With the help of her neighbours, Thelia St. Louis was able to piece together her dwelling [Daniel Morel/Al Jazeera]
From: The Slum

Haiti: A home among the rubble

Residents of communities destroyed in the 2010 earthquake are still struggling to rebuild their homes and lives.

As part of the ‘Where I live’ series, the Al Jazeera Magazine asked people from around the world how their lives have been influenced by where they live. Meet Thelia, a mother of five living in Fort National, Haiti.

Sixty-three-year-old Thelia St. Louis spent more than two years living in a tent with her five children on the Champs de Mars before returning home to Fort National. Her hillside neighbourhood overlooking the Bay of Port-au-Prince was the hardest hit in the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010.

When the Champ de Mars reassumed its vocation as the capital’s largest public square, Thelia was out at a church revival. She came back to find that her tent and everything in it had disappeared. With nowhere to go, the family wandered back to Fort National, where they found the rubble of their old house cleared and the slope barren.

With help from some neighbours, her husband, four sons and daughter were able to piece together a dwelling: wood was salvaged from the ruins of other houses while NGOs provided tarpaulins. The resulting shelter seems as flimsy as a child’s playhouse but, Thelia explains: “The landowner is so kind. We’re not paying any rent.”

There is just one chair in the house so cinder blocks scattered across the dirt floor serve as seating. And with no mattresses, the residents must make their beds on the ground.

The family matriarch’s weathered face crinkles into a bashful smile as she pushes some laundry aside and whispers: “I wish I had clothes that I’m not embarrassed of to wear to church.” Thelia’s swollen feet spill over her only pair of shoes – a busted pair of black penny loafers – but her conservative dress speaks to her days as an office worker.

But work is hard to come by these days. “Every now and then a friend closes my hand with a small bill inside,” Thelia explains. Her oldest son, Samuel Williamson, who is known as Kikoy, decodes telephones downtown. “I used to bring in 2,500 [gourdes – around $62] before noon,” he says. “Now I’m lucky if I see 500 [around $12] all day.” Thelia’s oldest daughter finds intermittent work as a substitute teacher but says her husband is “too weak and sick to work”.

Three of Thelia’s five children live with friends in other neighbourhoods. The two who stay in Fort National are no strangers to hunger. A government food assistance programme offers some relief, but the 38 cents charged per plate is often more than they can afford. Inside the shelter, Thelia motions to a charcoal stove. “That’s where we cook food when we can,” she says, adding: “We make spaghetti with bits of hotdog.”

In the cooler months, using precious fuel to heat water for bathing is out of the question. “We have no running water and no electricity here,” Thelia explains. In the corner of the shack, she has cut a hole where the plastic tarp sags. “When it rains, the water comes in here and fills up this drum,” she adds, indicating a blue drum containing brown water. When it doesn’t rain, which is most of the summer, they spend the little money they have on buying a bucket of water from a wandering merchant. “It’s important to look good even when you don’t feel good,” Thelia declares.