Haiti – Feminist Series 6, In conversation with Souzen Joseph

Souzen Joseph, photo by Sokari Ekine

Souzen Joseph, photo by Sokari Ekine ©

Souzen Joseph is an independent journalist, a musician, community activist and vodou practitioner.   In addition to her job at TNH [Haitian National TV], Souzen is the host of a weekly radio show covering all aspects of health and self-care produced by the Haitian Red Cross.  She is a founding member of a Haitian women’s intergenerational collective, ‘Back to Natural’ which works to encourage women to use Haitian traditional health remedies, wear natural hair and generally promote a pride in being Haitian.  She is also a member of Fondation Felicité, a movement to promote Haitian history and culture, named after the wife of the leader of the revolution, Jean Jacques Dessalines.

In 2002 she began a career in music, initially singing at private parties then in 2010 following the earthquake along with five friends and family formed the band SALAH, which mean ‘joy Holders’.  They play a mixture of jazz, roots, soul and bossa nova.    As a vodou practitioner, Souzen’s way of living is an inclusive one which sees humanity and natural life forces at the center of our existence and

SE: Do you consider yourself a feminist and if so how do you explain your feminism, where did it come from and what does this mean in a Haitian context.

SJ: I didn’t know the word feminism, or realize when I would get mad when people talked about women.  But I think it comes from my mother because from the age of 12 I lived with her and I realized how women’s lives can be difficult when they are on their own, even when they are not it is pretty difficult.   I realized that something had to be changed and that this could be me in the future.  My feminism is not like how they define it in Haiti because it is not a fight against men.  It’s a fight to get what is my right.  Sometimes these things could be small but you realize when you grow up that even a small act can be a big thing.

SE: You mentioned that sometimes in Haiti the word ‘feminism’ or being a feminist has negative connotations?

SJ: Yes, just like a lesbian.  Before when you say you are a feminist they make generalizations.  It’s not like this now but the general population still defines feminism as a fight against men. Even some women think  this.   In Haiti, rural women do not have the same relationship with men as urban women. It is sometimes more cordial but equally unfair to women. However, the women do not quite capture  the importance of feminism and the duty to fight for their rights. And most Haitian women associations don’t act to try to understand its real definition. So that’s why I think people misunderstand the movement [feminism] and don’t get involved.

I am a feminist because I think women have rights and we have to get those rights but I don’t want to defend myself as a feminist in the way it is defined in Haiti.

SE: You mentioned earlier that life for women in rural areas is different to those in urban areas.  What is the difference in the relationship to feminism between  women in the rural and urban areas.

SJ: Women in the rural areas are more free than urban women.  This is a paradox.  Women in rural areas are the head of the family, the head of the land, the plantations.  Officially they don’t have ownership of the land but they manage it everyday, they maintain it, they do everything and the relationship with men is so different.  Men know they don’t have the right to beat the women.  Of course everywhere there is violence, but it is there is less tension in the rural areas. But women in rural areas are still victims of laws for example if they don’t marry the man they have no land ownership rights.

SE: You have a degree in communications and a freelance journalist.  You’ve worked in for MINUSTAH [UN force in Haiti] which is controversial and also you worked for TNH.  What was your experience like working for MINUSTAH given that many Haitians see them as an occupying force?

SJ: First when you are in a country where there is little employment when a job comes you have to take it.  I worked with UN civilians and had no relationship with the army.   But there was still a daily tension with the civilian staff.  Professionally they were great but in the personal relationships they were pretty bad.  A lot of people resigned and others only stayed because the salary was reasonable. In summary, there is a lot of tension and we don’t appreciate them any more.

SE: As we come to the end of 2013, what is your opinion on the continued presence of MINUSTAH in Haiti after 7 years?

SJ: We made a mistake to accept them coming to Haiti but they are already here and though we must tell them to leave promptly, but not before we reinforce our structures ourselves. So we might ask them to leave partially under our supervision by reducing their army and civilians.

SE: So are you saying that Haiti does not have enough security eg police for the UN to leave?

SJ: No, it’s not about security. Haiti is a safe country, maybe the safest country in the world.  But the UN have a lot of people working in Haiti, they have their structures in every part of the country so we have to prepare ourselves. If we want to do it in the best way for Haiti then we cannot ask them to take everything and go when we don’t have the government or the state to replace them.  But still they have to leave and Haitians have to decide.

