Heading out of the airport, you'll pass two UN peacekeepers, one with a Brazilian patch, the other with an Argentine flag. As you pass the blue helmets, smile, wave, and receive dumbfounded stares in return. The United Nations also has Jordanians and Peruvians here, parked in APVs fifteen minutes northwest, along the edge of the hyperviolent Cité Soleil slum, the poorest and most densely populated six square miles in the poorest and most densely populated country in the hemisphere. The peacekeepers don't go in much, neither do the national police. If they do, the gangsters that run the place start shooting. Best to steer clear, although you'd get a cheap price on children there. You might even get offered a child gratis.
You'll notice the streets of the Haitian capital are, like the tap-taps, overstuffed, banged up, yet colorful. The road surfaces range from bad to terrible, and grind even the toughest SUVs down to the chassis. Parts of Delmas are so steep that the truck may sputter and die under the exertion.
Port-au-Prince was built to accommodate about 150,000 people, and hasn't seen too many centrally planned upgrades since 1804. Over the last fifty years, some 2 million people, a quarter of the nation's population, have arrived from the countryside. They've brought their animals. Chickens scratch on side streets, and boys lead prizefighting cocks on string leashes. Monstrously fat black pigs root in sooty, putrid garbage piled eight feet high on street corners or even higher in enormous pits that drop off sidewalks and wind behind houses.
A crowd swells out of a Catholic church broadcasting a fervent mass. Most Haitians are Catholic. Despite the efforts of Catholic priests, most also practice vodou. In the countryside, vodou is often all they practice.
You may see a white jeep or van with a siren, a red cross, and the word ambulence handpainted on it. You might assume this is an ambulance. It is not. These private vehicles only carry dead people. Public health is spotty at best. The annual budget for the health care of the UN peacekeepers in Haiti is greater than the annual budget for the country's Health Ministry. It's a bad idea to get sick here, as I was to find out.
At night, those with homes pack into tin-roofed, plywood, or cinder-block dwellings, on dirt roads bisected by gullies of raw sewage. Most people loot electricity from street wires to enjoy a light or two until rolling blackouts enshroud the city and end the sounds of dancehall reggae and hip-hop. Then total darkness reigns, and total silence, save for the spasmodic barking of dogs, and the nightly gunfire that can be heard from Cité Soleil to Pétionville. Only the generator-driven lights of the fortified UN compounds illuminate the haze over the city.
But now, in the daytime, many Haitians, particularly the 70 percent with no formal employment, will be on the sweaty, steamy, dusty streets. When either gender needs to urinate, they simply find a quiet pole or a ditch. No point going home for relief since few have indoor plumbing. Haitians take great pride in their appearance, but as more than three quarters live on less than two dollars per day, they don't have many pieces in their wardrobe. Some beg, like the thirtysomething woman sitting in the middle of Delmas, one horribly infected breast, glistening with pus, hanging out of her shirt.
Some hustle. There are more than 10,000 street kids, mostly boys as young as six, some selling unprotected sex for $1.75. Haiti has the highest prevalence of HIV infection outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and Haitians who believe sex with virgins protects against, or even cures, AIDS have driven up the price of such intercourse to $5.00. Haiti has also become a magnet for sex tourists and pedophiles. One left a review of the children in an online chatroom: "The younger ones are even more kinker [sic] than the older women....Park on the street and tell them to go at it!!!!!!!!! If anyone sees you they just ignore you. No police but the multi-national military force is still here." Locals say that the main contribution of the peacekeepers to Haiti's economy comes via the brothels. Opposite a UN camp on an otherwise desolate road outside of Port-au-Prince, Le Perfection nightclub does booming business.
Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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