By Melinda Miles, Let Haiti Live
It is hot under the tarp where the crowd has gathered, and sweat silently drips down our faces. We are quiet, concentrating on the voice of a woman with a red scarf wrapped around her head. She has lived through a hell that we all have survived, and she is bearing witness to her own anguish one year after the darkest night of our lives.
One year after Haiti’s earthquake, the capital is crawling with foreign journalists looking to capture new photos of the old misery that characterizes the lives of more than a million homeless survivors. Stories will focus on the lack of progress, the debris that still fills the streets, and the makeshift tarp and tent cities in every park, field and once-open space in the city. Photographers will take poignant photos – the camp in front of the still collapsed National Palace, the child crying in his mother’s lap in front of the tent where he was born and has so far spent his entire life, the lifeless legs of a cholera victim, poking out from under a sheet under a tarp.
But right now, in this circle of valiant men and women, there are no journalists. There is only memory, so alive it moves through our circle and touches our faces, tasting the tears that course down our faces as we silently remember. The woman’s voice has been shaking as she talked about the first weeks, when the city smelled of the bodies of loved ones trapped under the rubble and she walked like a shadow through the cemetery that Port-au-Prince has become. She trembled visibly when she described the months of rainy season, when she and her three children – the other two did not survive the darkness of the earthquake – would huddle beneath a sheet of plastic, soaking wet, in the chilling wind. She begins to weep as she describes the arrival of cholera in the tent city she now calls home.
As she rounds the corner on her unspeakable grief, explaining a year of struggle against the elements and the desire to give up, her voice strengthens. I imagine the strength flowing out of all of the people gathered around her, like strands of light and fire converging on her heart. This is Haiti, she tells us. N ap degaje – we make it work, we struggle and we fight and we survive. Survival is what we live, and it makes us human.
Half a dozen of these gatherings are taking place this week throughout Port-au-Prince’s communities of the internally displaced. They are using a spirit of degaje to organize amongst themselves, to connect with each other through those shining strands of fire – that strength they possess to continue. They shouldn’t have to do this without the resources they need when we know that hundreds of millions were donated in their names, but they have no choice.
Two examples of the relief effort to date paint a distressing picture. First is the story of transitional shelters. Although more than 1.3 million people are registered as displaced and homeless, the goal for transitional shelters to be built in the first year was an underwhelming 125,000. All of the NGOs and the United Nations agencies put together haven’t even managed to build 20,000. They say now that Haitians can expect to live under tarps for years. Second is the lack of safe drinking water. Only days after the earthquake, the international community raised the specter of an epidemic of a water-borne disease like cholera tearing through the city. Today, one year later, charities are highlighting how they are delivering millions of gallons of water to camps of survivors each day. Why haven’t they built water treatment systems in these communities with the hundreds of millions of dollars they collected from the generous people of the world? Is sustaining their programs more important than sustainable solutions?
At the community-based one-year anniversary gatherings Haitians are holding themselves, it isn’t just about remembering what has happened. More importantly, it is about bringing people together to decide what they are going to do to move beyond degaje, to make their vision for the future of Haiti a reality. Witnessing is followed by a fierce debate about the accountability of NGOs, who quietly push a neoliberal economic agenda. It’s a testimony about the discrepancy between aid pledged and aid delivered, with the survivors own wasted bodies as the most vivid evidence of failure in this first year. After that it will be a plan of action, to claim their Constitutional right to decent housing and their children’s right not only to live, but to thrive.
At the end of the event there are still no journalists there to write the stories of courage and perseverance, and there will be no awards ceremony, not for the mothers who have kept their children from starving to death or the community leaders who have emerged to organize and keep people from being evicted from these small scraps of land they now call home. There will be celebration however, because we have lived to see another day. Despite the help of the international community instead of because of it, Haitians will dance and sing their songs of liberation. And tomorrow they will rise up under these tarps again, to plan their own future, their vision of the reconstruction of their country’s sovereignty and dignity.