Hope in Canaan
May 20, 2010
by Joegodson and Paul
Last week, Joegodson and his girlfriend Antonia took a taptap to Canaan.
A friend of his cousin had claimed several plots of land there and was willing to sell the right to one of them to Joegodson for 1,000 Haitian dollars, about $200US.
About twenty kilometres north of Port-au-Prince is Corail, an official camp created for the victims of the earthquake. Not far from the coast, the land has been levelled and tents organized in rows. Security guards toting rifles protect the perimeter. The authorities have decided that rifles are necesary to protect Haitians from Haitians. Inside of the prison-like settlement called Corail, each tent is allowed to house ten people. Should a household invite guests that surpass that limit, the surplus has to find accommodations elsewhere. That might not be a bad thing, since the regulation tents are so stiflingly hot as the sun approaches the midday sky that no one can survive them for more than a minute. That is Corail.
All around Corail is Canaan, much more to Haitians’ taste. While the hills have long been stripped of their forest covering, there is elbowroom and security from the security of Corail below. In Canaan, Haitians can take their future into their own hands, stepping out from under the thumb of the state that they will trust when it trusts them.
Haitians do trust each other. All over Canaan, people have squatted on the land, marking out properties and respecting each other’s holdings. Joegodson’s cousin’s friend had seen the potential when Corail was established and marked out a few properties in the surrounding hills. He was willing to let one of them go to Joegodson on faith. Joegodson can pay nothing at the moment, but the proprietor has decided he’s worth the risk.
So Joegodson and Antonia went out to stake their claim.
While Corail is a depressingly, state-regulated affair in the sweltering heat of the valley, breezes blow across the pretty hills surrounding it. Many people, who had been left homeless by the earthquake from all over the affected regions, are staking their claims to small plots of land. Young boys have set themselves up in business selling bundles of branches that newcomers buy for twenty Haitian dollars. One bundle is enough to build a fence around a property that other residents will respect as a sign of proprietorship. The boys gather the branches from the forests some distance away and return in the hope of making a tidy sum of money from the new residents who need to make a decent effort at demonstrating their intent to settle in Canaan.
Joegodson borrowed a pickaxe and managed to go a step further, building a frame structure that, with some imagination, could represent the home of a young man who sees a future in his community and his country. For those with less trust and optimism, it might appear a rather pathetic structure upon which to build a future. He built it with whatever was at hand … and there was precious little at hand. But, he was full of enthusiasm and good spirits as he spoke with people who may well become his neighbours in a place that may well grow into its name.
While the state somehow assumed that armed security guards were necessary to protect the prisoner/citizens of Corail, in the surrounding hills of Canaan, newcomers accept in good faith the plots marked out by each other. Joegodson and Antonia collected stones to outline the foundation of their new home and hammered boards together to suggest its structure. They respected the claims of others, as others will recognize their entitlement to settle where they have chosen. The concern of the newcomers is not that they will need to be protected from other Haitians, but from whomever is pulling the strings of the Haitian state.
With the branches that they bought from Andregene, Antonia and Joegodson staked out a plot of land large enough to cultivate vegetables and plant several fruit trees. All of the plots claimed by the newcomers follow the general tradition of peasant communities throughout Haiti, in which paths lead from kay to kay and neighbours respect possessions and privacy. Problems are worked out within the community. Joegodson is already talking about helping to organize the incipient community.
One of the results of a state that has no popular support is that people don’t wait to find out what it is doing. Haitians are taking their lives into their own hands based on what they know is just. If the state wants to come along, then it is welcome. However, when they see that the state is taking orders from foreign interests, Haitians panic less than you might think. It is going to take more energy than technocrats at the World Bank might imagine to get Haitians to fall into line with their master plan for the global economy. Canaan is only one small example of the Haitian capacity to undermine illegitimate authority.
Joegodson is now imaging a future in Canaan. He has already met a number of people who, like himself, are preparing the terrain. He imagines establishing a cultural centre in the new community with a solar panel that might power Internet access and allow him to screen films and documentaries that are otherwise a luxury for poor Haitians. Like his brother in Plaine de cul de sac, he wants to work at the community level to educate and build, literally, from the ground up.
What if the state decides that it doesn’t want people in Canaan? Too late, says Joegodson on behalf of everyone that is in his position. It would mean civil war if the state tries to clear all of these communities, he says.
Like many poor Haitians, this is not Joegodson’s first stop since the earthquake. He lost his lodgings in the quake. Then he lived under the stars and was witness to the debacle of tent distribution (see the Diary section of the website for smoe details.) Finally, he constructed an ajoupa (a traditional temporary peasant dwelling) with several friends on the grounds of the abandonned clinic behind which he used to live. That took weeks to accomplish and was maybe the best structure in the neighbourhood of Delmas 19, until the wealthy owners told them they were taking over the land again. So, Canaan is his next stop. This time, he is imagining the future there along with the thousands of others who want to resettle and rebuild. It’s nice.