The earthquake in Haiti can't destroy the Village of God's spirit of survival

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; C01


Earthly spasms could not undo the Village of God. ¶ The pitching and convulsing of the Jan. 12 earthquake dismantled shacks and stole lives, young and old, in this divinely named neighborhood, a landscape of wreckage like so many in this addled city. But the essence of the place, the warp and woof of its street life, refused to crumble. Instead, the neighborhood stoically reassembled itself -- piece by piece, person by person -- on a soccer field down the street. ¶ A village reborn at midfield. ¶ There, by the northeast goal with its tattered net, the barber -- a lanky, taciturn man named Archille Pierre Andre -- cuts hair and tames beards as he did before the magnitude-7 quake made "the village hot . . . too dangerous to stay." His electric razor draws power from a rust-colored Trojan six-volt golf-cart battery. His power source is similar to the ones he tapped during the chronic electrical outages this city endured, even before tectonic plates lurched roughly eight miles below the ground along the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault. ¶ By the southwest penalty box, Fifi Charles, a 35-year-old mother of four, mashes eggplant under a scraggly, leaf-stripped tree where sidewalk food stands sprout in a fog of charcoal smoke; Edwich Michel, a 40-year-old woman with delicate features and a reserved manner, lays out carrots for sale in a parking lot turned vegetable market. ¶ Their flimsy houses are replaced, in the reconstituted community, by flimsy tents, conjured from stained bedsheets and scavenged broom handles. They stretch out, these makeshift dwellings, from one end of the field to the other, packed tight against each other, describing a quilt of fabric roofs. An almost continuous dormitory under refracted light, filled with families resigned to a new kind of life.

Already a disaster

In the first weeks after the quake, they adapt quickly to post-disaster miseries that resemble their pre-earthquake miseries. Before the quake, these men and women lived in a place where water would regularly stop flowing into their cinder-block shacks. A functioning toilet was a rare luxury; a hot shower was a treat. Electrical power abandoned them for days or weeks, without warning or explanation.

Before first light in the new Village of God, hungry dogs howl and hungry babies cry. Skillets clatter, vendors argue. The preacher lady, a village fixture before and after the quake, slaloms through the narrow pathways between the suspended bedsheets, calling out in praise and prayer to figures in soiled cocoons of cloth.

"There's nobody who can do anything for you if you're not a God-fearing person; only Jesus!" she screams, her voice raw and scratchy. Nerrette Jislen's lacy red dress jiggles with each exclamation-punctuated line. She throws her arms at the heavens, slaps at a worn Bible.

She trudges heavily past a toppled wall. A child, no more than 3 years old, squats there, his pants around his ankles. This wall is a latrine now. Human waste pocks the broken blocks; flies swarm. The stench is dizzying.

This wall was once a barrier that meant something here. It defined a social divide. Inside the wall was an expensive school, Quisqueya, one of Haiti's finest. Archille Pierre Andre, the barber, could never afford to send his children behind the wall; but he was attuned to what went on there. When he walked past, he could hear the soccer games he could not see.

Even in the wall's final moments, it exacted one last indignity: When it toppled, it killed. The bodies of several people trapped under the fallen blocks never got a proper burial, Andre says. He and a few other men burned the corpses in a pyre; they did not expect anyone to collect them.

At Andre's feet lies a splintered two-foot-long board, painted purple and rigged with half a dozen power plugs. Before the quake, the handmade power strip kept "me in business because the power was not on very much," says Andre, a 37-year-old with dark eyes and a long face who wears a "Jimmy Buffett Bama Breeze Tour 2007" T-shirt. Haiti is where T-shirts and hats from the United States find new life.

A few steps away, boys kick an un-inflated soccer ball at the goal. Razor wire corrals the bleachers, forming a border between the new village and the small field hospital set up inside the school. Along the southeast sideline, half a dozen men and women soap themselves in a gutter that also serves as a latrine. In the new Village of God, the bath and the toilet are one. When the World Health Organization warns about the risk of disease outbreaks -- diarrhea, cholera and others -- it's talking about places like this village. Even before the quake, Haiti had the highest infant mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere, mostly as a result of waterborne diseases such as chronic diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis. More than 2 million Haitians -- two out of nine -- lacked access to clean water before the quake, and five out of nine did not have adequate sanitation, according to the World Water Council.

