During the first week of April 2011, I participated in a mission trip from The Gateway Church to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help rebuild churches and schools destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake. We had been planning to go the first week of December 2010, but election-related violence meant we had to postpone the trip. We almost didn’t get to go at all, because the final presidential election results weren’t announced until Monday, April 4, the first full day we were there. Thankfully, the popular candidate won, and we were able to do our work.
It’s been about a month since we left for Haiti, and it’s taken me this long to sort out my thoughts. Even now I don’t have a polished, unified story to tell, more a series of thoughts and observations: Pensées d’Haiti.
When Americans think of Haiti (which isn’t often) two things come to mind: poverty and voodoo. I can verify that indeed, these exist in Haiti. Of voodoo I have little to say, other than there was a temple near the church we were building, and I think its “darkness” is exaggerated. It’s just another false religion. The level of poverty is severe and certainly the worst I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen much) yet it’s not as bad as you might think. Let me try to explain.
Port-au-Prince is impressive in the sheer scale of its jumbled dereliction. Every day we drove a more or less North-South route across the city. In this city of 3 million, few buildings are more than three or four stories high, maybe because most of the taller buildings collapsed. Other than a few landmarks such as a large roundabout and a bridge across a dry riverbed, the street-side view was a regular stream of half-finished buildings and walls topped with razor wire separated from the road by narrow sidewalks where people sold all sorts of goods. I mean all sorts: tires, clothes, live animals, cell phones, fruit, little one-cent bags of water— anything the average Haitian would need. The people were probably better dressed than the average American and would look out of place in Walmart. Many of them were also carrying much more than the average American would. We saw women toting 42-pound barrels of water on their heads. One woman even had a tub of live turkeys. I hardly saw anyone I would describe as overweight. Haiti is full of strong contrasts, and one of the more surprising was between all the purposeful and well put together-looking people, the children in their spotless school uniforms, and the garbage and debris that was scattered everywhere. Dumpsters were placed at intervals beside the main road— and I do mean beside the roads, blocking the whole sidewalk, as if they’d been accidentally left there. Most were overflowing, and some were on fire. We saw one that had been hit by a vehicle and overturned, and rather than righting it, another was set beside it. Since garbage collection is spotty many people just throw their trash into the street, and when enough of it piles up and the pigs and goats have gotten all the goodies out, they burn it. The city smells of burning garbage and diesel exhaust.
It was hard to miss the election graffiti and posters that were plastered all over. Rather than put up one big poster, supporters instead put up row upon row of A4-size sheets until the whole wall was covered. Many walls along the main roads were simply spray-painted with “Votez Martelly #8” (Martelly was the eventually winner) and the names of other candidates. Incredibly, Martelly was spelled at least three different ways. Wouldn’t you know how to spell the name of your candidate? Most likely, the taggers were paid by supporters of the candidate and not exactly supporters themselves. We also saw “Preval + Jude = kolera” fairly often along Route Delmas. (Preval is the outgoing president, and Jude [Celestin] was his party’s candidate.)
Driving in Port-au-Prince takes special skill. It’s hard for an American to appreciate, but our driving customs are quite orderly in comparison. Imagine you’re driving down a narrow four-lane road like Grand Avenue in Des Moines, but it’s largest, widest road in the city. It’s 6 am but the traffic is almost bumper-to-bumper, since everyone gets up when the sun rises and it’s unsafe to be out after dark. There’s a curb down the middle of the road to keep people from just driving everywhere, so if you need to turn your have to do it at an intersection, which probably doesn’t have a light or turning lanes. Fortunately, with so many people on the road no one goes very fast, and you just kind of push and flow through the intersections, with a lot of honking so everyone knows you exist and you’re going this way, by golly. Motorcycles will pass you on both sides even when there’s practically no room to do so, but they’ll probably honk before they do it so you at least see them coming. Driving takes real skill and ideally a 4x4 with off-road tires, because only the main roads are paved. People walk along the narrow sidewalks right beside the road and right between cars when they want to cross.
Many people travel in tap-taps, which are brightly colored private taxis and buses that people tap coins against when they want a ride. Many are decorated with Bible verses and the larger ones often feature portraits of saints and black celebrities. One might have Saint Peter on the back, the next, Snoop Dogg. (Yes, we did spot a Snoop Dogg tap-tap.) They frequently have music blaring as well, and they reminded me of birds displaying for mates. I assume the gaudiness of the tap-taps evolved along similar lines as the peacock’s tail.
When charities solicit donations for the poor in places like Haiti, they often show despondent, dirty people in filthy slums, or starving children with flies around their eyes— people in need of immediate relief. In reality, such utter destitution is uncommon. Most people, even in earthquake-devastated Port-au-Prince, are capable of supporting themselves in some manner. As we traveled across the city, it was clear that most people were simply going about their business. Some of them were even smiling and laughing, like they were happy or something! For us it was our big Haiti Mission Trip week, but for them it was just another week. Scores of people sold a wide variety of goods on the street— tires, clothes, cell phones, fruit, little one-cent bags of water— anything the average Haitian would need. Some had whole buildings, others only a few baskets, but they were doing the best they could to make a little money. While only 20% of Haitians are officially employed, that doesn’t count these little sole proprietorships. Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in tents, and yet many of those same people have some source of income, clean clothes, cell phones… Even before the earthquake, housing seems to have been costly, and now because of the high demand for building materials it’s even harder for the average Haitian to afford. Cement is the primary component of most buildings in Haiti. The cement we poured for the church foundation cost $155/yd and went up to $185/yd when we were leaving, which is three to four times as much as it would cost in the U.S. Many people are also afraid to return to living inside cement buildings because of the earthquake, so you can see why so many continue to live in tents. I wonder what is being done to alleviate housing costs and I’d think some sort of 2:1 matching program where the charity contributes $2 toward housing for every $1 the Haitian person saves could go a long way. Unfortunately, it’s hard for most Haitians to save money since banks aren’t widespread. A city of 3 million probably has some financial institutions, but not many will want to bother with people who can only put away a few dollars at a time. (This is why microfinance is an important innovation.) When you consider the minimum wage is $3 a day and and a good wage is $5 a day, you can see why microfinance would be a useful tool for alleviating poverty in Haiti. It’s hard to buy lunch in the U.S. for less than $5.