Five years ago Dr. Evan Lyon, a physician who has worked in Haiti since 1996, and I began to conduct interviews with residents of the city of Port-au-Prince. We set out with considerable help from Laura Scott, Jean Pierre Marseille, Katie Kane, Doug Ford, and Edward Loiseau. The project started with a simple notion: What’s life like on the streets of Haiti’s largest city since the cataclysmic earthquake of January 12, 2010? There are number of good books about Haiti, but too many of them, it seemed to us, interpreted life in “the poorest country in the western hemisphere” through the lens of an outsider. We wanted to create a book that, so much as possible, might give a reader an unmitigated view of the struggle to survive–and endure–in, yes, one of the poorest but also, one of the most vibrant cities in our hemisphere.
Of the more than sixty interviews we conducted, Denise’s story, excerpted below, especially moved us. She is matter-of-fact about her circumstances. The day we met she was sleeping in a makeshift tent on the street. A woman who has been faced with almost impossible choices, Denise sugarcoats nothing. There’s a great deal of pain, humiliation, and abusive treatment by men in her story, and yet there is also tenacity, mental toughness, and ultimately a hard-won optimism. Denise is a generous soul who does her best, in spite of everything, to truly, as she says, love everybody. The struggle of parents, and single mothers in particular, to provide for their children in an environment where food, clean water, shelter, and decent clothes continue to be scarce is–there’s only one way to put it–heroic. As Denise explains, surviving and enduring in post-earthquake Port-au-Prince requires luck, street smarts, and a lot of faith.
Special thanks to Edwidge Danticat, as well as the many volunteers who assisted us with this project, including graduate students in the MFA Program at San Francisco State University for their hard work. Thanks also to Sarah Broderick, Yukiko Tominaga, and David Hill for their key editorial input on this story.
43, mother, grandmother, former housekeeper, and former sex worker
Sent to an orphanage as a young child, Denise has survived on and off the streets for most of her life. She’s given up two children for adoption, later taking on the care of her grandchildren. She introduced us to her grandson—a little boy named Mickenson. After the earthquake, Denise found temporary reprieve living within a Haitian community in the Dominican Republic, but she returned after three months in order to vote in the presidential election. Some names have been changed.
I sleep in cars, I sleep in the street, I sleep on the sidewalk. People should see where I sleep. Tonight, I am sleeping under pwela. Not a shelter, just a tent. I made the tent myself with two pieces of wood. It’s in the back of the orphanage where I was raised. When it rains, water gets inside because the covers are worn out and the wood pieces aren’t good anymore. For a bed, I sleep on a pile of wood made from herring boxes with my children. During the day, I put the wood under the light of the sun so it can dry out after the rain. At night my body hurts.
I’ve been struggling since I was four years old. I’m now forty- three. I have no mother, no father. I don’t have anybody to help me. Churches don’t help me. I don’t have a family member who wants to help me. My siblings and I don’t have the same father but we have the same mother. When I call them to tell them that I have problems and I need food or to borrow money, they say if I’m not working, how am I going to be able to pay them back? I tell them that even if I don’t have the money, God will help me find someone who will give it to me. They don’t agree.
All the ways I tried to succeed didn’t work. I gave birth to four children. I gave two of them to an orphanage. Right now I have four children with me here. Two of them are my children and the two others are my grandchildren. The three-year-old is really suffering. I can’t pay for her school. I can’t even get her birth certificate.
I only see men loving me in my dreams. Last time while I was sleeping, I had a dream about a Haitian artist hitting on me. I told him that I was not interested in married men. People’s husbands are trouble.
I always knew how to sing. I always said that I wanted to become an artist in my country. That dream didn’t happen. I’m still young, but in order to pursue my dream, I have to know what to do—what decisions to make and which way to go. Sometimes poverty almost makes me go insane. Poverty has made me old. I can’t dress myself well, and people laugh at me. They insult me and call me gran nana—shameless grandma. They call me homeless and tell me that I have no future. They insult me and I get hurt. But today, I believe in life, and one day, God will say a word for me.
A voice tells me to go do things, but I always ask God to keep me from doing them.
When I slept with men, it wasn’t because they forced me. It was me who offered them my body. I slept with men to get money so I could eat. I don’t like doing it, but the situation in my country, in my city, caused me to do it. Sometimes the men promised that they would give me 100 or 250 gouds, but afterward they wouldn’t give me anything.