A toy out of trash

By the latrine, Wilgy Pierre -- a bright-eyed 7-year-old chatterbox -- races across the concrete. Like the adults, he improvises. He's made a toy car out of a 16-ounce plastic Tampico Caribbean Punch bottle, with bottle caps for wheels, straws as axles and pebbles for ballast. He calls it "le machine." He fished the pieces from a garbage pile.

"Come on!" he calls to a friend, "I'm going to my friend's house."

His friend's "house" is a patch of grass with a shredded blue tarp, suspended between branches, as a roof. In minutes, they're bored and racing back to Wilgy's house, a slightly more substantial dwelling -- it has draped bedsheets for walls, as well as a bedsheet overhead. It's next to a deep loading dock filled with brown, scummy water.

Wilgy's mother, Jeny Pierre, suspects a clogged drain, but has been unable to find one, poking blindly in the muck for days in the closing days of January. The mosquitoes swarm.

"I don't know when I'm going to get out of this situation," Jeny says. "It's in the hands of God."

Her husband leaves the camp most days, searching for work because the metal fabrication shop that once employed him was destroyed. She seeks refuge from the punishing sun, surrounded in her bedsheet house by her other three children, ages 9, 16 and 17. In the cruel calculus of Haitian family decision-making, the parents can afford to send only two to school: one of the older children -- 17-year-old Jean Francois Gerry -- and one of the younger children -- Loosenie Pierre. The other teenager -- 16-year-old Jeny Love -- goes without and so does Wilgy, creator of "le machine."

Wilgy overhears the conversation, and jumps to his feet.

"When school opens, I want to go," he declares.

Mother looks away.

She knows that's unlikely -- the family has almost no money, and even if they came into some, Haitian education officials estimate that 75 percent of Port-au-Prince's schools lay in ruins. And she won't be teaching him herself. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that nearly half of Haitians are illiterate; Wilgy's mom is one of them.


Across the field from Wilgy's new house, Fifi Charles, the sidewalk chef with a round face who wears her hair in floppy dreadlocks, warms "Haitian legume," a dish she makes from mashed eggplant, green passion fruit, cabbage, spinach, mirliton squash and carrots. Flies form a thick film of squirming black on the dirty dishes in the plastic basin behind her. Customers hand her wadded Haitian bills, the denominations barely visible because the oils from countless fingers have turned them black and slick.

Charles works alongside 17 other food preparers in two long rows, each woman hunched over or squatting next to metal skillets. Each skillet sits on a cooking stand and draws heat from charcoal, the fuel of choice in Haiti and the root of this nation's environmental nightmare. Because Haitians have such little access to electricity or gas for cooking, they've shaved most of the trees from once lush forests. According to U.S. government statistics, 60 percent of Haiti was forested in the 1920s, but less than 2 percent is now.

Charles is one of the lucky ones in the camp: She has a way to make money. Still, the price she pays for vegetables has soared since the quake, and her family of six "eats the profits," she says.

One afternoon, the earth moves again, another aftershock among many. The ground beneath Charles wobbles, briefly assuming the consistency of Jell-O. She stands and screams: "Jesus, Jesus!" Then the ground is still again. A U.S. military helicopter roars far overhead, a display of might and technology, but it doesn't stop.

Charles and her family occupy a small improvised tent, where her 17-year-old daughter, Bilkensia Jack, lies one morning, just after sunrise. Next to Bilkensia is a plastic bowl, similar to the one her mother uses for dishwashing, though in this case it's a makeshift chamber pot. She's afraid to go outside at night, so she lives with the stench inside.

When the family runs out of supplies for the little food stand, they can walk a few steps to the impromptu vegetable market, where half a dozen women have laid out carrots, cabbage, spinach and oranges on dusty blankets. The oranges are particularly prized because Haitians, ever desperate for fuel, dry the peels and use them as substitute firewood.

'They have nothing to do'

One morning, Edwich Michel, a single mother of five, squats over her micro-business in the new village's market and sobs. Earlier that day, thugs attacked. They cracked coconuts, mashed tiny tomatoes and pulverized okra. They told her she should go away; if she stayed, she remembers them telling her, "the white people will not bring us food." (Whether this is a factor or not, residents of the new Village of God say they've gone without food from relief agencies.)

Michel needed cash to revive her business after the quake, and says she borrowed the equivalent of $25 from a neighbor. He expects to be paid back.

"I'm trying to make a life," she says. "And they're trying to stop that from happening."

