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Princeton University is a campus filled with remarkable minds … and not just among the professors and students. Princeton custodian Josue Lajeunesse has spent years channeling his energy and resources toward his goal of guaranteeing access to clean water to the villagers living in his hometown of La Source, Haiti. Lajeunesse joins Kojo to discuss his mission and how he feels about a new documentary film spotlighting his efforts.
- Patrick Shen Director, "La Source"
“La Source” Movie Trailer
The official trailer for the upcoming documentary film, “La Source,” about two brothers and their dream to bring clean water to their impoverished village in Haiti.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf you live in a city like Washington or in a college town like Princeton, N.J. you might take your access to clean water for granted. You might also take someone like the custodian who cleans your office for granted, too. Josue Lajeunesse is proof why you should do neither. Josue is a custodian at Princeton University where for years he has worked long days and worked a second job as a cab driver so that he could send money back to his hometown in Haiti, La Source.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHis family there has gone decades without access to clean water, a public health catastrophe in a country gripped by poverty and most recently cholera after a devastating earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Well, his family, as we said, has gone decades without access to clean water. And even after the quake Josue continued to pursue his childhood dream of building a channel to connect his hometown to an uncontaminated source of water, a pursuit documented by a film making -- a film that will debut tomorrow in Silver Spring, Md.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Josue Lajeunesse. He works on the custodial staff at Princeton University. He's a native of La Source, Haiti where during the past several years he helped to lead a major project to connect the residents there to a clean water supply. Josue, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JOSUE LAJEUNESSEThank you so -- thank you very much.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Patrick Shen. He is director of the documentary film "La Source" which will be making its world premier tomorrow night at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Film Festival. The film will play at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow night at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring, Md. and again at 9:45 p.m. on June 23rd. The festival itself runs through June 24th. Patrick Shen, thank you for joining us.
MR. PATRICK SHENThank you. Thanks for having us. One quick correction on the time, it's 9:45 a.m. on Saturday actually.
NNAMDI9:45 a.m., that's on Saturday, June 23?
NNAMDIOkay. 9:45 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. tomorrow. On a campus like the one at Princeton there are a lot of presumably brilliant people with amazing stories to tell lurking behind every corner. But it seems like you've made a point during your career of telling the stories of people who might be overlooked, people who might be ignored. How did you find Josue and why did you decide you wanted to tell his story?
SHENYeah, I've always been attracted to stories about people sort of on the fringes of society. And I found Josue -- Josue was actually featured in -- one of eight subjects featured in my last film called "The Philosopher Kings" which was a film about the wisdom in the lives of janitors. And it was due in part to that film that Josue was able to finance the water project in La Source. Through screenings and fundraisers that were held Josue was able to raise all the funds for the water project. As of July of 2011 thousands of people in La Source are now enjoying clean water for the first time in their lives.
SHENBut, yeah, so all of a sudden, I was witnessing this man, you know, at a pivotal time in his life about to, you know, fulfill this lifelong dream of his in La Source, Haiti. And, you know, all this was happening against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Josue lost a lot of family members and, you know, that just really compelled me to turn the cameras on and shoot another film about him.
NNAMDIJosue, this film moves back and forth between your home in Princeton and your old home in Haiti. How would you describe La Source to someone who has never been there or ever seen it?
LAJEUNESSEWell, you know, is a very big question because, you know, way before like when I was little kids, La Source, she was like a town like where they have a lot of farm, but they wasn't have like the possibility, you know, for the clean water in the town. But the people have to walk, you know, many miles to go get in the mountain to get the clean water. But it was a dream to me since I was in school, I was taken, you know, to see how, you know, I kept working hard and smart way and -- to take the (unintelligible) in the situation.
NNAMDIYou said you had this dream from the time you were a child. You served in the military in Haiti.
NNAMDIThen you went to live in Princeton, New Jersey.
NNAMDIHow did you manage to keep this dream alive?
