The earthquake may have reduced much of Port-au-Prince to rubble, but one industry continues to pulse amid the devastation. Pooja Bhatia examines the world of borlette, the lottery system in which an astonishing number of Haitians invest their income and their dreams.
On January 12, Milot Beaubrun’s neighbourhood vanished. The earthquake knocked it off the mountainside, and the next day he and his family moved one hillside over to an area called Tapis Rouge, or “Red Carpet”, so named for the wide, rust-coloured road that seems to unfurl down the slope. Some 2,000 families have set up makeshift homes – built from bed sheets, branches, tarps, corrugated tin and plywood – along the roadside, making it one of Port-au-Prince’s medium-sized resettlement camps.
The quake took his house and his little girl’s foot, but Milot managed to save the little bureau that constitutes his lottery business. Shortly thereafter, he set it up in the middle of the red carpet, chalked in the day’s winning draws, and got to work selling numbers.
Sales have slowed; the earthquake practically decimated the city’s population, sent hundreds of thousands to the countryside, and destroyed countless little businesses. “But Haitians still dream, and so they still play,” Milot said. It doesn’t cost much to get in the game: you can buy a number for as little as one gourde – less than three cents. Milot has done well enough to build himself a new shack, one with a metal roof that keeps most of the rain out.
The earthquake razed half of Port-au-Prince, and yet hundreds of its rainbow-coloured lottery shops – called banques de borlette – are still doing a brisk trade. Garishly coloured, the banques de borlette are modest constructions that withstood the earthquake better than most: single-storey shopfronts, tin shacks, kiosks the size of a telephone booth, bureaus like Milot’s or rickety, rotten wood tables. These days, some borlettes operate in tents and under tarps. At the time of the last official count, in 2005, the streets of Port-au-Prince were home to nearly 2,000 of them – more than double the number of schools and universities in the city (that is, when Port-au-Prince had schools and universities.) All told, Haitians spend as much as $1.5 billion per year on the borlette – a staggering amount in a country whose gross domestic product last year was $6.9 billion. Eleven private companies run banques de borlette in Port-au-Prince; the largest have hundreds of franchises. Before the earthquake, the director of the Association National de Tenaciers de Borlette (ANTB), which loosely regulates the industry, told me that more than 100,000 people worked in Haiti’s borlette sector. That figure would make the borlette the country’s largest employer. “People depend on the borlette to live,” the director said.
He meant the workers, but the sentiment applies as aptly to the players. Haitians play the borlette to live. Yes, wagers deplete resources for tents, tarps, food, water, medicine and bus fares out of the devastated city, but the borlette has always offered something outside mere survival. It provides a kind of succour to the spirit, a reason to get up in the morning, and the sense of significance that few of us can do without. The lottery plays a similar role in developed countries, of course – giving hope to the desperate, however misplaced, self-defeating, and costly that hope is. In Haiti, almost everyone was already desperate before the quake; almost everyone plays. Even those who have scraped, saved, and created better lives for their children through sheer fortitude – responsible types who go to church every day – they play. Their pastors and priests probably play, too. False consciousness plays a negligible role; most Haitians have a curious self-awareness about the lottery’s palliative effects. “It’s the hope of the miserable,” said Julet St Hilaire, a lanky, light-skinned 45-year-old. He had lost his house in Christ Roi, a hard-hit Port-au-Prince neighbourhood, and was sleeping in Champs de Mars, the country’s largest public plaza, along with tens of thousands of other homeless Haitians.
Since the borlette had reopened, 10 days after the earthquake, he’d been playing twice a day. He’d won a little, lost more, and was slowly depleting his savings, but that wasn’t the point: “It nourishes the spirit,” Julet said.
Pooja Bhatia is a writer based in Port-au-Prince and a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.
For the rest of his comprehensive article on the borlette, which explains its origins and how the system works, go to http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100402/REVIEW/704019990
Image: Corbis photograph by Paul A. Souders at http://www.corbisimages.com/Enlargement/IH071566.html