The only way to end Haiti’s cholera epidemic is to keep infected waste out of food and water. A subterranean network of pipes, pumping stations, and waste-treatment plants would be the ideal solution, but Haiti’s successive governments have had too little money, power, or will to build massive public works on their own. The $1.4 billion that New York City set aside to maintain and operate its sanitation system this year is equal to more than half the entire national budget of Haiti.
International donors have been little help: in one case, the U.S. government, to protest the way an election was conducted, withheld funds to build water and sanitation infrastructure in northern Haiti for more than ten years. From 1990 to 2008, the proportion of Haitians with access to basic sanitation decreased from twenty-six per cent to seventeen per cent.
Cholera broke out in 2010. Four years into the epidemic, a trip to the bathroom, for most Haitians, still means looking for an open field or wading into a public canal at dawn. Those who can afford to do so dig cesspools under outhouses. When the cesspools get full, it’s time to call a man like Leon.
The job is as simple as it is foul. “Somebody has to climb down the toilet hole with a bucket, and somebody has to be up top to pull the bucket up, you understand?” Leon said. There are three people in his crew: two subordinates—a bucket man and a man with the wheelbarrow to cart off the waste—and the boss, who goes down the hole.
Leon is the boss. He is fifty-four, with a worn, crevice-filled face, and he speaks in Creole, holding onto his vowels in the singsong manner typical of the Haitian countryside. He wore a clean polo shirt with mustard yellow stripes, black pants, and a pair of beat-up sneakers without socks.
Leon grew up in a poor cattle-raising family in Haiti’s rural southwest. As a young man, he joined the Tonton Macoutes, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier’s secret police force, which tortured and disappeared thousands of Haitians. When Duvalier fled the country, in 1986, Leon burned his denim uniform and went underground, eventually following a tide of rural migrants to the capital.
There, desperate for work, he met a master bayakou, who showed him the rudiments: how to pour a bottle of lavender-scented floor cleaner into the pit to soften excrement and cut the smell, and how to find a good spot nearby to dump, burn, or bury the excreta.