Tag Archives: Haiti

Healing in the Homeland – Haitian Vodou Tradition

‘As a child in Haiti laying in my bed, I heard the Tams Tams of the Vodou drums beating all nights. These beats were telling the stories of my African ancestors, of their struggles, and their survival, their self determination and resistance to domination to keep their dignity. However, the Christian schooling system and the social setting alienating children from their African Traditional heritage and demonized it. As an adult I have decided to go and make a difference. Thus my Doctorate in Conflict Analysis and Resolution reflects this conflicts and the healing that followed.’ Margaret Mitchell Armand

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Margaret Mitchell Armand is a Haitian scholar, poet, artist and trained psychologist. Born in Haiti and raised between Haiti and the US, Margaret’s’ life and work are framed by her faith in the African religious traditions and a celebration of Haitian Vodou.

Two of her most recent publications are a poetry collection “Finding Erzili” [English, French and Haitian Kreyol] and “Healing in the Homeland – Haitian Vodou Tradition”. In addition to writing, Margaret is an artist whose work is grounded in Haitian culture, which is to say it is grounded in Haitian Vodou. She creates art using scraps of wood, branches from palm trees, rocks, calabash, seeds and whatever else she finds in her garden. Her garden is also a lush collection of herbs and plants for healing and soothing the body and spirit.

‘Healing in the Homeland: Haitian Vodou Tradition’ explores the possibility of attaining decolonization through reconnecting with the past and reclaiming knowledge, particularly for the Affranchi descendent / bourgeois / elite class in Haiti. This is achieved through a series of narratives of formally educated Haitians who have ‘transcended their class and elite status’ to openly embrace Vodou, Haitian Kreyol and African-Haitian culture. I say openly, as Margaret points out that most Haitians practice Vodou in secret whilst dismissing it publicly. The narratives provide an insight into how social and cultural mores act to oppress individuals and take on a life of their own.

The work is an ‘indigenous intervention’ which begins by honoring the Taíno people who were murdered by the Spanish. Margaret alerts us to the failure of Western scholarship to acknowledge the Taínos as well as their relationship to African peoples both prior to Columbus and during the colonization.

‘All the ideology, the connections to nature, cosmology, what it means to be human, traveling with the stars. These were shared by Taíno and Africans.’ [MMA: Healing in the Homeland]

Although she is a Haitian scholar and Vodouizan, her position as researcher from a privileged social class highlights class divisions and assumptions around language, religion, and political affiliation. Margaret tells us how she had to recognize these issues but at the same time acknowledge to herself as she powerfully states:

‘Voice gives us, as writers, a presence in our writing. Our voices can thus position us as part of the humanity we write about or as separate and coolly detached. In this study, my position is as part of that humanity I am studying. I belong to the struggle because I was also a victim of it.’ [MMA: Healing in the Homeland]

In the conversation Margaret underlines the importance of historical knowledge in the decolonization process. She asserts that for Haitians and people of African descent or any indigenous people who suffered colonization, the decolonization process must begin around the Poto Mitan. That is to say, decolonization must be grounded in our historical knowledge and belief systems as African peoples and drawn from the spirit of the Haitian revolution and our ancestors knowledge. In particular she emphasizes that to reclaim one’s culture and identity through the Vodou tradition is a liberation from colonial mentality and a way to bridge the cultural gap between bourgeois and the popular masses.

‘The spirit of the Haitian Revolution was based on African and Taíno philosophy and ideology, a tradition of ancestral remembrance, a connection to nature, reparation of past wrongs and the fundamental principle of equality and justice for all through collaborative effort and consensus-based problem solving ….

‘Indeed the Haitian Vodou tradition is the cohesive force of the African Haitian revolution, the rallying point of resistance against colonial ideology continues to be the Poto Mitan of Haitian identity, which is the fulcrum of this study.’ [MMA - Healing in the Homeland]

 

The Haitian Vodou tradition began on the Atlantic crossings of enslaved Africans. On reaching Haiti, the enslaved men, women and children from across west and central Africa shared their belief systems, knowledge of the spirit world and rituals, with those of the indigenous Taíno peoples of Ayiti.

An awareness of the origins and the centrality of Vodou and Kreyol to Haitian identity formation, enables us to understand why both have been maligned and desecrated by Europeans from the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade. The colonizers and plantation owners realized very quickly that Vodou Tradition was critical to freedom and from then until now, they have never ceased in attempts to destroy the essence of Haitian culture.

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SOKARI EKINE: You have been a Manbo for over 25 years, why did it take so long before you had the idea to write this book and what kind of challenges did you face?

