Haiti: Occasional Musings – 5
In writing I am mindful of finding a balance between reality and romantic notions of revolution whether held by foreigners or Haitians for that matter. I am also aware of the difficulty in writing these pieces even where I am invited to write, it’s not always a comfortable space to be in. I have my doubts but thank those who have encouraged me both here elsewhere – Haitians and non-Haitians. Whatever I may observe, whatever I may know about internal politicking there are no doubt nuances that one is either not privy too or cannot grasp fully. I am not a journalist so I dont see a need to carry objectivity to an extreme - I have a position and thats what I bring to my writing but there still needs to be a reasoning.
On Saturday I returned to Acra camp and met with four members from the organizing committees. The camp which has 32,000 people, is divided into two sections with 13 area committees including a women’s committee. I met the two section presidents and the president of the women’s committee and the PR person. All officials are elected and there is an overall president, Elie Joseph, who I immediately recognised as an experienced activist/organizer from the early Aristide days. A serious purposeful but witty engaging man who described the earthquake as “a criminal earthquake”. He repeated this twice to ensure I got the full meaning. He was not just referring to what Linda Polman calls the “crisis caravan” or the post earthquake ‘re[CON]struction’ but to the suspicions held by many, that the quake was man made. In a sense he is right, the damage caused and number of dead were man made over a period of 200 years. He also reclaimed the 1804-06 Haitian flag – not for him what he called the “colonialists” flag of red and blue. His flag was the simple black and red ‘flag of the empire’ - “black for the Haitian people and red to defend the blood of liberty” [These colours were used by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe **] I mentioned the word symbolic. Again he agreed but added
The flag is also our language, the language of revolution which has taken us 200 years to build. Now in Haiti if you do not speak or read French you are nothing. We need a revolution of language and tradition [history]. That is why it is important for us to have education. Not instruction but education.
He is right, the flag is more than symbolism. It represents Joseph and the people of the camp who come from a long history of turning against social and economic institutions of profit in favour of autonomy [Laurent Debois]
The significance of the camp is that its well organized and politicized with clear thought out practical plans for a future they want for themselves. One could describe this as a ‘counter-camp’ system or culture where residents have been able to take control at least of some of the day to day structures and running of the camp such create spaces for schools for children and adults; organize security patrols and deal with everyday conflicts and the challenges of living without clean water, sanitation and, for many, sufficient food. But none of this came easy as the Esther of the Women’s Committee explained
The first big problem we had was to get organized and to find people to represent us. The camp was unsafe especially for women – robbers, men fighting and women raped. Everyone was afraid with after shocks and then it was hard to know who we could trust to make a representation so we could have better conditions. We didn’t even have tents, all we had were plastics that we found ourselves and we made our shelters and water was and still is our big problem. It took a long time, it was very hard. Sometimes I don’t know how we came from there to where we are today.
We met in the newest of the schools, a small hut which will be used as a school for about 20 children and adults. They also want to use it as a computer center…
We want to train the youths to give them something to do so they dont do bad things. In PAP it’s easy to find bad things to do. On the other side [of the camp] we have a school for art but we need more materials. Here we need benches books for the children. We need so many things [laughs] but we need houses too.
There are 9 similar schools on the camp all taught by volunteers. Whilst this is a great achievement by the camp organizers, it’s a huge failure on the part of the coalition of NGOs, the Haitian government, HRF that thousands of children are excluded from schools because their parents cannot pay the fees, not just here but across the country. Speaking of successes and failures – in my experience of being in the presence of activists / community organizers here and at home in Nigeria, I’ve always found successes despite the failures of governments, NGOS, UN, and the rest. Not easy successes, but a progress which defies the huge obstacles we face in the global south that have to be side stepped if not fully overcome.
“By all means do your commerce but please spare us your advice. We want to do things ourselves” Louis-Joseph Janvier, 1883
So you see, these are not new thoughts!
**. [the Haitian flag has changed from blue and red to black and red a number of times, sometimes with horizontal stripes at other times vertical.] Interestingly Francoise Duvalier also chose the Black and Red but with the crest.