LAJEUNESSEBecause anything you have in your mind, and you have it in your heart, even you will die you will die with it, and when you have a goal, and achievement to accomplish, saying you've not done it yet is always there. It's not done. And I give you a better example, because when I was a child, I was always, you know, talked to my dad and my mom. I always ask them, I say, what can we do to change, you know, the system? But, you know, like pretty much on all that, you can say there are so many places, you know, that don't have clean water because (unintelligible) mountain in the country and (unintelligible) and to bring the water to the top of the mountain.
LAJEUNESSEBut it wasn't, you know, still there. I was always, you know, make my mind working day and night to see what is the better way I can make that happen.
NNAMDIBut you were working day and night in Princeton, New Jersey, where you had running water all the time. Is it the connection that you maintained with your brother and your family in Haiti that helped -- in La Source that helped to keep that dream alive?
LAJEUNESSEYes, it is true. Because me and my brother, we communicated all the time. We connected, and if I did not call him, he called me and we worked together and we made that happen.
NNAMDIPatrick, how did you become aware of Josue's dream?
SHENIt's quite funny actually. For the last film we had called Princeton University just wanting to talk to some of the custodians that kind of matched the profile of the type of subject we were looking for, and Josue just seemed like a really pleasant guy with a cool story, an immigrant story, which I wanted to tell in the last film, and so we flew out there to talk to him, and it was at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour long interview when he just sort of mentions off the cuff that he's got this water project in Haiti, and, you know, I quickly turned the camera back on, and I said, you know, please tell us more about this, and then it just kind of just opened up this whole new world for me. I mean, that consumed the next four years of my life practically. So it was interesting, yeah.
NNAMDIHaiti suffered one of the worst natural disasters in modern memory in January of 2010 when an earthquake ripped the country apart, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and much of the country in ruins. You had already been working on this project prior to that, and you had known Josue for years prior to that. How did your project and your mission change after the earthquake?
SHENYeah. I mean, once the earthquake hit it definitely kicked things into high gear, no doubt. And all of a sudden, Josue's story about the water project and just his story in general was all of a sudden put on the map in a big way. Newspapers were writing about him. The campus was talking all about him. All the newspapers were writing about him. And so, yeah. I mean, it definitely sped things up a little bit, and we decided to kind of move up the production date a little sooner, and our first shoot was just about a month and a half after the earthquake had hit. So it definitely sped things up quite a bit.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Patrick Shen. He is the director of the documentary film "La Source" which will be making its world premiere tomorrow night at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Film Festival. He joins us in studio along with Josue Lajeunesse who works on the custodial staff at Princeton University. He's a native of La Source, Haiti, were during the past several years he's helped to lead a major project to connect the residence there to a clean water supply. If there's anything else you'd like to know, or if you would like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIJosue, how did you react when you first heard news of the earthquake and what had happened to Haiti two years ago? It's my understanding that your daughter had actually traveled back to Port au Prince to see her mom, and you had to wait for several days before you could even confirm that she was alive. What were those days like for you?
LAJEUNESSEIt was a disaster more than the earthquake, because my daughter, you know, she's my life, and I love her so much, and I really cannot tell you, you know, how did I feel. I cannot eat, I cannot do anything, and I make thousand phone call. I -- we cannot go through, and my sister and my family, friends out there, I tried to call everywhere because, you know, all the communication, you know, system was down and we cannot be able to communicate with anyone.
LAJEUNESSEAnd after maybe a week and a half, the United States, you know, gave a system, you know, to Haiti so they can bring back, you know, the system, and I find out, you know, she text me. She tell me, dad, you know, I'm alive. So it was like...
NNAMDIHow many days had passed before you knew she was alive?
LAJEUNESSEOh, probably -- almost I think two weeks.
NNAMDIBefore you knew that your daughter was even alive, and that may have been bad enough, but how would you describe the emotions you felt when you actually were able to travel to Haiti for the first time after the quake an see the damage that is caused with your own eyes?
LAJEUNESSEMy heart, you know, broke in two pieces. That's something -- that's my first, you know, experiences of my life. I never see this kind of thing -- this kind of situation, you know, before. But where we live we have a little thing. You see the house, you know, shake a little bit, you know, but never ever, that's the first experience, and I do believe, you know, pretty much, maybe 95 percent and the Haitian people, you know, see, because this thing never happened like that, you know, in our country, and you see the country, you know, devastated, you know, destroyed in this situation almost like 95 percent.
