OUT OF THE RUINS, A NEW ROLE FOR HAITIAN WOMEN
(Seattle Times) - By Jacqueline Charles
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Cendra Guillaume walks into the dusty depot of manly machines, passes fellow female workers, and steps into the front office with a familiar look of determination.
Not one to sit around and wait, the wife, mother and heavy-equipment operator gets right to the point: "Where to today?"
In the months since the Haiti earthquake claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, women like Guillaume have been on the front lines of paving the way for this broken nation's reconstruction.
Theirs are the anonymous hands that steered the dead to unmarked graves in black and white government dump trucks, tunneled through the rubble for foreign rescue teams and cleared debris from hundreds of blocked roads.
In the process, they are challenging the notion of a woman's traditional role in this machismo society, and restoring what many thought they had lost in the rubble: faith in the future.
"It's a beautiful thing," said Guerino Noel, 44, a father of two daughters who ekes out a living scavenging ruins for copper wire, as he watched Guillaume deftly maneuver her giant yellow excavator.
"As a Haitian male, I was personally offended the first time I saw a woman driving one of those trucks," he said. "But when you are living in such a deplorable situation, where even eating is difficult, and you see a woman sitting behind the wheels of one of those trucks, it means something in the country is still working."
Guillaume works for Centre National des Equipments, or CNE, the government's road-building outfit. Formed in 1997, it has deliberately filled its employee ranks with women. They serve in every capacity from dump-truck driver to loader to excavator operator to trainer.
"I was first concerned about my equipment," said Jude Celestin, CNE founder and executive director. "We always had a problem with drivers stealing fuel, stealing parts from the trucks. It's a fact that we have this problem in Haiti. With women, it's different.
"When I give a woman a piece of equipment, I am sure she's going to take care of her family; she will take care of her children," he said. "Women have something else inside them that they don't even realize is there: a need to prove to themselves that they can do the same thing as a man."
Before the catastrophic quake hit Jan. 12, most of CNE's employees had been working in the outskirts of the capital, building roads as part of President Rene Preval's effort to transform the lives of farmers.
Within hours of the disaster, amid the death and chaos, 85 trainees — 65 of them women — arrived on foot from the nearby Cite Soleil slum. They immediately climbed into the cockpits and began to clear major roads and downtown of debris.
"They are leading the demolition of the ruined structures and because they are personally living it, they know better than anyone what the reconstruction can be," Celestin said.
Guillaume had just stepped out of a brightly colored Tap Tap truck in the city of Carrefour when the ground buckled. Buildings toppled and a mother's adrenaline kicked in as she ran home to her 7-year-old son, Olivier.
Over the next 24 hours, her husband, a police officer, would try to dissuade her from leaving. She stayed until this radio announcement: All CNE technicians and operators must report to work immediately.
"I said, 'No, I cannot stay at home. If I don't go, it's like a doctor who has a lot of sick patients and he's refusing to treat them,' " she said. "My first thought, 'What if there are people still alive underneath the rubble?' "
She arrived at the worksite less than 48 hours after the hemisphere's worst natural disaster and immediately went to work.
Guillaume and the other women felt the strain.
"There were days where I just cried and cried," said Guillaume, 39, who was assigned to one toppled building after another. But every morning, she would awaken in her modest home with the washing machine and unfinished second floor, kiss Olivier goodbye, and don her courage before heading out.
"I am lucky enough not to have lost anyone dear to my heart," she said. "I always said, 'If God has saved my own, then it's my duty to go and help others.' "
Women have long been the backbone of Haiti's informal economy but lacked real power in this conservative society. Their schooling was often sacrificed for that of their brothers.
Most of CNE's women find their average $312 monthly salary, plus as much as $150 a month in per diem, exceeding their partner's, and Celestin's first warning to all new recruits is that CNE will test their relationships.
"I tell them, 'All of you will leave your husbands,' " he said. "The men develop a complex because the women now have money in their hands."
Guillaume's husband of seven years cleaned out their joint bank accounts recently following a violent fight over money, she said.
He kicked her out of the house without her son, and she's temporarily seeking refuge at a friend's home.
Celestin has offered a transfer to a new job, but daily migraines and depression have, for the moment, kept Guillaume from accepting.
In the ultimate irony, she's unable to perform the job that has for so long defined and empowered her.