Choice is Power – Lessons from Cité Soleil

What stands out for me in these last two weeks in Haiti is the people. I'm reminded that, in any life circumstance, we have choice in how we live and how we meet the world. Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, wrote about how people found freedom, choice and meaning even in the concentration camps. He wrote about men in the camps who walked around comforting others and gave away their last pieces of bread. I've met people like this here; to me they are everyday heros.

 

Earlier this week, I was invited to visit a neighbourhood in Cité Soleil with one of the design teams from the permaculture course. We visited three households and interviewed the residents about their daily lives: how they cooked, bathed and went to the toilet, how they got their water, food and fuel. We heard about how one home had been built and how another had been destroyed in the earthquake.

In one family, there was a man who lived in a tin house with his adult son. Inside the house, there was a baby less than a year old, sleeping naked on a dirty cardboard box on the floor. I asked the man whether this was his grandchild. He said no, this was a friend's baby; the friend was sitting outside. He explained that whenever there were children in the neighbourhood who needed a place to stay or food to eat, they would come here. He said he was like the father of the neighbourhood.

We asked him about the small garden he had in the corner of the yard. He explained that he had taken seeds from some of the fruit the children had eaten, planted them and watered them; when he saw that plants started to grow, he put up a make-shift fence to protect them from the animals.

He told us that since the 80's, they've been playing dominoes every afternoon and that everyone is welcome to join them. Sometimes someone prepares food and shares this with the group. When he has the means, he prepares food and shares this with the group.

It seems that people who are generous of spirit are rich here, no matter their living circumstances.

In another household, there were four siblings living together. We spoke with one of the brothers, who was probably in his late teens. We asked about how they cooked. He told us that they had prepared one meal that day and that he did not have the means to know where their next meal was going to come from. I think his parents work in La Gonave, at least an hour away, and brought them money when they could.

I felt incredibly touched, humbled, grounded and uplifted to be there. I want to support people who are living like this and they are probably to be found in every neighhourhood in Port-au-Prince. I would love to see every family learn to grow their own food, harvest their own rainwater, at least in the rainy season, and turn their poo and pee into soil fertility. I truly believe this is possible. There are food scraps amongst the plastic at the market and along the rivers; the goats and pigs eating in the garbage are evidence of this. Instead of pooping and peeing in chemical toilets or on open ground, people could be harvesting their urine and composting their humanure. These are all resources waiting to be transformed.

I realise that I have privilege, and yet, WE ALL HAVE CHOICE. I have privilege in having a wide range of choices. I choose to be here and I can return home to Canada, to our house with running water, electricity, fridge, garden, car and bicycles. I can choose to drink filtered water, boiled city water, city water straight from the tap, filtered water in bags, rain water, river water, or runoff in the streets. In the permaculture course this week, one of the teachers said that he'd taught in much better conditions than this and heard people complain. And yet here, even though we were hot inside the classroom, it happened several times that there was not enough food at lunch, and one day one of the compost toilets was full and the handwashing water was empty, we didn't hear anyone complain. Probably all of us understood that these were luxurious conditions compared to life in the camps around us; I think our responses reflected this understanding. So even if there is not enough food for everyone to have a plate, we still have choice. We can choose to share our meal with someone else, or give our plate away, or be grateful that we already ate once today.

In the camps and in Cité Soleil, the choice to turn waste and pollution into useful resources exists. We have the choice to work towards this and to support others in making this step. The 'groupement' model of cooperative groups is common in Haiti and has applications in community organising, microenterprises, vocational training, emotional support and political activism. The groupement model is a clear example of the power of collaboration and the power we have to improve and transform our lives, especially when we work together. Today, as I'm preparing the training program for AMURT, I'm realising that we all have these choices: to step fully into our own lives, to envision a better future, to work towards transforming our communities, to support each other, and to take the first step. Choice is power and we have it.

After 13 days of being here without a day of rest, I spent an afternoon at the beach with friends.  On hindsight, the beach was similar to other experiences in PauP - more people than I expected, more noise than I enjoyed, people calling us 'white' and trying to sell us things.  Seeing the cows grazing near us and looking at seashells helped me get away from the crowds and city...

 

 

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