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It’s a 5.45 a.m. start today, to allow us to visit Port-au-Prince’s infamous shanty town Cité Soleil, before we fly to Jérémie in the south west of Haiti.
You don’t just walk into Cité Soleil – it’s a dangerous place on many levels, home to some 250,000 residents who live in acute poverty and amid great squalor.
Cité Soleil (‘Sun city’) has no sewers, virtually no police presence and constant issues with gangs, violence and kidnapping. In the days after the earthquake things became particularly bad after an estimated 4,000 of Haiti’s criminals escaped from the main Port-au-Prince jail which had been destroyed. Many came here and began to terrorise the locals.
Those at least are the headlines. We are to about discover a different face of the area, in particular its powerful sense of community.
According to Wikipedia, the neighbourhood was originally designed to house manual labourers for a local Export Processing Zone but quickly became a mass home to squatters who poured in from the countryside looking for work in the factories.
Over the past decade and a half conditions have worsened and the area has been called a “microcosm of all the ills in Haitian society”. The 12 January earthquake piled agony upon agony and several reports claim that it took nearly two weeks for relief aid to arrive in Cité-Soleil after the disaster.
We’re heading into the area this morning to give out some much-needed supplies, ranging from bags of rice to packaged foods. The trip has been set up by a remarkable woman – Caroline Sada (pictured below left earlier in the week with another of our group, local businesswoman Alessandra Carias and some local schoolkids), the Haiti-born Manager for Retail Operations for MAC Travel Retail Americas.
Appalled by the devastation, Caroline has raced back here to join us, not only in assisting the Hand in Hand for Haiti project but also in helping her home country get back on its feet. Poignantly, she will announce later in the week that she is leaving MAC to move back to Haiti to be part of the change that is so urgently needed.
As we drive through the inner-city streets towards Cité Soleil there are reminders everywhere of the events of 12 January. Building after building is flattened into ungainly piles of rubble, reinforced steel and dust. Many others are still standing but so precariously that they are not only inhabitable but very dangerous.
“We need help” says a message written in English on a wall between two heaps of concrete. “We need help… please,” reads another, the poignancy of its plea heart-wrenching.
A taptap (communal transport) drives past us carrying at least 20 people crowded onto the back of the wagon. “God is mighty” it says in brightly coloured writing. But many, even in this intensely religious country, must be questioning where exactly God was on 12 January.
Our vehicles pull to a halt on a street corner where we are met by Pastor Jean Fleury, a quietly spoken, immensely dignified man who lives here in the community and has emerged as a local leader of rare status.
There’s a large crowd of residents, mostly children, gathered around him to welcome us. The Pastor talks to Olivier in French and shakes all of our hands warmly.
[Left to right: Ed Brennan, Pastor Jean Fleury, Olivier Bottrie]
We’ve bought* around US$1,000 worth of supplies – enough, we learn later to last just one day. We are worried that it will seem like tokenism but the Pastor reassures us that the gesture is hugely appreciated – this will feed the community today and hopefully some other benefactor will help tomorrow.
The stench from the lack of sanitation is all pervading. Always bad, it has been aggravated by the earthquake which smashed many of the ramshackle dwellings.
We form a human chain with some of the locals to start unloading the truck. To my dying days I will remember the sight of Ed Brennan, the Chairman and CEO of the world’s leading luxury travel retailer, throwing boxes of aid around in this grimmest of environments. He wouldn’t want it to be highlighted but some things simply need to be said – how many other captains of industry would even dare enter this place?
Our job is done but there’s a further treat – this time from the residents of Cité Soleil for us.
A young man called Rene Gueldy comes to the front of the crowd, where he sits on the back of a chair and pulls out his guitar. He strikes up a Creole song (his own composition called Drame 2010) that sounds both mournful and optimistic. Caroline later translates part of the lyrics for me:
“It’s an occasion for all of us to rethink
And to realise that we are all one,
Let’s throw away any spirit of prejudice that leads to believe that we can’t bond and make a change”
When the kids around him join in the hauntingly beautiful chorus, it moves some of us to tears. Loosely it translates as:
“It’s more than two of our brothers who have fallen,
It’s more than two of our brothers who have passed away
Leaving family and friends in tears
We wonder when these tears will dry…”
[Note: A video of that performance will appear at www.TheMoodieReport.com in coming days as part of extended coverage of the Hand in Hand for Haiti Steering Committee’s fact-finding tour].
It’s time for us to go. For the residents of Cité Soleil, though, life in the most difficult of conditions goes on. I had been warned by a United Nations official on the plane into Port-au-Prince that this place was to be avoided at all costs. I think he was wrong. Not only does it need our help but we saw more human dignity in a few moments than you might witness in a lifetime in many westernised societies.
While the media focused on the looting that took place in Port-au-Prince in the desperate days after the earthquake, a different and largely untold story of humanity was taking shape in Cité Soleil, home to the poorest of the poor.
[*Note: All costs of the fact-finding mission in Haiti are being met by the Steering Committee members, not from donations].
[Note 2: You can donate to Hand in Hand for Haiti, a travel retail industry initiative to build primary school facilities in Haiti, via www.HandinHandforHaiti.com].