When I see the men who refused to pay me, sometimes I tell them that they will pay for what they did. I tell them that my vagina costs money and that they would never have done it if they knew I was going to hurt them. I tell them that God will judge them. It hurts me when I think about it. Sometimes I feel like dying. But I know the Bible says that we shouldn’t ask for death, because God is the one who decides.
So I stopped sleeping with men. Men still want to sleep with me, but I don’t take their offers because of the risk of getting AIDS or tuberculosis. I just rely on God now.
I ask people for money, 5 or 10 gouds so my family and I can eat. Sometimes we go to sleep hungry. Sometimes when I help a friend, they give me some food and I give it to my children.
MY PARENTS PUT ME IN AN ORPHANAGE
I’m from Jérémie, and I was born on November 6, 1971. When I was young, my mother didn’t send me to school. My parents couldn’t take care of me, so they put me in an orphanage. When I was living at the orphanage, I used to eat and drink well. They sent me to school, and I got to sixth grade. When the white people used to come to the orphanage, they would take pictures and stay with us. Sometimes they would laugh with us and take us to visit Champ de Mars.
The orphanage was run by Germans and French, directed by Rodrigue Ben Bichotte. When Bichotte was there, I was very comfortable. He was Haitian, and he founded the Children’s Village. The director after Bichotte was Paul Beauvoir. He kicked me out of the Children’s Village. One day they were beating me for peeing in bed. I was crying so much, and I said that it was because I didn’t have any parents that they were mistreating me. Beauvoir told me that I was a child from the street and humiliated me in front of the other kids. He put me in a foster home in Carrefour. He did that to many of us. The kids were mad and said that we were in the village before he came, and he shouldn’t be the one kicking us out. I was the only one from Jérémie in the orphanage. The other kids were from Artibonite, Liancourt, Pont-Sondé, different areas in the country. Some of them had parents, so their parents took them back. Some of the kids got married and others have houses. But for me, there wasn’t another life, only the foster home life.
So I was living with some people in Carrefour. They are dead now, but they treated me very badly. One of them saw that I was eating well and became big. He tried to rape me. I was eight years old. But the man didn’t have time to rape me because I yelled. He slapped me, but the neighbors heard me yelling so they came to see what was happening. I told them that while I was sleeping, I saw the man getting closer to me. The neighbors invited me to come sleep at their houses.
The people who welcomed me into their house and were feeding me were Tonton Makout. I began working for them, doing laundry and housekeeping so I could eat every day. Later, I fled because these people also began beating me. I went back to the Children’s Village, but they kicked me out again. After that I was alone.
I went back to the Bichotte family. They said they could help me continue with school. I went grocery shopping for them, went to get water for them. They didn’t see an education or a future for me. They just wanted me to help them in the house. Every time I saw children going to school it hurt me. I asked them when they would send me to school, and they told me to just wait. I waited for years.
I KNOW THE CONDITIONS
I met my boyfriend on January 1, 1990. I was nineteen years old. He was older than me. I got pregnant by him and gave birth on April 16, 1991 in Carrefour. He took me to the hospital and he left me there and never came back. I haven’t seen him since. Strangers were helping me and feeding me. The room cost 25 gouds, and I didn’t have it. They didn’t treat me bad at the hospital because they saw that I didn’t have money. They gave me a last chance and allowed me to leave the next day.
I never saw the father again. He left me for another woman. That means he didn’t want me. I thought that I was going to spend the rest of my life with him. He’s never asked about me. Even after the earthquake, I never heard from him. Now our child, Jessica, is twenty-two and has two children of her own, and I am the one taking care of them. He never gave me money for the child.
I had the other kids with other men, each child with a different man. None of the men stayed. They just got me pregnant, left me, and went to marry other women. Jessica is my first child. My second child, Gerard, turned eighteen this year. My third child, Dieuny, will turn fourteen in October. And my last boy just turned seven. His name is Dwight Phillipe.
I had to give the two youngest ones to an orphanage. While they were in the orphanage, white people came and took them out of the country. I’d love to see them, but I can’t. I don’t have money. I had a visa but my passport expired. I have no one to contact. I’m like a dog in the street. The white people used to write me pretty often. Mrs. Jane is a good white person. Mrs. Kathleen is as well.
