PORT-AU-PRINCE — Cendra Guillaume walks into the dusty depot of manly machines, passes fellow female workers, and steps into the front office with a familiar look of determination.
Not one to sit around and wait, the wife, mother and heavy equipment operator gets right to the point: "Where to today?''
In the months since the Haiti earthquake claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, women like Guillaume have been on the front lines of paving the way for this broken nation's reconstruction.
Theirs are the anonymous hands that steered the dead to unmarked graves in black and white government dump trucks, tunneled through the rubble for foreign rescue teams and cleared debris from hundreds of blocked roads.
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In the process, they are challenging the notion of a woman's traditional role in this machismo society, and restoring what many thought they had lost in the rubble: faith in the future.
``It's a beautiful thing,'' said Guérino Noël, 44, a father of two daughters who ekes out a living scavenging ruins for copper wire, as he watched Guillaume deftly maneuver her giant yellow excavator.
``As a Haitian male, I was personally offended the first time I saw a woman driving one of those trucks,'' he said. ``But when you are living in such a deplorable situation, where even eating is difficult, and you see a woman sitting behind the wheels of one of those trucks, it means something in the country is still working.''
Guillaume works for Centre National des Equipments or CNE, the government's road-building outfit. Formed in 1997, it has deliberately filled its employee ranks with women. They serve in every capacity from dump truck driver to loader to excavator operator to trainer.
``I was first concerned about my equipment,'' said Jude Célestin, CNE founder and executive director. ``We always had a problem with drivers stealing fuel, stealing parts from the trucks. It's a fact that we have this problem in Haiti. With women, it's different.
``When I give a woman a piece of equipment, I am sure she's going to take care of her family; she will take care of her children,'' he said. ``Women have something else inside them that they don't even realize is there: a need to prove to themselves that they can do the same thing as a man.''
Before the catastrophic quake hit Jan. 12, most of CNE's employees had been working in the outskirts of the capital, building roads as part of President René Préval's effort to transform the lives of farmers.
Within hours of the disaster, amid the death and chaos, 85 trainees -- 65 of them women -- arrived on foot from the nearby Cité Soleil slum. They immediately climbed into the cockpits and began to clear major roads and downtown of debris.
``They are leading the demolition of the ruined structures and because they are personally living it, they know better than anyone what the reconstruction can be,'' Célestin said.
Guillaume had just stepped out of a brightly-colored Tap Tap truck in the city of Carrefour when the ground buckled. Buildings toppled and a mother's adrenaline kicked in as she ran home to her 7-year-old son, Olivier.
Over the next 24 hours, her husband, a police officer, would try to dissuade her from leaving. She stayed until this radio announcement: All CNE technicians and operators must report to work immediately.
``I said, `No, I cannot stay at home. If I don't go, it's like a doctor who has a lot of sick patients and he's refusing to treat them,' '' she said. ``My first thought, `What if there are people still alive underneath the rubble?' ''
She arrived at the worksite less than 48 hours after the hemisphere's worst natural disaster and immediately went to work.
DOCUMENTING THE DEAD
The evening before, Haitian officials had attempted to document their dead by snapping photos as CNE trucks loaded bodies. The four judges they rustled up to perform the grisly duty barely lasted three hours.
``They were in shock, traumatized by what they saw,'' Célestin said of the judges who, unable to handle the magnitude of the unfolding disaster, dropped their cameras and ran.
Guillaume and the other women sometimes felt like doing the same.
``There were days where I just cried and cried,'' said Guillaume, 39, who was assigned to one toppled building after another. But every morning, she would awaken in her modest home with the washing machine and unfinished second floor, kiss Olivier goodbye, and armor up her courage before heading out.
``Even when they said there were no more survivors, I would continue to go,'' she said. ``Even if there were no survivors, there are people who would like to claim the bodies of their loved ones.''
Like the husband of one woman pinned underneath a beam in the rubble of the toppled ministry of foreign affairs.
``I would like to retrieve my wife's body. Can you help?'' Guillaume recalled the man's desperate plea. The smell of death was choking the city. It was 22 days after the quake.
She grabbed the controls and moved the excavator's bucket over the rubble.
``There's her hand,'' the husband yelled, begging her to look.
``I can't,'' Guillaume responded, tears flowing.
His pleas grew more desperate. After regaining her composure, Guillaume returned to the controls and lifted the beam. The body was severed in two.
TEARS AND RESOLVE
``When they were putting her in the bag, I took off,'' she said. But just like her female colleagues who cried inconsolably one day and lifted the dead with their bare hands the next, Guillaume pressed on.
``I am lucky enough not to have lost anyone dear to my heart,'' she said. ``I always said, `If God has saved my own, then it's my duty to go and help others.' ''
Women have long been the backbone of Haiti's informal economy but lacked real power in this conservative society. Their schooling was often sacrificed for that of their brothers.
It's a promiscuous culture where marriage is revered but rare, and where men often support more than one household.
Most of CNE's females find their average $312 monthly salary, plus as much as $150 a month in per diem, exceeding their partner's, and Célestin's first warning to all new recruits is that CNE will test their relationships and marriages.
``I tell them, `All of you will leave your husbands,' '' he said. ``The men develop a complex because the women now have money in their hands.''
Danièle Magloire, a Haitian sociologist and women's rights activist, said women ``are made to feel they have to have a man next to them to validate them.''
Her research has found that Haitian women are highly vulnerable to rape, and sexual harassment in the workplace and that at home they are often battered because they have not ``obeyed'' their mate.
BLAZING A TRAIL
Magloire said CNE, with its majority female staffing, is a trailblazer and that other companies and institutions need to follow. It has shown that skilled jobs, which Haiti desperately needs, are key to financially empowering women.
``We are not going to develop women in this country through selling foods, and washing clothes,'' she said. ``All you are doing is promoting more misery. We need to teach women skills.''
Guillaume's skills with the heavy equipment have provided her family with a comfortable lifestyle in a country where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. There was a housekeeper, refrigerator and laptop for her son.
``I have several games on this,'' Olivier said as his mom looked over his shoulder one Saturday, while watching Tom and Jerry in French on his laptop.
But the job carries enormous sacrifice because the women are forced to spend months away in the countryside.
``When we are on the equipment we function as a team as brothers and sisters,'' said Guillaume, a 10-year CNE employee. ``The men agree to have women alongside them and they acknowledge that we are there. But it is not always harmonious.
She said Haitian men ``like to belittle women. They like to diminish your importance. For them, a woman is an object. You will see some who prefer to criticize women rather than to compliment them.
``But whenever I climbed into the cockpit of the machine, I always say to myself, `I want to prove that whatever a man can do, I can do.' And at times, I can even do it better.''
Still, it's not easy being a working wife in Haiti.
WARNING HITS HOME
Célestin's assertions about the toll of the job on marriages hit home last week when Guillaume's husband of seven years cleaned out their joint bank accounts following a violent fight over money, she said.
He kicked her out of the house without her son, and she's temporarily seeking refuge at a friend's home.
Célestin has offered a transfer to a new job away from the turmoil, but daily migraines and depression have, for the moment, kept Guillaume from accepting.
In the ultimate irony, she's unable to perform the job that has for so long defined her.