Voice of Witness is delighted to share one of the first interviews from our newest project: Hunger of the Soul: Voices from Post-Earthquake Haiti.
Read on for an excerpt from our first interview trip to Haiti in August 2012, and a note from novelist and c0-editor Peter Orner. Hunger of the Soul will be edited by Orner and University of Chicago/Partners in Health physician Evan Lyon. Additional editorial and interview support will be provided by University of Montana Professor Katie Kane and University of Virginia law professor, Doug Ford. The book is made possible in part by the generosity and support of the Abundance Foundation. Can you help us complete our fundraising for this important book? Click here to make a tax deductible donation today.
“WHAT WILL WE DO WHEN THE RAIN COMES AGAIN?”
Jeanine, 52, is an unemployed former maid now living in a tent camp, two and a half years after an earthquake flattened much of Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities and towns, and killing more than two hundred thousand people, including Jeanine’s sister. Her interview took place at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in downtown Port-au-Prince in August of 2012. We sat in plastic chairs in a crowded lobby. Many people came and went as we talked. Throughout the interview, just outside on the street, a semi was having trouble rounding a tight corner, and many men were offering advice to the driver. At one point, the truck backed up into a small fruit stand. Jeanine was not distracted by the truck or the people. Not once did she take her eyes off the interviewer, and her voice maintained the same even tone.
Years ago, when I was only fourteen years old, I came to Port-au-Prince because my family was poor. I came here to find a better life. I used to work inside people’s houses as a maid, you know, washing the clothes, cooking, looking after the children, that sort of thing. I used to make only six Haitian dollars a month, but that six dollars was enough to cover all my bills, the food, everything. Now, everything is so different. I’m unemployed. I’m still young. I can still work. I must take care of my family and pay for my kids’ school fees. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who just took a test and she passed. She’s going to the ninth grade, so I’m very proud of her.
I never went to school myself, never had that opportunity, but I am going to school now. There’s this program for people who don’t know how to read and write.
I live in a camp off of Delmar Street. If you go to Bel Air and then down the hill, that’s Delmar. I live with three of my own children and two of my sister’s children. My sister died during the earthquake. Our house fell down upon her. Her children are my children too.
What I remember of that day, the 12th of January, is that we, the people of Haiti, died a lot. I was so sad to see the way people died. They died like animals and nobody took care of the bodies; they were just put on top of piles of bodies. When we found my sister’s body we couldn’t pay to bury her and so we just wrapped her in a white blanket.
Immediately after the earthquake we moved into this camp. From the minute I got here, I’ve been wanting to get out. But the fact is I am too poor to move. Last night the wind blew away the top of my tent. I put a regular bed sheet over our heads. That’s how we were able to sleep. What will we do when the rain comes again?
Violence is a big problem. I myself have been raped. I’m just thankful that my daughters were not in the tent that night. God knows they would have been victimized too. They were at church. There was morning prayers the next day so my daughters were sleeping overnight in the church. Two men came in. Their faces were covered. One put a gun to my head. It was one of those short guns.
I couldn’t make any noise, or shout for help, because they might have killed me then, or hit me with the gun. That’s all I want to say about what happened. After, I didn’t go to the police because I really have no trust in them. But I did know about this place [the Institute for Justice and Democracy], that they have good lawyers here. I know that other victims have got their justice, so then I decided to come here. The first thing they did was take me to the hospital, to get myself cleaned out, and to make sure that that I had no diseases.
Can you imagine waking up early in the morning like I do? I have all these young kids in my house. While I’m away looking for work, I think about home and worry that maybe one of them might get raped because we don’t have any protection, no gun, no knife, nothing. And no cop wants to come inside our camp because they’re afraid of these gangsters.
And the food, what about the food? Sometimes two days go by and I’m not able to feed them. Can you see this, this hunger taking over Haiti? A little sack of rice for six dollars Haitian? That’s too much money for someone that’s not working. In the past, yes, I could live, but not now. It’s incredible that we have to live in situation after this tormented earthquake.
Notes From the Road
by Peter Orner, editor, Hunger of the Soul: Voices From Post-Earthquake Haiti
Peter recently returned from twelve days in Port-au-Prince, for his first interview and research mission for this project.
What most struck me about Port-au-Prince initially was the almost complete lack of public infrastructure. A flattened national palace, crater like potholes, lack of functioning street lights, open sewers, massive tent cities that were meant to be temporary…All of it gives, to an outsider observer, the sense of almost overwhelming chaos. Yet, the more time I spent in the city, the more I came to see that the family and social infrastructure is very much intact and that, in many respects, Port-au-Prince functions amazingly well, and calmly, all things considered. We plan to explore these family and other social relationships in great depth in Hunger of the Soul. It is often repeated, quite tediously to my mind, that Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. This superficial measurement tells us very little about what it is like to be Haitian in 2012. What I saw in Port-au-Prince was extreme economic poverty, but not poverty of spirit or imagination.
Our book will seek to capture, through the voices of the Haitian people, what it’s like to not only endure such a tragedy as the devastating earthquake of 2010 (and all the accompanying problems including lack of adequate health care, violence, and a cholera epidemic) but also how people continue to raise their families, send their children to school, find work, and all the other challenges that millions of Haitians face each day.