Category Archives: Other Voices

Lawa, a Neighborhood of Gros-Morne: The Troubled Cry of a Community in Distress.

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019. It was 9:45 when Annel Estimable, a CLM case manager, and I met in downtown Gros-Morne to head across the river that runs alongside the city. We were going to Lawa to verify a list of families who had already been tentatively selected for the CLM program. 

Getting to the area was almost impossible on our motorcycle, but skill as a driver granted us the luxury of a ride halfway to our destination along an improvised path through a dry, rocky gully. After that, it was an hour’s hike to the forgotten and despised corner of Gros-Morne’s 7thcommunal section, Moulin.

At 11:20, I started my work at a household with nine members, a small, one-room house covered in straw. (See the photo above.) It’s home to a father and mother, with their children and grandchildren. At this hour, the kitchen still gives off an air of abandonment. Between the three rocks that would normally hold up the pot, there’s nothing to suggest that the fire had been lit even the previous day. Two five-year-old boys – an uncle and his nephew – play naked in the yard, covered in white powder as though from rolling in the dust. They were trying to cut up a stalk of sugarcane that they would afterwards taste instead of a breakfast. 

I sit powerless in the face of this sad sight, forcing myself to interview Serena Nicolas, who, despite it all, maintains a constant smile. Maybe she does it to drown her hopelessness, or maybe she sees a glimmer of heaven-sent hope behind this visit. Though she and her husband have been living together for more than 25 years, they have no productive assets worth mentioning. The family earns its income through agricultural day-labor, but the prolonged drought gripping the area has eliminated such work for the first part of the year. No work. No hope of access to cash. Buying food on credit is the only alternative, but as mounting debt begins to harm the sellers, trouble sets in.

Her neighbor, despite her desire to share and show solidarity, typical qualities in the Haitian countryside, has her own burden to manage. A mother of three children whose father died more than 20 months ago, Clotude has had to depend on herself now. It’s a fight that’s too hard for her. Just feeding her household is a terrible challenge. She lives every day with her children’s lack of education, of healthcare, of opportunities to flourish. It has come to feel like destiny. She has just one question constantly on her mind: how to appease the hunger of the children she loves. Her 14-year-old girl has never been to school. No need to even mention the other kids. It was 1 PM, and she has given nothing more than a small stick of sugarcane to each child. She hadn’t fed them anything the previous day. She didn’t know what she would do for the rest of the day or, for that matter, for the rest of the week. As I left her home, she told me, with her generous smile, “M pa gen anyen pou m ba w.” (I have nothing to offer you.) It struck me hard that, despite her sharp and chronic deprivation, she thought of wanting to share. 

At 1:34, my route brought me to the home of Tibolo, the one man working to feed a collection of families including the one he grew up in, his wife’s family, and his own family as well. His wife Jeanne, who’s been nursing their infant for ten days, hadn’t eaten anything since the previous evening. She described the families’ ways, how they all depend on the labor of a single man. Twenty-two people to feed with about five cups of rice per day. Telling me the story leaves me thinking of a similar story, the miraculous tale of Jesus multiplying five loaves of bread to feed 5000 people. Tibolo seemed to have learned the secret.

Only one of her five children goes to school. In fact, hers is the only one of the three families to have managed such a feat. The school meets in the bowels of a Roman Catholic chapel, where the classes sit in beat-up benches and desks in rooms without anything to separate them, studying in a single, great cacophony. That is where the sons and daughters of peasants have to consume the bread of instruction, risking ridicule at the hands of those who correct the entrance exams that determine whether one can go to high school, something few such children can hope to achieve.

The day was long, and the cases I saw were similar. Circumstances that elicit indignation, shame, and frustration are everywhere in rural Haiti. And the dominant class – the state and its accomplices – seem proud of it.

And what of the women in all this?

The women stay at home, while the men wander. They wander to places where they are not directly subjected to the sound of their children’s hungry whimpering. To places where luck might bring them to share a shot of local liquor, a bit or fried dough, or a little bread. But the women, despite the horrible suffering brought on by days without nourishment, suffer just as much by watching their offspring groan and cry with hunger, by watching them starve. 

Facing this hideous situation, I can’t keep myself from asking certain questions: Where in the constitution, in the list of human rights, in the various treaties and conventions are the rights of this forgotten segment of the population inscribed? Aren’t they also Haitians? Should they always remain on the margins of social programs, of access to quality education? What do the slogans – and I really mean “slogans” – mean: universal rights, education for all, social justice?