While she cries, Alex Couba finds a way to make his fellow villagers laugh. Couba is a strapping 37-year-old truck driver with an easy smile and a cool, self-contented demeanor. He wears clean shirts and jeans with elaborately stitched back pockets. He was more prosperous than most of his neighbors in the Village of God, but the quake had some leveling effects -- he sleeps in a bedsheet tent now, just like the others.

Yet, somehow, he managed to salvage a precious item that has given him tremendous status in the new village: a chipped and dusty, but functioning, 36-inch Panasonic television. When he can find gas to power his generator, he plays DVDs. A crowd always forms.

"They have nothing to do," he says. "I have to give them something."

Couba sent away his children -- 13-year-old Alexandro, 12-year-old Jeff and 8-year-old Sandra. They fled to a small town outside Port-au-Prince -- joining a mass exodus of capital dwellers who could afford bus or boats to the less damaged countryside. But Couba remained, reasoning that Port-au-Prince is "what I know. Where I used to work. Where I can find work."

One afternoon, he slides a disc into the DVD player, and the face of the Haitian comedian Jean Corvens Rosier materializes on the screen. The goofball film is called "The Sound of My Sandals," and three dozen kids form a semicircle to watch. On-screen, a dwarf tries in vain to propel a bicycle, but his legs can't reach the pedals. The kids crack up.

No one laughs harder than a scruffy 8-year-old boy. He has never been to a movie theater, and his family doesn't have a television. For a few moments, the new village seems almost better to him -- or at least more entertaining -- than the old one.

Back on home turf

Another afternoon, Couba decides to walk the two blocks back to the original Village of God. Houses sag. The school is flattened. There's a foot-wide crack in the street in front of the barbershop where he always got his hair cut.

Men and women linger in the street or dig through the rubble. Some have decided to stay in the old village, afraid squatters will move in, even though their houses are cracked or shattered. A sweat-drenched man in dirt-streaked pants and a rumpled shirt -- a lawyer by trade -- rants on a street corner, drawing the bored and the weary.

"If they want to help, the aid has to be distributed!" Jean Claude Charles, 42, screams during a five-minute tirade against international relief groups. "If they can't bring the aid, we should tell them to go! What's the point?"

Heads nod all around.

Charles carries a book in his right hand -- "Volcanoes and Earthquakes" -- that he says he borrowed from a library three years ago. He flips it open to a page with the header: "What type of phenomenon predicts an earthquake?" The crowd presses in for a closer look.

Couba slips away.

"Lawyers talk too much," he mutters.

Couba steps past his church, now flattened, up a steep street where garbage smolders, and slides delicately into the doorway of his home, a squat cinder-block structure that still stands but has ugly cracks in its walls. He's come before -- to rescue DVDs and clothes -- but aftershocks have scared him away. It's bright outside, but dark inside. He shakes his head and turns away.

On the walk back to the soccer field, he runs into his friend, Jean Erick, who is pressing his face against the twisted metal window bars of the fractured home of his 19-year-old daughter, Sara Drival. The teenager died in the quake, caught under a collapsing building on her way home from school. It took days to find her body, and when he did, he could only place it in the street to be collected by a passing front-end loader that he presumes ferried her to a mass grave.

Erick and Couba walk together in silence back to the soccer field, where they sleep a couple of tents away from each other, instead of a couple blocks away. By the time night comes, Couba has changed clothes, turned out in a loose-fitting orange cotton shirt; Erick sports a Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

Someone has rigged up a stereo. A pounding bass line shakes the pavement. A gangly teenage boy bops past, mouthing along with the rap in Creole: "Fight for what you believe/If you want this life to change/Don't just sit and look around."

Couba's television plays a romance, "The Cousin," and the children press around. He smiles at his creation, a community theater of his own making.

A Land Rover eases into the crowded parking lot, and Couba runs over. "Hey, hey! My friend. Wait."

The man behind the wheel smiles for a moment, but then shakes his head. Couba thinks the driver is a relief worker who might be able to give him a real tent, but he's not.

Behind the bulky vehicle, dozens of people are streaming into the new Village of God, funneling into the corridor where the women are cooking furiously. Fifi Charles has a new stew in the skillet. The smell of fried pork, fried hot dogs and fried fish compete with the suffocating funk of the latrine.

More people squeeze in, pouring into the soccer field from the old Village of God and from the other encampments that much of Port-au-Prince still calls home, now, more than a month after the quake. Some jostle and call out to friends; others beg for a morsel. Close your eyes, and the sounds and smells evoke a typical night in the old Village of God. Open them, and newfound joys mingle with newfound despairs in the new Village of God.

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