When the earthquake struck on 12 January, the poorest country in the Americas was devastated. The world rallied, but not for long – much of the promised aid has not materialised. And while their government falters, many of the 1.5 million displaced Haitians are still sleeping rough…
Six months after Haiti‘s earthquake, the smell of death has gone. For a while it was on every street corner, a powerful reminder of the estimated 222,570 Haitians who perished. The dozens of aftershocks have also slowly subsided over the months, in frequency and intensity. These days a kind of ordinary life is attempting to reassert itself alongside the ruins where people still dig for bodies or try to shift the mountains of debris. How many of the dead are still under the rubble is unclear. But even now the bodies, as dried out as mummies, are being extracted in ones and twos, attracting small crowds when they are found.
In Port-au-Prince women have returned to their old pitches to sell vegetables and jeans, chickens and car-phone chargers. Near the city centre, the yellow tiled floor of a demolished church has become a football pitch for the local boys. In the ruins of the capital’s Catholic cathedral services now take place in the grounds.
Most of the 13,000 US troops who were dispatched to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the disaster have gone, their mission ended on 1 June. The paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, who helped keep order and guard food distributions, have returned to North Carolina. The hospital ships that provided medical treatment to thousands have gone back to their home ports. A few hundred soldiers remain involved in reconstruction projects or with helping to keep the docks that are Haiti’s lifeline running.
The scores of aid agencies that were either based here before, or rushed to the scene of the catastrophe, are now in transition from emergency relief to more long-term projects supporting the population in everything from food to sanitation. There are big agencies like the UN and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as church groups and tiny one-man bands. Cubans, Venezuelans and Israelis. Volunteers from Boston, London and Sydney. In the immediate aftermath the ranks of the International Medical Corps (IMC) were swollen by hundreds of volunteer nurses and doctors from across America, who came to work two-week long shifts to help Haiti’s medical services cope with an estimated 300,000 injured. Now the IMC is scaling back its emergency effort to concentrate on the primary healthcare support it provided to Haiti’s clinics before the earthquake occurred.
The camps for the 1.5 million who were displaced from 200,000 homes damaged by the disaster, have also been transformed. For most the nightmare of sleeping on the street is over. The simple shelters made from branches and bed-sheets have developed over the months into structures of scavenged wood that have filled up with plastic chairs and mattresses. Roads, alleys, whole neighbourhoods have been created. The new shanties occupy public spaces such as the Champ de Mars park in the centre of Port-au-Prince, close to the badly damaged Presidential Palace. They crowd in around the Neg Mawon, Albert Mangones’s statue of the idealised slave-rebel of the liberation struggle. These new communities have proper latrines and market stalls at their fringes and, in the Champ de Mars, even a giant screen provided by the government on which to watch the World Cup. At night, under the lights, the residents listen to local music – racine and kompa – or American hip-hop, drink rum and play noisy games of dominoes. Some watch television inside their shelters.
My first visit to Port-au-Prince was a month after the earthquake, the first of three journeys made to follow the lives of ordinary people in the aftermath of disaster. On 12 January this year, at seven minutes to five in the afternoon, a new reality was carved out in the Americas’ poorest nation. Even before the earthquake, three-quarters of this country lived on $2 a day or less. Unemployment and chronic underemployment stood at almost 70%. Haiti’s economy was already in reverse; its growth falling in real terms from 3.4% in 2007 to minus 0.5% in the year before the catastrophe. Haiti had no state-supported healthcare: no food security other than that provided by international aid agencies. If the country was at zero on 11 January, it is at less-than-zero now.
Not all of Haiti was affected by the earthquake, large areas were left untouched. But it struck in densely populated urban areas, in and around the capital which, with its large satellite suburbs, is home to almost 3 million of the country’s 9.8 million inhabitants. Even before the earthquake Port-au-Prince only had infrastructure to support 400,000. The citizens of this earthquake land continue to live with the consequences of disaster heaped upon disaster: houses destroyed or too dangerous to live in; rent inflation of up to 50% in available properties; sharp rises in food prices. Some had paid their rent a year in advance on 1 January. Their homes now destroyed, there is now no way of getting their money back. Their jobs and businesses have been destroyed. They have borrowed to survive from friends, from micro-credit companies and banks and from loan sharks, increasing already high levels of indebtedness.
On my first visit I go to the police station near the airport where the government has settled. Ministers sit at a long table on a raised dais participating in an apparently endless press conference shown on live television for the few who can watch it. As the months go on the government and the state, instead of being reimposed, retreats still further from the view of most Haitians. What ministries are accessible have nothing to say and precious little help or advice to offer.
