Konbit is a traditional Haitian form of cooperative labor from the countryside, where normally every farmer spends the day working on one person's farm, and then the next day everyone works on another person's farm, until everyone has been helped. It is a system built not on collective ownership, but reciprocity. When Konbit Soley Leve decided to adapt this model to an urban context, they changed it so that when one neighborhood had a problem (overflowing canal, trash build-up, abandoned houses), the other neighborhoods would come and help however they can, knowing that when they had an issue, other neighborhoods would come to support them. Here are a few examples of these urban konbits in action:
The flood in La Difference
July 2011: The first Konbit happened shortly after the founding of Konbit Solèy Leve – there was a severe rainstorm and the open canals that ran through Cite Soleil flooded. The worst part of the flooding hit La Difference just before dawn, and the immaculately clean streets of the neighborhood were covered in sewage. This was upsetting because the clean streets of La Difference had become a symbol for how the movement saw the future of Cite Soleil. So at about 7:00 in the morning, a mass text message went out to everyone who had come to a Solèy Leve meeting, saying “la difference is flooded. Come and help”. Within the next hour, dozens of people from different neighborhoods across Cite Soleil showed up in La Difference with whatever they had: brooms, shovels, wheelbarrows, screens from old fans. Everyone got to work cleaning the sludge off of the streets – residents bought water for the volunteers, and there was singing and laughing and cleaning. Within two hours, the streets were so clean that it was as if nothing had ever happened. Because of that first gesture of solidarity, volunteers from La Difference were always among the first people to show up for other konbits in other neighborhoods.
Over the past five years, there have been countless konbits to tackle neighborhood issues across Cite Soleil. Here are just a few images.
Konbit Soley Leve is able to mobilize people from across the different neighborhoods of Cite Soleil and often uses this capability to get people out into the streets to advocate for (or celebrate the achievement of) peace.
March with Simon Pele
October 2012 – In October of 2012, a war broke out between the gangs of Cite Soleil and Simon Pele, a neighboring area on the other side of the national highway. The tit-for-tat killings began to escalate, and civilians on both sides of the line were being killed. Then, one night, the gangs from Cite Soleil committed a massacre, killing over two dozen civilians in Simon Pele in their houses, some while they were sleeping. Members of Konbit Solèy Leve convened an emergency meeting the next day, and realized they had to do something to deescalate the conflict before people got hurt. They decided to organize a peaceful march that would start in Cite Soleil and end in Simon Pele, with people from every neighborhood on both sides of the line, that would send a message to the gangsters- ‘you can fight each other, but leave us out of it – stop killing us’. They spent days going into churches, voudou temples, schools, baz, trying to convince people to come to the march. While many were scared, afraid of a retribution attack from Simon Pele, a few dozen people gathered on Wharf Soley with a banner saying “Simon Pele and Cite Soleil are condemned to live together” and a sound truck playing socially conscience music. As the march walked through the blocks, it picked up more and more people, until there were hundreds of Soleyans. And when the march reached Simon Pele, it picked up hundreds more – people from Cite Soleil and Simon Pele, families of the victims of both sides, everyone calling for an end to the fighting. The march went back through Cite Soleil, and ended at the main highway that divided the two blocks. The march went without incident, and there was never a reprisal attack from Simon Pele. The march had stopped the conflict.
March for Jean Jacques Dessalines
October 17th is the anniversary of the death of Haiti’s founding father, Jean Jacques Dessalines. Many people see his death as symbolic of the issues of race and class and color that continue to divide Haiti today. Konbit Solèy Leve decided to use this date to make a symbolic gesture about overcoming those divisions for a new Haiti – they decided to have a peaceful march to lay a wreath at Dessaline’s memorial. The march had people from different blocks, Christians and voudou leaders, civilians and gangsters, men and women, young and old – and this represented the image of the kind of Cite Soleil that the movement wanted to see. However, other groups tend to use this occasion for politics, and by the time the peaceful march arrived at the memorial, there was already a clash between two other groups of protestors and the police. Gun shots were firing when the group arrived, but instead of running, the group from Cite Soleil stood their ground and deescalated the conflict. They had a pickup truck with a sound system on top, and Louino Robillard and Michel Wilgempson used the microphone to talk the angry crowds down, and eventually everyone – including the police – got down on their knees to ask for forgiveness in front of the memorial to the founding father of Haiti. The police were so surprised that the crowd from Cite Soleil was actually able to bring peace to a volatile situation that they escorted the pickup truck and marchers back to the entrance to Cite Soleil. The truck ran out of gas, but everyone was so energized that they pushed the truck back to Soley 4.