SE: You have been presenting and producing a radio program on health and self care for the Red Cross, can you talk about the program, your role and how important the program has been and what you will be doing next?

SJ: Just to be clear, the program had already started when I came on board.  I was hired to rearrange it as professionally as I could.  When I came I had to prepare the Haitian Red Cross volunteers to be able to run the program. In the beginning it was just after the earthquake and the objective was to inform people where they could get help, clean water, distribution and so on and then came cholera.  Now it’s three years since the earthquake.  We realized that we no longer knew who were our beneficiaries because three years on, the resilience of the population is OK . We need to move on to other things though they still need information about their health, about risk management.   So now we provide information on cancer, sexual infectious diseases, breast feeding, disaster management, violence prevention and so on.

Also the purpose of the show is to increase the capacity of the Haitian Red Cross and to inform the population of what they do. No one wants to talk about the earthquake anymore so the International Red Cross is leaving and I will be leave-taking the program and they will manage it themselves.

When the program started it was on Radio ONE and more rural people called.  After 4 months it moved to Radio Caraïbes and more urban people called. But really it depends on the topic so if the program is on sexually transmitted disease you will get more women callers because they know they are more vulnerable.  If it’s about violence prevention you get equal calls. The program runs for one hour and is played twice a week and is very popular. We had a survey and discovered that people have been following it for 3 years and even ask for more time.

My next radio project is something I have been planning for three years. It’s called  “Au Feminin Pluriel”.  I realized that the program with the Haitian Red Cross was restrictive but if someone else was discussing a subject they could be more expansive.  For example we could talk about family planning but we would not mention abortion.  So in this new program there will be some difference but using the same format so that social issues and other topics are discussed.

SE: This sounds really exciting which leads to my question around your project ‘Back to Natural”

SJ: Yes,   I realized that many Haitian women are using artificial things. It’s not about make up but false hair, false nails, skin lightening.  I made a show about the skin lightening which is dangerous for us because every woman wants to have a light skin.  There are some magazines which advertise the creams which are now being used by men and women.  So we will also talk about medicine and traditional herbs.  When I was young, the tradition was that parents keep their child’s umbilical cord. At 3 or 7 years old, the parents accompany the child to bury it while planting a plantlet [tree].  At that time, the parents explain to the child the responsibility henceforth to take care of this shrub and protect it until it becomes great enough. Now, this tradition is respected in very rural areas. I did have mine at 7 years old, in Carrefour. I had a coconut tree. I did it for my daughter and I will do for my son too.

SE:  You’ve also expressed strong views on education which connects with your involvement with the Foundation Felicité.

SJ:  Felicité, is one of the most fascinating elements I have had to date.  When I first met Bayyinah Bello [the founder of Foundation Felicité] I was 22, my hair was permed like every woman in Haiti but I had a lot of questions and she was wow you have a lot of questions so let’s do it step by step.   I asked about [Haitian] history, and then I realized our history was very much linked to vodou.   When I was 22, I began to see my grandmother who died when I was 2.  I explained it to my mother and she said how could you see her when she is dead.  So when I talked to Bayyinah she said you are not so crazy and everyone in Haiti has these kind of experiences.  She helped me with this and I was told to ask my grandmother what she wants me to do.  I did and she answered me so after three months of seeing her often, Bayyinah Bello suggested I go to see someone so I can understand it better.   I did and I met the Lwa who told me they have been waiting for me for so long and he explained to me about my family.  It was something pretty impressive. He told me a lot of things about my father who was in New York and he was surprised.

I understand a lot of things now and my father was not in agreement with my choice to become a practitioner of vodou but my mother respected my choice.

Foundation Felicité was started by Bayyinah Bello and the objective is to research our history and to publish these; take care of the elders because some aspects of our history are kept by our elders who have a lot of information and to document this.   The foundation also works to maintain our culture such as the event we had to celebrate the birthday of Dessalines. To remember the importance of our culture and history.