By my third visit in June senior aid workers are complaining that there is still no plan for the country’s reconstruction. It is a complaint endorsed by the US senate, which last month received a scathing report written by the staff of Senator John Kerry on the rebuilding of the country, describing it as “stalled” by a lack of leadership, disagreements among donors and disorganisation. The government was bad before, one senior UN official tells me wearily – now it has all but disappeared.
But, faced with the challenges of rebuilding, it is not only the government of René Préval, elected in 2006 and once popular with the poor, that has faltered. Pledges of billions of dollars in aid from the international community remain unfulfilled, with only a fraction of the more than $5bn promised so far delivered. The delivery of crucial building materials has also been delayed. The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, set up under the chairmanship of former US president Bill Clinton, met last month for the first time.
The displaced in the camps have suffered most, condemned to a cycle of waiting without any visible end. Moise “Jerry” Rosembert is standing in front of a scrap of yellow-plastered wall with his spray cans. It is all that remains of a house. He thinks for a moment and then begins, with areas of ochre paint at first, and then blocks of white and blue and red. It is only at the end, as he sketches in outlines and detail, that it is clear to me what he is painting: an old man with a crying child wrapped in the Haitian flag. It is about “waiting” he explains. Jerry is Haiti’s best-known graffiti artist.
In the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, his response – painted on walls across the capital – became the emblem for the nation. A map of Haiti, imagined as a crying face with a pair of praying hands, it demanded: “Please Help Us.” Six months later Jerry’s new mural speaks of a different anguish: an angry frustration widespread among Haitians that, despite the huge emergency response in the wake of the catastrophe and the promises of billions, they have been abandoned. A desperate place before the earthquake struck, despite the brief moment of international attention it has become more desperate still. The smell of death may be gone but Haiti is still dying.
Claudine Souffrante, a pretty 17-year-old, has her right arm pinned to her abdomen. Her wrist has been grafted onto her stomach where a flap of skin has been peeled back and sewn on close to the joint with the hand. The graft will solve one of Claudine’s problems; sealing the gaping hole torn in her arm. Still there are four inches of bone missing where she raised her arm above her head to protect herself as she tried to escape from the College Classique Antoine Dupré when the roof caved in during the earthquake.
The block that hit her arm atomised a section of her radius, scouring out muscle and nerve endings. Now a British surgeon has his face to the wound, sniffing terrier-like for the odour of infection: “That smells ter-ri-fic!” exclaims James Simpson breezily, breaking up the word into its constituent syllables. “Gauze, please. No, I don’t want that pre-bandaging,” he tells the nurse. “Something cooler.”
It is February and we are on the Lope De Vega tennis courts in the badly damaged Delmas district of Port-au-Prince in a field operating theatre belonging to the aid agency Merlin. It is an air-conditioned tent, surprisingly well equipped. In spite of the local anaesthetic Claudine is moaning in pain. Before the surgical procedure, I had found her quietly reading the Book of Psalms on her bed in one of the ward tents. Then she had told me, in a barely audible voice, that since her first night of agony spent out in the open, her memory is damaged. It’s left to her mother Marie-Michelle, who is sitting outside, to tell their story.
Marie-Michelle has come to the field hospital in her Sunday best, a smart blouse and skirt and a straw boater tipped back on her head. She visits Claudine every day from the small country town of Pernier, taking four rides by tap-tap, Haiti‘s brightly painted taxi-vans. Because her house was destroyed, Marie-Michelle and her two other children sleep on the street.
In the first weeks after the earthquake street sleepers were a familiar sight, hundreds of thousands of them across the city and the countryside, lying shoulder to shoulder in the roads, junctions blocked with debris to keep out cars. Theirs were sleepless, fearful nights punctuated by aftershocks that rocked the buildings and quivered through the ground, followed by dazed dawns when damp bedding was hung out in the ruins, ablutions performed in the gutter and food cooked communally on fires of scavenged wood.
Despite the way she is living, Marie-Michelle Souffrante is fastidiously clean, sitting now on a terrace in the shade above the tented clinic. “I was at home in Pernier when the earthquake happened,” she recalls. “I had gone out into the street to see a friend when the shaking started. When I got back to my house, it was flattened. Totally flattened. The neighbours were saying they couldn’t see my children. I was screaming. They told me that Claudine was dead. They couldn’t find her. I was screaming that my life was over, if my children died.”
Then, remembering her daughter said that she might stay late at school, Marie-Michelle hurried there. “I ran. When I got there, I found her. Her arm was broken. She had been upstairs. When she saw other pupils running she ran too. The stairs broke while she was going down them. That’s when a block fell on her arm. She looked up and saw the school falling on her. With her other hand, the one that wasn’t broken, she held the broken one. But the school gate was closed. She hauled it open and got out to the street.” Claudine was lucky. Two other pupils died.