Mrs. Jane used to send me good money, $73 each month. She is the one who has my boy, Dwight. Mrs. Kathleen—who has Dieuny— used to send $48.58 and the government would take $1.50 on each money transfer. It’s not easy for someone who is working hard in another country to send you money. It’s a big thing because they have bills to pay. Mrs. Jane sent me some money once when my older daughter, Jessica, was sick and I took her to the hospital. Later Mrs. Jane sent more money because my other child, Gerard had djòk. I had to go to Jérémie to have it removed by a Vodou priest. Mrs. Jane doesn’t send me money anymore.
I know the conditions when you give your kids to an orphanage. My children are not under my care anymore, but sometimes people with good hearts will keep contact. I searched on the Internet for these families that have my children and they reached out to me. They really liked me. They told me about the kids and how much they love them. But for now it’s difficult to get hold of them and talk to the kids.
Mrs. Jane told me that she would help me travel to Guyana in October 2011. But I don’t know what happened. Mrs. Jane sent me to the Social Welfare office to get a paper. She sent me all the information via Facebook. I was very happy about it. But the trip didn’t happen, and I don’t know why. Mrs. Jane told me that she was going to pay for school fees but I think that the school fee was too high for her. And I understand because she is already taking care of one of my children and she loves my child very much.
I DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS AN EARTHQUAKE
On Tuesday, January 10, 2010, while I was sleeping I had this dream where I saw two people who came and took our spot at the church. I told my daughter that we would not let those people stay next to us because they aren’t humans. I saw my daughter telling the people to pray. Then I saw that the people turned into zombies. The next day, I told my friends about the dream.
When the earthquake happened, I didn’t know it was an earthquake. I was in a rented house and was going to night services at a Catholic church. I saw that everything was shaking. I couldn’t understand. Dogs were running, the roads were moving. I thought it was because of the electricity. God protected me and didn’t let me die with my children. At that time I had a house. The house collapsed, but we were all outside.
Even though I didn’t lose many things, the people who lost everything are my brothers and sisters. We are one family. I went to see what was happening in the hospitals and everywhere. I saw so many people dying. I saw all the collapsed houses. Some people just disappeared and were never found. Everybody in Cazeau was sleeping in the street. We slept up the hill on Bettany Street. So many people were sleeping on the ground there. The people there let me stay, and when they cooked, they gave some food to me and my children. We would take a shower, one after the other, and go to sleep around 6 p.m., because we didn’t want people to steal our spot. During the night, we didn’t care about mosquitoes or anything. I just brought my kids closer to me.
All the other nations came and helped. I saw people passing by with things that were given them. Some people in Cazeau received help, but not me, because I didn’t want to get into the crowd and fight. I could have died. My children were crying of hunger, but I told them that I was not going to put my life in danger just for some food. If God didn’t let me die from cholera or the earthquake, there was no way that I was going to die just to get the things that white people give away.
Because things were going really bad, a friend paid for the three-month visa for me to go to the Dominican Republic. While I was there, cholera was a whole story in Haiti. They said that the United Nations brought cholera to Haiti by contaminating the water. I cannot say that it was them because I didn’t see them doing it. The bacterium that causes cholera is hidden. When it rains, the bacterium meets with trash and other bacteria and it gives you cholera.
When I was in the Dominican Republic, I stayed in a house with some Haitians. There were so many Haitians living around me. Life was good for me there. These Haitians treated me very well. They didn’t even want me to clean the house. They told me that I was their guest and that they wanted to take care of me, because I would have done the same thing for them. I told them that I’m from an orphanage and that I’m used to working at people’s houses. But they told me that people don’t do that there. I would wait for them to fall asleep and I would do the dishes and clean everything. After I finished, I would take a shower and go to sleep. The next day when they woke up they were shocked. They thanked me.
I would do people’s hair for a little bit of money. When I was a kid I learned how to do hair using mango butter and combs. That helped me buy food.
Before I went to the Dominican Republic, people used to tell me that Dominicans are killing Haitians over there. But when I went there, I saw that most of the buildings were built by Haitian workers. The truth is that Haitians helped the Dominicans get their independence, but afterward they started to feel different about us. When we travel there, they insult us by saying peligros—dangerous—and other words. Haitians are a people who get mad easily, so when they say words like this, things always go south. They don’t want us to go to their country, but they cannot forbid us to go there. And after the earthquake, I was lucky to live there for a while.