The women whom I met this day, despite their helplessness and hopelessness, hold onto their desire to share. Do we live, then, in a nation where the culture of sharing is the business of the underprivileged? The state, human rights organizations, feminist movements, peasant movements: When we will arrive at a real advocacy on behalf of the majority of the population? When will the misery of peasants’ lives cease to nourish comedies in Haitian theater and films and instead find its place in the nation’s plans for the future?

To those who have positioned themselves comfortably within this sad reality, I say “Enough!” It is time to realize that on the day when the despair turns into rage, violence will be the weapon this forgotten mass takes in hand. I know that, on that day, repression will be disguised as the law, as the establishment of order, the order according to which the dominant dominate most easily. But the dominant class will be the great losers because the disinherited have nothing more to lose.

Hébert Artus

Misery Doesn’t Know a Good Family (by Héguel Mesidor)

Ti Mako was a guy who worked for tap-tap drivers, filling the trucks with passengers. He got eight cents for each truck. With that money he took care of his wife and children. One day, chaos broke out in the country, and trucks were burned. People were calling for Aristide’s return. All the drivers decided to go on strike for three weeks.

Poor Ti Mako, an honest and respectable guy, loved his wife and children very, very much. During the first week, he didn’t go to work. He was so well known for paying pay his debts that people sold to him on credit for a week. Ti Mako discovered that he couldn’t watch his wife and children suffer. He had to rent a wheelbarrow from Mr. Anol for thirty cents a day.

On the first day, there was so much shooting that he only made seventy cents. He gave Mr. Anol the thirty cents rental, and gave his wife the other forty cents to buy breadfruit that she could boil to give the children. They all went to bed. The next day, Ti Mako took the wheelbarrow again and went to work. The shooting was worse; there were even more bullets. Ti Mako couldn’t go on. He returned home without a cent.

When he explained to Mr. Anol, Anol was very angry. He was counting on the thirty cents to buy a little rum to drink to help him sleep because he was terribly afraid of the shooting. He took back the wheelbarrow to see whether he could find someone else to rent it to. He wanted his thirty cents of rum every day.

Ti Mako found no other work. The whole family went to bed hungry. They spent three days that way.
The fourth day: Ti Mako couldn’t watch his children cry. He didn’t know what to do.

There was a tailor who lived close to him. The tailor left his scissors on a wall below his balcony. Ti Mako stood below the balcony thinking about what he could do to give his wife and children something to eat.
He saw the scissors. He walked up slowly and took them.

He went home and spoke to his wife: “Here are our neighbor’s scissors. I stole them. Don’t tell anyone. You and the children can’t just die of hunger.” He sold the scissors for $ 1.30, and they used the money to make a meal.
Things changed. He got back to work. He had a dream, and he used the dream to win the lottery. He won a lot of money. But he was very unhappy because of the scissors he stole. He told he wife that he didn’t know how to return the scissors to his neighbor.

He said that he’d wait until his neighbor had a problem and that he’d help him then. That would make up for the scissors.

A few days later, he was arguing with his wife in their home. His wife went out onto the balcony, and said, “I know what you are: a scissors-thief.” The tailor heard her. He asked her whether it was her husband who stole his scissors. Ti Mako felt such shame that he wanted to kill himself. He waited for a few days and then said to his wife, “Let’s go to the beach.” He puy her on an innertube and they went far off into deep water. He left her there and departed.

What do you think of Ti Mako? What do you think of his wife? What do you think of a country that going badly?

A Trip to See My Uncle (by Camilo Werlin Martinez)

“The Department of Homeland Security has determined that Port au Prince International Airport is not secure for travel.” An eight and half by eleven-inch note warned me that what I did was ill advised. I had to laugh. This wasn’t the first time that I had left the country, but the American news providers had projected that Haiti was in chaos. “Aren’t they shooting each other in the streets?” my doctor asked me when I said I had come for shots to go to Haiti. I have to admit it felt kind of cool. On Friday, I flew from San Jose to the George H. W. Bush airport in Dallas, home of a life size bronze statue of the former president. From Dallas, I flew to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, seated next to a man for whom the seats of that plane were not designed. He was perfectly nice, I was just a little cramped, and using the john was out of the question. In Florida, I met up with my Aunt Kayla at my grandparents’ house and together we flew to Haiti.

When I go to Mexico no one raises an eyebrow. When I mention a trip to the Bahamas, all I get is jealousy inspired by the beautiful weather. But for Haiti, when I mention that half an island, all sorts of comments come out. People think that Haiti is a country full of distraught men and women killing each other. They think that Haiti is hopeless. Actually speaking with Haitians and connecting with them on a human level gave me a very different view of the country. In February, I traveled to Haiti to spend a week with my uncle, Steven, where he lives in a small community in the mountains.

