12 July, 2000
Finbarr O’Reilly, National Post (Canada)
On any given Saturday, you’ll find Robert Duval out on Haiti’s best public soccer pitch, located on the fringes of Cité Soleil, one of the world’s worst slums.
By nine in the morning, under an already harsh sun, he’ll be watching as about 300 dusty kids, streaked in sweat, guide soccer balls around the orange cones dotting three full-size soccer fields. Beyond the fields are two tarmac basketball courts and the faint outline of a planned running track.
The scene is one that Duval, an upper-class Haitian who helped Montreal’s Loyola College win a Canadian soccer title back in the 1970s, has created almost single-handedly. After graduating from Loyola (part of Concordia University since 1974) in 1976, Duval returned to Haiti, where he landed a brutal, 17-month prison term, some of it in solitary confinement, for opposing the dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier.
“Maybe 500 people died in front of me,” says Duval, “some of them summarily executed with clubs. Others starved.”
During the following two decades of political turmoil, Duval became an activist who outlasted numerous dictators, coups and military governments. Mostly, he worked to get other political prisoners out of jail. Then in 1996, the 46-year-old Duval felt the need to do something creative, something less political and more personal.
“I was tired of the political situation and wanted to show that Haiti could create something,” says Duval. “I wanted to show that you can do positive things with Haitian kids. I’m sick and tired of people dumping on Haiti.”
Duval also wanted to spend more time with his teenage son, Guy Robert, and while creating a soccer team for Guy, he discovered how many others wanted in. He held tryouts and 1,000 kids turned up.
It wasn’t long before Duval had founded Athletics of Haiti, an organization that now provides children from the slums of Cité Soleil with training, food, medicine and schooling. The club, which includes about 300 youths aged five to 20, has lockers, showers and equipment – facilities that many of the country’s top teams don’t have.
The club, which the children attend daily, costs about US$13,000 a month to run and Duval says he keeps the money coming in by pressuring his wealthy friends to open their wallets — no easy task.
“Wealthy Haitians, they don’t do charity — they love their money too much,” said one man whose son is in the program. “Bobby Duval is the kind of guy Haitians need. He’s the kind of bourgeois the people like.”
Or as David Gonzalez, a New York Times writer who visited Haiti recently and who profiled Duval for his paper, says: “Bobby’s doing God’s work, as far as I’m concerned.”
Duval has had support from others outside the country. The NBA’s Mario Elie, a San Antonio Spur of Haitian descent, paid the club a visit last year. And Duval recently sent an invitation to Montreal Olympic sprinter Bruny Surin, also of Haitian descent.
While many children and parents see the club as a way to make it to the Haitian national team and also as a route to college scholarships or professional teams outside Haiti, there’s more to the program than sports. By encouraging youngsters from wealthier families to compete with those from the slums, Duval is also chipping away at the barriers that have long divided Haitian society. And, as Duval points out, “Some of these kids have a lot of talent, not only for soccer. Maybe it’s school or music or writing poetry. But sports will help lift them to the next level of life.”
Despite the benefits of Duval’s program, there are those who suspect him of having political motives. He says he doesn’t.
“They wonder why I do this and ask why I don’t just let them play basketball on the street,” says Duval. “They don’t understand what I’m doing here. I’m from the bourgeoisie, but unlike most bourgeoisie, I have a responsibility to the common classes. I’ve had a series of instances where I’ve been close to them. If it wasn’t for the people in prison, I would be dead.”
And there’s another problem: the four landowners who lent Duval the scrap of industrial dumping ground that he has transformed into 15 acres of open green space have now expressed interest in building on the site.
“They never want to give me any papers to sign and now they’re pressuring to reclaim the land,” explains Duval. “I don’t have the resources to buy another piece of land and develop it again. This is the kind of shit they make me go through and I really hate them for that. But once I see the kids and I see an improvement, I know I’m doing something good. That’s what keeps me going.”