A young man in a red shirt yelled fiercely, ‘NO PICTURE!’ when I stepped onto a building site in Port-au-Prince’s notorious Cité Soleil.
He was working with a chain of other young men who lined a ladder down into a big hole with a foot and a half of pale, tan water at the bottom. Two barefoot men with pants rolled up and 5-gallon pails were standing in the soup, dipping it up and passing it out. They all stopped work and stared at me.
I slung my camera back onto my shoulder and nodded assent, and then they all burst out laughing. They threw comments back and forth like there was some huge joke. I felt they were saying I looked pretty funny with my serious white face.
And then Mimi2, as we call her—because she is the second powerful woman by that name we have found in Haiti on this trip—came striding across the tiny jobsite to the edge of the hole. They men all fell silent and faced her and she said a few things in Creole with that too-quiet voice some women use to make boys and men behave all over the world. The fellows got real still. I looked at her and she nodded at me with a little drop of the chin. “It’s OK,” she said. “You can take pictures.”
Then they shrugged and laughed again and talked among themselves, shooting me looks of amusement; but they got back to the hard work of passing the big buckets full of slurry up the ladder to be dumped on the ground, and the passing the empties back for another round.
The water ran across the alley and down a rectangular stone gutter on the side, through a passageway, past a in a woman in chair watching her child play, and then it twisted around a corner into mystery.
We had first connected with Mimi2, whose name is actually Mimi Dominique, out on a teeming road nearby. Our guide, Mimi1—Mimi Douze, our host in Port-au-Prince—had called Mimi2 on her cellphone to ask her to guide us in. Even Mimi1 couldn’t find the way into the endless warren of stall-sized boxes filled with families that make up this part of Cité Soleil.
Mimi2, with her bright yellow shirt emblazoned with the logo of the organization she manages, Lamp for Haiti, and her big smile, hopped into our van and directed us to down a tight little street lined with broken buildings. On the street we passed stern-looking young men and women, old people, flocks of children, a few skinny dogs and a medium-sized sow.
We pulled up behind a little pickup truck that was parked off to one side and Mimi2 and Lisa Orloff opened the back of our van to unload medical supplies. Mimi2 runs clinics in difficult places in Haiti. Lisa’s group, World Cares Center, helps support her.
To my amazement, they took the boxes of medicine over to the pickup truck, set them into the open bed, and then just turned and walked away.
I looked around at the dozen people who were watching us with such intensity, and realized Mimi, Lisa, our driver and our translator were disappearing into a gap between the low-slung buildings without a backward glance. I decided to forget the meds and concentrate on keeping up.
The jobsite where the fellows were de-watering the pit was our first stop down the alley. Mimi2 is building a bathhouse. She says it is not good for children to see naked men bathing in the street.
The construction workers, who had built a foundation and set rebar and wire for corner posts, were digging a well. The bath house will have showers and flush toilets that plumb the effluent away somewhere, and the people who live nearby will be given keys. They also will be expected to keep it clean.
We stepped carefully as we left the site, picking out the high spots when we had to cross sludge and muck as Mimi2 led us down another alley.
We were now pulling along a flock of kids who pranced around excitedly and grabbed for hands to hold. We passed a mom who smiled up at us as we stepped around her toddler at play. We turned corners and hopped over puddles until we came to a sheet-metal door that slid across the face of the wall. Behind it we could hear a handsaw, going and coming. The sweet, tangy smell of sawdust hung in the air.
Mimi2 pushed the door aside and revealed a pleasant courtyard in which a handful of kids played around John and Daniel Cunningham, and their friend Alan Murphy, all from County Donegal, Ireland.
The Irish fellows hardly paused to nod before continuing the work with their Haitian partners. One was using the back of a handsaw to scribe 45º angles and cut 1 X 4s to trim out a door. Another was marking up plywood and cutting it by hand to build shutters. The third fellow was working inside; and it was clear they were hustling to finish what they had begun, which was to build Mimi2 a clinic so her efforts to bring health, hope and opportunity to Cité Soleil would have a home
They had come from Ireland over to Haiti to help out for a week after hearing about Mimi’s Lamp of Haiti project from a friend, and then hearing about the horror of the earthquake on Jan. 12. That one week had stretched to four as they built a roof, laid tile, plumbed and wired, painted and built. Their time on the job was ending so they were hustling to get it done.
It was lovely, with its handful of rooms and hand-built cabinets, clean tile floors and cheerfully colored walls. Mimi showed us, and then she led us out the back where the moonscape of roofless, broken buildings resumed. She pointed around and around at the five “buildings” she had bought and asked us to envision a medical lab, a school, a training center…
And you know what? We absolutely could, because Mimi2 isn’t building an escape chute out of Cité Soleil. She’s building a ladder for the neighborhood to climb, and the proof of her effectiveness was right there.
Among the people she serves this is well understood.
When we got back to the pickup truck the crowd had drifted away. Many were collecting water in buckets from a distribution point of some kind nearby. The pickup was alone with the sow, with its wide open bed, and all the precious the brown boxes of meds still lying inside.
“Nobody messes with Mimi’s stuff,” Lisa Orloff explained. “They appreciate what she is doing too much.”
And here's a picture of Mimi.