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It's a privilege to own a tap-tap!

Haiti, September 19, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A vendor that has set up his market stall outside a displacement camp where Mercy Corps has provided temporary income to residents through cash-for-work. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps

It's been two months since I was last in Haiti. On this visit, I haven't yet been to downtown Port-au-Prince — where the earthquake devastation was the worst — but in the areas of town that I have been through in the last couple of days, it does seem like there is less rubble and trash in the streets. It's begun to be cleared away.

Life continues to bustle here — much as it did, I suspect, before the earthquake. Tap-taps, the local taxis, ramble down the road tilted and weighed down with passengers, their engines and shocks worn out. Everyone is trying to do business in this city — "small commerce" as they call it — in stores or market stalls or just sitting in a doorstep with their wares spread out on a mat in front of them.

Garlic, mangoes, potatoes or habañero peppers stacked in clusters of five. Flour or detergent or rice out of open burlap bags. In the market, on a greasy, blood-darkened wood table, a pig on its back, splayed open. A woman's stall filled to the ceiling with bananas still attached to curved, thick branches. She picks at them absent-mindedly as she chats with a friend.

Discouragingly, the camps are still here — they have not disappeared. Those people who have located family to stay with, or who have been able to return to their houses — whether the structure was deemed safe or not — have left the camps, leaving behind those without any better option. Those who remain are the poorest citizens of Port-au-Prince, many who were living in squalid squatter cities before the earthquake.

I go to visit a camp on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince called Jean Philippe, where Mercy Corps is providing the 68 families there with water and latrines. Many of them are transitioning out of their tents and back into their nearby houses, but their needs for assistance haven't abated. Jobs, they tell me, jobs are what they fundamentally need so they can provide for themselves. Mercy Corps continues its emergency assistance today, but we're also laying the groundwork to help create jobs, especially for small business people and for those working in agriculture — these are two sectors that we've identified as having the greatest potential.

I speak with six people at Jean Philippe, three women and three men. Only one of them has a job. Jeanette Fils-Aimé, a mother of seven who didn't quite know how old she was, tells me she also doesn't remember the last time she had a job.

Gellet Bonhomme, 40 years old and a father of five, is the lucky one. In fact, he is probably one of the wealthiest men in his neighborhood. He owns his own tap-tap and has been driving it for three years.

His route, he tells me, is from this neighborhood to Léogane — a city about 20 miles away and the epicenter of the earthquake. During a day's work, from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., he'll make that trip five times. Traffic makes each trip one to two hours long. On a good day, after paying for gas, he makes about US$31. "I don't work everyday though," he says. "It's a very tiring job."

As soon as he says that, I wonder how long any tap-tap driver can physically last in the job. Most of the tap-tap trucks are ancient, with sagging, sprung seats and what are probably temperamental mechanics, not to mention manual steering. Cranking those wheels through Port-au-Prince's pot-holed, chaotic streets, making frequent stops, with other cars rarely yielding to this form of public transportation, with poor visibility and no brakes…I was looking at a very strong man!

Gellet humors me by getting into his tap-tap so I can take his picture. He says, "It's not pretty, but it's mine!"

From a group of onlookers, a couple of guys chime in. "Hey man," one says, "If I have a tap-tap, I'm cool, I don't need anything else! I wouldn’t need another job! I could just do that and I'd be set."

Another agrees. "It's a privilege to own a tap-tap!" he says.

Gellet knows it. "I'm a little better off than the next guy," he says. "But it's still a struggle, I'm still trying to get ahead."