CITE SOLEIL, Haiti, Oct. 16 -- Residents of Cite Soleil, one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest and largest slums, smiled and sang songs of hope Sunday anticipating a visit by returned Haitian President Jean- Bertrand Aristide. Despite their uplifted spirits, however, the situation for many of the slum-dwellers remains grim. The vast labyrinth of cinderblock, log and zinc houses and shacks, built with assorted refuse north of Port-au- Prince, has been a mecca for foreign journalists seeking 'color' pieces to add to the rest of the political news. The dominant color in Cite Soleil is misery, and the daily routine seldom changes. Food is foremost on the minds of those in the sprawling slum. Every morning a big yellow truck drives past Cite Soleil, turns right and enters a vast landfill. Loaded with garbage, including plastic bags packed with waste from U.S. military camps, the truck is invariably swarmed by men, women, children, dogs and flies as it begins to unload. The strongest men climb onto the truck even before it stops moving and begin digging for food. When the truck actually begins unloading, the heavy steel door oscilates hitting those diving into the pile. The top priority is to find something that can be eaten -- anything, including the mush of unidentifiable components from the military kitchens. After everything edible has disappeared, the struggle for acquisitions becomes more specific. Some people hunt solely for bottles, or cardboard, or plastic bags, or steel and aluminum cans, and do not hesitate to strike rivals -- even children and women -- with sticks or twisted cable wires.
In Cite Soleil churches, songs, prayers and sermons on Sunday were of ecumenical simulitude. Whether Catholic, Evangelical or independent native denominations, the pleas were unfailingly for peace and jobs. At the Eglise de Dieu en Christ, a choir of five girls and four boys entertained visiting journalists with a plaintive song of life and death in Cite Soleil. 'Today is a great day for Haitians,' the minister told the congregation. 'It is now up to Haitians to change things. Residents have cleaned the slum's streets, displaying with pride their most prized possessions: a blender, tin pail, a dilapidated telephone, a worn bicycle tire, along with altar-like tables supporting photos of Aristide. Under a canopy of sheets extended from poles, a group of children watched videos under the supervision of a young, educated man who identified himself as Johnson. Nearby, two men beside an abandoned building roasted an entire pig on a mound of wood shavings as children and dogs watched hungrily. Stores and street stalls have plenty of produce, being sold with an almost complete disregard for hygiene. Shipments from Uruguay and the United States in the past two weeks have added corn, beans, sugar, flour and maize to the shelves. Prices, however, are still beyond the wildest dreams of the poor in Haiti, a nation where the World Bank says the average per capita income is $250 annually. Uruguayan rice and beans sell for more than $6.50 a kilogram (almost $3 per pound); a handful of small potatoes sell for $1; and sugar moves at $1 per kilogram.