MARGARET MITCHELL ARMAND: It was never an idea to write a book. You know I am a Manbo, I initiated but it was not easy because the society I’m in was not supportive. Vodou was not part of my childhood experience but my grandmother and great grandmother were both Manbos. As young adult I had little to say about being Haitian and I felt diminished because of this. So I returned to Haiti and with the support of Ati [url=https://vimeo.com/64228572Max Beauvoir[/url] as my spiritual father, I was initiated in the Peristyle of Mariani in Haiti. I am an avid learner and when I decided to get my Ph.D, I knew that my dissertation would be something that has deep meaning to me. One day, a colleague came to visit who had just finished her PhD and I said to her ‘oh I cannot do this, I cannot do the qualitative work, I am stuck’. She said to me ‘Margaret, don’t you have Vèvè, don’t you have Lwas, Don’t you have Vodou ceremony? I said ‘yes I do’ [Laughs] ‘Then do it!
SE: In terms of the structure of both your poetry and ‘Healing in the Homeland’, you choose to use the Vèvè and Lwa’s as a way of introducing the chapters. Why did you do this and what is the importance of the Vèvè ?

MMA: Vodou is about life itself in its many forms. It is also about art, music, and dance. Vèvès are everywhere, they are part of our spiritual, artistic and cultural expression, and also they are found in other indigenous communities. There they are called in terms of that culture. They are also used to depict the design and energy that you want to connect with. Just like in other religious beliefs systems. A Vèvè could be the design of a business card, it could be the symbol of a belief, so we cannot pin point the Vèvè.

The Vèvè has a spiritual element to it if one wishes. The design of the Vèvè varies according to the Lakou,[2] or the Peristyle; it has a structure but within that, it is flexible. It is an evolving process and we can create our own vèvès just like I have done with my business cards.

SE: You include in ‘Healing in the Homeland’ a series of participatory interviews with formally educated Haitians who have decolonized themselves through embracing Vodou. Each interviewee takes the name of a Lwa also depicted with their Vèvè, to represent themselves? Whose idea was this and why?

MMA: During the interviews, as part of the reclaiming of identity process, it seemed fitting that the interviewee chose a name for themselves and they chose a Lwa name. For others, I picked a name that would fit their personality.

SE: And that is what gives the book character, you are talking about Haiti, talking about Vodou, culture and language and you frame it all within the Vèvè, the Lwa and the Poto Mitan. One question we have discussed before is the chapter ‘Decolonizing the Poto Mitan’. How is the Poto Mitan the sight of decolonization, of Haitian decolonization in particular and even beyond that because you can take the idea of the Poto Mitan as the central force, of our very essence as [Black] people?

MMA: The Poto Mitan is the seed that grows into the tree of knowledge, that is the tree of Loko Atisou.[3] It is our seed, so when the seed comes up as Poto, the tree is our Poto Mitan in nature. This is our communication where the energy of a Lwa comes to communicate with us. It is under the Poto Mitan that we draw the Vèvè to say which spiritual energy [Lwa] we want with us. It is around the Poto Mitan that we find our peace and we can learn about our ancestors and our stories are told, and we pray, we dance we sing, we communicate with our Lwas. Here we are no longer colonized, that is why it is the place of decolonization.

Anything can be a Poto Mitan; in my Lakou, a mango tree or palm tree. When you put your ear to the palm tree you can hear the energy so its our connection to nature, to the energy and with spirits and our respect for nature. Around the Poto Mitan even from the time of the Taínos, it is here that we sit, we discuss and make plans. Its a collaborative consensus thing. And that is why I say it is a place of decolonization because this is the place of our truth.

SE: Our senses become numb when you live in certain environments not necessarily the west but in Haiti too. One of the things I learned from your work is the need to be aware and not to fear because then you are unable to feel or see.

MMA: Yes, you have to be aware that we have ancestors and we have some energy around us, you don’t have to see it, you have to feel it and have that sense but you have to work on this by being more observant. You have to accept it and trust it.

SE: From the interviews it is clear that many of the Haitian elite who become Vodouizan do so as a way of reclaiming their Haitian identity which is part of the decolonizing process. For example Marinèt Bwa Chèch [one of the interviewees] life struggle was a struggle to be Haitian and like many elite, her decolonizing journey began by discovering a hidden family history of Vodou practice.

‘Ah it felt good. I felt good to know that I had a Manbo and Hougan in the ancestral family. ….then I wanted to give myself a Haitian Lwa name. Give myself a name that could link me directly, not only to the Haitian Vodou religion but put me right there in it. Therefore I gave myself the name of a Lwa, you know Ezili Freda and Danto and Dahomey…’

Out of all the interviews which was your favorite?

MMA: I respected all their stories because they are all powerful. However, I admire a lot Grann Ayizan Velekete. [Standing Tall] She has moved to the world of the ancestors, I miss her, but she has done so much work and I identify with her in so many ways. It was a hard time, she had the whole society against her, she went to the countryside, to the Manbo’s house. Even today her family refuses to admit that she said these things but its all on tape, thats her voice. So Grann Ayizan to me was a fighter.