LAJEUNESSEThat's something, you know, hurt me and hurt everyone, every Haitian, you know, in the part of the world.
NNAMDIWe didn't get there until November of 2010, and I can tell you that I also have never seen that level of devastation in my life where rubble exceeded buildings that were still standing. As I said, we went there in November of 2010, and one of the things that our team was taken by, was just how much life there was still in Haiti despite all that had happened. A few members of our team stumbled into a religious service in a camp the very first day that we were there, where they were surrounded by singing.
NNAMDIPatrick, your cameras were with Josue when he saw the rubble outside of the presidential palace, and then outside one of the city's biggest churches, and it seemed from what one can see and hear on the film, that it sounded a lot like what we heard. Here's a clip.
NNAMDINow, that's a clip from your film, "La Source." It sounded a lot like what we recorded, but what did you learn about Haiti in moments like that?
SHENYeah. I mean, it was a lot like your experience I'm sure when you first got there. I mean, it was total devastation everywhere we could -- we looked, and it was difficult for me. I had never seen anything like it before, and, you know, had no frame of reference to really even consume or understand what I was seeing. But once we stumbled upon this religious service where they had been outside what seems like for quite a while just singing hymns, you know, I connected with the people for the first time.
SHENIt was relatable all of a sudden, and it was beautiful. It was one of the most touching experiences of our entire trip there for sure. Yeah.
NNAMDIPrior to that point, you were used to seeing Josue in his element at Princeton. This must have been your first time watching how people in Haiti interact with him. You see him doing his job in Princeton, New Jersey, but here what you saw was a leader. People looking to him for help. What was it like seeing him in that situation for the first time?
SHENYeah. I mean, it was incredible. I mean, in Princeton, he's a janitor, he's a cab driver. Culturally speaking, he's kind of invisible, you know. But in Haiti, especially in La Source when we rolled up in La Source, I mean, it just -- he's like a celebrity. He's a local celebrity. People just want to shake his hand and, you know, perpetual smiles on their faces, and they just kind of wanted to hear about how his life is, and they think he's, you know, think he's a hero, and he really is.
SHENSo it's quite a contrast. He's a completely different guy when he's there. He sort of lights up when he's there.
NNAMDIWell, we have -- I wanted to demonstrate the contrast here, because we have a clip from a young woman who is a student or was -- two young women who were students at Princeton who talked a little bit about what they saw when they saw Josue at Princeton.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1I met Josue as a freshman. I lived in Whitman College in Fisher Hall where Josue works. I would see him every day. We would talk every day because that was where he works. He was always in and out of the building, and we really became quick friends, as he did with everyone else in the hallway.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2There was an article about him on the Princeton website, and I was just so surprised to see his picture and, you know, read the story because he had never mentioned it at all in any shape or form. But all of a sudden it clicked together for me why he was so exhausted.
NNAMDISee, there's this picture of him in Princeton, he's working two jobs, he's exhausted all the time, okay. He goes back home to Haiti, and there he speaks to a large group of people from La Source. When he first got back in March, a few months after cholera broke out, he was asking them how many of them had ever gotten sick from the water there, and you can see visually in the film that you did, Patrick, how he presented himself as a leader in that community, and frankly, you can hear it in this clip.
NNAMDIThis is the Josue that you did not know Princeton.
SHENYeah. I mean, it was due in large part to his leadership too that got the entire community rallied behind this cause too, and it was the largest project ever undertaken in the village, and as a result I think there was like 50 to 60 villagers at work every single day for a good two months just digging the trenches and connecting the pipes from the water source at the top of the mountain into the village, a couple miles of piping, and it's incredible to see, yeah.
NNAMDIJosue, in that speech you told your friends and family about the plan to build a cistern and connect La Source to cleaner water. You said the project would be completed even if you happened to die that very day. What sense did you have for whether people there were with you on that promise, that they felt that they were all in it together with you?
LAJEUNESSEBecause they know it, I do not come in to do it for myself. I do it for them. And the beauty we have in our heart and it's my responsibility, and I talked to my brother, and tell him, even anything happen to me, and I tell him, you know, who he have to contact with so the job will be done. And we make a system in place, and we have a determination when you got a good heart, a man can die, but the idea, you know, would be stay forever.