I ask Marie-Michelle what she does for a living. She explains that she was a street trader – a “Madame Sarah” as Haitians call them, the lowest form of trader – selling hand cream, sandals and jeans on a pavement not far from Port-au-Prince’s port. But one day when she was at the hospital watching over Claudine, she says, looters stole her stock from a collapsed lock-up where she stored it.
Marie-Michelle takes me to where she used to sell in Le Marché de la Croix-des-Bossales. It is a busy, filthy and chaotic place, a jumble of stalls, frenzied with activity. Lengths of chain, the innards of TVs and other broken electrical items are laid out in the street for purchase. As we get out of the car Marie-Michelle is suddenly frightened and asks to leave.
“This place is dangerous. It was dangerous before the earthquake. People used to rob and kill. Now there is more robbery and violence because people are so desperate.” She says government officials appointed to oversee the market would steal from the traders or insist on bribes to allow people like Marie-Michelle to operate.
“The money that paid for my stock in the first place wasn’t even mine, I borrowed it from a loan company,” says Marie-Michelle. “I needed to make enough to pay off the instalments. Because if you miss a month,” she explains gravely, “you have to pay them more.”
When Marie-Michelle talks about Claudine, I realise it is not just love that she has invested in her clever daughter. She hoped, too, that the girl, who has told me she wants to be a nurse, might lift the family out of poverty. It is a dream that has been shattered by her injury. “Claudine liked school and she was smart,” says Marie-Michelle. “I hoped that when she’d finished her studies, she’d get work. You know, I’m in difficulty. I thought she’d help me get out of it one day.”
A consequence of poverty is debt, a cruel cycle that insists that the poorest states and the poorest individuals must, in the end, pay more – through interest payments – than the wealthier for basic needs. Since the earthquake, the most impoverished country in the Americas has been the subject of an intense campaign calling for the forgiveness of its loans. But the huge personal indebtedness of Haitians is a largely hidden problem, on which no one is campaigning.
“The evidence is anecdotal,” says Julie Schindall of Oxfam one evening. “But the people we had on a cash-for-work programme after the earthquake were paying as much in debt repayments as they were for their rent.”
On top of this there have been harsh increases in the cost of living. Food prices have risen steadily over the past six months and with so many homes destroyed, rents go up continually.
The difficulties facing Marie-Michelle and her family become more obvious when I see them a second time. The drive up to Pernier takes us out of the city and on to a high plateau. There are trees and fields, children splashing at a village pump. The town, built around a single main road, seems at first to be less badly damaged than other places lower down. But when I turn into the alley where Marie-Michelle and Claudine’s two-room house once stood I am shocked by the totality of its destruction. All that remains is a concrete floor, cleared of rubble, which is piled round the edges. On the apron of concrete, polished to a shine by brushing brooms and feet, is pitched a white family dome tent bought for the family by Merlin.
It is April now and the skin graft has taken. Claudine’s arm is encased in a white bandage. She smiles but still appears withdrawn. Marie-Michelle seems exhausted and despondent. We sit down under a tarpaulin that has been erected over the tent’s entrance to shield them from the sun and to provide a place, when the storms come, where they can cook. They have saved some white painted, high-backed metal chairs from the rubble, on one of which Marie-Michelle is sitting. “The last two months have been so hard,” she says after a while. “After the earthquake I had a little bit of money, but I spent it on Claudine. When that was gone Merlin gave me some food and some soap to wash my clothes with.”
Claudine appears and tells me that the family is eating only once a day. Hunger was an acute problem before 12 January in a country where almost 2.4 million were food-insecure and over half the country lived on less than $1 a day – and three-quarters on $2 daily. Things are worse now. Despite emergency food aid most Haitians I speak to complain that it is patchy and irregular.
But food is not the most urgent problem for the family. The company from whom Marie-Michelle borrowed $300 to pay for her stock is pursuing her aggressively over months of missed repayments. She explains that she arranged the loan via an agent of the company, a DJ she knows. “When I was at the hospital someone kept calling me. They called me last Monday. I said I will give it back but I can’t at the moment. I can’t sleep when I think about it. I can’t eat either because I’m scared that if I don’t pay they will have me arrested. If they send me to prison, I am dead. I won’t survive.” Claudine interrupts: “If they arrest my mum we won’t be able to manage either. She pays for the school. She cooks for us.”
“If I can find a job, I’ll go to work,” insists Marie-Michelle, “but there isn’t any work.” I don’t doubt it. When she was working as a “Madame Sarah” Marie-Michelle would get up at 4am to cook breakfast for her children before heading out to work. These days she seems crushed by her enforced inactivity.
