Hope amid Haiti’s rubble


There is a lineup of tired people waiting to see Ronald Andris in the public library foyer and a list written in red ink on the wall to remind the deputy mayor of priority tasks: recover bodies, identify victims, inspect buildings, fix the electricity and co-ordinate the throng of aid organizations that have infiltrated his city.

Mr. Andris doesn’t need a list to remind him of Jacmel’s troubles, which reel through his mind all day, and in Technicolor while he tries to sleep at night. When he gets a few moments of time to himself, he prefers to think about the unseen good the earthquake has done to his seaside town.

“The earthquake helped us to reconsider the relations between people, between each class and how we treat each other,” he says, standing beneath the frozen gaze of Haitian President René Préval, whose portrait graces the wall of the library foyer where the deputy mayor set up a makeshift office along with other local officials after City Hall collapsed.

 “The earthquake is a bad thing, but we have to build a new society where you have solidarity and more equality. … We can take the earthquake as the opportunity.”

It has been nearly a month since the quake crippled southern Haiti and a semblance of order is re-emerging in even the hardest hit cities - markets are bustling, banks are opening and in Jacmel, kids have reclaimed the cemetery as a place for kite-flying instead of mourning.

Day by day though, questions about the country’s future weigh more heavily; worries have begun to grow over what will become of an already feeble government once the aid and military organizations begin to withdraw, including the large contingent of Canadian Forces.

In Jacmel, the seaside city that has been known for decades as the country’s cultural gem, the realization has long dawned that the international aid fuelling the city is finite. So has the recognition that its society was broken long before the quake.

Leaders such as Mr. Andris are speaking out about the need to promote self-sufficiency if Haitians are going to negotiate a better future.

But their idealism rubs up against a deeply entrenched culture of dependency, one that non-government organizations say is a constant frustration. Allowed to persist, it threatens to sink the impoverished island to a new depth of desperation.

“We were in a catastrophe before this ever happened,” says Bob Davisson, an Albertan who runs the Jacmel-based charity Life Line Haiti, which has for years supported several schools and orphanages in and around the city. “My concern is the future.”

There are many who share that concern. For years, as Haiti’s problems slid on and off the international radar, the country has remained heavily dependent on aid organizations. Jacmel, with a population of about 50,000 people, is no different. Those with experience on the ground here say that in Haiti, to make progress, responsibility needs to be handed back to the Haitians.

“It’s not sustainable if we do it for them,” says Sarah Wallace, a 24-year-old Alberta native who has been practising midwifery and pre-natal education in Jacmel for more than two years.

Fluent in Creole, Ms. Wallace spent the days after the earthquake helping co-ordinate the mass of military and non-government aid flooding into the city’s overwhelmed airport. She has reduced her involvement in recent days in order to get back to her work. But she’s frustrated with both the flood of aid and the willingness of locals to rely so completely on it.

At Pinchinet, the packed soccer field that is now home to several thousand of Jacmel’s displaced people, the population has been swelling each day as word spreads that people living at the field get free food and medical care. Many families have joined the camp even though their homes are habitable. They’ll likely stay, development workers say, until the freebies run out.

Among Haitians, the destruction caused by the earthquake has raised doubts that they are truly agents of their own fate.

“The earthquake was a sign for everybody to be conscious of God’s strength,” says Dieucin Marcelin, the pastor responsible for Église Baptiste Stricte de Jacmel, the city’s oldest church.

Looking frazzled and rumpled with his shirt half tucked in, Mr. Marcelin stood Wednesday in the makeshift church he set up beneath a patchwork of tarps behind the historic 1845 building, which partially collapsed in the quake. It was branded with a red, spray painted circle with a dot in the centre - the mark of a condemned building in these post-quake days. He estimates it will cost $700,000 (U.S.) to rebuild his church. Just saying it out loud deepens the worry lines creasing his brow.

Across the yard, Helen Desir, a mother of four, spent the late morning watching two of her daughters braid hair. She shuffled her family into an abandoned building next to the church a few weeks ago when their home collapsed. Their new place resembles a windowless shed. Still, she managed to bring along her six-piece dining table and a sheath of plastic to cover the lace tablecloth. She salvaged birth certificates and a few pieces of china, plus the Bible, hangers for their clothes and a single poster bed.

During the day though, the family has no place to go. They stay in the yard behind the church lounging on pews, which is fine with Ms. Desir.

It keeps her close to God.

“Right now everybody’s living in a sad moment. Everybody has turned their lives over to Jesus,” she says, noting that she too believes the earthquake was “God’s work.” That widespread impression has been deepened by the government’s lack of visibility in recent weeks.

“The people in the government haven’t come to visit. The only people that have visited are the internationals,” complains Midi Jackson, a father of five and a businessman whose life is on hold until his family can find the means to move out of their neighbourhood tent encampment, Abri Pwovizwa Shelter, which is marked “temporary” on its new wooden sign, along Rue La Comédie.

“The government should be responsible for helping and providing,” he says, pointing out city officials “themselves are having a hard time.” Mr. Jackson says the only hope for recovery here is if the international community steps in with “a durable plan.”

Mr. Andris, the deputy mayor, concedes that point, but says it’s not for lack of want.

“We don’t control the city,” he says, glumly. “And we don’t wish for that.”

Asked what Haiti needs, wide-eyed bread maker Charles Julifet shrugs and says the decision was best left in God’s hands, a reflection of both Haitians’ deep religiosity - but also of their sense of powerless to guide their own destiny.

“What we want to happen might not happen,” he says. “When God makes a change for people, it’s always for the better.”