THE COMMUNITY -- "Don't Give Up"
Midelson Armand has a vision for Pernier, the working-class neighborhood of about 60,000 on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to which he recently returned after living in Boston for 16 years. He wants Pernier to be a place where the children attend school, where the streets are lit at night, where telephones and the Internet are available, and, most important, where water is readily accessible.
"When you look around, we're not living," Armand said, as he sat in his overcrowded office, a Western Union outlet piled high with a mÈlange of mattresses, stoves and construction materials for sale. He is frustrated -- by the lack of basic necessities and, especially, by the fact that many residents spend hours each day climbing a mountain to obtain water.
As a successful entrepreneur, Armand has become the de facto leader of the local community organization, Association Development Community Pernier (ADCP), that is working to expand and repair a water line that has fallen into disrepair. Four reservoirs in different areas of the community have been fed from a source called Big John. But of the original four reservoirs, three are no longer functioning. And accessing the one that remains requires a one-and-a-quarter-mile hike up a steep and rocky incline. In a true grassroots effort, the community gathers every Saturday to work on digging a long two-foot-wide trench down the side of the mountain. Those in the community who can afford it donate food, pickaxes and shovels. Armand has convinced Western Union to donate 150 pipes that will be laid in the trench. The goal is to restore the three broken reservoirs and to build two more from the ground up. Armand thinks that the six reservoirs will service roughly 30,000 people.
"What we want to do is work with the government," Armand told me. "But if they don't help us, we are still doing it. I'm doing the mayor's job."
Benoit Frantz, the general secretary at Centrale Autonome Metropolitaine d'Eau Potable (CAMEP), the government water service, explained that they have a plan for Pernier, but no money to execute it. Plan International, an NGO, has built a handful of wells in the area over the years, and they are crucial to many residents' survival. But they are not enough.
One Saturday, I returned to Pernier to see the community at work. My translator and I drove 10 minutes up a washed-out road and began the hike up the hill. Soon we spotted men hacking their way through root and rock, slowly digging what looked like a long spine coming down the mountain. Armand, in tan slacks and a button-down shirt, was chatting with various community members. A pack of boys carried the long white pipes up the hill, and a man wearing a hard hat and wielding a megaphone marched up and down the line.
"Don't give up, we have lots of work to do," he shouted. Then he marched to the edge of the cliff. "We need tools and help," he yelled to anyone who was listening. This was only the third Saturday the community had met. Clearly he still felt it important to get the word out.
Although the ADCP was founded in 1998, they stopped operating in 2002 after someone painted "Down with Aristide" on one of their signs, a reference to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was Haiti's president at the time. The ADCP members, afraid of being associated with anti-Aristide sentiments and of becoming enmeshed in the violence of Haitian politics, disbanded. At the time I visited their project, the organization had only been back together for a few months.
After chatting with Armand and various community members, I was more than curious about just what this source, Big John, looked like. We climbed the hill slowly; the sun pummeled the back of my neck. Young girls continually passed us on their way to the one working reservoir. They negotiated the rocky terrain carrying their heavy loads, their feet clad only in plastic flip-flops. After we passed the working reservoir, we walked another 20 minutes until we finally arrived at the source. Big John was a little less spectacular than I expected, just a cement cistern under a canopy of trees, next to a dry riverbed. Armand explained that because of erosion, a lot of soil and gravel had washed into the riverbed and now blocks the main cistern, making it difficult to repair and clean. He said they would have to get a backhoe to dig out the excess gravel.
By the time we got back to the workers, the boys were ascending the hill with baskets of cups and plates, and the men had brought up big buckets of rice and peas, along with red passion fruit juice. We set up under the shade of a tree where the breeze seemed particularly kind. The little boys crouched together, round heads in a row, dusty elbows nudging each other, awaiting their portion. A loud man named Ronald kept bossing the boys around. He smelled like alcohol, and the boys shrugged him off. "I wish we will bring the water down in a week for the victory," Ronald shouted. "I am working very hard for this." No one disagreed.