In Canaan, Haitians Are Building Back by Themselves, with a Story to Tell

“The road in front of my shop was made by people. Around ten people work on it. If people are not around that day they contribute a little something, food or money. The ones that are there commit their labor and energy.

There is one person in charge that we trust, who notes names of people who are not around and to who people give money. With that money we buy food, cook it and serve it to the people working on the road. We don’t give money directly to people. That’s how we organize ourselves to do it. This is how all the roads are done in the area.”

— Alain Obin. Obin is a shopkeeper in Canaan, now the largest informal settlement in Haiti, home to 160,000 people.

Haiti’s 2010 earthquake caused the death of 200,000 people and pushed 1.5 million into tent camps.

Over the past five years, while the Haitian government and international partners were engaged with humanitarian and reconstruction projects, Canaan, a settlement at the edge of Port-Au-Prince, rapidly became the biggest and most active construction site in the country. Built entirely by Haitians themselves, without technical or financial support from state or international partners, Canaan has gone relatively unnoticed in the international story of Haiti’s recovery.

This is changing, as Haiti’s government and international aid partners are now starting to leverage and support the independent effort. The complex development of Canaan, and the story of its residents, is an unfolding lesson about development after disaster.

children pumping water
Kids in Canaan filling up non-drinkable water for house from a pump installed early after the earthquake.

Informal neighborhoods are not new, and most Haitians do not see much specificity to Canaan; they see it as just another symptom of this “slumification” of urban areas, in process for decades.

Such neighborhoods are largely associated with crime, as well as a symbol of the government’s neglect for the poor and inability to plan or enforce regulations in urban development.

What sets Canaan apart is the timing and circumstances of this migration, which created a unique experience to the people settling there.

People who moved there had a sense of pioneering, of a new start.

a church under construction
A catholic church, under construction in Canaan.

“This area is not place people used to live in. It’s an area that was most vulnerable. It was a desert without any trees, only the sun and rocks. But we made it habitable even though it wasn’t ready to receive people living here. Because there was no other options for us we settled here, even without the necessary infrastructure.”

— Pastor Marc Jean Louis Maitre, of Onaville, one of the neighborhoods in the Canaan area.

store selling construction materials
One of the many shops selling construction materials , in Jerusalem, one of the neighborhoods in the Canaan area.

Canaan residents have hope that their new town can distinguish itself from the other informal neighborhoods that many purposely left behind. Early on in the settlement’s development process, residents have organized themselves to maintain roads, limit encroachment and even limit development.

“The area needs to be better known by our society and people outside of Haiti. A lot of people thought and still think that people established here are thieves and bandits. What we have here are people that are making efforts to establish a real town, a good place for themselves and their children. I believe that if we manage to convey to people outside of Canaan our needs, desires and show our achievements here maybe our society will give us a chance and accept us.”

— Wesnaica Mesilus, a community resident working with Internews to tell the Canaan story

corner store
A multi-business shop selling water, food, sodas & phone credit in Jerusalem, one of the neighborhoods in the Canaan area.

When you speak to Canaan residents, the message is clear: they moved here for a better way of life and have hopes for the area — Canaan residents are not just putting up haphazard shelters. They’re building schools, and churches. They are invested and have proactively shaped the area.

“We have created a way for people not to be living on top of each other. If you look how the city was built like in Jalousie [a famous informal neighborhood], where houses were built on top of each other, it caused a lot of damage and human losses after the earthquake.

We organised ourselves to ensure that everyone here has a little space for a courtyard, allowing some distance with the other houses under construction. It’s because we believe in this place. If after four years it’s this way, in ten years it can be even greater.”

— A Canaan resident who preferred to be anonymous.

A self-built town needs a self-told story

The story of Canaan is important. The consequences of understanding and fairly representing this population are huge in a country where state resources are scarce and where governmental and international investments are intertwined.

Telling the story of Canaan residents, and now those investing in Canaan’s growth, could help policy makers understand urban migration and self-recovery better, and thus make more informed decisions for Haiti and elsewhere.

A team of community reporters, working with Internews, are now working with residents of Canaan to capture the stories, insights, and approach to rebuilding that has set Canaan apart. Haitian reporters are being trained on research techniques and given logistical support and field contacts to contribute to a better understanding and visibility to the development of Canaan. The stories and themes will be shared with the community to make sure they are representative of the variety of their experiences.

Together with the community reporters, Internews staff and Haitian reporters will produce radio and video reports as well as an illustrated report based on verbal testimonies that will be shared and presented via multiple platforms and media, in Haiti and abroad.

view of makeshift market
A market and transport hub developing at a road junction in Canaan

Spread over 14 square kilometers, bringing together an estimated $100 million in personal investment, and housing more than 160,000 people, Canaan is an effort that the world should be watching. Their successes and challenges hold lessons for redevelopment and disaster recovery worldwide.

Canaan has a story to tell, and we should be listening.

Ben Noble is project director and country representative for Internews in Haiti. Internews has been active in Haiti since 2007, working with local journalists and media outlets to increase the availability of accurate, useful reporting. Internews’ work in Canaan is supported by USAID, Habitat for Humanity, and individual donors. Support the Canaan: Istwa pa Nou (Canaan: Our Story) Project at Global Giving.

All photos credit: Ben Noble/Internews

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)