A day after arriving in Haiti I went to Cité Soleil, a shanty city that is, by many accounts, the worse slum in the western hemisphere. I hadn’t planned on going but my roommate volunteers with the Haitian-run Sunday Project and the organizers made room for me in their car.
In the distance a small dark child, all limbs, jumps up and down, pointing. Another joins him, and another and another—all jumping and pointing at our approaching caravan and scampering over each other like kid goats. Some break formation and run back to the dull gray and rusted metal shacks. I thought they were going to bring other children. Turns out, they ran to be first on the bread line.
Nearly every Sunday for the past 11 weeks, a small procession of cars led by a midnight blue SUV rolls into Cité Soleil, an infinity pool of iron shacks and not much else divided by a highway on the western outskirts of Pótoprens. Think, a massive warren of chicken coops, but bigger and not nearly as airy, for roughly 300,000 people.
Cité Soleil is one of the biggest shantytowns in the world. It’s also the most feared slum in Pótoprens, if not the western hemisphere.
When asked if Haitians thought them brave, Tanya Lemaire and Carel Pedre, the under-40 organizers of this bootstrap pantry operation laughed. We were back at the house where the food, just off the stove, was being packed. Both gave bug-eyed replies.
“Foreigners think we’re brave. Haitians think we’re crazy!”
Hardly anyone drives out here. I can tell because our approach is one of the few smooth stretches of road I’ve driven since arriving in Pótoprens last Friday. Up ahead on the horizon, I see two or three vehicles; an anomaly in a city where driving anywhere requires at least an hour head start and drivers handle rusted cars spewing black exhaust like they’re changing lanes at the Indy 500.
And on the day that I’m finally in a vehicle with air condition, I’m driven to a landscape that is dusty and yellow with heat. Hardly any green in sight. No trees. That’s some feat for a tropical island.
The children, from toddlers to pre-teens, smash like flapjacks into each other; there’re only so many snack-sized white Styrofoam bowls and dentist office-sized cups of juice to go around. Oh, to be unlucky number 330.
I have so many questions: Why are they half-naked? Why are they barefoot out here in this dry, gravelly land? Why do so many of these children have red or blondish hair and distended bellies—telltale signs of malnutrition?
Why are so many of the littlest boys running around outside with their penis nubs out? In any other place I would tease a toddler for walking around naked. Here though, I avert my eyes. It is shame that I feel.
Why are children, especially the littlest ones, covered in a layer of dust and dirt? Why is the little girls’ hair scattered over their heads, as though it hadn’t been combed for two days? Forget what it does to her self-esteem, a visibly uncared for little girl is easy prey for opportunists of the worse sort. How do teen girls and women take care of their menses? Where do they find water to wash their cloths?
I ask myself all of these questions about basic standards of living in the first five minutes after stepping out of the car and surveying the children who are, in addition to all of the above, happy, giddy, expectant, curious, starving. What an unbelievable waste of intellect, talent, leadership, strength, courage, beauty, hope. Until Cité Soleil, I never imagined anything worse than what I’ve already seen in parts of Pótoprens.
Haitians think we’re crazy. Cité Soleil has a reputation for being lawless and overrun by gangs with the collective moral compass of a child soldier. For that reason, Tanya and Carel run the Sunday Project like military tacticians.
Drive in with as few vehicles as possible, which could mean cramming 20 volunteers into three cars. Drive out as soon as the 329th hand takes the last meal. No goodbyes, no dawdling, no ceremony, just scramble back into the vehicles and pull away amidst bodies crushing the cars and peering into the windows.
Today in fact, project organizers had to distribute food from the back of the white pickup, not the usual sheltered stage. (Imagine a tornado destroyed a plain cement home, leaving only the porch and the hallway entrance.) Pay to use the space, a community leader demanded, one Haitian volunteer explained to me. Meanwhile, a crowd of adults were bunched on the “porch” cheering Argentinean footballer, Messi on a small TV in the enclosed hallway area.
Paying was out of the question though, not least because Tanya and Carel barely raised enough money to add meat to this week’s meal; children received the usual white rice but with a watery stew made with specks of ground beef and a few carrots. I remarked to Tanya that none of the children ate out in the open. I’d expected, after the din of gathering on line, to hear the quiet of children eating. No, she said. They take the food back to their homes to share.