The 2010 earthquake leveled Haitian cities, displacing 1.5 million people. Thousands have now relocated to an area north of Port-au-Prince, Canaan, which was declared to be public domain land in an effort to find more space for shelters. The communities of Canaan are organizing, engaging in urban planning, and building infrastructure. all without the imprimatur (or tax money) of being an officially-recognized city. Jacob Kushner reports from Haiti for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

After four years of waiting, Cherestal and other residents of Canaan 1 decided to build an electrical grid of their own. They collected money from neighbors to buy the materials, then organized a konbit to mix cement, water, and sand to form the concrete poles, which they then raised using a network of ropes. Once the poles were in place, the plan was to pay an off-duty state electrician 15,000 gourdes ($220) to connect people to the grid by siphoning power from a customer who lived down the hill. Every month, the customer would collect money from neighbors to pay his unusually high electric bill. The entire project was estimated to have cost 100,000 gourdes (about $1,500), with families chipping in around 4,000 gourdes (about $60) or donating such supplies as cement or rebar. By the spring of 2015, they’d raised nearly two dozen poles, but needed at least ten more to reach the power grid. Short of funds, the project stalled. “People are saving up,” Cherestal told me last May. “The future we don’t know. Only God knows.”

Seven years in, Canaan 1 still has no electricity. But just a stone’s throw east, in Canaan 5, the houses are powered between dusk and midnight with electricity diverted illegally from the public grid. This, too, was an improvised community’s electrification project, led by a man named Smith Merzeus, who, like Simeus, was someone people turned to with problems or grievances. People referred to Merzeus as “a man of responsibility” and “a big tree in our community.” One woman discretely referred to him as a bit of an opportunist. “He was a tough personality,” she told me. “He said whatever needed to be said, and then did what he wanted.” Merzeus had no qualms about stepping in whenever the government failed to act. As one man who worked with him on the electricity project said, “It was the state that should have done it. But it was us who sat together to make it happen. We broke the law because this was important to us.”

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