Hebert is a guy from Port-au-Prince who moved to Jeremie for reasons that he’d rather not talk about. “I came to Jeremie because I came to Jeremie,” he told me with a smile. He is interested in community organizing and neighborhood revitalization. My boss—a lovely tenacious nun from Missouri who has been living here since 1989—told me, “He is just too effective to risk asking about his past. I’d really rather not know why he’s here or what he does to support his children. He could be a drug runner for all I know, but I will not go there.” Since coming to to Jeremie three years ago, he hasn’t held a job. He has seven children, five of which live with him in Jeremie and all of them go to school (he somehow pays for tuition, books, uniforms). They are all well-fed, and he seems to be a very good father. Why no job? He needs this time to get to know the people in the neighborhood, he says, as well as their needs. Where is his money coming from? “My wife has a little stand, and she sells cookies and cigarettes and candy.” Right.
He started PONT 2000, a community organization for the neighborhood of Makandal. He took a census of the entire zone—456 houses in a confusing maze in the poorest area of the city. He has plans to make a map of the entire zone, and to establish and name real streets. His organization runs free computer classes for residents of the neighborhood. He organized the selection of 50 of the most rundown homes to be rebuilt (that was where I came in). He is talking to every single organization that could possibly fund the construction of a school—he has even secured and cleared the land on which to build it. He has connected me with several young artists who are now making a decent amount of money selling their art in my artisan store.
He has been pushing cleanliness, building cement drainage ditches on his own time, cleaning up trash, and pushing for the construction of latrines in the area. Where people have normally gone to the bathroom and dumped their trash, he built a public park out by the water, with cement benches and a nice spot for fishing.
My time in Makandal has really given me a lot. Given the political and economic circumstances (read: isolated, overlooked), it looks like the best possible way forward. People taking stock of the resources in their own area (which often come from NGOs) and organizing themselves around issues that are important to them so that they can make those organizations more likely to use their resources in their zone. The sustainability lies in the fact that the neighborhood takes complete ownership over the work, as it is the neighborhood that advocates for the development projects. At the same time, they’re doing a tremendous amount of work to put themselves in a position that is more conducive to progress using the resources at hand in their own neighborhood, like informal education and census taking.
In the past, this neighborhood was filled with semi-permanent houses and squatters, people in between living situations that settled there temporarily, out of necessity. Since the influx of folks displaced from the earthquake, it’s become a permanent residence for most, for better or worse. Hebert has worked at revitalizing other neighborhoods in his lifetime, but not like this. “I guess I didn’t really realize what I was getting myself into. When I got here, I was pretty shocked. I didn’t know that we could come as far as we have.” When we finish the 50th house, Hebert is going to start fundraising to make a big sign for the entrance into the neighborhood that reads: Bienvenue à Makandal