Canaan, Haiti – Sand and dust sweeps across the rolling hills outside of Port-au-Prince as the sun beats down on tens of thousands of tin roofs, cinderblock houses and half-built concrete structures.
In Canaan, named after the biblical Promised Land, 209,000 Haitians have found a new home after they lost their houses, belongings and loved ones when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the country on January 12, 2010. What started as a small settlement of tents quickly grew into what is now the third-largest metropolitan area in the country.
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“It was hard to find the strength and motivation to start life from zero again,” said Mercilus Pierre Louis, sitting in a small tent of tattered tarpaulin. Behind her stands the one-room house she shares with her husband and three children, aged 33, 31 and 27.
Pierre Louis’ house in La Plaine collapsed in the earthquake, burying all her belongings under rubble. She came to Canaan in 2010, with no money and with little more than the clothes she wore.
“In the beginning, we didn’t even have tarps, so we built a tent with bed sheets to protect us from the sun,” she said.
To earn a living, she started borrowing money to buy and then resell charcoal. Slowly, she made a profit until – after almost two years – the family had saved up enough to build a house. Now, she runs a charcoal-selling business in her backyard. In the morning she serves coffee and chocolate in the tent that doubles up as a makeshift cafe.
“This is the entrepreneurial spirit of the people living here,” said Anna Konotchick, the Canaan programme manager for the American Red Cross. “They didn’t wait for help, instead they’re doing it themselves.”
Haitians rebuilding – brick by brick
Haitians founded Canaan with no outside financial assistance from international organisations or the government.
To Konotchick, Canaan is a testament to the resilience and strength of the Haitian people. “They want to be part of the rebuilding effort,” she said.
Canaan’s residents are now rebuilding their lives – brick by brick.
The area was completely uninhabited before the earthquake, in which more than 220,000 people died. As 1.5 million Haitians lost their homes, the government under President René Préval claimed 18,000 acres of land through compulsory purchase and declared it public land.
The first project in the area was a relocation site for displaced families called Corail. But soon, people started to buy up plots which they then built houses on.
More people continue to arrive in Canaan almost daily – hoping to build a better future there. A nearby seaport that is being built will be another pull factor to the area for people in search of jobs.
Residents have built football pitches, barber shops, restaurants, lottery booths, pharmacies, beauty salons and grocery stores – virtually creating their own city. There are now 204 schools and 111 churches, as well as a hospital and a health centre, according to the Red Cross.
In total, locals have put in more than $100m of their own money, some of it coming from the diaspora.
But conditions remain dire: many still live in shacks and don’t have access to latrines, there is no running water, no waste management and sanitation. Electricity is scarce, unemployment is widespread and every month there are cases of rape as well as diseases like cholera and malaria.
Although there is a serious lack of economic opportunity and employment, Christopher Ward of USAID said: “The challenges in Canaan aren’t of a different kind or magnitude than in the rest of the urban metropolitan area in Port-au-Prince.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 a day.
The Caribbean nation of 10.4 million people is gripped by numerous crises: it faces an uncertain political future, after an interim government took over when the President Michel Martelly left office in February.
On top of that, the local currency is plummeting, food prices are rising and 1.5 million Haitians are at risk of severe malnutrition due to a drought.
Haiti is also prone to natural disasters and many families continue to build in ravines and sites at risk of flooding and landslides.
Canaan is sometimes referred to as a slum or shantytown, but its residents are actively trying to improve it.
“We didn’t create Canaan, the Haitians did,” said Ward. “People are busy going about making a new life for themselves. Street signs and lamps are being put up and people have determined areas where they want a school, a police station and a park.”
Educating for a better future
Education is one of the priorities for the community. Children in crisp uniforms with colourful ribbons in their hair run along Canaan’s winding roads.
“Education is this important because it provides our children with a better future,” principal Pierre Maurica Leneis at the Institute Mixte Christal, a school of 650 students, said.
However, schools in Canaan are private and many parents struggle to scrape together enough money for tuition fees. At Mixte Christal, a student must pay around $20 to $40 a year.
Pierre Louis, like many others, is frustrated about the high price of water – given that most residents are either unemployed or earn very little.
Water is scarce in Canaan so it is brought in on lorries. Families have to lug canisters up dusty paths to local kiosks numerous times a day.
A five-gallon bucket from the public water kiosks costs 5 to 10 Haitian Gourde (8 to 16 cents) and a bucket from the private ones, which offer treated water, costs 25 to 35 Haitian Gourde (41-57 cents).
Some households are building holding tanks and reservoirs to store water, and USAID is trying to lay the groundwork for a water pipe into one area.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, international aid organisations flocked to the country and governments and citizens worldwide donated billions to help Haiti “build back better”.
But the American Red Cross and USAID have been criticised for failing to deliver on their promises to build housing for the displaced and have been accused of mismanagement of funds. Both said their priority in Canaan is to work with residents, to find long-term urban planning solutions and to improve access to basic needs, like water, as well as to create a road infrastructure.
Altagrace Francois, 42, moved to Canaan three years ago. The mother of three opened up a shop on her plot of land, in front of her house, where she sells groceries and beauty products. “I’m a businesswoman,” she said, smiling.
“Life is improving,” she added as she kneaded the dough for a birthday butter cake in her kitchen. “We always find a way to get by. It was an opportunity for us to own our own land and we have space here.”
“Canaan is a new beginning.”