I don’t know if there are adequate words to describe Cite Soleil. Poor does not even begin to cover it. Shocking would be another word if you’ve never before experienced or seen people living in abject poverty. Disheartening and incomprehensible also apply here. And that only begins to describe the physical conditions that the people who live in Cite Soleil must endure. The psychological, social and environmental impact is an entirely different story.
Danielle, Jamie, and I went to visit St Mary’s clinic at Cite Soleil – yet another outreach under the works of Father Rick. I cannot emphasize enough how truly incredible and wonderful this man is, for Father Rick saw a people suffering and did what any good-natured person would do. He recognized the health needs of a neglected community and decided to do something about it by building a clinic/hospital to serve them. And it wasn’t easy. In the early days of the clinic, the workers would arrive to find that materials and supplies were being stolen from the clinic, presumably from the needy in the community. Until the organization came up with a brilliant idea – work with the community.
Cite Soleil reminded me quite a bit of the “townships” that dot the landscape in South Africa – shanty towns where black Africans live, partly due to the historical segregation of apartheid but largely due to years and years of marginalizing poverty. Located within a stone’s throw of the ocean, Cite Soleil isn’t just another poor community in the world. Cite Soleil started as a workers camp to supply nearby factories with laborers. The area grew rapidly over the years; economic conditions drew job seekers from the Haitian country side to Port-au-Prince, and Cite Soleil steadily grew more and more poor. The boycott of Haitian goods in 1991 following the coup d’etat of then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide badly damaged the struggling Haitian economy, and Cite Soleil rapidly devolved into extreme poverty. Cite Soleil is now regarded as one of the poorest slums in the Western Hemisphere. That’s saying a lot for an area in a country where the average daily earning is already only $2 a day. Cite Soleil is also regarded as one of the most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere – the police have virtually no authority here. Though there have been several “battles” over the years with UN peacekeeping forces, Cite Soleil is still largely controlled by gangs. The gangs were stealing desperately needed materials from the clinic to give to the community. And it was that gang that Father Rick and his organization decided to work with and ultimately gained their support.
St Mary’s clinic is not a grand building like St Damien’s, it is simple and functional. The building houses a small pharmacy, a clinic, and doctors examination area. There are several wards similar to the ones at St Luke’s designed for future use as inpatient units as well as a cholera ward (which was virtually empty during the dry season). But St Mary’s is only the beginning of a story. Clearly improving the health of the residents of Cite Soleil did not stop at the clinic’s doors. Housing, it turns out, is critically important.
The typical “dwelling” in Cite Soleil looks much like this. Most of Cite Soleil is a shanty town, houses made out of corrugated steel and other scavenged building materials. I wish that my pictures were exaggerations or dramatizations of the actual conditions within Cite Soleil. The reality is that the above picture conceals much of the destitution – a place with virtually no sewers and a poorly maintained open system of canals that serve as a sewage system. A system that one can only imagine being completely overwhelmed during a hurricane or tropical storm even if it were well maintained. Having visited Cite Soleil, it is easy to see how an epidemic like cholera can continue to flare up in Haiti.
Amazingly much of Cite Soleil managed to withstand the devastating earthquake in 2010. But clearly these were not adequate conditions to ensure the health and safety of a community. Housing would need to be constructed to provide the residents of Cite Soleil with permanent, safe, and clean dwellings. Normally that responsibility would fall on the government, but the political instability so characteristic of Haiti makes that task virtually impossible. So Father Rick and his organization stepped in to fill yet another pressing need and has been helping the community build sustainable housing in the area surrounding St Mary’s.
We decided to take a tour of the new housing in Cite Soleil.
Each house costs roughly $9000 to build. The funds are given to the community to build the houses – community members decide which family will have a house built.
Once a house is built for your family, you are required to participate in building the next houses for future families. Electricity will eventually be provided entirely from solar energy (plenty of sun in Haiti!). And the difference between the old and the new housing is dramatic.
In addition, roadways and sidewalks will be built out of materials from the Presidential Palace and National Assembly that were destroyed in the earthquake (actor Sean Penn is very active in Haiti and a personal friend of Father Rick. He managed to have materials from the destroyed government buildings donated to Cite Soleil). To me, there is a beautiful irony in the knowledge that tile floors and broken porcelain vases once admired by the rich and powerful in Haiti will be used to build roads and sidewalks in Cite Soleil. In addition to houses, the foundation had also built a bakery – yet another micro-economy employing people from the neighborhood as well as providing fresh bread to surrounding residents. Any profit from the bakery goes back to support the clinic.
Naturally, a trio of white people walking through the neighborhood attracted some attention. My mother would probably kill me if she knew we had stepped into “the most dangerous area” of Haiti, and I’m ashamed to admit that this was the only time I did not feel safe during the week. In addition to numerous children, there were several men that followed us throughout our tour of Cite Soleil, and a few were asking us for money. I’ll also admit how heartbreaking it was to not be able to do more. The $5 bill burning in my pocket was just waiting to be given; in the long run, that $5 meant little to me but could be a lot of money to someone in this neighborhood. In the end, I learned that some of the men that followed us were in fact members of the gang who told the other men begging for money to leave us alone, ensuring our safety. I was dumbfounded.
The children were naturally absolutely adorable. I was again torn when one of them wanted a sip of the Coke I was drinking – I was told not to for it would most likely result in a frenzy. But I was struck with how resilient these kids were, surviving in a dysfunctional system. I was amazed that a gang, something in the United States we view only with contempt, managed to control an otherwise terrible situation. I can only hope that Father Rick’s work can lessen the dysfunction and build sustainable cooperation and roots within this community.
Here are a few of the kids from our entourage in Cite Soleil. The one in the middle was my favorite – striking a pose with a fedora… and no pants.