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Wyclef Jean says those helping the quake-ravaged country must tread lightly.
Published Jul. 12, 2010

Six months after an earthquake devastated Haiti, Grammy-award-winning musician Wyclef Jean is worried.

Worried that the eyes of the world are no longer on his beloved country: "Everything is oil spill."

Worried about the 1.2 million people living in tents in Haiti as torrential rain pours down: "Animals in the U.S. live better than most people in Haiti."

Worried about the stalled rebuilding effort and what he can do to move things along: "It's an urgent situation in Haiti, but everything must be done, step by step."

Sunday, Jean, 37, will fly into Port-au Prince from his home in New Jersey to begin the delicate process of negotiating land to build hundreds of homes about 25 miles west of the capital, near Croix-des-Bouquets, where he was born. Before he left he talked to the St. Petersburg Times.

It was in Croix-des-Bouquets a few days ago that angry residents burned part of the land set aside for homes.

"It's not to stop the new homes," said Croix-des-Bouquets resident Fennel Thelusmar, 34. "People are angry because of land already set aside by others. With Wyclef, they feel he hasn't taken time to explain his plans to them, and they feel he's not connecting."

As someone who spent his early childhood in Haiti, then moved to New York City and eventually made it big in the music world - "from a hut, to the projects, to a mansion" - Jean understands the complexities of getting things done in Haiti and the need to tread softly, which is why he has returned to Haiti to negotiate.

"You need a deep feeling for the mystique of the culture to get things done," he explained by phone. "It's like the original 'Karate Kid' when he learns karate moves waxing and washing a car. He wouldn't have done it if he was told it was karate. In Haiti, it's the same way. You have to approach things indirectly to get people help and get them moving."

He gives an example: "People need a lot of psychological help because of the trauma from the earthquake. But you can't tell them that because there's a stigma about mental problems. Instead, you refer to psychologists as 'educational mentors' and have them hang out, listen and talk."

The day after the Jan. 12 earthquake Jean arrived in Port-au-Prince. He helped dig a dead friend out of the rubble. He loaded bodies onto trucks. He carried a 15-year-old girl whose ankles were crushed to a hospital, where her feet were amputated.

"What she said to me after the surgery defines the Haitian spirit for me," he said. "She opened her eyes and asked, 'Can you help me go to school?'"

When he describes those first days after the earthquake his voice breaks. At the time, he said, he was too busy dealing with the urgency of the tragedy to feel strong emotions. But later the sadness overwhelmed him.

"I'd be in New York, talking, and start sobbing," he said.

In 2005, he started Yele, a charity to help Haitians in Haiti. Yele is a musical refrain in Creole like la-la-la in English. "It symbolizes music, joy and freedom," he said.

Before the earthquake, teams of Yele employees patrolled the streets of the capital, shoveling trash onto trucks. "Good for the country and a first step to get people employed and moving," explained Jean.

The earthquake stopped the cleanup program.

In the first 24 hours after the quake, Jean raised a million dollars for Yele. While a percentage of the money went for water, food, clothes and tents, critics noted that about a third went for administrative costs.

"We needed tough scrutiny," Jean said. "We needed a flashlight beamed on us to track how we were spending the money. Although our intentions were honorable, we had a lot to learn."

Now, he describes Yele as "well-run and transparent" and says it's time to turn the flashlight elsewhere: "With all of the money pouring into Haiti, why is there still so much rubble in Port-au-Prince?"

Answering that question is on his to-do list for this six-month anniversary visit. So is resuming the Yele street cleanups. And getting the people in Croix-des-Bouquet to be part of the home-building project. And startingprograms to teach young adults how to drive heavy equipment so they can help clean up and rebuild. And visiting Cite Soleil, the notorious slum of Port-au-Prince, where he is beloved.

"The violence in Cite Soleil is increasing and there needs to be some talking and negotiating, Karate Kid style," he said.

But first on his list: "I'm going to find the 15-year-old girl who lost her feet and get her enrolled in school."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at or (727)893-8068.

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By the numbers


estimated number of dead

1.3 million

homeless and displaced people


orphans before the earthquake


orphans after the earthquake

22.6 billion

aid money pledged by governments, organizations and the United Nations

Sources: United Nations, Associated Press, CNN, UPI