Before I went to Cité Soleil, an impoverished community near Port-Au-Prince of close to half a million souls, I had a good idea of where I was going. A search on the Internet was enough to give you chills—a slum plagued by gang violence and squalor. News was about fights between gang factions and murders like the brutal shooting of the director of the sole radio station, radio Bookman, “the voice of the voiceless.”
So when I met with activist and folk singer Barbara Guillaume at the U.S. Institute for Peace and she told me that she was running for mayor of Cite Soleil in the next election, I was bewildered. What do you mean, Mayor of Cité Soleil?
The memory of the no law zone where gangs had taken over the police station rushed in and I was captivated. I wanted to tell this story. So I went, and what I found was very different from what I expected.
Yes, Cité Soleil still lives with the fear of gangs—especially at night, the gang extortion and the corruption of the local authorities are excruciating. It is hard to work for the improvement of this community, but as hopeless it may seem, everywhere I found people who devoted all of their resources and their energy for the better good. They are daily heroes and that is why I decided to entitle my documentary Heroes of the Sun.
Here are some of them:
Barbara Guillaume with her medical clinic, her crusade for women and her unfinished school looking for the poorest kids, is one of them. Jorel Joachim, the new director of Radio Boukman, born at the worst time of Cité Soleil—when the United Nations decided to occupy with their tanks—keeps the station alive with a minimal budget, but in doing so created a space for dialogue, recognition and peace. Julio Alissage, the director of a school where two hundred fifty students cram into a single room divided by black boards, manages to distribute rice and beans each day and fill the empty stomachs. Johnny Jeudy, the fisherman who casts a safety net on behalf of elders who cannot fish anymore.
Music is essential to the life of the Haitians and in Cité Soleil it is used to counter violence. The leader of Veye Yo Rara, a band in Tecina, a district in Cité Soleil, says, “Music keeps away the youth from wrong doing.” When they are hungry, and anger is not far, they pick up their horns and drums to express themselves. Rap is the choice of Black Sun, a young poet with limited schooling, but who is inspired enough to write and compose songs like "Haiti Pa Perir," an anthem to his country, for which he fears the worst.
The people of Cité Soleil are among the poorest of the poor. Haitians only go there when they have nowhere else to go. And yes, they are hostage to the gangs, but they don’t give in to them. When confronted with the most outrageous corruption, they can say like the fisherman: “We cannot put everyone in the same basket, there will be a time where people at city hall will be interested in our fishing industry.”
Following those people, discovering the simple gratitude they are able to express—like the tailor, for having received the gift of the sewing machine when she was young—wringed my heart and, even if I could not deny the violence and corruption in which this community was trying to survive, I appreciated the way they gave me access and wanted to share their stories. Recognition was part of the support they needed to be vindicated in their seemingly impossible task: changing Cité Soleil.
Those stories are poignant and numerous. They form a tapestry of initiatives that can change the life in Cité Soleil.
Barbara Guillaume said, “If you can change Cité Soleil, the whole country will know it can change.”
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