Haitians live on hope, little else Strong people, but weak country

February 01, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

CROIX DES BOUQUETS, Haiti -- At 4 p.m. Nicole Dieudonne stands in the unyielding heat and looks out at a parade of children with swollen bellies and bony legs approaching her food center.

She smiles. "You have to see what's in their hearts. Watch."

The children, about 200 of them, gobble furiously at the first meal they have eaten this day: a mixture of rice and beans. But as they get halfway through, dozens of them stop eating and begin scooping food into their palms.

"What are you doing with that," Ms. Dieudonne asked, although she already knows the answer.

"This is for my mother," says one boy dressed with only a pair of muddy blue shorts. "My brother is taking some for my grandmother."

"Is that OK?" he asks, lowering his voice.

Everywhere she turns in this town of dirt roads and one-room shacks, Ms. Dieudonne points to faint signs of goodness, courage and imagination. Left to the will of the real people, she says, Haiti could be a kind and self-sufficient country. But its history is marked by one bloody coup and one oppressive leader after another. The dreams of the people come to life only in their prayers and their art. But these dreams may never be realized.

"What is sad about Haiti is that no matter how terrible their lives are, the people keep believing that somehow things will get better," says Ms. Dieudonne, a Haitian woman who runs a food program that feeds some 800 children in three villages near Port-au-Prince. "They don't know how or when it's going to get better, but they really believe it.

"Sometimes, I can almost believe, too," she adds. "But by the end of the day, it is hard."

Now, the people of Haiti are embroiled in yet another political crisis that has --ed promises of economic advancement. The Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president, is living in exile after a coup 17 months ago. As a result of the coup, the Organization of American States placed a trade embargo on the island.

The sanctions seem mostly to have punished the poor. Grocery stores in Haiti's rich neighborhoods remain fully stocked with U.S. goods.

But even among the poor, the spirit of optimism persists.

"I love my country," says Stenio Caris of Gonaives. But, then, shaking his head, he changes his mind. "I mean I love Haiti."

"The problem is that Haiti does not seem like a country. It is just an island of people," he explains. "For a little while, it seemed like God was with us and he was showing us, through Aristide, how to build a country. Maybe God will bring that blessing back to us."

Glimpses of hope

In the pathways of Croix des Bouquets and the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haitians offer a glimpse of this abiding hope.

More than 30 years ago, most families in Croix des Bouquets made enough money to feed their families by selling fruit, vegetables, soaps and other goods at the market.

Ecianeie Fleure, a 65-year-old mother of eight, says she remembers playing in the lush trees while her father cultivated sweet potatoes on a small plot of land. Her mother took the potatoes to the market each day.

"I was happy as a child," says the frail woman with a wrinkled face and wiry gray hair.

Ms. Fleure remembers her mother putting her to bed at night and promising to send her to school.

"She told me I was going to grow up and be a fancy lady," she says, looking down at her tattered skirt and torn sandals. "I was going to have pretty dresses."

But over the years, the rains diminished and so did the crops. Repeated political crises caused sharp cuts in trade and tourism.

Ms. Fleure says people stopped buying her mother's sweet potatoes. Her father, who could not read or write, was unable to find different work. And there was no money to send her to school.

"I had to get married," she says. "There was nothing else for me."

Looking at the mud shack where she lives, she says she lives from day to day depending on the generosity of others: visitors who offer money or her grandson, who brings home handfuls of beans and rice from Ms. Dieudonne's food center.

"Life is misery and problems," she says.

Her daughter, Claudette Theodore, reaches over and shakes Ms. Fleure's arm as if trying to wake her from a nightmare. "I'll get a job," she says. "I'll be able to help."

The 30-year-old daughter is eight months' pregnant. While talking, she fidgets uncomfortably in a dress that fits tight around her stomach.

The plan, she explains, is that the family will sell its plot of land, about a half-acre, and then she will go to the United States.

Once there, she will find a job and send back enough money to support the entire clan. It is done by thousands of families all over the island.

"I can read and write and type," explains Ms. Theodore proudly. "I know it will not be easy there. But it will be easier than here.

"In America, if you are not lazy, you can find some kind of work," she adds. "Here, people want to work hard. But they have no work to do."

Ms. Dieudonne, interpreting for a visitor, stands up suddenly and begins sobbing.

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