During the past four months that I've spent in Haiti, I've gotten lots of questions from friends and family about how safe it is for me to be staying in the outskirts of Cite Soleil in Port au Prince. And I've had a difficult time answering that question. It turns out; Haiti is a hard country to stereotype.
Haiti has long been declared one of the poorest and most violent country in the Western Hemisphere; with Cite Soleil the largest and most dangerous slum in this country. Cite Soleil borders the city of Port au Prince on Route 9, which is next door to where my colleagues and I have been staying over the past four months. However, during the time we've been down here, we never been attacked or really even felt threatened in any way. We've seen some fairly violent fights break out at food distributions and gas lines. We've driven behind a truck filled with food that got hijacked by young men who jumped inside the trailer (unbeknownst to the driver) and emptied all the food to their friends waiting in the street. True, we are rarely greeted with smiling faces as we drive past the newly erected shanty towns on our way to our apartment. And yes, people do get quite upset when you take a picture while driving past in a speeding car. But how can you blame them? They are living in one of the poorest cities and largest slum in the western hemisphere; have just been through the worst natural disaster for the area in history; are cognizant of the fact that $1 billion has been raised on their behalf yet are still living in tents (if they're lucky) without any hopes for immediate improvement.
However, while we didn't ever experience it firsthand, we have heard many stories of kidnappings and shootings during our time here. There was a well-publicized case of the two Medicines sans Frontiers workers who were kidnapped (and later released) upon leaving their clinic. And we also heard from a colleague at St. Damien's Children's Hospital that two U.S. aid workers were shot outside their facility near the U.S. Embassy earlier this month, although I have yet to find any documentation of it. And many of the NGOs that we work with in Haiti wouldn't even venture over to our office/apartment off Route 9 because of the violence and widespread reports of shootings and robberies during the Aristide years five years ago. Indeed, a couple Haitian ex-patriots who had come from the states to work with us for a short time were unwilling to even come with us to our office.
I'm sure that Haiti can be and has been a violent place over the years but I'm always puzzled by these accounts because I just have not seen it during my time here. I've seen small acts of aggression due to unimaginable desperation. But those acts pale in comparison to my interactions with some of the kindest, hardest working, and most giving people I've ever met in my life. In fact, on the same day I heard that the two people were shot outside the Embassy, a Haitian man I didn't even know literally gave me the shirt off his back because I mentioned that I liked it.
Like I said, it's a hard country to stereotype.