There is then, however, what sounds like good news. I hear from Merlin that Claudine’s absentee father, who lives in France, has arranged for his daughter to fly to Paris for a bone graft. But when her father arrives the plan quickly unravels. At the French embassy Claudine is told that documents required for her emergency visa are missing. Her father needs to sign a paper but, for reasons that are difficult to establish, does not. The prospect of her travelling to France evaporates.
It is June and the family’s life has descended into a perpetual cycle of hunger and waiting. They are not starving but are condemned to an enervating whittling away of their physical resources. The sun hits the tent at 7am, making it unbearable to stay inside. Claudine at least is back at school, when her mother can scrape together the fees. But her injury means she has missed exams.
Marie-Michelle appears to be suffering most. She complains of headaches and feeling dizzy and listless. Claudine too says she feels ill and is unable to leave the tent one day I go to visit. When Marie-Michelle gets out of the tent, it is only to lay out a blanket on the concrete beneath the tarpaulin to lie where it is marginally cooler, where there might be a breeze. Her world has contracted to the few metres of her tiny compound. I realise, on one of these stultifying days, that it is the experience of the Souffrantes that most perfectly defines Haiti six months on. An exhausting waiting without end.
“When I get up in the morning I brush my teeth. I prepare some food – if I have any – then I lie down,” says Marie-Michelle. “Before the earthquake I used to always have food to give the children every morning. I would cook them spaghetti or eggs, then at 12 some rice. But since the earthquake food has become more expensive. It gets worse and worse each day.”
A bag of rice has gone up from $3 to $4. Oil has risen by the same percentage. A food assessment by Oxfam confirms that even as Haitians have tried to cut back on food, the proportion of their available income being spent on food has increased by between 60% and 400%.
On my final visit to Pernier, I look into the tent where Claudine is sitting. In the shelter’s second “room”, which she has transformed into a teenage girls’ bedroom with her older sister Rose-Laure, she is sitting on the bed writing carefully with her left undamaged hand. But then she shows me something extraordinary, how she can – ever so slightly for now – pinch her index finger and thumb together. It is the smallest of movements, encouraged by the exercises she has been given by the hospital. It is an improvement so small as to be almost invisible at first. That is how Haiti is recovering as well, after six months; painfully slowly where it is recovering at all.
The road from Port-au-Prince to the well-heeled suburb of Pétionville on the outskirts of the Haitian capital winds up a steep ridge, passing stalls selling painted metalwork, wooden furniture and tourist art, reminders of a more prosperous time. There is a ruined lottery office, where the agent still continues with his business. It is nothing but a solitary wall and a window now, through which the hills are visible beyond. Around halfway up the well-maintained carriageway you reach broken walls, enclosing what is left of the Montana hotel, where 60 people died. To the right, the ground falls quickly away into the deep green cleft that is the Vallée de Bourdon, a sprawling and impoverished community that clings to the river at the bottom.
The locations of the Montana and the Vallée de Bourdon mirror the social positions they once occupied in Haiti. Where the Montana sat at the apex – a haven for cocktail-sipping diplomats, aid workers and wealthy gangsters – the valley below was its polar opposite. Originally an informal shantytown for Port-au-Prince’s poorest, over the years it had hardened into something more solid in the ravine’s depths – a home for almost 6,000 people. Then the earthquake came and destroyed them both.
To reach the valley floor, you descend concrete steps that lead to the shingle riverbed, which is crossed by a small footbridge. The first time I walk down into the valley, a few weeks after the earthquake, I see a handwritten sign in English. One of many begging for help, this one states that the valley has been “forgotten”. Even amid the devastation I have seen in the city, the valley’s claustrophobically steep slopes seem to magnify the devastation. Despite its proximity to Port-au-Prince, this place has always been at risk, from landslides and flash floods when the rains come. So when the earthquake struck on 12 January, it hit the valley hard; residents tell me 250 people died in the ruins.
On the terraces visible on the far side of the river, roofs have fallen and walls caved in. But it is only at the bottom, when I am able to turn around and look back along the path, that the worst is revealed. One area in particular draws my attention: a huge section of hill that peeled off like an Antarctic spur calving icebergs, hurling the blocky houses built on it towards the river. As they fell, they shunted into and through each other, crushing everyone inside.
At the bottom of the stairs, I am approached by a muscular and handsome man, mustachioed, with a large silver crucifix on a chain around his neck. When he speaks, a gold tooth is visible. I notice he has a plastic-wrapped packet in one hand.