Kita Nago (2013)
Kita Nago was a national symbolic marathon created and carried out by Met Fey Vet, a cultural icon who promotes Haitian pride and local production. The idea was to carry a 500-kilo tree trunk across all of Haiti (700 km), entirely by foot. It took at least a dozen to carry the trunk at any time - volunteers from every corner of Haiti came out to contribute to carrying the burden and showing what Haitians can accomplish when they work together. When the march was planning to come through Port au prince, no one thought that it would go through Cite Soleil because of the stigma and fear around the place. But Louino Robillard went to advocate with Met Fey Vet and said that Kita Nago going through Cite Soleil without incident could help erode the stigma, and Met Fey Vet agreed. Kira Nago passed through Cite Soleil with thousands of Soleyans coming out to support the initiative, and a group that took the 500-kilo tree trunk all the way to Archaie. Met Fey Vet has been a friend to Cite Soleil ever since.
In 2014, there was a resurgance in inter-neighborhood violence that affected most of Cite Soleil. Roads were empty and quiet - people were afraid to go out of their own neighborhoods or circulate to other areas. Finally, after months of tension and fear, there was a short truce established between the gangs, and there was a moment of peace. As Daniel Tillias often says - ordinary people cannot create peace (that is mostly in the power of gangs and the politicians that control them), but we can make the best of the peace we are given. So, to celebrate the freedom of movement that the truce provided to the community, Konbit Soley Leve worked with SAKALA, Planete des Enfants, Metanoia, and other youth sports groups to hold a "marathon" through Cite Soleil. They gathered young people from every neighborhood together and ran through every block, stopping in key neighborhoods to celebrate.
The earthquake was a powerful moment for all Haitians, and it had a great deal of meaning to those in Cite Soleil. There was sadness for those who lost their lives, frustration at the slow pace of recovery, but also a kind of awe and nostalgia for the way that the earthquake brought people together. For those first few days sleeping out under the stars, there were no blocks and neighborhoods, just Soleyans. Konbit Solèy Leve wanted to try to remind people of that feeling, of being bound together by hardship and overcoming disaster.
So on January 12th, 2012, Konbit Solèy Leve gathered representatives from each block into a yellow school bus and brought everyone to the mass grave just outside of Port au Prince where unidentified earthquake victims were buried. They climbed a hill behind the graves, planted a cross, and held a memorial ceremony. Then, that afternoon, hundreds of Soleyans from every block gathered in the heart of Cite Soleil to release hundreds of balloons into the air at exactly 4:53, the moment the earthquake had hit two years ago. The hundreds of balloons floating into the sky symbolized the hundreds of thousands of souls lost on the day. This tradition would be observed every year after that, no matter how challenging the security situation became.
The following are videos from the 2013 and 2016 observations:
soley leve anniversary + Cite Soleil peace prize:
On June 25th, 2012, Konbit Solèy Leve decided to celebrate their first anniversary by celebrating everything that was positive about Cite Soleil. Members raised funds to set up a giant stage in Plas Fyete, the central square in Cite Soleil, and had a line-up of dozens of talented local artists for the evening. But the night was not just for Soleyans – people from across Port au Prince came to attend the largest public concert in Cite Soleil, and famous Haitian artists such as Jean-Jean Roosevelt and BIC performed in the beginning of the event. By the time evening fell, there were 10,000 people from every neighborhood of Cite Soleil assembled in front of the stage, celebrating Soleyan talent, Soleyan vision, and Soleyan pride. And, contrary to the stereotypes about Cite Soleil, the evening passed without a single violent incident, even though that thousands of people from different blocks were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. It was one of the strongest declarations of the new post-earthquake Soleyan identity.
In 2013, an old battle between Upper and Lower CIte Soleil had re-ignited. There was too much inter-neighborhood conflict and there had been a particularly violent battle a month before the anniversary. All of the planning for celebration was cancelled in a form of mourning for the victims of inter-neighborhood violence.
In 2014, the situation was calm enough to again hold an event in Place Fierte marking the anniverasry of the founding of the movement. However, the violence of the past year had discouraged a lot of emerging leaders, and Louino Robillard wanted to find a way to re-ignite their passion for social change. He decided to found the Cite Soleil Peace Prize to recognize young people trying to make a difference despite the difficulties and violence.
Here is a video about the overall event:
And another video specifically focusing on the peace prize winners.
In 2015, there was again a significant outbreak of inter-neighborhood violence, and four months before the event, there was a massacre of more than two dozen civilians just in front of Place Fierte. Konbit Soley Leve decided to again cancel the anniversary celebration in mourning and protest, but decided to hold the Peace Prize ceremony out of Cite Soleil to try to keep encouraging young leaders through this difficult time. The following is a video about that event:
And in 2016, for the fifth anniversary of Konbit Soley Leve, there was a recent-enough truce between fighting blocks to allow for the fifth anniversary celebration to be held in Place Fierte in the heart of Cite Soleil again. This was combined with the third annual Cite Soleil Peace Prize. Thousands of people showed up, with special invitees including Madame Odette Roy Fombrun, Met Fey Vet, Belo, Mikaben, J.Perry, and Gardy Girault.
Konbit Soley Leve can sometimes be hard to understand from the outside as it has no structure. But there are several defining moments that help to demonstrate what this movement is about and the power of konbit.