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In rural parts of Haiti, living in a dysfunctional state has long been the reality.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Haiti is in the middle of one of its worst crises in decades. The central government has effectively collapsed, with the prime minister unable to return to the country and gangs marauding through Port-au-Prince in an effort to thwart a new transitional government from taking power. But in some parts of Haiti, people have long forgotten what it's like to live with a functional state. NPR's Eyder Peralta sends us this postcard of Haitians trying to make do.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR UNLOCKING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Out in this small town in northern Haiti, just a few miles from the main road, the government never bothered to install electricity. Still, Moncher Metina walks across the dirt roads with a smile on her face.

MONCHER METINA: (Laughter).

PERALTA: She's the mayor of this town. I can tell.

METINA: (Laughter).

PERALTA: She's not really the mayor, but she's spent her 65 years of life right here. She remembers when she was a kid, she would swim in the rivers that have now dried up. She remembers this was fertile land.

METINA: (Through interpreter) As long as you dropped a seed on the floor, it would grow.

PERALTA: In truth, she says, back in the day, they didn't even think about the government. They always had sufficient rain, always sufficient food. This place was full of lush rice fields. But over the past decade or so, the climate has changed and the rains have become unpredictable.

METINA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They missed the harvest for pistachios, beans, for yam. They miss all that. They can't have it anymore.

PERALTA: These days, she says, they are forced to eat what she calls white people food. In Haiti, rice is a staple, and about 80% of it is now imported from the United States. Metina shakes her head. The only thing they need to change that is a few wells and a few pumps from the government, and this land could be lush again.

And the government - no wells?

METINA: No.

PERALTA: No.

METINA: (Through interpreter) We don't have a government to do these kind of things.

PERALTA: So there's not even anybody to ask.

METINA: (Through interpreter) Even if there was, like, a local authority, they don't do anything. You see how the roads are. They said they were going to vote to do it. They did nothing. They do nothing for us.

PERALTA: Metina walks across a field. Planting anything here, she says, would be risky. Her neighbor, Antoine Jean Bellami, says he just planted 1,000 planting trees. And they're all starting to yellow because it has not yet rained.

ANTOINE JEAN BELLAMI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: But when he works, he realized it's worthless.

BELLAMI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: The biggest discouragement is that you will see the youth just up and leave and go to the DR to get humiliated.

PERALTA: To the DR, the neighboring Dominican Republic, to get humiliated.

Metina walks over with a couple of pictures. One is of her dressed all in white, finally completing her first communion just a few years ago. The other she caresses gently. It shows her son smiling for a studio shot.

Oh, wow. Handsome.

(LAUGHTER)

METINA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Father of four childs.

PERALTA: Wow.

In this village there was no way to get ahead, she says. So he left for the Dominican Republic about a year ago, and that was the last time she heard from him.

And you don't have his phone number, nothing?

METINA: No.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: No.

PERALTA: Wow.

It's the story of this region. She lowers her gaze. She lowers her voice.

METINA: (Through interpreter) But I just hope that he's around. I would know if he's died. If he had died, I would have known.

PERALTA: If he was dead, she says, I would have felt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

PERALTA: Just along Haiti's northern coast, about an hour away, we hit a town called Ouanaminthe. About a year ago, private citizens decided to move forward with a long-planned canal that would divert some water from a shared river with the Dominican Republic to a canal designed to irrigate vast farmlands in northern Haiti. There, we meet up with members of an environmental police force that has gone rogue to patrol the project. Minis Derius carries an assault rifle as he walks along the concrete retention walls that are still under construction.

And this is a civilian project.

MINIS DERIUS: (Through interpreter) All you see here, the state didn't do. The government didn't do anything. It was just the population, the diaspora, all Haitians living all around the world that did this. I'm not going to lie to you. If this was being done by the Haitian state, till this moment, it probably would have never been done.

PERALTA: This project, however, has been controversial. The Dominican Republic shut down its border to protest. Haiti's de facto prime minister ordered the environmental police force out, and he fired their leader. But the B-SAP, as they are known, simply ignored Prime Minister Ariel Henry, and the construction has kept moving forward.

DERIUS: (Through interpreter) And we, the B-SAP - we will stand with the people. Although we are a part of the state - yeah, we're a legal body, a legal force, we come from the government, but we cannot abandon the people.

PERALTA: To Derius, this project speaks to two realities in Haiti. First, of a dysfunctional government that can't seem to provide the basics for their people, and second, how the Haitian people always find ways to survive despite their government.

Does this give you hope?

DERIUS: (Through interpreter) Well, yeah, this is already some hope. It shows that if us, the people - we put our heads together, we unite, there's a lot we can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

PERALTA: And that is what we hear across this small town until we stop to talk to 28-year-old Degage Dieudonne Lamour.

DEGAGE DIEUDONNE LAMOUR: Yeah, I can say the canal give me hope, but (non-English language spoken)...

PERALTA: But he doesn't want to talk about the canal. He used to be a welder in the Dominican Republic, and about a year ago, just when he had started building a life there, he was deported back to Haiti. All his tools and his clients stayed in the Dominican Republic. And ever since, he's been stuck here, far away from home.

LAMOUR: (Through interpreter) I cannot get there because I don't have anything in my hands in terms of money.

PERALTA: He lowers his head to say what's really worrying him. Even if he gets home, he says, what will people say? He took a chance. He left Haiti with its failing state, with its world of problems, to strike out on his own. But now he's back with absolutely nothing to show for it. How, he asks, will he explain that to his family?

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, in northern Haiti.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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