Wilson Octaveus, aged 47, fires words at me so fast that at first it is difficult to comprehend. But I understand when he opens the packet to show me photographs of eight members of his household – including three of his 12 children and his wife – killed with six others when his house fell down. He points at their faces, reciting their names. Cindy, 16, his wife Gertrude-Jean, Wistandelle, aged eight, and Milauva, aged three. He asks me to come to see the ruins of the home he built, leading the way through the crevassed maze of collapsed concrete blocks that hang above the filthy stream where pigs wade in the shallows and the women wash themselves.
His story emerges in fragments. The way others defer to him when we first meet, on an earth shoulder by the river on which he has built a wooden shelter, suggests that in this poor community he is a person of some note. He tells me he arrived in the valley in 1984 as part of a vast movement of people from the countryside to Haiti’s cities, swelling Port-au-Prince from a city of several hundred thousand to 3 million, most living in slums like the Vallée de Bourdon. Places primed for destruction.
A homeowner in a country where the majority of people rent, Wilson earned extra money from letting out rooms in the properties he built. He mentions various jobs and sources of income: farming and working as a mason, even acting as an informal nurse and selling medicines to the valley. I struggle for a while to find a definition for his status. He is not among the 5% in Haiti who control the land, the money and the businesses. Instead, in the world of the very poor, he is among the marginally less impoverished. At least he was before 12 January.
He leads the way among the tottering remains of houses to reach the most devastated area – a steep fan of rubble, bristling with pink-painted flakes of walls, scattered with clothes and bits of furniture, broken sinks and toys, pages from schoolbooks. He halts and, as he begins to speak, I notice Wilson is standing over a human skull pulled out of the rubble, stripped of its flesh by dogs and other animals. As my eyes acclimatise to the jumble of shapes in the fallen masonry and junk at his feet, I realise there are not one but two skulls and a section of jawbone. He explains they belong to two of his children and his wife. He says it is all he could recover from burrowing in the ruins.
“This was a big house, one above came down and took another out and then hit mine. This is where I lived. This is where I was able to make a living. This is where I rented rooms out. Now I’ve got nothing left.”
Wilson picks up a stick and hooks one of the skulls through the eye socket. It is an act that should be ugly but strikes me as tender in its own strange way. “Look. Do you see?” he asks hesitatingly. “That’s a girl called… that’s my daughter, Cindy. This” – he indicates another of the skulls – “is my wife’s head. It has been eaten by the dogs.” He finds the corresponding photographs from among his packet of demolished memories.
Wilson does not cry. Instead, he seems wired with grief, fidgeting as if on a powerful stimulant. The tears I’ll see later when I meet him again by chance. He is staggering down from the main road with Shirley, 26, one of his surviving children, slung across one shoulder. Her ankle was crushed when the earthquake happened. Shirley, her lower leg a mess of metal pins, tells me she was in a friend’s house when her mother and three siblings died in Wilson’s place. She was one of more than 300,000 injured, crushed and smashed, crippled and broken. Victims of traumatic amputation.
Wilson leads us to his shack, bigger and better than most I have seen. He has found a cable, hooked it to the grid and wired in electricity for when the power is occasionally working. There is a proper bed and chairs to sit on. Over the months the shelters built from branches, scraps of recovered wood and corrugated iron will spread around Wilson’s new home. They will breed in every open space, being transformed by their occupants from cloth shelters to wooden huts to iron-roofed structures. Eventually, here in the valley, a small settlement will grow, shelter for some of the 1.5 million Haitians made homeless.
Wilson Octaveus was four hours’ drive away, outside the earthquake zone, the day catastrophe came to the valley. I sense a guilt that he feels about his absence. “The earthquake came and did what it did,” he says bitterly. “I wasn’t here in Port-au-Prince. I was in Les Cayes. I was working there. I had 12 children to feed and to send to school.”
Wilson heard about the earthquake on his mobile phone. “I tried calling the valley and managed to get through to one person. She told me the Vallée de Bourdon was destroyed. That I’d lost my family. At 3am, I walked to where I could find transport. I paid and paid. And I paid again until I got here at seven in the evening.” He tried calling to his family but got no answer from the rubble.
Wilson takes out his pictures again to go through his grieving ritual of connection with his lost family. This time he does weep. “That’s Gertrude-Jean, my wife, the mother of my children. She’s 45 years old. She lived with the children, brought them into the world, fed them and spent time with them. Now she’s gone. I’ve lost her. She’d always look after them. It hurts so much every time I look. I’ll never see her again. I have the photograph, but when I look up, I don’t see her alive.”
When I see Wilson again, it’s April, outside the Chaîne de L’Espoir hospital in Pétionville, a few kilometres from the Vallée de Bourdon, where he has taken Shirley. Two months have passed since our last meeting and a brisk South American doctor, one of the hundreds of foreign medical staff who have rushed to fill the gaps left in Haiti’s healthcare system, has just removed the rods and screws that have held Shirley’s ankle together while it mended.
