PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A mile or so down the street from the U.S. Agency for International Development offices in Port-au-Prince, on top of a former dump, is the neighborhood of Cité de Dieu. It is adjacent to Portail de Leogane, a neighborhood nicknamed Kosovo by the locals for the violence that has taken place there in the last couple of years. The whole area, located in the middle of the capital city, has suffered an increase in rapes, violent clashes with Haitian National Police, and gang activity.
People here are poor, but not unaware of the violence not only at home, but elsewhere. “Haitians are very aware of what’s going on in the world and always have a transistor radio to their ear,” said Catherine Maternowska, a professor of anthropology and social medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who did research in Haiti over the last two decades. “So when they hear about conflicts in areas around the world, they relate to them.”
In Cité de Dieu (“City of God”), women balance buckets of water on their heads, and children carry home used U.N. World Food Programme rice bags filled with food they’ve purchased from the market. Most of the houses have corrugated tin roofs; if they are separated, it’s only by garbage-strewn paths. Some have walls that are also made of tin, instead of sturdier cement blocks. Rivers of sewage run through the neighborhood directly to the sea.
This community is one of many here that have fallen off the radar screens of governmental and nongovernmental organization programs. The World Food Programme had a food distribution project in Cité de Dieu, but it stopped in 2005, leaving families to find food on their own. The one organization still helping to feed the community is a neighborhood church named Redemption.
The church has a small clinic with a few bottles of medicine but not enough resources to serve this community with high rates of HIV/AIDS. People seeking treatment must walk about a mile to GHESKIO (Le Group Haitien d’Etude du Sarcome de Kaposi et des Infections Opportunistes), the nation’s leading HIV/AIDS clinic and research institution.
The crushing poverty of the area and its lack of resources present overwhelming challenges, and both factors contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Mona Louis Juste, the pastor’s wife and a nurse, says the biggest problem the community faces is hunger. Then come insufficient health services, education and jobs.
At the edge of the neighborhood, down a rutted side street strewn with trash, is her husband’s church. Founded in 1983 by Pastor Nicolas Louis Juste, Redemption Church sits on top of what used to be a dump. The people who moved there named the community Cité de Dieu.
Madame Louis Juste says the church serves 2,000 to 3,000 locals. It also offers boarding rooms and runs a school, a clinic and a food program. Although the church serves a very needy population in Port-au-Prince, its only financial support comes from Pastor Louis Juste’s concrete block business and bakery, U.S. church groups and individual donors.
Jerry Bryant has been helping to spread the word about Redemption Church and Cité de Dieu. Although he lives in Indiana, he has been working with Louis Juste since 1999. He first heard about him through a handwritten letter on yellow ruled paper sent to his church.
After many visits to Cité de Dieu over the years, Bryant now helps to collect money from around the U.S. to support church-based programs in Cité de Dieu and other Haitian neighborhoods. In 2006 he was able to send more than $100,000. Last year was less successful, and he sent about $30,000 to help support the food programs, orphanages and schools run by Redemption Church.
The malnutrition is evident in some of the children’s reddish-tinted hair and, according to Madame Louis Juste, most people in the community eat just one meal a day. It might be rice and beans or corn and rice. Haiti, along with Afghanistan and Somalia, has one of the worst caloric deficits per inhabitant (460 kilocalories per day) in the world.
Families cook their meals with charcoal, but there isn’t enough to spare to boil water, so it goes untreated. Women and girls are sometimes forced to walk for up to an hour to collect water. In a community that experiences violence on a daily basis, “one of the biggest things [that is needed to protect women] is ensuring proper infrastructure: water, electricity and fuel,” said Nata Duvvury, director of the Gender, Violence and Rights group at the International Center for Research on Women. “These are the daily tasks that women have to engage in.”
Bryant said that with unemployment rates so high, “people will work for anything.” He said that the pastor is particularly concerned about the older teenage girls in the community. The orphanage and schools have no programs for the girls after a certain age, and many of the girls turn to the street in order to survive.
Madame Louis Juste says the life expectancy in this neighborhood is 45, but many people live to be 60 and she once knew one congregant who lived to be 80. There were many HIV/AIDS cases in the community when she first arrived, but now there are fewer because so many have passed away.
HIV infection rates have decreased in Port-au-Prince in the past five years, but several sources, including the U.S. government’s Country Operational Plan for Haiti in 2005, indicate that one of the primary reasons is that many of those who were HIV-positive have died.
Maustere, 24, who goes by one name, is president of the youth group at Redemption Church. He is tall and thin, and because it’s Sunday, he’s wearing a suit. As he sips Coke from a plastic cup, he explains that two people volunteered to speak about HIV and abstinence to the youth at his church. But he says that although he thinks the message of abstinence was important for the youth, very few of them even attend the youth group anymore. There used to be about 100 members, but now there are only 20 to 30, he says.
“I want you to know, I try my best without resources to keep people coming to the meetings, but it’s difficult,” Maustere said. “Youth are looking for better situations. There isn’t so much faith in church leaders, and it’s harder and harder to have faith that things will get better.”