Ever imagine what daily life was like for a poor child living in a crime-ridden slum during Victorian times?
It takes little imagination for me, because I've seen daily life in one of the largest, poorest and most violent slums in our hemisphere. You see, I work and travel as a writer for a large international charity. While in Haiti last week I met a young girl whose sad eyes told a story echoed through the centuries; a story of hunger, pain and poverty.
A day in her life is much the same as a day in the life of a poor child living in a slum during Victorian times. Or the Georgian period. Or even Regency London.
The only difference is the ghetto is in Haiti and the time period is January 2008.
Cite Soleil, which translates to Sun City, in Haiti is just an hour and half plane ride from Miami, but it’s traveling back through time. No electricity. No running water, no cable, no sanitation. Transportation is typically on foot. Houses are doll-sized tin shacks jammed against each other, sagging against each other in endless lines of tin, wood and scrap metal. Sluggish rivers of foul algae-choked water move in a network of canals that hold drainage water--the sewage system. Diseases here are the same as they were in past centuries. Typhoid. Polio. TB.
In the past few years, Cite Soleil has been a hotbed of gang violence and ruthless kidnappings. The UN cleared out the trouble spots. As we drove through, I saw bullet holes pockmarking several buildings, scars from the gunfire that rattled through the streets. It's quiet now, very peaceful, but almost everyone knows someone else who was shot, wounded or even killed.
Nelda is eight. I met her in Soleil Seven, one of the 10 sections that subdivide Cite Soleil. She was toting Watson, age one, on her hip. Her little brother's hair was orange, a sign of protein deficiency, a form of malnutrition. Nelda's red and white gingham dress was stained, smudged with dirt and hanging around her thin neck. She was barefoot.
She took us to her home. Her mother was out, trying to earn pennies by selling wheat flour at the market. Nelda was playing babysitter. A little adult, she was cooking the single cup of rice that would feed herself and her siblings for the day. In a first world country, social service workers would be outraged to see a child left alone, cooking over a small open fire. Child neglect. Child endangerment.
Here in Cite Soleil, it's survival. The rice was their only meal.
Nelda told me when she's hungry she hurts inside. Then she mixes a little salt into water and drinks it and the "craving" goes away. Craving, meaning hunger pains from an empty stomach, not a craving for a particular food.
Her home is a simple 10 x 10 wood house in a rabbit warren of shacks in winding lanes so narrow one person can barely squeeze through. The burning sun heats these tiny tin homes like ovens. Nelda's bed is a single sheet and a small rag rug on the concrete floor that is shared by her mother, little brother and sister. There is no furniture. But the few, achingly few, belongings, a few pots, some sandals and clothing, are piled neatly in the corner. The house has a simplicity like a monk's cell, but this is not asceticism by choice. It's grim, stark poverty.
Tears rolled down Nelda's cheeks when she told me she's lost all hope. She has none. Eight years old and she is desperate for espoir, which means hope in Creole. Hope that her baby brother and sister will no longer cry because they are hungry. Hope that there will be food on the table tomorrow. And her greatest hope of all--her secret dream to escape Cite Soleil and its grinding poverty.
Nelda longs to attend school. Her voice grows soft as she confesses about seeing other children walk to school and wishing she could join them. She went to school once. She knows how to write her name. But school is as beyond her reach as living in a mansion. Not when there's only a single cup of rice to share between herself and her two siblings. Survival takes precedence.
A day in Nelda's life consists of finding food to eat, something to chase away the pain seizing her empty belly. A day in Nelda's life is filled with walking the dusty, gritty dirt lanes in search of a kind soul who will share what little they have cooking in their pot. A day in Nelda's life is a long stretch of emptiness, waiting for her mother to earn a few coins so their family will finally have rice to eat.
A day in Nelda's life is filled with many things. Except one thing she truly needs. Hope.
In my dreams, I envision for Nelda a real house with a soft bed, clean water to drink, sanitation, and food enough to chase away hunger for good. I imagine her in a clean, tidy school uniform, bright blue and white ribbons adorning her hair, as she sits at a desk and writes in a workbook.
In my dreams, I see Nelda escaping the wretched poverty that is Cite Soleil. I see her having hope again.
That is what I envision for a day in her life. Someday, I hope it comes true.