[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
26671: (news) Chamberlain: Haiti-Hip-Hop Help (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 24 (AP) -- U.N. peacekeepers venture into Cite
Soleil with automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers. Haitian
police, fearful of well-armed gangs, avoid the dusty streets of the seaside
But a new aid organization has managed to use the immense popularity of
hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean to provide badly needed help to a desperate
corner of his native country, the poorest nation in the Americas.
Yele Haiti, which Jean formed this year, has so far focused mostly on
giving out scholarships. But after a few exploratory forays, it ventured
into Cite Soleil this month to give out food -- backed by the pulsating
beat of hip-hop blasting from speakers on a makeshift stage.
The music wasn't just entertainment. It was the way the aid group
secured permission to enter the territory of gangs who dominate a slum that
is home to more than 200,000 people.
"The gangs are really into my music, so we use that to connect with the
population," Jean said by telephone from New York. "It helps us get in to
help people that others may not reach."
The name "Yele Haiti" comes from a popular Jean song that has become a
sort of anthem of hope following the violent rebellion that ousted
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
Jean, who left Haiti when he was 10 and gained fame as a member of the
Fugees, said he was inspired to create his aid group by his own bitter
memories of poverty.
"I grew up with no shoes and no pants," the 35-year-old musician said.
"So, in the position I'm in today, I couldn't sleep if I wasn't giving
Most of Haiti's 8 million people live on less than $1 a day.
Unemployment is estimated at 80 percent. Locals struggle to survive coups,
street-level justice, corrupt leaders and pervasive crime. Kidnappings are
Human rights groups and international organizations say at least 1,500
people have died in the violence in the capital in the past year, much of
it blamed on the street gangs that allegedly support Aristide, now in exile
in South Africa, and his Lavalas party.
Yele Haiti so far has distributed about $1 million in grants and aid,
mostly in the Gonaives region, which was devastated last year by Hurricane
Jeanne. The organization has also taught sports to slum children and helped
clear litter from the streets of Port-au-Prince.
"What you need is for people to participate in the aid programs, feel
like human beings -- not just receive food like animals," Jean said.
Dozens of aid groups operate in Haiti. What makes Jean's unusual is its
reliance on his celebrity to gain permission from the gangs to operate amid
the violence of Cite Soleil.
"There's always an element of risk, but the community has a lot of
respect for the musicians," said Hugh Locke, the manager of Yele Haiti.
A gang leader who calls himself General Toutou said he and others "have
completely lost trust in the U.N.," whose blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops
often engage in firefights with slum residents.
Mamadou Mbaye, head of the U.N. World Food Program in Haiti, said the
agency doesn't allow its staff to enter Cite Soleil because of the danger
-- so it provided food to Yele Haiti to distribute.
Mbaye praised Yele Haiti for its ability to "take the first step and
pave the way," for other aid groups.
"People in dangerous zones have the same right to aid and food as the
rest of the Haitian population," he said.
But even with the gang's permission and Jean's popularity, the first
major food handout did not go off as smoothly as organizers hoped.
Yele Haiti volunteers and workers in bright orange and blue T-shirts
arrived with hundreds of bags of rice, beans, salt and cooking oil. But the
crowd had grown unruly under the hot sun, and people began to scramble for
the food, fearful they might miss out.
Some gangsters could be seen striking people with belts and sticks while
others ran off with food. In the distance, U.N. troops and gang members
could be heard exchanging gunfire.
Ernia Saint Louis, who lives in Cite Soleil, said gang members stole her
"It's great to bring food to the poor, but we never get any of it. The
big guys take it all," the 26-year-old woman said as she picked beans from
the dust and collected them in a fold of her dress.
Despite the problems, the World Food Program said it hopes to keep
channeling aid through Jean's group.
"Yes, it was chaotic, but it was a learning process for us and Yele
Haiti," said Anne Poulsen, spokeswoman for the U.N. agency in Haiti.
Jean said his group would learn from the incident, which he views as a
reminder of why Haiti needs so much help.
"We can't just wait for things to improve before we get involved," he
said. "It's because we are trying that things will get better."
On the Net: Yele Haiti: http://www.yele.org/