The ones on the ladder earn the most, though the foreman never quite specified an amount. In all, I counted about 60 workers, all of whom began working around 6am. When I finally filmed them, it was already 5pm; they had been working non-stop since the morning.
The easy way to describe the scene is to call the workers a well-oiled machine. To do so, though, would belittle the artistry of their movements. Machines are clean and efficient, but lack the flavor of personality that defines humanity. Periodically the workers broke out into songs, Kreyol-language work hymns interrupted by the occasional shouting from one end of the work site to the other. It was like watching a vertical chain gang, each person perfectly in tune to the one below him as they passed buckets up to the men on the roof. Young or old they remained fluid; they dropped not a single bucket.
Reconstruction in Haiti is a hot button issue, due to the global attention placed on the country after the January 2010 earthquake. Everyone asks where’s the reconstruction, why is the rubble still on the streets, and generally why Haiti still seems like it’s in post-disaster mode. The answers to these questions are complex, and require far more nuance than those who ask them typically would like to hear. A casual drive through Port-au-Prince and it’s easy to draw no discernment between buildings damaged from the earthquake and those that were never finished beforehand. Still, the fact is that there is much to do to bring Port-au-Prince up to its full potential, and reconstruction is a central component of that process.
And so the question often arises, how does one rebuild Haiti? I think for many of us looking on the outside in (and I do consider myself an outsider though I’ve lived here for a year now), we would like the process to be similar to what we observe in our home countries: an investor decides to build somewhere, the land is cleared, the building goes up, on to the next one. In Haiti, the obstacles to the flow of that process are numerous.
Who owns the land? Do we have enough cement? Seriously, who owns the land? Do we have permission from the government to build yet? Ok, but who really owns the land? What about taxes, have we taken care of that? Oh, so we don’t know who owns the land?
And so forth and so forth.
One thing that is constant in construction in Haiti is the workforce. There is a limitless supply of laborers, Haitians who are able and willing to work hard. I won’t glamorize the situation and say that Haitian men are lined up with hammers and cement mixers, waiting for a chance to rebuild their country and proceed to glory. No, the reality of the situation is gritty. These men are unemployed and will work all day for a few hundred goudes (a few dollars USD) to take home to their families. Nonetheless their strength is immeasurable.
The scene described in the beginning of the article takes place near my house, a modest middle-income neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. I spoke to the foreman (who may not in fact be the foreman, but was the only man there not working and the only person with not a speck of cement on him; also, he wore a fancy hat) who explained that the owner of the hotel up the road was expanding his enterprise and building a set of apartment buildings. When would all this be finished? By March, he assured. I looked at him incredulously. The only piece of equipment in sight was a cement mixer. Aside from this and a few dozen shovels and hammers, the five dozen workers labored entirely by hand.
March? Are you sure? Yet he remained emphatic. Yes, it will be done. The caveat, though, is that they would only pursue this deadline if the owner saw potential tenants in the pipeline. I then pointed to a similar half-finished apartment complex not two buildings away. In a year’s time, I had never seen a single day of construction take place. Yet, in a matter of months the workers at this site had halfway finished the project. What happened? Ah, the owner ran out of money, he speculated. Construction in Haiti is nuanced indeed.
As precarious as the situation on the ground might be, though, the workers remain constant. When they finished their days work, several of the workers began chanting and dancing. My kreyol isn’t fantastic, but it was a song celebrating the things they don’t have in life. At one point they surrounded me and began pointing at my hair and chanting. Dreadlocks? I aint got none! Dreadlocks? I aint got none! I enjoyed this song.
I hope to see more construction while I’m in Haiti. It’s inspiring. While the process behind it may not move as fast as anyone would like to see, when you do get a chance to see Haitians at work building their country, brick by brick (or rather, bucket by bucket of cement), tirelessly and eager for the next day, well, it gives you an appreciation of what Haiti can be and ultimately is: excellence.
Watch the video below of the construction: