By LAWRENCE DOWNES, New York Times Opinion
The unwritten rules of driving in the capital — just tap the horn, keep your cool, be polite — keep traffic moving, even in a streetscape clotted with earthquake rubble and trash and shadowed by mass death. Cars, the jitneys known as tap-taps, motorbikes, pedestrians, even dogs accept them. Only the huge United Nations and military trucks don’t — exempted by gross tonnage, I guess. Same streets, different worlds.
I spent time in Haiti recently shuttling between the two. The first is the world of outside relief agencies, which measure their work in numbers: meals served, tents pitched. Things there are moving all the time, but progress has been agonizingly slow.
In the second world, where the Haitians are, people can’t afford to wait for helping hands. Life is improvised, fluid, dire, sometimes desperate but not panicked. The people seemed immune to whining. They were busy doing what needs doing.
The government has a reputation as hopeless, but at the street level, Haiti shows powerful tendencies toward self-organizing, adaptability and cooperation. My expectations of postdisaster anarchy were upended by every neighborhood I visited, every group and family I talked to, every meeting I attended.
Whatever Haitians were before, they are now juggling new jobs. They are carpenters, building cities with sticks and bent nails. They are earthmovers and deconstruction contractors, using tools no more complicated than the lever. They are entrepreneurs, planners and organizers, working together when there is no one else to help.
Two mornings a week, at about 8:30, a group gathers in a quiet parking area of a row of townhouses among mango trees in Haut-Turgeau, on a hillside above downtown. Men and women with notepads and cellphones huddle with Frantz Liautaud, a retired engineer who provided meeting space for committees from nearby refugee settlements, which have taken it on themselves to give out food and water and clear debris. When I met him, he was several steps ahead of the U.N. Give us four trucks and a legal place to dump rubble and we’re in business, he said.
There is a new group of Haitians in Port-au-Prince that calls itself the Civil Society Watchdog Group (www.haitiaidwatchdog.org). They did their own survey of nine refugee settlements and issued a report on March 8 citing troubling lapses in security, sanitation and water distribution. Their big concern is the hundreds of millions of dollars outside groups are raising and spending on behalf of Haitians. They want transparency and accountability. They want groups to put the money trail online. I hope their plea is not ignored.
Haitian assertiveness is filling vacuums in other places, too. People are forming safety brigades to patrol deep in the sprawling settlements where the cops and blue helmets don’t go. They’re cleaning up where they can. It’s far from ideal, but in some places, like one small section of the huge, filthy Champ de Mars camp, it was heartening to see sidewalks tidily swept.
Other Haitians in the overbuilt capital aren’t waiting for a coming hypothesized urban-removal program. They are sending themselves by the hundreds of thousands out of Port-au-Prince, taking rust-bucket boats to places like Jérémie, in the distant southwest.
The world has big plans for Haiti. Haiti has big plans for itself. All could well involve disappointment, missed opportunities, failure. But no use waiting.
“What they gonna do about Haiti? That’s what I want to know.”
My translator Jean Junior Osman, who goes by Junior, asked me this one afternoon as we rolled through traffic on the way to another camp. Junior lost his wife and her two daughters when their home collapsed in front of him as he stood on the street. The street is where he lives now, in a tent. He made a plywood foundation, put a tarp over it. It has a bed, lights, a generator. It’s his home, his office, his life.
When Junior asked me that I was looking out at thousands of other shelters — tents, sturdy domes, flimsy shacks, the best that outside charity and homegrown ingenuity could come up with so soon after the Jan. 12 disaster. If weather predictions are right, many of them are likely to be wiped out.
I don’t think Junior was expecting an answer. I think he was just marveling at the cruel mystery of it, the huge job ahead that now looks infinite, probably as big as Junior’s sorrow. Haitians don’t know what they are going to do about Haiti. But they’re working on it.
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