someone else’s dream. They are living their own dream and working harder than ever to make that dream a reality. They are building what Pope Francis has recently called a ‘Culture of Encounter’.
We are thrilled to have the opportunity to spend 5 weeks with the staff and kids of SAKALA in Cite Soleil. We’ve been here 2 weeks so far, collaborating on behalf of Pax Christi USA, and have much to report on our work with Pax Christi Port-au-Prince. Look for more reports in the next several days and the weeks to come.