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#308: Grinding Poverty Still Rules Haiti (fwd)


Grinding Poverty Still Rules

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The stunning view from the mountaintop over
Port-au-Prince Bay is even more beautiful at night, the lights twinkling
in the darkness below. Up close, the idyll disappears. Here, on the
fringes of Haiti's bustling capital, the people of the Martissant
neighborhood have no electricity, no running water, no telephones. Like
many Haitians, they live in conditions little changed from a century
ago.  "We live on another planet," said Bernard Merisier, a laborer who
lives in a one-room cinder-block house. Their lives consist of
unfulfilled promises and dashed hopes, of a day-to-day struggle for
survival that is numbing. Merisier is bitter about his lot. At 23, he is
the breadwinner for a family of four adults and five children. He was
making a good living by Haitian standards -- $220 a month -- hauling
goods, but then his truck broke down and he can't afford to get it
fixed. His brother, Auxilien, farms a 1 1/2-acre plot purchased by a   
great-grandfather. But the land, like much of deforested Haiti, is now
so degraded that it produces barely enough food to keep the family
alive. "Once I had hope. Now it has collapsed," Merisier said, sitting
on a porch adjoining a roofless room he has been trying to finish for 10
years. His neighbor, Joel Pierre, 34, gets up at 5 a.m. each day, has a
cup of coffee and a piece of bread, then trudges to his field of corn,
machete in hand.At noon, he has a bowl of corn mush. Before sunset, he
returns and has another bowl. He and his friends tell jokes around a
kerosene lamp before going to bed around 10 p.m. Pierre's corn harvest
begins in August. For most of the year, he and his neighbors fend off
starvation by growing breadfruit, sweet potatoes and bananas. Like most
Haitians, they never have enough to eat. No one at Pierre's house can
remember eating meat. They do remember a good meal on Good Friday, when
they had some fish.  Down the hill, a dump truck full of sand rumbles
along a deeply rutted dirt road. Spying it, a couple of people scramble
down a path with buckets, hoping to hitch a ride to a Port-au-Prince
slum where they can get water from a public fountain. The hours pass
idly at Merisier's home, furnished with metal and wooden chairs. The
fragrance of grilled coffee wafts in from a neighbor's charcoal     
brazier. A man has his hair cut while he plays a card game. When it's
time for bed, the family will put some clothing on the cement floor   
and lie down.  Merisier's mother, Adelsa Francois, looks after the
children. She complains there are no doctors or nurses in the area.
Medical care consists of some drugs provided at a dispensary run by
nuns.  Nor are there any public schools. Tuition at a nearby private
school is just $12.50 a year, but uniforms and textbooks raise the cost
to $37.50 for each child.  Merisier can't afford it. His family is in
debt because they had to take out a loan to pay for the burial of a
21-year-old brother. With no other options available, the family went to
a usurer and accepted an interest rate -- called "the dagger" by
Haitians -- of 20 percent of the principal each month. They will have to
pay $937 for a $637 loan within a year. Amid privation, however, there
is dignity. Christiana Bazil was born when the road was laid to
Martissant 50 years ago, but she looks more like 75. She squats all day
on the sweltering, dusty roadside, breaking rocks into gravel for
construction sites. It will take her at least three weeks to accumulate
8 cubic yards of gravel, which truckers will buy for $12.50 -- if the
pile isn't stolen before then. It's hard but honest work," Bazil said
proudly, never stopping her hammering. Few in Martissant care that
Haiti's government plans to hold legislative and municipal elections
this fall.  "Both [former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide] and
[President Rene]Preval have traveled down this road. They know about our
plight. But  promises, promises . . ." Auxilien said.  He cradled his
5-month-old daughter, Myrlene. "I hope that when she is my age, Haiti
will be in better shape. But I don't see how," he said.