“It was terrible, just terrible,” says Delille Antione. He’s speaking about his experience during the earthquake on January 10, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. “I really don’t want to talk about it; I don't want to think about it again.” And unlike a lot of people over the years I have met who say things out loud like they “do not want to talk about it,” I can tell Delille is not being coy. He really does not want to talk about it, but I connive him into doing so anyway with soft words and encouragement because sometimes that is what we journalists do: Persuade kind and thoughtful people into describing horrible things they would rather not remember or say out loud. It is not malicious; we don’t mean to be sadistic. We are just trying to get the historical details right so you, dear reader, can understand what happened and how people survive such things.
So in this way I discover that when Delille, the director general of Haiti’s Commission Épiscopale Pour L’Education Catholique, was downtown for a business meeting in Port-au-Prince with a colleague on that dreadful afternoon, the building they were in collapsed around them. His colleague was killed instantly as the ceiling flattened over them and her body fell across his legs, which broke under the strain. His wife eventually called to check on him that day after the buildings fell, and he was able to use his cell phone to assure her that yes, he was OK, to ask for water and to direct his rescue. He lay there for 20 hours with a cadaver over his legs. By the time he was extracted, the damage was complete. He and his broken legs were flown to Canada where he spent the next five months getting healthy and learning to walk again. When he was done with this job, he went back to Haiti to return to his duties, keeping the nation’s Catholic education system, its best hope for the future, he will tell you, alive. He was 75 years old when the earthquake changed everything.
Delille takes me on a tour of the commission’s temporary office on the outskirts of the city center. He expects that the employees of his commission will return soon, after three years, to the Port-au-Prince center in a new building. The commission’s previous headquarters had disappeared in a puff of gray dust on Jan. 10, 2010. Now its office workers convene each day at the site of its for-profit printing press on the outskirts of town, next to its for-profit mango field across from its school-bench factory. All of these various enterprises, initiated or compelled by program grants from foreign donors or part of the natural landscape of financing the Catholic school system in Haiti, Delille somehow tracks in his mind in addition to his primary duty of seeing to the best education that he can for Haiti’s young people. He is telling me how many benches he must produce according to the grant from a German NGO and how much money was disbursed for this program when I ask him how he does it. Doe he ever weary of the alphabet stew of foreign NGOs financing so much of his office’s activities? Does he every tire of the various for-profit enterprises he has concocted not for their own worth, but to find a way to finance Kreyol text books on the desks of Haitian first graders? He smiles broadly at my insipid queries.
“No,” he says, an indulgent smile broadcasts across his face. “I can remember ten times that number in my head.” He begins reciting a litany of European and American NGOs and the programs they have financed. He is laughing gently and I, a man, who has to look up his own cell phone number more or less every day, have no cause to doubt but that he is speaking the truth.