Children growing up in Cité Soleil contend with gang violence, malnutrition, and frequent flooding of the trash-filled canals which flow into the sea in this part of Port au Prince. Since people first settled in this low-lying area in the 1950s, Haiti’s government has struggled to provide residents with schools, law enforcement or sanitation.
In 2006, Daniel Tillias, a translator who grew up in Cité Soleil, launched a project called Sakala to help youth there make the most of such difficult circumstances. The name means “what could be here” in Haitian creole.
Tillias and dozens of young people have spent the last eight years slowly reclaiming parts of an abandoned factory site and informal dump with the blessing of the local government. Every afternoon until sunset, a rotating cast of kids and teenagers from the surrounding neighborhood has gathered in the shadow of half-fallen concrete walls overgrown with vines to bring Sakala to life. At first, the hours passed hauling away wheelbarrow-fulls of trash and raking broken glass from the dirt. Gradually, they’ve planted neat rows of moringa trees and raised beds with eggplant, basil, and greens instead.
Today, Sakala stands out like an oasis from the barren urban landscape that surrounds it. One of Cité Soleil’s infamous canals runs behind it; across the road stands a tattered tent camp formed after the 2010 earthquake.
Tillias calls Sakala an “alternative community center,” offering mentoring, meals and after school dance classes. Its centerpiece is a sprawling vegetable garden and composting site. They recycle organic waste from neighborhood markets and nearby homes, and use old tires and discarded plastic bags as planters. Until now, a $14,000 annual grant from the Global Fund for Children has helped pay Sakala’s water bill and small salaries for core staff, but funding in the non-profit world can be uncertain: for the last ten months, Tillias says, Sakala employees have worked as volunteers. One day soon, Tillias hopes to sell enough compost to support all Sakala’s programs.