In Haiti, Waiting for the Grand Bayakou

Amy Wilentz - November 26 2010, 10:25 AM

Los Angeles
IN Haiti, there's a worker called a bayakou.

The bayakou comes in the middle of the night to clean latrines, which generally get shoveled out only once every year or so.
Few people ever see a bayakou.

In fact, he has a status somewhere between a magical, fairy-tale figure and an untouchable.

To get a bayakou to come and do his work, a homeowner must negotiate with a middleman who arranges the assignment, but won't let you know exactly when the cleaner is coming.

You tell the middleman where you want the sewage from the latrine buried; he tells you that during the next three nights, you shouldn't worry if you hear a noise in your garden.

And then one night, the bayakou comes and the following morning, there's a heap of freshly turned earth in a corner out back, and a clean latrine.

You pay the middleman.

With presidential elections scheduled for Sunday, it's fair to ask who will be the grand bayakou for Haiti now. The place surely needs a figure of mythic status who's willing to come in and get real work done. Yet as the country tumbles into the electoral morass, it's hard to imagine that someone will arrive in the dark to engineer a cleanup.

It's not only the aftermath of last January's earthquake that is troubling the still-embryonic democratic process in Haiti -- although it's not easy to promote elections amid mass displacement and homelessness, to say nothing of all the electoral identification cards lost in goudou-goudou, the quake's onomatopoeic Creole nickname.

What has Haitian political heads spinning right now are the billions in international aid that have been promised in the disaster's wake. Misery is Haiti's stock in trade, more so now than ever. With every announcement of a further katastwof, or catastrophe -- an aftershock, the rainy season, a cholera epidemic, a potential hurricane -- the chink chink chink can be heard from across the sea.
In a way, misery is a natural resource as corrupting as any diamond or gold mine, or the discovery of a lake of oil beneath a desert.

This realization may in fact explain the inaction of Haitian leaders so far, including the bizarrely silent and invisible Haitian president, René Préval. As long as the people are homeless and hungry and sick, money will keep on flowing from the outside.

Haitian politicians are traditionally talented at only one aspect of the exercise of power: enriching themselves.

This is not surprising.

For most elected Haitian officials, their job in the legislature is their first ever regular job, and the salary they receive is often their first ever regular paycheck.

A foreign diplomat with long experience in Haiti told me that the average number of hours per day that a Haitian legislator spends on the job is two.
For such novices, and for old hands, the aid money coming in is an irresistible prize.

The next leader of Haiti will preside over coffers the likes of which his predecessors have only dreamed.

The temptations for this leader and his cohort will be great.

One example: for months already, customs has been holding back supplies that were to go to various nongovernmental groups, arguing that papers have not been properly filed.

(It is not a stretch to see this as a tacit call for under-the-table payments.)
In other countries, such attempts at malfeasance can be offset and even overcome by government or independent institutions that help distribute foreign largess and monitor the overseers' management.

In Haiti, however, the few weak institutions that existed were ravaged by the earthquake.

Government reform is not high on the list of priorities for many Haitians, at least not compared with daily survival.

A cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,400 people so far. A traumatized people at the very edge of survival -- ever since goudou-goudou, food, water, cooking oil, charcoal, shelter and health care are expensive or hard to get or to maintain -- now feels pushed over the brink by the spreading illness.

Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti, Then and Now."

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Comments

Adelina Cambrone says...

You see how Haiti lost its respect overseas. The New Haitian President will be called a derogatory word such as Grand... more »