While she waits to have her wounds freshly dressed, we sit outside the clinic. Most of the patients are survivors of the quake. Shirley’s treatment is almost complete, though she can’t yet put any weight upon her leg. But Wilson is downbeat, anxious about whether he can care for his daughter in his leaking shack.
“They really took care of Shirley. But now she is coming home and the job of looking after her is mine.” He complains that, three months after the earthquake, he has still received virtually no aid and so must go back to the countryside to work for weeks at a time, tending the fields. When he comes home to his shelter he has his other children to look after, as well as other homeless family members. Sometimes, he says, there are 10 people in his shack.
Haiti’s earthquake did not only kill and destroy, it wrought a fundamental social transformation, reversing the country’s decades-long trend of rural depopulation. In the aftermath of the tremor, 600,000 residents of Port-au-Prince fled to the countryside, an exodus later encouraged by the government to take pressure off the wrecked capital. Wilson Octaveus is luckier than most. He has family still living near Les Cayes and knows how to farm.
But the post-earthquake countryside is not the same as the one that Wilson left as a young man. That countryside was ruined before the earthquake for different reasons. One was a gradual depopulation, driven by the advent of the “transistor revolution” – as my landlady, Elsie, calls it – the arrival not just of cheap radio, but programming in the Creole language, which made city life attractive. Another was the collapse of rice farming. Haiti was self-sufficient in rice – until President Clinton’s administration insisted that the country drop its import tariffs to benefit US farmers. The result for Haitians was grinding rural poverty – and these poor and marginal communities are barely able to cope now with the massive urban flight back to the country.
When I can’t reach Wilson by phone to arrange a last meeting with him in June, one of his daughters, Louna, aged 21, agrees to accompany us out of Port-au-Prince and through the earthquake-ravaged countryside to a remote village near the town of Cavaillon. There Wilson meets me, clutching his one-eyed fighting cock. We drive up to the patch of land he began renting in April, where he is growing bananas, yams, peas and mangoes. Most are months, if not a year, from being ready. The ripening mangoes, however, he is already sending back for his family to eat.
“The hardest thing for me since the earthquake has been trying to take care of the children. I can’t even send them to school. I feel sometimes that I’ve become a beggar borrowing money and trying to get help from where I can. I don’t feel happy any more. I used to have money. I used to go to the disco and the cinema. I don’t…” Wilson struggles for a moment to express what he means: “I don’t feel myself. I think about the things I need for things to be better. So I can be Wilson once again.”
It is February and Monsieur Joliebois is sitting in his office at the football stadium in Pétionville. There is no football played on the dusty pitch these days, only tents pitched so closely together that the white peaked roofs appear to merge into one: a vast meringue whose walls rise from the edges of the concrete stands. It is a crampedand dirty place reached through a narrow door from a busy street. Where the fans once cheered, women sit chatting below murals of the St Therese team’s past stars. Further along the narrow walkway of the top terrace, Save the Children has constructed an “espace timoun” – a tent school where displaced children are being told by an impassioned teacher,”You are Haiti‘s future!” When school ends for the day, boys gather to fly kites made from string and plastic bags over the camp.
Pierre-Louis Joliebois, 61, is a headmaster, whose school and home in Pétionville were damaged when the earthquake struck. He lives for now in one of the tents on the sunken football field, which floods when the rains come. He spends his time now – a month after the earthquake – running the camp’s council, managing the camp.
His office is a dark storeroom that smells of mould. To one side of his little desk are piled bags of rice delivered by the charity run by the actor and director Sean Penn. The walls amplify the noise from the camp beyond into a disorienting babble.
One of Sean Penn’s helpers, an awkward and agitated individual who calls himself “Captain Barry”, arrives and begins an elaborate and patronising mime. A tugboat operator from Maryland, he talks at Joliebois in slow, deliberate English, as if speaking to a child; he has been “observing him” (he points two fingers at his eyes) and he is “happy” with what he has seen. He adds that he now “trusts” Joliebois enough to allow him to supervise the food distribution all by himself (more hand signals).
When Barry finally departs, Joliebois relaxes. He is a tall and imposing man with a head of close-cropped grey hair and large expressive hands. On 12 January, just before the earthquake, he was sitting in the shade of his schoolyard, after a visit from his doctor. At first he thought the sound was a helicopter flying close overhead. “We were sitting in the schoolyard. My aunt was there and my niece was next to me. We were just chatting. That’s when we heard a very loud noise that exploded like: ‘Bow-bow!’ I looked around to see what was going on. We saw houses breaking up left and right. That’s when we decided to get out. There was a cloud in front and a cloud behind like a thick fog. People were running everywhere.”