NNAMDIAnd so because they knew you, they believed you?
NNAMDIPatrick, we spoke to author and journalist, Katherine Boo a few months ago about her most recent book "Behind the Beautiful Forever" that chronicle life in one of the poorest corners of Mumbai, India. She said that it weighed on her conscience a lot that American audiences have a bad habit of fetishizing poverty. Was that something that weighed on you at all during this project?
SHENYeah. I mean, that definitely came across in conversations that we had going in Haiti quite a bit. But we knew going into it that we didn't want to dwell on those kind of images. This is a very hopeful story, you know, we don't try and overwhelm people with statistics and sort of the depressing facts of the water crisis. It's all about Josue and this uplifting, inspiring story, and we didn't want to sort of perpetuate this perception of Haiti being this charity case, you know what I mean, you know, and that they're helpless people and constantly in survival mode.
SHENI mean, Josue and his brother and everyone else in La Source is clearly not just in survival mode, and very forward thinking, and very hopeful people.
NNAMDIWhat sense did you get when you were filming this project about whether Haitians are suffering from what some people call NGO Fatigue? I mean, when we got there, there were so many thousands of non-governmental organizations there that were easily identifiable because of the vehicles that they drove, that you got the impression sometimes that hey, these people seem to outnumber the people who are here.
SHENYeah. I think that's quite true. I think even before the earthquake there were like 10,000 registered NGOs in the country, and yet Haiti every year seemed to get worse and worse despite the NGO presence, which is fascinating. That definitely seemed to be a way of life, and part of their every day existence out there. And La Source is kind of isolated from that to some extent, so we didn't experience as much out there.
NNAMDIFifty miles outside of Port au Prince, but you can take as long as three or four hours to get there.
SHENOh, yeah. Not an easy drive as Josue can tell you. I mean, we had to drive through -- the first time driving out there was insane. I mean, you know, we had no idea how far away it was, how long it would take, and, you know, I was sitting in the back of a pickup truck and bouncing all over the place, and, you know, we'd come up to a riverbed -- a huge, you know, ten-foot wide riverbed and I'm thinking, okay, this is La Source, this is gorgeous, we're by the river, and we start driving through the river and through this jungle for another 30 minutes. I mean, it was just -- it was crazy.
NNAMDII brought up this matter of the NGOs, Josue, because how much does it matter to you and your friends and family that this was a project that you all did so much of yourselves, a project that you can say that this is ours, we own this.
LAJEUNESSEYes. Honestly, you know, I consider, but for one reason or another, I will never. Because I -- I'm okay. I am working, and I'm -- I have a chance now. I'm here. Probably if I was there -- if I stayed there, maybe, you know, I might have been in the same situation, you know, not have water or maybe I will be in the city, but when you figure out, you know, one man is healthy, good, and well done, and you have thousand people suffer for the clean water, and I take the responsibility -- I take, you know, for those people.
NNAMDIWould you say that there's some distrust among Haitians of the aid groups and organizations, all these NGOs and the UN who have been trying to help?
LAJEUNESSEHonestly, yes. They have, you know, a lot -- especially, you know, they have Operation Blessing in Haiti, and I know they do a very good job there. And I see because I'm visiting, you know, so many places, you know, they walk around the school, and they put some water, they put some well, and they build some school. I see that, you know, with my eyes. They help, you know, the hospital because we went in a couple hospital, the time -- the day of the earthquake, one of the guy they come in with his call.
LAJEUNESSEHe bring some electricity, you know, to make the, you know, hospital operative and, you know, everything in life is not perfect. You cannot say all of them is perfect.
LAJEUNESSEBut honestly, you find, you know, so many of them, you know, really help, you know.
NNAMDISo it was important to see one of their own leading a project. Josue Lajeunesse works on the custodial staff at Princeton University. He's a native of La Source, Haiti, where during the past several years to lead a major project to connect the residents there to a clean water supply. Patrick Shen is the director of the documentary film "La Source," which will be making its world premier tomorrow night at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Film Festival. It plays at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow night. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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