We decided to go to Port de Paix to see for ourselves how much of a water “issue” people there faced. It took almost four hours from Gonaives to travel 86 kilometers (53 miles) through stunningly beautiful countryside in our Toyota 4 Runner. The locals use burros and horses and an occasional motorbike to negotiate a narrow, boulder-strewn road that snakes like a chalk line over, around, and through passes in mountainous terrain. Just when you think you can’t possible take the spine-compressing bouncing any longer, the road turns to pockmarked concrete as it enters Port-au-Paix. Haitian artists and poets reside in the city Columbus named “Valparaiso,” the valley of paradise.
This port city is the capital of the of the Nord-Quest department and has a population of 250,000.
Our first stop was the MSF compound, and sadly we initially received the same treatment we have received at other locations in Haiti, as well as Congo. A guard manned the imposing red iron gate. Our translator asked if we might speak to an official. A young white man, who would not offer his name, came out to see us, but did not invite us inside to talk. In English, he explained he was the assistant director, could not talk to us, and if we came back the next day, he “might” be able to get us an interview with the director. We had a short, informal conversation about the problems MSF created by refusing to talk to reporters in the field as he smiled and said he “understood” this. He refused to comment on whether or not MSF was ending its water treatment program, as OCHA said in the report.
The gate closed and locked behind us, and as we were about to get into our car to find the Mayor of Port de Paix, another car pulled up to the gate. A woman who first identified herself as a “field coordinator” invited us inside the gate to sit down with her and answer any questions she could. In seven years, this was the first MSF staff member who ever willingly and graciously invited us inside an MSF compound.
Sabine Hardy was working for MSF in St. Louis du Nord, a small town 45 minutes to the east along the coast. This was her last day. She was about to have a celebratory lunch with other workers and was willing to put that on hold to speak with us. Hardy concurred that her group was leaving, but would have mechanisms in place to continue education through the local WASH cluster, the Ministere de la Sante Publique et de la Population (MSPP), and DINEPA. Beyond information about her specific field project, she referred us to MSF’s Caroline Seugin in Port-au-Prince, and gave us Seugin’s number.
The next stop was the mayor’s office. It happened that a man we stopped to ask directions of knew the mayor, M. Salvador Guillet. Guillet is the chief official of the commune of Port de Paix in the Nord-Quest Department. It was Sunday, and the mayor agreed to meet us in spite of the day and the hour, saying, “foreigners should be king,” with a wry smile.
Before we began asking questions about the sanitation situation in the commune, Guillet flipped through a thick notebook in which he recorded conversations, it seemed, pertaining to every meeting he attended. As he flipped through the pages, looking for the last meeting with MSF officials, he kept fingering a Blackberry with his left hand.
When asked whether he knew if MSF’s cholera mission was over, Guillet said he “asked the same question.” It was Sunday, February 6 and MSF was scheduled to leave the next day. “I met the lady in charge of MSP. She said there is decreased cholera and they will leave February 7 since there is less and less cholera,” Guillet said.
He has reason to be concerned. Although Guillet praised MSF for their “good work treating the sick,” he, like OCHA, wondered what would happen when they reduced services, especially water treatment.
Then the mayor flipped through his notebook and began to read the grim statistics of cholera infections and deaths in Nord-Quest. He began with figures from October 19 to November 23, 2010 (6,942 cases and 96 deaths). When we realized he was trying to provide us with an accurate count of total cases and deaths since the epidemic began, we stopped his accounting of the grim toll and told him the numbers were available on the MSPP website for Nord-Quest (13,387 cases, 208 deaths). He closed his ledger and looked almost relieved, smiling wanly. After all, as mayor, Guillet is the chief elective official; responsible by mandate and authority for the people of his commune. It crossed my mind to ask him is he felt responsible for a resolution of this crisis, but the look on his face was obvious and required no translation. He did.