Felicité, is the wife of Jan-Jak Dessalines, a strong woman who was much older than him. He was her third husband.   She was our first nurse.  They talk about Florence Nightingale but she was before her. She took care of the soldiers even the French soldiers. She had a strong personality and told Dessalines ‘your enemies are not mine, let me choose mine’.  Sometimes, she negotiated with Dessalines to return the French soldiers to France. She taught him to read and write as her first husband who freed her, taught her.   She had no children but adopted all of Dessalines children.   Her house remains in Dessalines ville [the first capital of Haiti called the Imperial Town] near Arbonite in the north.

In school, we do not learn any of these, they don’t tell us where Dessalines comes from, sometimes they talk about him as if he is a bad person.  The problem is our history books were written by Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne and the point is: how can you ask someone to write your story and this person is the one you beat up!

SE:  Yes, I wondered about this for example why  Alexander Petion is included as one of the founding heroes of the revolution in the museum? And even he is the one pictured in the PetroCaribe promotion in Petion-Ville [at a recent conference in Haiti]

SJ: Pétion was not part of the revolution but I think [and some Haitians are sick of talking about this] but up till now some countries are trying to prevent Haitians knowing about their history.  Dessalines was someone extraordinary but they don’t want us to know this.  Even now they are always talking about Toussaint Louverture just because at the end they captured him and he died in their prison.  But Dessalines was killed by Pétion and they cannot say “we captured Dessalines”.

SE: So would you say there is some tension between those who want to engage with the history and those who don’t care?

SJ:  Yes. It’s about class system too. Most of our ancestors [not to say all], those who really fought for our independence were Vodou practitioners. Last week I said to my husband: “don’t you realize vodou is in fashion? Everyone is in vodou now. They have bags, shirts with ‘vèvè’ [vodou symbols]. Maybe it’s a good thing! [Laughs]

SE: Just to develop this a little, you’ve already explained  you are a vodou practitioner and although vodou was declared an official religion by President Aristide, it is still marginalized and demonized both in Haiti and beyond.   For instances blaming vodou for illnesses. Last week I watched a TV drama which was a struggle between Christianity and Vodou – of course we know who won.

SJ:  We are still marginalized but vodou practitioners are less impressed by this marginalization but we are still victims of their opinions. For example when the cholera started and they blamed it on vodou.  In many cities, they assassinated oungan and mambo [vodou priests and priestesses] because of this and it was many months before the health authorities explained where it [cholera] came from and what it was. Nobody has been punished for these murders. But they use vodou to go to the international and talk about our culture but they really don’t care.  For example everyone buys the vèvè on the bag but no one cares what its role is, why is it important.  The international are fascinated by this but that’s it.  It’s about sensationalism.

People should know that vodou is not a religion. It is a word that Haitians use to explain their relationship, the harmonization with god and our guides.

SE: Recently in Haiti there has been a change in the way Haitians relate to gays and lesbians when a christian group held a protest against homosexuality.  Two people were killed and many more beaten. What is the position of vodou on homosexuality and sexual minorities.

SJ: In vodou, and that’s why a lot of people don’t like us, we don’t judge anyone we don’t have the right to.  Usually they say when you assume yourself we don’t have the right to make a restriction for you and that’s why gay men and women they can be mambo or oungan. We don’t choose.  Vodou has the saying: Every child is a child”, even sexuality, black, white, they are children and we have to protect them.  All you have to do is have respect for the principals of life and of living with each other.   A sexworker, this is about survival, gay is about feelings, how can I then judge, it’s not that which makes a person who they are.

SE: To end I want to ask you about your life as a musician and the band SALAH

SJ: When we first started it was just for pleasure and I used to sing for pleasure. People told me I had a beautiful voice. After the earthquake we needed something to keep us strong so after three months we started again playing together. A friend in Florida brought us another guitar and microphones and we start to make noise.   People started to ask us to play and we realized we could make a band.   There is a Lwa and he told me that’s your destiny, you are going to be a singer. I was so shy but he taught me how to sing and then last year he asked me to start playing the guitar, so it’s good.  We are seven friends, father, husband, wife, brothers and friends in the band.

Additional reading suggestion for a full understanding of the relationship between Haitian history, slavery, the 1804 revolution and vodou, : Haiti, History and the Gods by Colin [Joan] Dyan

This article was supported in part by the International Reporting Project.