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.