I still remember that November morning, Moise Street in Petion-ville was under reconstruction. Dust filled the air and provoked my nose to sneeze multiple times. It was my first day of work as a doctor in Jalouzi. I decided to walk to get there; that was my way of getting to know this colorful neighborhood I knew very little about. All I had in mind were my brother’s quips likening Jalouzi to Kabul by day and New York City by night.
Jalouzi is an impoverished, overpopulated neighborhood, or what the international media would call a slum, in Port-au-Prince with countless houses stacked on top of each other. It is not unlike many other neighborhoods in places like Carrefour feuilles, Carrefour, la plaine etc. The only thing special about Jalouzi is its proximity to Petion-Ville. The view from Petion-Ville’s hotels and bustling restaurants occupied by tourists, expats and the wealthy is none other than the stacked houses of Jalouzi. Ever since the beginning of Jalouzi en couleurs, a government project to paint the houses of Jalouzi in bright colors, a couple of years prior, the slum had caught the world’s attention. So my heart was filled with excitement to experience this side of Haitian life. Almost a year after my experience there, the memories are still vivid in my mind. Yet Jalouzi remains the media’s cherished story, to the extent that RYOT has recently shot a 5-minute documentary short called “The Painter of Jalouzi” for the release of the iPhone 6S Plus of the mega brand Apple. Much to my disappointment, the movie conveys a good bit of misinformation and heavily clashes with the daily reality of Jalouzi.
It took a visit to the archives of Petion-ville’s Town Hall and to the bureau of the civil protection while researching for a book I am writing about Jalouzi to learn that nobody knows the exact number of people actually living there. I realized then that while the bright colors provided the slums with more visibility, the people remained invisible to the State. The people of Jalouzi welcomed the Jalouzi en couleurs government project simply because these people have nothing; they have no choice but to welcome whatever is offered to them. It is no surprise then, that for many of the patients I discussed the project with, healthcare and running water would have been their top priorities if they were given a choice.
Along the Stenio Vincent street in Jalouzi, three health care centers could be counted as of December 2014. But since my first visit, the one that belongs to the Ministry of Health has been closed. Today, its driveway is occupied by vendors, making it difficult to even be noticed. One of the private centers has packed up and the building has been rented to other businesses. Yet the need for healthcare itself has not diminished one bit. On the contrary, in the midst of this situation, various illnesses have arised. Why? Because poverty leaves people extremely vulnerable.
There is no reliable running water in Jalouzi. On the days I reached Jalouzi by foot, I climbed along the slippery steep stairs where women and children carry buckets of water on their heads. Unfortunately, they can only get this water from trucks with water tanks that come once or twice a week, depending on how business is. In the rainy season, there is no clear distinction between the trash and the walkways. Therefore, the soles of people’s feet become public transport for germs which end up straight inside their homes, the stacks of chaotic construction. In the marketplace, food is sold on the floor, meat is covered with flies, the sanitation conditions are dire and precarious.
A mother confessed one day, in the examination room: “All the problems I have go beyond the bright color of my house.” As her issues accumulated, she ran out of money to pay the rent, solely relying on family based in the United States. Her problems, which are closer to the rule rather than the exception, could not be alleviated nor transformed by a paint job. Just as her constant headache did not go away with the makeup she wore that day. Throughout its narration, RYOT’s documentary depicts a delusional image of what life is in Petion-ville’s Jalouzi, which is far from being Haiti’s largest slum, contrary to what they report. Its transformation is only superficial, and the ultimate beneficiaries remain the spectators, foreigners or locals, enjoying the view of Jalouzi’s brightly painted houses from a distance.
In spite of its worldwide reach, “The Painter of Jalouzi” has failed to call for real transformation in people’s lives. To be more accurate, the short film might as well had depicted the real painter of Jalouzi as an outsider. Someone far from the reality of the neighborhood, working in the slums during the day, and returning to relax in his suite at the Royal Oasis Hotel in Petion-Ville at night. This is a missed opportunity to raise awareness on the very real issues of healthcare, education, clean water, energy and human dignity. The government’s Jalouzi en Couleurs project has failed the people of Jalouzi. Why don’t we build schools in the name and memory of Préfète Duffault? Why don’t we push the Ministry of Health reopen its health center? Does it help to apply lipstick to a pig, or to disguise the misery and hunger of the most vulnerable? By blinding ourselves from the suffering of others, one day we might end up being the victims of our own farce.