As the walls of the schools came down, so too did Haiti’s already crumbling education system. The founding fathers of the world’s first black republic had grand ambitions for education in the former slave state. Indeed, the new Haitian Constitution in 1805 called for free and compulsory primary education at a time when such thoughts were still novel in Europe. It inspired early leaders, including Alexandre Pétion – after whom the city of Pétionville is named – to build schools and colleges. Like so much here however, over the decades and centuries, the dream turned sour.
In the years immediately preceding the earthquake Haiti’s education system barely functioned. In stark contrast to the dream of free universal education, only 50% of school age children were enrolled in school. The quality of the education those children received was often dismal, dictated by the fact that a mere fifth of teachers were qualified to teach. On top of that a paltry 15% of the country’s schools were run by the Haitian government, the rest belonging to churches, charities or operated as private enterprises, such as that of M Joliebois. The cost of the education that these schools provided, as a proportion of average income, made them the second most expensive on the planet. And by the time the earthquake was over more than half of the country’s 15,000 schools, and 1,500 secondary schools, had been destroyed or severely damaged, and three universities demolished. Almost 4,000 schools were reduced to rubble in Port-au-Prince alone.
In his office Joliebois’s voice is rising angrily as he talks about the absence of ministers and government in the earthquake’s aftermath. He declares more than once that although “the school is closed, the doors of the jails are open. What we need most are people to help with the children. How can things in Haiti move forward if the schools are closed?”
I ask him when he thinks the education system will recover. He looks gloomy. “Maybe in five, 10 years. My own school is supposed to reopen in a month. But how am I going to reopen it without a penny? Houses fell on it.”
Afterwards Joliebois takes me outside to tour the camp. Immediately he is mobbed by angry residents. They shout at him about things over which he has no control. “The hunger, it’s killing us. And the kids,” says one woman. “We get visits. That’s all they are, visits,” yells another one referring to the international aid agencies. “What I’m asking, it’s not just for me. I’m asking for everyone inside here. If anything comes in, we should all get a share.” A proud man, Joliebois appears mortified by the complaints.
It is raining when I visit the football stadium again in April, an omen of the hurricane season to come. At the Save the Children tent, a group of teenagers is being taught about the history of the country’s revolution under Toussaint L’Ouverture. They are told to be proud of being the first black republic. Water gushes off the tarpaulins as they are shaken out by the teachers to prevent them from collapsing.
I’m looking for Joliebois. But another teacher tells me he left camp a month before. M Joliebois, he explains sympathetically, had a falling out with the residents. The constant complaints and the shouting I had witnessed in February – and Joliebois’s inability to provide solutions – had become too much for the headmaster. Now, I discover, he is living in the basement of his school and getting it ready to reopen.
The school, when I find it, is not far away from the camp in a narrow busy street off a main road in the suburb of Pétionville. The scene here, half an hour up the mountain from the centre of the capital, is starkly different from that in large areas of Port-au-Prince. There is damage still but Pétionville is where the well-heeled live. The fast food restaurant Epid’or has queues at its counter for pastries, coffees and burgers. Restaurants and nightclubs such as Mozaik and Jet Sept have reopened to accommodate the influx of aid-workers and other foreigners. There is money here, and rebuilding has begun.
Joliebois’s school, however, is not in one of the best neighbourhoods, where the four-wheel drives are parked. It is in one of the poorer areas, although not a slum. He has found the money to do the necessary work from his personal savings and by borrowing but now it is all spent. All around workmen are busy sawing and hammering, their feet kicking up the concrete dust deposited in the small classrooms by the earthquake’s agitation. He takes me to a glass-less window to point out where the houses fell that damaged his building.
He is angry again about the lack of help from the government. “A while ago the Ministry of Education said it was going to help the owners of the schools [to get children back in the classrooms again]. So on Thursday I went to the Ministry of Education. They said: ‘We can’t help you.It is up to you to make this work.'”
June comes and with it a stifling heat so intense it is difficult to function. It also brings the World Cup, which the Haitians follow fanatically. On a flat roof opposite M Joliebois’s school someone has set up a little wooden covered structure, accessible from the street by a rickety ladder where locals can pay to sit and watch the competition for a few gourdes while drinking a cold beer. When there are goals you can hear the cheering in Joliebois’s classrooms, which are semi-open to the air.