I HEARD THAT THE PRESIDENT WAS GIVING HOUSES TO PEOPLE
When I first got back from the Dominican Republic, I stayed at a pastor’s house. His name was Pastor Marco. I was sleeping at his church in Cazeau. I came back to vote for my president. I heard that the president was giving houses to people. So yes, I voted for Michel Joseph Martelly, but I didn’t vote for him for fun. I voted for change and for the country to get better. But when I see what has happened since, I regret voting for him. I know that he couldn’t have done things for everybody, but as president he could have created jobs and many people could have been working now. Even myself who is not doing anything, I might have found a job. Each person who becomes president always says that their government will help Haiti progress. But I believe now that the only person who could change the country is God.
MINUSTAH is still here and they do work. They came to our country because of the violence. MINUSTAH doesn’t bother me, they didn’t beat me or do anything bad to me. Sometimes bandits will come and beat people, but when they hear that MINUSTAH is coming, they run. I don’t know how long MINUSTAH will stay. They could stay ten years, twelve years, fifteen years, twenty years. I don’t know.
WHEN I WAS BEAUTIFUL
My oldest daughter is a young lady now. She found a guy and got pregnant, and I didn’t even know the guy. He died, and Jessica found another man and got pregnant again. Now she has two kids. Things aren’t going good for her. She already looks like an old woman.
This child here is my grandchild. He has no father and his mother is not working right now. She has lived in the countryside since the earthquake. She can’t take care of him. I’m not working either, but I can’t leave him in the countryside. When he is in the countryside he gets a rash all over his body. I had to bring him here, but that doesn’t mean that things are good for me.
My dreams aren’t over. If God didn’t want my dreams to come true, he would have never let me live. Now, I would love for God to give me a man who will marry me and get me out of my sinner life. I want someone who will understand when I’m sick and hungry, someone who can help me take care of my children. Men were only interested in me when I was bigger. When I was beautiful and fresh. Sometimes I spend the night crying. I have so many problems. My grandchild sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night asking for food, milk, and most of the time I get irritated.
If God gave me a husband who would help me have a business, I would want a food business. I would sell barbecue and plantains. I’ve never worked in food service, but I saw how the Dominicans do it. Over there they fry, but here we barbecue. The Dominicans have many cooking tools we don’t have. Here we just use pikliz, onions, good acid, and pepper. We boil the chicken, we add seasoning, and finally we put it on the grill. I can fry it as well. Fried is good, but barbecue is better.
I have dreams that God will make me travel. They say that foreign countries are beautiful: nice beaches, nice pools, and nice roads. Even if I’m not going to stay abroad, I would like to visit. I want my kids to visit other countries so they can say that they traveled and saw the world. I have visions, I have dreams, and one day what people didn’t wish for me, they will see it.
I always had a dream that my kids would write a book about me. When I die, I want them to share my story. I’ve struggled a lot, and I don’t like poverty. Poverty made me look old and caused people to make fun of me. Sometimes I ask God, “What did I do wrong?” But I always pray for everybody.
I’ve heard that an earthquake will happen in the U.S., so every night I kneel and ask Jesus to protect them. I would tell the people in the U.S. to have courage, especially President Obama. President Obama is doing a great job. I saw President Obama went to South Africa to talk about AIDS and cholera. He is a good citizen and a real president in the world. I like what he is doing. Even if I don’t know everybody’s name from the U.S., God knows them. Two of my children live in New York City. I always pray for God to protect the United States, Canada, France, Chile, Italy, Argentina, and all the other countries.
Don’t say that Haiti is not a safe country and that you won’t go there. You need to visit Haiti and see how people live here. You have to come, and God will protect you the same way he protects you in your country. I love everybody in the world. I love the people suffering at the hospitals. I love the people who are in prison. I love the homeless, I love the handicapped, and I love the old people. I love everybody, because we are one family.
Look, I am not a kokorat—a bum. It’s just a hard period in my life where I’m not working, so when people insult me, I accept it. But I’m not a vagabond and never will be. There is no dumb job. Even jobs like cleaning the streets, cleaning houses, or even picking up dogs feces—those aren’t dumb jobs. I would do anything because work is freedom.
When we returned to visit Denise in 2016, she and her grandson were living in a one-room house constructed from bright blue metal siding, just off the streets where she used to live. A local pastor had built the house and given it to her.