Living in the Middle of Things

Héguel’s mood dramatically soured half-way through our English lesson. This is extremely unusual, the first time I had seen it in the more than seven years of our acquaintance. But it turned out to be understandable enough.

The class itself could hardly have been the reason. It was a joy. As difficult as it might be to see the good that English classes are doing – even though some of the guys’ English is improving very quickly – the meetings we spend learning songs are always a pleasure. The guys had been working hard to master “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”, and the results were encouraging.

We are, however, making more serious progress as well. The Cité Soleil group has begun to focus its attention on an aspiration that is becoming ever clearer: They would like to establish a business. I came across an interesting project that might work well for them while I was visiting Oxford in December on behalf of Shimer College. A British engineer had developed a way to produce small solar electric panels very cheaply. They are large enough to run a little transistor radio.

Or, what seemed more to the point to us, to charge, though slowly, a cellular phone. Cell phones are spreading quickly through Haiti, but electricity is unavailable in many areas and unreliable in many others. The guys are very confident that cell phone owners will snap up solar chargers as quickly as they can produce them as long as we can keep the price down, and I’m pretty sure they’re right. They’ll be a couple of hurdles – getting some of the materials into Haiti, organizing the group in a manner that’s productive, but also transparent enough to prevent misunderstandings, and finding the small amount of start-up capital we’ll need to get the ball rolling. But it’s the most promising possibility we’ve come up with thus far. Héguel is especially excited about it, because he’s an experienced electrician and, so, he knows he can contribute in important ways to making the guys’ dream real.

Héguel and I have been friends since 1999, when he was one of my colleague Erik’s principal Creole teachers. Over the years, he’s become more and more involved in the Wonn Refleksyon education movement that we are part of here. He participates in regular events, and has co-led groups of new participants. He is the one that invited me to begin meeting with his young neighbors in Cité Soleil, where he has spent almost all his life, and is my apartmentmate when I stay there.

On Wednesday evening, I had an interesting conversation that he arranged. We chatted for almost an hour with one of the leaders of the militia that controls Belenkou, the area of Cité Soleil where the apartment sits. He dropped by on his motor scooter, on the way home from playing soccer.

Héguel and I had thought it was important for us to talk. Nothing can happen in the neighborhood without this man’s knowledge and approval. Trying to go around him or behind his back could only lead to trouble. It will be best – in this case, “best” means “safest” – if everything is out in the open, so that we can address any questions or concerns the guy might have.

So he came by, and we had a friendly talk. It was interesting to learn something about his life. Though he circulates freely within Cité Soleil, he cannot leave the area. He would be arrested. Since police don’t enter Cité Soleil, he’s safe there. He talked about a recent trip just outside of the neighborhood a few months ago. It was his first in two years. He talked with energy about how much of what he saw seemed new, how much of it seemed to have changed since he last left Cité Soleil. He made fun of his feeling that he didn’t really know his way around. He was a little discouraged because he hadn’t had the chance to see very much because it was dark – he wouldn’t risk even a short trip during the day.

He was most interested in discussing recent news. Early that same morning, UN forces had attacked the next neighborhood over from ours, an area called Boston. They had occupied an abandoned school, the one tall building left in the area, and thus acquired a vantage point that enables them to control a lot of movement.

Now people in Belenkou were worried about the UN’s next move. That very afternoon, UN soldiers had rolled through in tanks, distributing leaflets in Creole. The leaflets advised folks to go inside and get on the floor whenever they hear gunfire. Such warnings had been the preface to UN attacks into Belaire last year, and so people in Belenkou were scared – and still are.

The man we were talking with had, however, a more specific, a more tactical concern. The second-floor room we were sitting in was my bedroom, the group’s classroom. Héguel and I live in the only two-story building on the intersection leading into Belenkou. It would be the perfect spot for the UN if they wanted to occupy a building to have a good view of Belenkou. So the guy told us that he and his main partner were thinking about what they might do.

In the middle of our musical English class, Héguel heard a rumor that made it sound as though they had settled on a plan. A neighbor came by to tell him that the local militia had decided to tear down the building the next day. They would give residents the chance to collect their things – which is more than can be said for UN forces – but they would then rip the building down.

The move would make some sense for them. Though they have lots of big guns, they do not have the arms to stand up to a concerted UN attack. The UN has tanks and helicopters and is willing to use both. So they can’t hope to defend the building if it comes to an attack. And if the UN were to set up a base on the roof of the building, no one would be able to leave or enter Belenkou – or even circulate much within the neighborhood – without their seeing.

For Héguel and our downstairs neighbors, losing the building would be a real blow. I don’t know our neighbors’ stories, but I know something about Hèguel. He’s been living alone in the apartment for years. It’s inexpensive, and he’s comfortable there. He’s filled it over the years with the books and other personal possessions that shape his life. He’s worried because he doesn’t know where he would go if he loses his home; he doesn’t know where he might find living space he could afford. A simple room in most other neighborhoods of Port au Prince could cost almost ten times what Héguel pays. As they say, “location, location, location.” Not to mention how uncomfortable it would be for him to have to figure out a new life in a new, unfamiliar part of town.

He and I were in touch on and off all throughout the day on Friday, and as of the last time I spoke to him, no move had yet been made to tear down the house. Where there is life, there is hope.

Here’s the Belenkou Boys’ rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”:

A final note about vocabulary: I describe the man whom Héguel and I spoke with as a militia leader, but I’m not sure whether that’s the best term. He and his partners are regularly referred to as gang leaders by some, as community activists by others.

The latter term seems wrong, or at least incomplete, because it overlooks the fact that they are heavily armed. But the former makes it sound as though they are simply criminals, and I’m not sure that’s entirely fair either. In their own view, they are struggling against a foreign occupying force, and there is much in the UN’s behavior to justify such an attitude – whether or not it is, as a description, any more accurate than “gang” is for those for whom it’s used.

I don’t think I should be neutral at the cost of being truthful, but I don’t think I should pretend to understand more than I do. It makes naming things an uncomfortable business.