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For one day, at least, Haitians celebrate

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Marching through the streets of Saint Michel, revelers celebrate on the eve before a feast day honoring the patron saint of their community. Photo by Ami Vitale/Oxfam America

I missed the voodoo rara the first time it wound through the narrow streets of Saint Michel de l'Attalaye. It was a Friday and we were stuck in the early evening traffic that jammed the square. Before I could climb out of the car, the women in their bright pink dresses and men in blue suits had passed, their sax player and a man with maraccas pacing the paraders as they sang and swayed.

But we ran into them again, a few blocks away, and this time I jumped out, squeezing into the line of marchers, feeling myself swept along by exhilaration and anticipation as the streets darkened on the eve of Saint Michel's feast--the annual celebration of the town's patron saint.

For the people of Saint Michel, it has been a long four months since the January earthquake destroyed so much of Haiti's capital. Now the chance had come to forget--just for one day--all the sorrow and hardship. Even out here, in this rural community a four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, the quake has taken a heavy toll.

Many families here, where Oxfam Quebec has been working on longer-term development programs, lost relatives in the disaster. About 158 of Saint Michel's own died--many of them students sent to the capital to study because schools in this area of Artibonite Department are not often very good. And in the days following the quake, a crush of survivors made their way to Saint Michel Commune, about 11,000 of them. They descended on friends and relatives, many already pinched, needing food and shelter, and many have stayed. One family, the Perards, already nine strong, now have 17 relatives sharing their home, doubling up in beds and sleeping on the floor when night comes.

The day before the feast, we could feel the excitement building. Behind the home of Mayor Michele Lisette Casimir, women prepared giant bowls of food. Band members, hunched in a circle, held a quick meeting in her front yard. And visitors streamed through her gate, hoping for a few minutes of her time before the big day.

Casimir had her fingers crossed that the night of the festival she would be able to flick a switch and finally bring electricity to Saint Michel--even as she worried whether the community could afford to keep the lights on. Since the late 1980s, this sugarcane-growing town has been without a municipal source of electricity. Casimir has been working with the national government to get a 635 kilowatt generator hooked up--enough to electrify the main part of town. The only concern is the fuel it will consume: 25 gallons of diesel an hour.

"That's the problem in a poor country," said Casimir. "You take and you figure out how to manage later."

A band stand was going up board by board in the square. Banners strung across the streets announced the festival. And those who were smart made sure they got their tickets in advance for Tropicana D'Haiti, an adored big band scheduled to play the night of the feast.

Down one street, the transformation was complete: Residents had stripped their beds of sheets and draped them, dazzling in the tropical sun, over the rickety fences separating their homes from the road.
The effect of that simple gesture was magical--from dusty way to heavenly lane, festooned, occasionally, by curled red ribbons.

But my favorite vision was this: A swarm of boys, all ages, perched high--so high, on ever thinner limbs--in a row of trees overlooking the tall wall of the local soccer field. Feast day also happened to be the final match between Saint Michel and Gonaives, a contest no one wanted to miss, including a flock of boys too poor to buy tickets into the game.

But in that creative way that necessity inspires, the boys had found their own solution.

"The tree is free!" said my Haitian colleague, as our car bounced by beneath the branches. And a grin, as bright as the sheets dancing down that nearby street, stretched across his face.