Flying over Haiti, my face was fused to the window. They say that you can see the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the sky because of how much poorer and deforested Haiti is. I never got to see for myself; we flew in from the other side of the island. But I did get a feeling of what Port au Prince was like. The parts of the city closer to the shore are scarred with rusted factories belching plumes of black smoke. A little more inland is a huge shantytown. A grey dust shrouds the whole of Port au Prince.

When we got out of the airport, the very first thing I noticed about Haiti is that it smelled. You must understand what I mean when I say it smelled. The greater part of the urban U.S. is unique in that it smells sterile, or rather, doesn’t smell at all. Sure there’s the occasional restaurant or dumpster, but for the most part the US smells as though no one has lived in it. Other countries smell as though there is life and activity. I could smell the distinct smells foreign to the U.S.: smells of commerce, of work, of people living out their lives.

Steven, with his friend Edouard, came to pick us up and take us to the rural community of Ka Glo where he lives. The trip from Port au Prince, through Pétion-Ville, to Ka Glo took a little over two hours by taptap (a flatbed truck with a pair of benches in the back, often decorated with Christian messages and gaily painted designs). One section of the road, about two miles long, was absolutely impeccable. When I asked Steven why, he pointed to a mansion and said, “This is the house of the mayor of Pétion-Ville,” About sixty more feet and he said “and this is where the nice road ends.”

When we arrived at Ka Glo, Byton, the young man who had built Steven’s house came to greet us. We went to the house of Mme Met, who had taken care of Steven when he first came. She is a fantastic cook. She made beans and rice, a fresh salad, fried plantains, homemade potato chips and, because it was the Sabbath, fried chicken. Returning to the house, we found a second serving of food waiting for us; it was from Myrtane, Byton’s sister. Technically, Steven is a member of Byton’s father’s household because his house is on the father’s land. This means that the woman of the household, Byton’s oldest sister, is expected feed him with the rest of the family. But Steven has historically paid to be fed at Mme Met’s, and it would be rude of him to just stop. So Steven is being served four meals a day, two lunches, and two dinners. His house has a kerosene stove. So far he has only made coffee.

Steven works in Haitian schools through a program called Apprenticeship in Education. A couple years back a hurricane destroyed the school that the kids in Ka Glo go to, where Met Anténor, Mme Met’s husband, is principal. The state was supposed to replace it, but things frequently don’t work that way. Two hundred and sixty kids, grades one through six, are taught in a building about the size of a large apartment.

After two nights in Ka Glo, we went back down to Port au Prince, but this time we walked down the mountain in the heat until we were on the very outskirts of Pétion-Ville. There we piled into a taptap going to down town Port au Prince. Downtown Port au Prince is quite an experience. The commotion and the pungent smells of rotting meats and fish is overwhelming. From there we drove to the town of Darbonne where Steven’s colleague, Frémy, lives. During any drive though the city, my aunt Kayla and I entertained ourselves by reading the curiously evangelical names of businesses. The all time favorites were the Gas Station of the Immaculate Conception and the Eternal Father Lotto.

In Darbonne we visited an afternoon school run by a fellow named Carmelo. In Haiti, afternoon schools are generally considered inferior to schools run in the morning. The school we visited had a hard time earning prestige for the work that they did, which was to educate those who truly had very little money. The monthly pay for the teachers is about enough to buy a pair of pants, depending on the fabric, and the administrators aren’t paid at all. Basically, everyone who works at the school does so purely because they think education is important. Next to the school is a library of about 3,000 books packed in two little rooms. It’s the only library in Darbonne and the surrounding communities.

Five thirty in the morning on Thursday we started on our voyage to Port au Prince airport for a flight at twenty till twelve. Frémy told us that leaving so early was the only way to be sure that we would make it on time, since Haiti’s roads are not consistently effective. Driving to the airport we spotted UN soldiers from Sri Lanka and Brazil policing the streets. Their orders had recently changed. Now, rather than merely acting as a presence in Haiti, they had been ordered to disarm the group of ex-military trying to retake power.
The truth is that the vast majority of Haitians don’t have a car, a TV, a phone, electricity or plumbing. I learned quickly how needless any of these things really were. People have less money in Haiti, but they work it out and live full and happy lives just like anyone else in the world. In the U.S. a notion has been marketed that one’s life is empty if they don’t have either the newest technology or the finest fashion, and the truth is that the pursuit of all that junk takes away from life. I’m not saying that I romanticize or envy the situation of Haitians, but I don’t feel sorry for them.

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