Nothing’s Plenty

November 11, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

Our friend had sent Joegodson and Antonia a wedding present of one hundred English pounds before she left for Africa six weeks ago. He didn’t know. Fortunately, it was still waiting for him at the Western Union office this week. Along with the little he can make around Port-au-Prince, it allowed him to address the most pressing concerns.

And it led to an adventure that lightened his spirit.

With Antonia getting closer to giving birth, and cholera and other diseases closing in around them, Joegodson returned to see what was happening in Canaan. The plot that he and Antonia had reserved in the spring was still waiting. The rebars that he had bought to reinforce the foundation were still there. But with no money beyond that needed to avert disaster, he has not been able to proceed.

Antonia on the plot of land in Canaan in the spring, after she and Joegodson tried to suggest their claim with the little at hand.

However, this week, he found that there has been much activity in Canaan. Plots of land that were one hundred dollars in the spring are now one thousand. An increasing number of those displaced from the earthquake are trying to find the means to legitimate the plots that they claimed months ago. The suggestion of a fence or a frame, in the absence of an actual presence, is no longer enough to assure possession. That is all that Antonia and Joegodson had been able to erect.

Along the road that leads into Canaan, small trucks wait with loads of sand, cement, and rocks in case a serious homesteader should appear. Joegodson saw this as a good sign. Those small entrepreneurs would not have been present if there were no customers. People were beginning to lay their foundations. If Joegodson could not demonstrate an intention more substantial than the stick house, someone would claim the plot and sell it to another homesteader. His moment would have passed.

He and his cousin (who lives in the area and had sold him the plot – on assignment – months ago) chatted up one of the truck drivers. He told them that he would return once he had delivered his truckload of sand to a customer up the mountain. Joegodson asked how much a shipment of stones would cost. They will be the foundation of his home and will go a long way to demonstrating to others that the claimant of his property is actively pursuing construction. The driver said that the price for a truckload of stones depended on the distance travelled, but ranged between five and seven hundred Haitian dollars. Joegodson asked where the stones were quarried. After a while, the driver agreed to take Joegodson to the quarry and to assist in the delivery.

On the left, Aristide's housing project at Onaville. (photo by Francis Concite)

On the way, they passed Onaville, the beginning of one of Aristide’s housing projects for the poor of Port-au-Prince. After the kidnapping of Aristide and the fall of the Lavalas government, Onaville was left fallow. However, Joegodson was heartbroken to see this high quality housing project that Arstide’s government had been erecting for the poor left largely vacant. Now, only a few wealthy families have taken up residence in the structures, although the isolated subdivision offers no services. They can access their homes since they have sturdy vehicles. Around them, the displaced have erected tents.

When the driver arrived at the quarry, Joegodson was astounded to find a community of male peasants that had created a world of their own. They were materially poor, far below the standard of Port-au-Prince. They were cheerful and happy in their work. They charmed Joegodson who had the privilege of spending the afternoon talking and joking with them.

They had peasant names. Haitian peasants distinguish their offspring with creative monikers. Others are given a meaningful nickname. For instance, they named the worker who was especially religious Pastè (pastor). Joegodson began by chatting up a man in his forties named La Misè (Misery – mixing French and Creole words.). His story was similar to the others. He has four children. They live with his wife in Croix-de-Bouquets so that they can attend school. A couple of times a month, they come to visit their dad in his quarry and he passes along the money that he has earned so that they can pay their teachers and buy food. Otherwise, the quarrymen live apart from their families. They live and work hard from sunrise to sunset in their quarries.

Each peasant mined his own quarry. Joegodson bought his truckload of stones from Ti Nonm (Little Man) who had a shipment ready to go. All four of the peasants who worked in that area came to help Ti Nonm and Joegodson load the truck. They joked and laughed together and then went back to their separate quarries.

Joegodson was exhausted just watching as Ti Nonm pounded the wall of rock into uniform pieces of stone. They told him that when sunset comes, they are physically exhausted and sleep well. They live in ajoupas that they build out of palm branches. (An ajoupa is a temporary and practical peasant shelter. It protects from the sun and allows the breeze to circulate. Peasants who live in them permanently replace them after several years.)

When Joegodson asked Ti Nonm how long he had worked in the quarry, he replied that he had been there since a truckload cost twenty Haitian dollars. Now, it fetches six hundred. The peasants did not use the same references as Joegodson: he soon realized that time was not calculated in years or hours, but followed events that had meaning for the workers. Joegodson tried several other approaches until he was able to calculate that Ti Nonm had been working there since 1995. Others had been there longer. Ti Nonm used to make coal for the Port-au-Prince market before that, but since there were no more trees, he decided to get into the quarry business.

There is no water in the neighbourhood. They look forward to the passage of a truck, like the one that brought Joegodson to them, so that someone can hitch a ride to Canaan and fill up the jerry cans with water. Otherwise they have to walk and it’s a long way. Joegodson looked at the dirty water containers and asked about their precautions in the current situation.

“Aren’t you afraid of cholera,” Joegodson asked.

“What’s that?” they all asked.

They were all in good condition of course, although their skin was burnt by the sun. They worked constantly, always making sure that someone had a shipment of stones ready in case a truck came by. There was no telling when the next truck might appear.

They knew little about what was happening in Port-au-Prince. While only kilometres away, it was not easily accessible. They made their own community, dependent on the urban economy, but otherwise isolated from the city.

Joegodson found his spirit lightened during the afternoon. They were unpretentious and evidently content with their lives and comradeship. Once they made enough cash to support their families, their own material needs were minimal and almost completely independent of money. They were of the earth.

Their simplicity and happiness was spiritually enriching to Joegodson. The disaster that is Port-au-Prince – the anxiety and the squalor – were far, far away for a few refreshing hours. The constant struggle to earn enough of the little money in circulation to assure the survival of your dependents seemed artificial in the face of these workers who happily allowed money to slip through their fingers.

Joegodson now has a plot of land with a pile of rocks on it. Of course, they could be stolen before he finds the resources to buy the sand and cement required to lay the foundation. But the rocks are special. They are a reminder that our lives and our communities are within our control. We need what we think we need. Such rocks could serve as a solid foundation.


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