Haiti; Little to live on but hope; Hatians flock to capital, but few find jobs
Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Aidenaire Carm - who makes what must euphemistically be called a living buying bananas in the market and reselling them peeled - says her husband left his homeland.
She means by this that he left the Haitian countryside for a slum in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and not for Miami.
He left, she says, because ''his homeland was uninhabitable.''
Development experts tend to agree with her. Much of the Haitian countryside is too barren to support sufficient economic activity for communities or viable farms.
Still, it is difficult for Haitians to uproot themselves from the countryside. Shifting from life on tiny rural plots to a crowded city in Haiti is almost as big an adjustment as setting sail for another country.
But in the past 10 years, the population of Haiti's capital has almost doubled. More than half of Port-au-Prince's 1 million residents live in slums, where there are nearly 600 people per acre.
They come to the city seeking jobs in factories. But their hopes of employment usually are not met. Most of those in the poorest slums end up in what is termed, in development jargon, the ''informal sector,'' buying and reselling matches or maize cobs - or bananas, like Mrs. Carm.
Haitian Under-Secretary for Social Affairs Daniel Supplice says: ''Conditions in the urban areas are often worse than in the countryside. In the town, money is needed for everything. However bad things become in the village, people can always hang on somehow - there is always something to eat.'' Not enough though, apparently.
Port-au-Prince has experienced a demographic explosion in slums, which has pushed its growth rate to nearly 7 percent a year. The incomes of slum dwellers range from $4 to $35 a month, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.
''When my mother was expecting me,'' runs a rhyme in Creole written by a schoolgirl in the slums, ''she liked to eat a lot of charcoal. She found it tasted good.''
That is a just a nursery rhyme, but charcoal does permeate every corner of slums. Tin huts in the slum of La Saline are black with the grime of fires and stoves. The ankle-deep mud underfoot is partly composed of ash and cinders.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and UNICEF are sketching out the first official comprehensive effort to improve social conditions in slums. In the past , private voluntary organizations and religious orders informally tried to fill this function.
Mr. Supplice talks of mobilizing the people's own resources to improve their living environment. What resources? Perhaps their vitality and ingenuity. In spite of the poverty and squalor, Haitians exude energy. Everywhere there are stalls and workshops with people selling or manufacturing products from hairpins to fishing boats to buckets.
One of the first attempts to ''mobilize the people's own resources'' under the Social Affairs/UNICEF program has begun. Six young people, most of whom are self-trained, have taken a course at the local health center. They are now considered well-versed in public health and disease prevention.
Their first task is to visit community leaders and set up sanitation committees. Each of them will have 1,000 to 6,000 people in his or her domain. There is a lot they can do to organize the digging of drains, removal of refuse, and - where there is room - the installation of latrines.
Ultimately, though, it is the people's lack of the means to make a living that determines the state of festering squalor in which they are obliged to live. Forced to leave the countryside, they find there is nowhere else to go.