Listening rather than imposing development, Cite Soleil Haiti model

Stephen LaFrenie

I sit on the board of directors for a Canadian Charity called Third World Awareness. This is an excerpt from one of our post project reports. Feel free to visit the web site and explore further. There will be more stories based on Haiti to come.

In Port au Prince there is a large slum known as Cite Soleil. This is an extremely impoverished area, perhaps the worst in the Western Hemisphere. It is made up of two to three hundred thousand people living in a swamp area filled with garbage and open sewage. The people live in small hovels with little or no running water, no toilets, no jobs, and very few children can afford to go to school.

On the first trip to Haiti in 2003 we connected with a small school there run by an organization known as Action Chretienne pour Development. This organization is administered by three volunteers who run two schools in Cite Soleil with a total population of 440 students. The Administrators are Joel, Willy, and Jean-Marcel. We have brought school supplies for the children but we also undertook, in 2004 to assist in the rebuilding of a kitchen facility with the hopes of starting a regular meal program there. Most families in Cite Soleil eat only a few times a week and most, if not all, the children study without having eaten for days at a time. There is a woman who lives across from the School who cooks for the children but they must pay a small fee according to what they eat. 5 gourds for a small plate, 10 for a larger portion etc. Many children cannot afford even this meager fee and so do not eat. School costs money in Haiti and the slums are no exception. The Haitian government will tell you that school is free and mandatory and technically this is true. The problem is they don't have enough schools and they don't provide teaching materials. Students pay for their books, uniforms, food, everything. There is no real infrastructure to pay teachers so many schools rely on volunteers. The school has no lighting except what little bleeds through the windows. There is a small dedicated group of teachers there doing what they can but they are dealing with worsening conditions. Teachers often go unpaid and as a result occasionally do not show up to teach because they have found temporary work elsewhere and cannot afford to turn it down. They return however when this work is done to continue teaching. After completing the kitchen in 2005 we undertook to expand the project and help renovate the existing building on the new land so that the school could leave the rented facility they were presently in. The original plan was to renovate an existing kitchen facility inside what was then a rented building. We were informed later that the kitchen would be built in another school and not the existing building. The Administration had explained that they did not want to build the kitchen in a rented building in case they were evicted after making the improvements. They went to the community and parents and collected the down payment on a new piece of land half a block or so from the rented school. The Administrators told us that the landlord of the existing building had evicted them after demanding that they buy the existing school building for an extortionate price of $20,000.00 (US). This purchase was impossible and the building is not worth that price. A deal was struck between the landlord and the Administration which allowed the students to stay in the rented school until we could renovate the new facility. The building still has mortgage remaining with a deadline of December 2006 to complete the purchase. The challenge of the food program remains as the Administration has decided that it is more important to have their own facility owned by the community which will allow them to dedicate future resources to the children and a future food program. They would no longer be at the mercy and whim of landlords and outside influences. This was not an easy choice to make. We do not have the funds to accomplish both at this time and they have no other sponsors within the Haitian or International community. They do not have the "connections" needed to gain access to international food aid. The school community continues to struggle in near isolation.

We all know of the violence in Cite Soleil but there is more to the community than this. Something that main stream media and other sources do not report on and we would be unjust to not include it here in our report. Third World Awareness has local gang permission to work at the school site and we are safe from harassment so long as we are with the school administrators and remain within the school neighbourhood while we are inside Cite Soleil. The head Administrator, Joel Janeus is a respected and well known community leader and commands the respect of local gang leaders. Our group members visiting or working at the site in Cite Soleil on any given day could add up to fifteen people. Mixed religions and races. With the exception of May'05 when we were asked not to walk around unescorted we have moved freely within Cite Soleil and neighbouring Simon Pele. We have seen the evidence of violence, bullet ridden schools, destroyed buildings etc. including the sound of gun battles going on in other sections of the community.

