HAITI A firm-handed woman

 Emergency Response
 6th Oct 2008

 Moving energetically, she hoists big cans of cooking oil, passing them to women who divide them among themselves, along with the food distributions they’ve received.

Sylvie Clermont is dripping with sweat. It is 40°C and today the distribution is taking place in the open, not a shady spot in sight. But the heat isn’t stopping Sylvie. She keeps up a tireless pace. The instructions are clear: to work as fast as possible so the women in the queue don’t have to wait too long in the infernal heat.

Heat or not, this young woman of 37 has power to spare. She’s strong, fearless, a bundle of energy. But the distributions are especially trying physically. First of all it’s necessary to arrive by 6:00 a.m. to unload the food trucks. The men haul sacks of rice, not less than 50 kg., hoisting them with brute force, carrying them and then piling them up in careful mounds. Likewise the bags of beans, which will be ripped open, then emptied onto a plastic sheet on the bare earth. Finally there are the cardboard boxes of oil cans which must be opened and laid out in piles. All around, other “monitors,” these men who make the distributions, organize the queue of women. By groups of 10 they come into the schoolyard where the food is given. Letting them enter in small groups avoids possible tensions and allows a smoother distribution. The women show their IDs and then go on to seek their rations.

The workers are men, because the job takes hours upon hours of heavy lifting. Only two women have been engaged for the task, and Sylvie is one of them. With her impish charm, it’s no surprise she’s melting into a crowd of men who surround her. And she likes it! When I ask her if it bothers her, she responds at once, “Not a bit!” Then she qualifies a bit: “Well, maybe a little… but I like it!” She continues, “I like being in the mix, and on the move. I need to exert myself, to feel I’m accomplishing something, being useful.”

Sturdy of character, nimble-footed, unwaveringly outspoken -- she’s one of those people who need to be where the action is in order to feel alive. She’s a tough character, who has found in CARE an organisation and a style of work that agree with her personality: “What I like about CARE is the way we work, a friendly environment but also the fact of having to observe procedures and rules, to work in an organised way.”

A way also of finding a structured framework during this time of disorder, where each day brings uncertainties and fears: Sylvie, too, was touched by the catastrophe and still hasn’t been able to return home. She lost everything, like so many others. “I have no clothes left. The neighbours gave me what I’m wearing, even my underwear! It was a really sad day. I was at my mother’s place with my sister, her baby, and my youngest brother, 20 years old, who was asleep in the next room. When we realised the water was rising fast we all starting running for safety. Only then did we realise that my brother was not there. We ran toward the house, but the water was already too high and we couldn’t open the door. It took several people to force the door open, but finally we were able to get him out,” the young women recounts.

Sylvie tells of the three days during which they remained wedged on the roof, unable to descend, with nothing to eat but candies and wet pasta. You might think she’d move away from the floodplain to another neighbourhood, but that’s out of the question: “I don’t have the money for that. I moved in last May. I have no way to pay what it would cost to go someplace else…”

In the meantime, she’s glad at least to have a job, to have this place at CARE, a chance that many people do not have. It’s hard enough to face the loss of all your possessions, even more so when you have no income to survive.

After the morning’s distributions, Sylvie will leave on her small motor bike to distribute ID cards to the women selected for the distribution. “She can ride all over the city like no one else,” comments one of the men in charge of distribution, “All the men respect her -- she’s the best!”

Sylvie continues at her unrestrained tempo, sweat streaming down her face, to pass one by one the cans of oil with which the women will return home to prepare a hot meal for their children. A good reason not to waste time!

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