Haiti: Saving the sewers of Cite Soleil

Cite Soleil has a bad reputation. It’s a no-go area. But going there turned out to be a real privilege for Jane Beesley.

Cite Soleil is a huge shanty town on the edge, in more ways than one, of Port-au-Prince. Not many outsiders visit and few organizations work there. After the earthquake, 300km of the city’s drainage channels were blocked, and with the rapidly approaching hurricane season, emergency action was called for. In Cite Soleil Oxfam has been supporting Disaster Waste Recovery (DWR) to work with the local community to unblock one of the city’s key channels. Much of the channel clearage has relied on intense labor – but that has meant jobs where few or no jobs were available: in 28 days, 25 teams totaling 620 people have cleared 20,000 meters of drainage channel.

Blogs don’t smell, but I wish they could. Stepping out of the Oxfam vehicle, the smell from the drainage channel is pretty potent. But what’s worse is that close to the channel are small shacks, homes to hundreds of families, filled with the smell most days and worse when it rains and the channels overflow. It’s an unbelievably inhuman condition for anyone to live in.

Knee deep in mud

I met with Wilston Etienne, who leads the project between DWR and Oxfam. Wilston is a man once met not easily forgotten. The speed at which you meet him is breathtaking. There’s no standing on ceremony here, no formal handshakes. Young and old men rush to embrace him affectionately like a long-lost and much loved brother, father, friend… more than one arriving out of breath. As we walk alongside the channel this response is repeated time and time again. It must be what it’s like to be with Obama.

But like a shy child behind his mum, or behind her dad in this case, Oxfam was not ignored. Groups of men and women, virtually knee deep in mud, stand and clap. Several greet us with “Oxfam… respect,” and the accompanying hand sign. I felt “cool” to be Oxfam. Everyone wanted to talk about what this work has meant to them. It’s easy to be cynical, or feel embarrassed when people say how they appreciate what Oxfam and partners have done, but here people speak with great dignity, and from the heart. Laurent Anthony, one of the community leaders in Cite Soleil, said, “We want to thank Oxfam and DWR for this work. Those who were upstairs have come downstairs to us. Things are starting to be different here. Before the drainage channels were so blocked you could walk along them. When it rained the houses were flooded with water and rubbish – and people got sick.” Now the channels are being cleared and in long stretches are back to their original state.

A strong desire to continue

Wilston’s accomplishment in getting this project going hasn’t been easy. Cite Soleil is complex and virtually inaccessible to many. The poverty in Cite Soleil is immense. Its way out is hampered by so many things, not least its reputation, and with the need in Port-au-Prince being so great, it’s easy to just forget about it. But when you get the opportunity to get inside and meet people you’re quickly reminded that by treating people as people with dignity and respect – by providing opportunities for people to work and to live in an area more suitable for humans – most people are just the same the world over.

At the moment we do not know what future programs we can provide in Cite Soleil. “They want the program to continue,” says Wilston, “but I’ve always been honest with them. I’ve told them what it is and when it will finish but they still have the desire – a strong desire – yes I’d say desire rather than expectations.”

At the end of the walk, at the end of the visit, I admit I was a bit choked – and it wasn’t by the smell.

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Map of Oxfam's response in Haiti

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