Haitians who hang on to hope

It is exactly three years since I first met Cindy and Clifford in a makeshift charity school in a Port-au-Prince slum. I was working as a reporter for a Channel 4 documentary – covering the despair that usually makes the headlines from Haiti. But meeting Cindy, aged 12, and Clifford, 10, epitomised another side of Haiti, the incredible ability of a battered and deprived people to remain defiantly, impossibly hopeful. The children were “restaveks” – from the French “to stay with”, unpaid domestic drudges, nobodies. They were beaten on a daily basis. But they had dreams. “We want to escape,” said Cindy. “We want to be free. Then I will become a doctor and cure people when I grow up.”

Haiti is like a little slice of Africa in the Caribbean. It is the poorest country in the Americas. Port-au-Prince consists of one miserable slum after another. There is little in the way of running water; proper sanitation is practically non-existent. You start to smell the vast sprawling slum of Cite Soleil – home to quarter of a million of Haiti’s poorest – half a mile before you reach it.

At night the streets are dark and it is like stepping into a Rembrandt painting. Haiti may be seen as a basket case, but it has its beauties. Stallholders sell their goods by lantern light. A Haitian egg will cost you twice the price of an imported American one – such is how Haiti is abused by outside powers and free market games. Millions of tonnes in aid is sent to Haiti every year. When you are on the ground, it is very hard to see where it is all going.

Then there is the violence. Haiti has been blighted by political unrest for most of its existence. There have been more than 30 coups, and the international community has consistently meddled in the nation’s affairs. Since my first trip to Haiti, the armed gangs have been quietened, at least up to now. But on that first visit, I almost got shot in a gang ambush. A colleague got hit on the head by a peacekeeper’s rubber bullet. Scary voodoo drumming kept me awake at night. We came across unbearable stories of children killed in crossfire. But still, like many a visitor before me, I managed to fall in love with Haiti. It had a lot to do with the people I met.

For my Channel 4 film – about the showdown between gangs and the UN for control of Cite Soleil – Jeremy was our translator. Brought up in an orphanage – he had also lived in the streets – the 19-year-old had overcome his hard start in life and learnt English and Spanish. With the help of an American reporter, he found a job for a Latin American news organisation. These days he is a reporter. When he is not working, he devotes his time to a social movement that sets up schools for children who cannot afford to pay school fees.

Pouchon, our driver, had had an equally hard start in life. Now he is a cameraman. At night, he would drive me and my colleagues up the hill to the fancy restaurants where the “blancs” or whites from the aid agencies socialise. White gloved waiters would frown when they saw someone like him join us at the dinner table. He kept us endlessly entertained with stories about his life. “I wish Pouchon was my brother,” whispered my English director.

Pouchon is his own man and absolutely defiant of the social mores which dictate polite society in Haiti. One day, I had a dental emergency. Pouchon took me to a private dentist, where he escorted me to the waiting room and fussed over me. It was arranged he would pick me up in an hour. The well-off in the room scrutinised the exchange with horror. With a grand flourish, Pouchon kissed me on each cheek in au revoir, then sailed out whistling. My fellow patients were aghast, eyes on stalks. I suppressed a giggle.

Cindy and Clifford didn’t make it into that first film. But I couldn’t get them out of my mind. It shocked me that a form of slavery still exists in a country that is the only former slave nation that revolted and won independence. I’d met the children in a small school run by Marlene Mondesir, a powerhouse of a woman who set up a school so that restavek children could learn to read and write for free. The children started to beg her to help them find their mothers. Now, when funds allow, she tries to reunite children with their parents. She told me she was going to try to find Cindy and Clifford’s mother. In a good year, Marlene will send 70 children home. It is a drop in the ocean – there are an estimated 330,000 restaveks in Haiti. Al Jazeera English decided to commission a film about that story for their Witness series.

Eight months after my first trip to Haiti, Marlene had arranged to take Cindy and Clifford to find their mother. I was delighted to be returning. Many documentaries focus on the negative; it can make grim viewing for the audience. When Marlene told me she had found the children’s mother – a long bus ride away on the other side of the island – I was over the moon. Finally, the chance to make a feel-good film about a serious topic.

Before leaving, we filmed the children’s daily routine. Cindy and Clifford would rise at 4am. The first task of the day was to fetch cans of water from the pump a mile down the hill. Cindy then had to make a fire and prepare the breakfast – a pack of spaghetti for seven people. Next came the cleaning, then the babies had to be washed and dressed. Then more cleaning and preparation for lunch.

The restavek system, once a force for good, is little more than a form of modern day slavery. Cindy and Clifford’s mother, Nicole, had fallen ill and was unable to provide for her children. She had sent them to live with a sister in Port-au-Prince, hoping they would have a better life.

It is common in Haiti for parents not to be able to feed all their children. The average per capita income of a Haitian is $560 a year. Mothers beg orphanages to take their children so they will have access to food and schooling. Before reuniting children with their parents, Marlene ensures there are enough funds (from NGOs and charitable donations) to pay school fees for one year. The mother is also given funds to start a small business – usually a stall.

Cindy and Clifford were well aware of their lucky escape when we began the long journey home. When we weren’t filming they held my hand and the hand of Reed Lindsay, the American cameraman. Pouchon came with us – the children adored him. From the moment we left Port-au-Prince, Clifford had a smile on his face. He was going to meet his mummy.

Nicole lived with her father in a neat little house in a jungle clearing. It was stunningly beautiful, a million miles from Port-au-Prince. As we approached the house, Cindy started to whoop. She twirled around in her white dress, a new outfit Marlene had bought her to replace her rags. Nicole was not expecting us. She cried as she stared at her children. That evening, the children played in a stream and washed under a waterfall. Within hours, they changed from cautious, careworn workers into proper children. That night they slept on the floor with Nicole, one child on either side.

We had our feel-good film. Months later I was shocked to hear the children had returned to the city. Jealous neighbours, envious of the children’s city ways and school fee money, cursed them with voodoo hexes. They became allergic to the country water. Scared, Nicole took them back to Port-au-Prince. It wasn’t a disaster – this time she was staying with them. With Marlene’s seed money, she started selling beans in the market and paid for the children to attend school. Every now and then Pouchon will go and check on them. Cindy still wants to be a doctor.

Since the earthquake, I have no idea if they are dead or alive. I have had no news of Pouchon or Jeremy or Marlene. At the best of times, communication to Haiti is patchy. Now it seems to be impossible.

The death toll will be massive. People will die from disease and hunger. Then the country will fall from the headlines. It is hard to predict how well the aid will be distributed. And I don’t know if I will ever find out what has happened to Cindy and Clifford.

Sandra Jordan is a reporter and documentary maker

source: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100116/WEEKENDER/701159840/1080/OPINION

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 5:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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