Under an ash gray sky threatening rain this past April, dozens of people in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cité Soleil (Sun City) gathered across the street from the local police station to survey a flat patch of earth where goats normally graze. As surveyors in helmets and green vests took measurements of the land, residents discussed their plan for this corner of a desperately poor quarter of this impoverished country: the construction of a new library, the Bibliyotèk Site Solèy, funded by small donations from hundreds of Haitians and with books contributed from both within Haiti and abroad.
“This is not just a library. This symbolizes a lot for us,” said Louino Robillard, a native of the northern town of Saint-Raphaël who moved to Cité Soleil with his father when he was three and grew up in the district’s Ti Ayiti section. Robillard is the driving force behind the Konbit Solèy Leve, a social movement whose name refers to both the tradition of volunteer community work in rural Haiti (konbit) and the neighborhood’s name (solèy leve, meaning “rising sun”).
“This symbolizes unity,” Robillard said. “This symbolizes hope.”
A little more than a decade ago, Cité Soleil was a war zone where daily survival, let alone long-term planning, was a Herculean task. It was, and to some degree remains, a redoubt of the armed political pressure groups known as the baz (base) in Haiti, who maintain an uneasy and ambiguous relationship with the country’s political factions. Today, however, grass-roots organizations such as Konbit Solèy Leve and the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè have been working to put the konbit model into practice, gathering residents to clean the fetid canals and other areas of the district and trying to sow connections between the sometimes fractious groups in the zone. The grass-roots nature of such initiatives is especially significant given what Haiti has witnessed over the last decade.
In February 2004, then Haitian