Joliebois is “eh-heh-heh-ing”, a conversational tick that he deploys. He uses it to underline the point he’s making. “Eh-heh-heh,” he goes, a slow modulating triplet. Each sound is a little question mark. It does not require an answer, only the listener’s attention. It is six months since the earthquake and I am sitting in one of his classrooms. I’m under the impression that Joliebois has pulled off a miracle in reopening his school after the earthquake. But in post-earthquake Haiti even the good news stories can be deceiving. And with his eh-heh-hehs Joliebois is dismantling my impressions.
“Ecoutez bien!” he says. I’m listening carefully because the confession he is making, he freely admits, is one that is shameful to him. The school appears busy and successful. Girls in pink uniforms and hair ribbons crowd together giggling. Below us in the courtyard beneath the classrooms, where Joliebois was sitting on the afternoon of the earthquake, a group of teenage boys is noisily slamming a football into the walls.
M Joliebois does not have the money to pay his teachers. Things have become so bad, he admits, that the teachers are rebelling. Some have quit already. While we are speaking, Joliebois takes an angry call on his mobile from one of the teachers to tell him to pay up, or there’ll be trouble. The problem is that Joliebois has no idea where he will find the money. Now he is telling me that he does not know if his school will be able to stay open until the summer holidays begin.
It’s a question of economics, Joliebois explains. Before 12 January he had 350 pupils. These days he has 175. The parents of the others have been unable, since the earthquake, to send their children back to school. With too few paying pupils, the sums don’t work. So, no money for wages.
The depth of the problem is underlined a day later. Joliebois is teaching a class of six and seven-years olds. He gently enquires of the children if there are any who have not eaten that morning before coming to school. Six raise their arms. Most of them, Joliebois tells me later, are not living in their own homes but in tents or temporary accommodation in places like the football stadium at St Therese. They have not eaten because their parents have lost their livelihoods and don’t have enough money. Joliebois tells me that he is not sleeping, that he’s sick with worry.
A weekend outing is proposed up to the mountains above where he lives. We arrive at Tara’s, a gated estate once intended to be a secure community for Haiti’s handful of super rich. Dotted with half-built mansions, high on the mountain above the city, it did not prosper. Even the restaurant built for day-trippers like us has been closed since the earthquake.
But it is cool after the polluted heat of the city; here clouds condense into the thunderstorms that crackle at night over the city. A path leads us down through pastures to an isolated spur, which thrusts out from the ridge, a spectacular viewpoint. Out of the city, Joliebois is transformed. The grave educator is suddenly playful. He runs ahead in short sprints, laughing. When he becomes tired we stop under a tree and he stretches out.
“This is good. This is a beautiful place,” he says, and it is the first time I have seen him truly calm. “I used to be able to afford trips and holidays. I even used to go Canada.” He seems to wonder at the memory. “But now my savings are all gone. I’m so worried. The school is my whole life. If it closes I don’t know how I’ll be able to take care of my family. The teachers are being stupid. But I don’t know what to do. I can’t tell them the day that they’ll be paid.”
I go to visit Joliebois one last time. It is five days after a deadline delivered by the teachers at his school. The school is still open. Just. Classes have finished for the day. He is sitting in the courtyard having his hair cut by a youth with a razor blade. Out of 36 teachers, a third have left. Those remaining have agreed to give him until 26 July to try to find some money.
And after that? He says he is not certain. He pauses and starts humming quietly to himself. “I have done the best I can to go out and get money. Before the earthquake it was easy to go out and get a loan. I can’t do that now because people know that the schools aren’t working.”
I ask him about the future. “I can’t speak about that,” he says rather sadly. “We opened the school again. That was a good move. But I don’t know if I can open it again next year.”
Counting the cost: The devastation in numbers
■ Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Three-quarters of Haitians survive on $2 a day or less.
■ The population was around 9.8 million people before the earthquake.
■ The main industry is agriculture – coffee, mangoes, corn and sugar cane.
■ Almost half the population is illiterate
When the earthquake hit
■ The earthquake began at 4.53pm on Tuesday 12 January 2010. It registered 7.0 on the Richter scale
■ The epicentre was 25km southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. It affected an area where around 3 million people live.
■ It was the worst earthquake to hit the region for 200 years. The aftershocks continued for several weeks afterwards.
■ Almost 230,000 people were killed and 300,000 injured.
■ 250,000 homes were damaged. 19 million cubic meters of rubble need to be removed.
■ Most of Haiti’s national landmarks were destroyed, including the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly and Port-au-Prince Cathedral.
■ More than 1,000 camps were set up for 1.5 million displaced people, including 300,000 children.
■ Emergency shelter tarpaulins laid side by side would stretch from Madrid to Moscow.
■ More than $5bn in aid was pledged by the US government, the World Bank and the European Union among others. Only a fraction of this has been received so far.