On January 12th, when the ground in Port-au-Prince started to shake violently, Jean Tibert (or Handy, as his friends call him) was teaching a class on video production in a large building on the main drag that funnels through the city. The walls started to shake, things started falling off the walls, and the class dispersed into the dust-filled street. The world was coming to an end.
When you talk to Handy, you get the sense that he know exactly what’s going on around him, at all times. He stands about 6 feet tall, has a warm smile and a small gut (he’s trying to lose 40 pounds), doesn’t drink soda, and is deathly afraid of heights. NBC has used him for every trip they have taken down here, because if you had to describe the way he works in 10 words or less, it’s simple: he’s just incredibly reliable. He knows the city like the back of his hand, and he likes that he knows WAY more than you. You want to find the Haitian Soccer Federation HQ? “Of course! It’s just off John Brown on ‘blah blah blah’ street.” The streets in PAP rarely have street signs, but he somehow knows the names of all of them.
But not only does he know where everything is, he knows everyone that matters. The chief of police? “He’s my godfather.” Laura Silsby’s lawyer? “He’s my uncle.” The president of some random tent-city? “Oh yeah! I used to play soccer with him!” It’s ridiculous. If you need a sliver of information, or a short interview with the Prime Minister (Handy’s distant relative is his PR rep), it’s done after just a few quick phone calls.
About 3 months ago, Jillian and I were grappling with the issue of having to pay our rent in cash, as they don’t take international checks here. Handy took me to a local bank, talked to the clerk, and after skipping the enormous line that snaked around the building, he had me sitting at the desk of one of his (3 million) friends. 20 minutes later I had a local bank account without the required Haitian Residency Visa, something I couldn’t have done myself even if I would have bribed the guy. Handy shook his hand, said he’d give him a call sometime, and we left. Simple.
But if Handy doesn’t know anyone at the hospital we are doing a story on, or the tent city we are touring, someone is likely to recognize him anyways. You see, Handy is a Haitian movie star, a serious, honest-to-God, local celebrity. Before the earthquake he had starred in a handful of Haitian movies, some shot locally, others in Miami. In one he played the poor local boy who seduced the daughter of a rich, bourgeoisie family. So in PAP he’s the closest thing to a heart-throb that you can find, and the ladies love him.
Jillian and I were watching the Brazil World Cup match with him last week, and on our way out two young women stopped him to ask for his autograph, all while flirtatiously batting their eye-lashes. During a trip to a local hospital where we were looking for a particular patient who had been dispatched months ago (a close to impossible feat as records from after the earthquake are non-existent), the only reason we found him was because the women at the counter told Handy where the patient lives…but only after he let them kiss him on the cheek. No joke. The judge in the Laura Silsby trial was even giving him regular updates on the case “because he likes my movies,” Handy explained, with a huge grin on his face.
But what’s so amazing about Handy is that even though he could probably run for President in Haiti, and win, he’s incredibly cool and down-to-earth, and his number one priority is ALWAYS his family. He’s constantly making sure his schedule allows for him to take his daughter to school, and if his wife needs to use the car, he takes public to make it work. I asked him one day if he had girlfriends outside his marriage, as so many Haitian men do, and he simply replied, “No! My wife makes me happy. And to be honest, she’s enough work as it is. I don’t need another woman to worry about.”
So when the building Handy had been in after the earthquake survived unscathed, his primary objective was to get his family. “A lot of my friends were going around trying to save people from buildings, but I couldn’t do that without knowing if my family was OK,” he explained. He ran to his mother’s house, where his daughter was supposed to be after coming home from school. The house had also survived, and his family was outside, scared and unsure what to do next.
He quickly thought about his options, figured out his next move, and told his family to follow him. After the earthquake everyone who wasn’t digging out friends or family members was simply looking for a safe, open area to stay. The medians of streets were filled with people with nowhere to go, so an alternative had to be found. The golf course at the Petionville Club was the first thing that came to mind. It was open, safe, and clean, and let’s be honest, there’s no chance that a building can fall on you while sitting on one of the fairways of PAP’s only golf destination.
The family walked the short distance to the course, put down the possessions they carried with them, and relaxed for the first time all night. Handy looked around, and there was no one else around. They were the only ones on the golf course, but in just a few days more than 40,000 displaced Haitians would be calling this their home in what is now the largest tent city in Haiti. They slept through the night, and when they woke up, others had taken his cue and filtered in to spend a night filled with screams and sorrow on the lush grasses that have now been trampled to dirt and mud.
But they couldn’t stay there forever (like so many people have), so the next day Handy walked to his car, drove back to pick up his family, and traversed the streets on their way to his home in the mountains of Thomassin, where his wife was anxiously waiting for him. Their house had also made it through the quake, but the next night they slept in the courtyard in fear that another earthquake would finish what the first one could not. After a few days they returned to PAP to check on his Mother’s house, and on friends. The movie studio that he owned had collapsed, he now had no way to support his family.
He then made the tough decision to send his family abroad, so he took his wife and two children to the border of the Dominican Republic, saw them through, and then returned to PAP to find work. “It was go time,” he said. A friend of his (I know, another friend!) was working for NBC as a driver, and Handy just happen to run into him, as the phones were still not working. They needed another driver to pick up NBC staff from the airport in Santo Domingo, and bring them over the border to Haiti. He was hired the next day.
Since then he has ascended to be the go-to guy for everything that NBC needs. When a team comes to cover a story, no matter what it is, I hire him knowing that we will get exactly what we’re looking for, no questions asked. And if he says it’s not possible, I know he’s not just saying that to get out of doing work, it’s just not possible. Every time I work with him I learn something new, and he’s one of the only people who I feel I can talk to candidly about the situation here in Haiti, whether it’s my own frustrations or just questions about why things are the way they are.
He’s always thinking, always trying to be one step ahead, and always gets the job done. Whether it’s his family or NBC, he’s a guy you want on your side, no matter what lies ahead. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Handy, and I am lucky to be able to call him my friend. And while I think it’s safe to say that the tent city at the Petionville Club would have started without Handy, it’s still pretty amazing to know that he was its first resident. It’s proof that he knows what’s best, because 40,000 people can’t all be wrong about the same thing.