Fishing to survive in Cité Soleil
By Swoan Parker
“I’m living in a bad place and didn’t want to get involved in any bad things”, is what 27-year-old Wilkens Sinar told me. His neighborhood, Cité Soleil, is one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and just 500 miles from the United States. This densely populated area located near the capital of Port-au-Prince houses families who mostly migrated from the countryside in search of work. Unable to afford the rents in most of the capital, they have no other choice but to settle here where powerful gangs operate rampantly.
As I walked through the endless maze of shanty homes built of pieces of concrete or junk metal latched together, the smell of raw sewage permeated the air. I found myself at the seacoast where small boats were docked and fishermen were either setting off or returning with their catch of mostly small crabs and fish.
I watched the activity for a while before striking up a conversation with Wilkens, and his friends and fellow fishermen Dieufait Louis-Pierre, 27, and Mackenson Dollus, 28. It was 6 am and the three were just returning from collecting their crab baskets that they had set out the night before.
For Mackenson and Dieufait, fishing was as natural an activity as breathing. They came from a family of fishermen and it is their only means of income. For Wilkens it was different. He told me that Mackenson introduced him to the idea just after the 2010 earthquake. Before the quake he used to sell little sacks of drinking water, but wasn’t making nearly enough money to live on. He didn’t have any other job prospects and like Mackenson and Diefuait, had little formal education. Dieufait never attended school at all. His mother died when he was 3 months old, so his grandmother raised him. She could never afford the cost of tuition. All three of the men have children of their own whom they wish to provide for, none attend school either as there just isn’t enough money.
The men explained that earning a living as fishermen is a constant struggle. They often do not have enough money to buy even the crab baskets that they need. The baskets, which cost 75 gourdes ($1.79) each, need to be replaced every three months. There isn’t a fishing association in Cite Soleil where they can go for assistance like in other parts of the country. Unable to purchase a boat of their own, they must rent one for $25 per month.
In the days that I spent with Wilkens and Dieufait, who are partners and own just 30 crab baskets between them, I watched them sell their catch to the women who set up a market on the shore, earning just $37.50 each for 7 days work. That’s barely enough to pay their home rent of $37.50, feed, clothe their children, and rent their fishing boat. It is certainly not enough to buy the supplies and equipment they desperately need in order to work better and earn more.
If they owned a motor they could mount it to the back of the boat and go further out to sea where they could catch bigger crabs or fish. They can’t buy fishing nets, but they try to make ends meet anyway. Mackenson, who owns just ten crab baskets, earned even less.
The men told me that their hope is that things in Cite Soleil will get better for them. “Not everyone who lives here is bad. Some of us just don’t have the opportunity to do better. We need a leader. We need someone who cares about what happens to us. Right now, we have no one.”