This year we continued the construction of the school compound and hired the same work crew as the year before with a few extras. The exception to this was Jimmy who worked with us the year before after working only for food until we found enough money to put him on the payroll. This year though he didn't show up on the first day and no one knew where he was. He did not show up on the second day and the school administrators had to decide what to do. It was decided that he would have to be replaced. I was approached by two young men appealing for a job. We do not interfere with the hiring and it is the Forman's job and the administrators job to hire the crew. I was moved though by what one of the young men said to me. He explained that it was time for the killing to stop and that he wanted to work and not pick up a gun. It was time to start building he said. I wanted to hire him right then and there but couldn't. Two friends competing for one position. All I could do was suggest that they talk to Joel the lead administrator for the school. As it turned out Joel hired the young man and his friend offered to volunteer. We have always had several volunteers from the community who come to work on the project. We pay a fair wage by Haitian standards, $100.00 Haitian/day for crew, $150.00/day for brick layers and $200.00/day for the foreman. This was not our suggestion but their request. We could have hired more for less but we would rather hire only seven guys and pay something worth while rather than 20 guys and pay them essentially nothing.

The next day we ran into Jimmy outside the school. I asked him what had happened and that we had a job for him but couldn't wait. It was explained that he was with his father who had been sick in his home town and couldn't make it before now. We talked with Joel but there simply wasn't enough money in the payroll to hire him and we couldn't take the job away from the young man we had hired the day before. When this was explained to Jimmy he didn't miss a beat. He said he wanted to volunteer anyway and took his shirt off and went to work immediately. Laurent is another of the volunteers who had helped on the kitchen the year before. He has no fingers on one hand. He explained that his home had been invaded a few years before by gang members who threatened to kill his family if he didn't give them money. He had none so in frustration one of them cut off his fingers with a machete. This did not stop him from working with us carrying buckets of cement, rubble, climbing ladders and so on throughout the two weeks we were there. Anytime he saw someone tire he would jump in and relieve them. Toward the end of our two weeks there he approached me and explained that he wanted to go to high school. Scholarships are part of our mandate and this we could do for him so this year he is going to high school. Not because of generosity or charity on our part. This man earned every cent of it and more. Another young man named Leger is about 23 years old. He not only worked dedicatedly as part of the paid crew but then after a full day’s work volunteered for the school helping the students and administrators. He is a regular volunteer throughout the year.
The teachers at the school work for next to nothing and volunteer when the teacher's pay runs out which happens regularly. The administrators work completely for free.

A Teacher’s salary, when available, is $600.00 Haitian dollars per month which is about $80.00 US. On the last day we sponsored a meal for all the 280 students at the school with money raised by two of our Canadian volunteers, Anneka and Grant who have a group called "For the Love of Haiti's Children". Local women came out to help prepare and serve it with only a request that we consider one of their children for sponsorship to go to school. We also had a basketball challenge. The school put together a team of young men who played our Canadian basketball enthusiasts. We walked from the school to a local basketball court about ten or fifteen minutes away. People came out from the community and we had about two hundred people watching as Cite Soleil beat our asses decisively 26 - 16. No one hassled us, no one asked us for money. Cite Soleil was relatively calm for the whole time we were there. Everyone came out and had a good time. The young men on the Soleil team have recently sent us a message that we are welcome to return and have our asses kicked anytime in any sport of our choice. In the end it is important to keep perspective. We didn't build anything. The people of Cite Soleil did. We didn't feed anyone. The school community did. We just financed it and stayed out of the way. As for the gangs, well after talking to Joel and seeing that he and the other administrators were not getting paid decided that we were free to continue working. In point of fact I don't think I've ever seen a gang member come by the site but maybe I'm just blind to it. So let no one tell you either in the main stream media or any other source that Cite Soleil is a lost cause full of gangs and political violence, that there are no hard working people in Cite Soleil. There is a sleeping giant of prosperity and creativity in Cite Soleil waiting and longing to be set free.