THE FAMILY -- "He's Going to Die"
The morning we came to visit, Imanese Alverez sat on the narrow steps of her one-room concrete house, holding her feverish year-old baby. Alverez's spirited 5-year-old girl, Magdali, had been misbehaving and as punishment was tied to the house by her ankle with rope. Magdali's position gave her 7-year-old sister, Lovely, ample opportunity to slap her. The girls' 9-year-old brother, James, lingered sullenly nearby. Alverez smiled brightly when she saw us coming and jumped from her seated position to greet us.
"Would you like to sit inside because of the smell?" she asked, referring to the stench wafting up from the open sewers that bracketed the house. "Outside is fine," we told her, and James ran to get their two chairs.
Alverez is the mother of nine children and has lived in La Saline, a sprawling slum at the edge of the sea, for the last 23 years. The houses, many of them a patchwork of tin scraps, are built almost on top of one another, with only narrow walk spaces between them. There is no sewage system, layers of garbage fill the canals and residents eke out an existence by selling whatever they can find.
Water in La Saline is about 25 cents a bucket, and this day that was 25 cents more than Alverez had. "If I have money, I buy water every morning. But water is expensive," Alverez told me.
Most people in La Saline buy their water from private cisterns. Those that own the cisterns buy the water from water trucks, then resell it by the bucket at 8 gourdes (about 25 cents) for a big bucket and 4 gourdes for a smaller one. These prices are expensive compared with areas that have access to government-supplied CAMEP water. At Village of God, a half-hour away, there are several working CAMEP pipes, and water sells for a gourde a bucket, about 3 cents.
When Alverez can buy water, she is not guaranteed that it is potable. "We do everything with it," Alverez said of the water she buys from the cistern. "It's the one we drink because we don't have any other water. Sometimes when you give it to the kids they have diarrhea. Sometimes it is heavy and salty." Unless there is food, she doesn't give the kids water because water on an empty stomach can make them sick.
If she could afford to, Alverez would buy four or five buckets of water for her daily needs. When she can borrow some money from a neighbor to buy some goods to sell, she only has money for one bucket. Her priority, she told me, is always cleanliness, wiping the kids faces and washing down her tiny house.
Inside the house, the one room was immaculate. Two beds, elevated from the floor so that more people could sleep under them, took up most of the space. Alverez laid her infant down on one of the beds and looked through a bag of clothes for some pants for the girls to wear.
Lovely stood by, looking at her little brother on the bed. "He's going to die," she said to no one in particular. None of the younger children are in good health. Lovely and Magdali both appear at least two years younger than they are and have coughs and rashes.
Alverez's husband has been sick for almost three years. He used to make cooking pots and for a time worked at the airport, but now the family has no income. My translator, Regine Alexandre, who works in HIV/AIDs prevention and support, thinks that Alverez's husband may have full-blown AIDS, a disease that kills roughly 30,000 people a year in Haiti. Alexandre speculates that Alverez and the younger children are infected with HIV as well. But without testing, there is no way to be certain and therefore no potential for treatment.
As we sat talking with Alverez, her children ran in and out of the room asking for food and water. I watched as she constantly diverted them, giving answers where there were none.
At one point, James looked at us and said, "Tell the foreigners to take me with them."
"The foreigners want girls, not boys," his mother answered him.
When Magdali harassed her mother for nourishment, Alverez ripped a piece of pink paper in half and handed it to her. Later on, I saw the children with the paper in their mouths.
"The sun may go down, and we will not be able to buy water," Alverez said.