A Worrisome Trend in Port-au-Prince

October 18, 2010

 
Joegodson and Paul
 
Everyday life in Port-au-Prince 

People are used to the rubble. They walk around it. But it is more difficult to avoid the violence and criminality.

We are disappointed to have no photographs to enhance our writing, but Joegodson’s camera was stolen a couple of weeks ago. After the earthquake, our friend Louise offered him two hundred dollars, stipulating that there were no stipulations. Joegodson should use it for whatever he thought was a priority. He decided upon a camera. It lasted until September when someone nipped it from his tent. He had been using it not only for our website, but for local people who needed photographs for identity cards lost in the earthquake. However, we have a little cache of photographs in our database that we will post when appropriate.

Joegodson’s father Deland is back home from his night at the hospital. He needs more than ever to keep his sangfroid to confront the crises that surround him. He prays to God before swallowing the medication prescribed for his anaemia and hypertension to allow him to keep his mind. But he doesn’t. Instead, fate is playing the cruellest joke. In exchange for his physical health, it takes his sanity. 

Deland and family in front of what is left of the family home and business.

Meanwhile, his worries multiply: nine dependents, no income, and debilitating health. What happens when the person whom people depend upon suddenly depends upon them? In this case, they look to Joegodson, who lives in another part of Port-au-Prince, for help.

Paul decided that by eating like his Haitian friends for a couple of weeks, he could save enough to send one hundred dollars. (A couple of weeks ago, we asked readers who had profited – sometimes, literally – from Joegodson’s journalistic work to consider sending him some help. No one did.)

So, before going home to see his father in Cite Soleil, Joegodson took a taptap on Friday to the Market La Guérite in downtown Port-au-Prince. There, he bought fruits and vegetables in order to make juice for his father. He found oranges, sugar, carrots and – Deland’s favourite – lemons.

On the way home, around Baz Dèyè Bog (that readers will remember from Joegodson’s article on graffiti in Port-au-Prince) the riders crowded into the taptap came to a disturbing realization.

It was eleven o’clock in the morning. They heard a woman scream. Everyone in the taptap, except one man, jumped up to see what was happening. In the middle of the road – a busy street full of normal midday traffic – they saw a young man ripping a gold chain from the neck of a woman. The woman refused to let it go, willing to fight the thief for possession. As she pulled at the necklace, she saw that in his other hand he was carrying a gun. So, she gave in.

What was frightening was the fact that the thief made no effort to run. He simply ambled along with his gun in plain sight. This robbery was taking place in midday, on a busy street, by a bold thief who mixed nonchalance with the threat of mortal force. The meaning of this act chilled the blood of everyone – with one exception – on the taptap. All of these different people understood that they were seeing the same thing: the event crystallized for them something about Port-au-Prince that had been gelling up until then. They feared for their city where a thief could be so brazen, so cruel, and so imprudent. In a functioning society, thieves are conditioned to feel shame in the face of their victims. The rise of shameless, heartless thieves shows the citizens of Port-au-Prince that their society is coming apart. If the old rules no longer apply, you may learn the new ones at your peril.

Next, the taptap passengers all fell silent as one. The man who had shown no interest in either the theft or the discussion became the cynosure of all eyes, much as they tried to avoid looking at him. His identity was hidden behind dark glasses and a cap. On his jaw was a ghastly scar that appeared to have been a gunshot wound.

People suddenly took note of the rash of taptap robberies along that very route. Thieves have taken to riding the taptaps and forcing the driver to stop at the most propitious location. They hold up everyone at gunpoint and run off. In this instance, the taptap riders simultaneously presumed that this man’s disinterest in the conversation arose from the fact that he had similar designs on them. At first, no one articulated what everyone was thinking.

One dignified man arose to say that he refused to be cowed by the menace. He gave voice to everyone’s supposition. He had been robbed six times now. The last time, he had lost six hundred American dollars. A fortune! He said that they were vulnerable on taptaps: small groups of people that were partly hidden by the sides of the vehicle. The thieves could rob in semi-privacy and escape by simply jumping out the back.

Taptaps in Port-au-Prince

The taptap thieves want money, but they also take cell phones. Not long ago, only the rich had cell phones. However, Digicel has led an extraordinary campaign to put cell phones into the hands of the poor in Haiti. It has successfully seduced the poor who see it as an ally. After the earthquake, Digicel gave every Haitian five minutes of free service. Then, it organized the distribution of tents in a way that was sensitive to the needs of the poor, shaming the international NGOs. Now, realizing that people are frightened, it provides a running news service. People consult their Digicel phones to find out what is going on in Port-au-Prince. Last week, for instance, Joegodson read on his cell phone a warning from Digicel to avoid a protest by teachers that had drawn police fire. One of the teachers was killed. Digicel is giving their clients practical information to keep them secure.

We intend no sarcasm in observing that Digicel has succcessfully convinced the Haitian poor that it is sensitive to their needs. It has convinced them because it is actually offering them services that they need. What Digicel may do in the future, once it has the monoply of the Haitian market, is another question. It will indeed be interesting to see how Digicel’s policies evolve once it has displaced the competition for the substantial Haitian market. Indeed, a more developed analysis than we are offering here would enquire into Digicel’s practices in markets where it has little competition. However, critics who refuse to accept that poor Haitians can be – and are – thankful for the material help that Digicel, a large mulitnational corporation, is offering are deficient in their understanding of how capitalism functions.

It was never clear whether the anonymous man was the potential thief that everyone thought he was. He never spoke. What Joegodson noticed was that everyone thought he was. Everyone interpreted the midday robbery in the same way. This tells him that people from different neighbourhoods are all living the same experiences and drawing the same disturbing conclusions.

One of our friends, Gregory, is a very intelligent and generous young man. He has discussed with us in some detail how he was ‘adopted’ into a gang in the year 2000 when he was ten years old and the country was going through a crisis that pales next to the current state of affairs. He was an orphan living on the streets. The older boys trained him to steal from the merchant women, who have once again become targets. (At the end of a day, everyone knows that they are carrying a small sum of cash.) As is often the case, they required that he carry the gun and insisted that he kill anyone who tried to interfere with the robberies. The police caught him after an especially ugly robbery. At ten years old, he was imprisoned in a tiny cell with forty men for an indeterminate period. He could only sleep standing up. If ever he lost his balance and swayed, the men would hit him or even throw him across the room. Gregory was eventually rescued by Serèt Pierre, a kind woman who ran a small orphanage. Hearing about the child’s predicament, she pleaded with the prison official to release him into her custody. He let her take Gregory.

As readers may recall, it was to avoid precisely this development that the local NGOs in Simon were proposing to care for the many abandoned children. It is more and more likely that those who have given up on Haiti’s future are caring for them instead.

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