SE: She was my favorite too. She had so much to fight against because she went against the grain of her social class and because she was a woman too. I wonder why she chose Grann Ayizan?

MMA: Her strength was obvious. Whenever I asked her how is she doing she would reply “I’m still standing tall”! And the tree for Grann Ayizan is the royal palm and the royal palm always stands tall. It is also the palm in the Haitian flag.

SE: Grann Ayizan along with the other interviewees is a descendent of Affranchi which is a pejorative term used for the bourgeoisie. Could you explain the concept and the relationship of Affranchi with class in Haiti?

MMA: The Haitian elite do not like the word; they like to think they are French. Affranchi is not based on color, it is social status from pre-independence, someone of African descent who paid for his freedom. This is why in the book I did not use race as a variable because everyone is Black [Dessalines declared every Haitian to be Black]. I remember when I asked my aunt to tell me the story of our family, I said I know we were Affranchi. She got upset with me and did not want to talk about it because the Affranchi suffered a lot too. They were caught between two worlds and penalized by both. The affranchi were abused. They were used as prostitutes, humiliated, beaten.

They were eager to have families but seeing the Black families so denigrated they wanted to be like the white family. The Affranchi and the ‘mulatto’ had huge psychological problems. Petion [Alexander Petion] went to find his father who said “who are you”? But then when he ruled Haiti, he was just as bad as his [white] father. So being an Affranchi came with suffering but at the same time you had the space to survive, make money and have status.

My poetry is a reflection of the journey of my soul in particular time and space that brings magic to my life. It is often thought-provoking as it interrogates, shares, brings into perspective, writes back, questions, talkback, defends, speaks out, brings close, teaches, shows gratitude, understands, nurtures, remembers, dreams, honors, gives hope, cherishes and above all Heal and LOVE. It is a medium through which the creative energies of ancestral legacies flow in their relentlessness to provide immense satisfaction while transforming what I feel to a clearly defined outcome. The poems coalesce with the sacred arts of the Vèvè that offer the testimony of spiritual powers’. [Margaret Mitchell Armand - Finding Ezili]

SE: All your work is extremely personal and your poetry too; it is a self-exploration and very touching as you write about the loss of your son and the loss of your parents but you also celebrate them. So there is grief but also joy of life. How has your work as a writer, poet and artist impacted on your life as a Haitian American?

MMA – My poetry is personal. It is about celebrating life – love, joy and grief. Being an immigrant, coming to a different country I felt free because in Haiti then we were persecuted by the Haitian Government. Becoming an immigrant was an opportunity because in Haiti at that time there were limited opportunities in terms of higher education. I was glad to be in America and was able to adjust very fast. Then I realized also it was not as easy because of racial tensions. But when my culture and Haitian Vodou was attacked, I saw the ignorance and I wanted to change it but first I had to accept who I was and learn about Haitian Vodou and decolonize myself as well.

Many family members and friends showed their displeasure about me becoming a Manbo while introducing my children to Vodou. I did not care, I listen to the energies of the Lwas and I began to write poetry. So when I work it is the energy that talks to me. I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write a poem today. I just follow my instinct. As an example I miss my son who passed away and one day I saw some flowers that he loved and I wrote the poem. I feel something and I write it, these are my healing processes. I do not think of myself so much as Haitian American or American or Haitian. I just feel that where I am is where I need to be in this world. So I write, I dance, I paint
SE: In 1999 you traveled to West Africa. Why did you go, why was it important?

MMA: I wanted to make that connection so I travelled to West Africa. Afterward I did my DNA with African ancestry to find my roots to a specific area where my ancestors lived. The DNA revealed that I am connected to the Yoruba people [this is the Kingdom Nago / the Oyo Kingdom, during the time and prior to slavery,] and the Hausa and Bamileke people from Cameroon which was South Kongo prior and during the slave trade. This knowledge is found in the Vodou songs. I travelled to Benin in 1999 and to Senegal, Ghana Ivory Coast and to Cameroon in 2010. These are the most memorable places for me. I am grounded. I am Free.

 

‘Transformation is only valid if it is carried out with the people, not for them. Liberation is like childbirth and a painful one. The person who emerges is a new person: no longer either oppressed or oppressor, but a person in the process of achieving freedom’. Paulo Freire [MMA - Healing in the Homeland]

END NOTES

[1] Grann Ayizan – a powerful Lwa who cares about the weak and the unprotected and establishes order and peace.

[2] Lakou – a compound of traditional extended family and spiritual living

[3] Loko Atisou – the Lwa represented as the tree of knowledge of the Vodou tradition.

 

ADDITIONAL READING:

Margaret Mitchell Armand – http://www.margaretmitchellarmand.com

 

Interview with Haitian historian Bayyinah Bello

Bayyinah Bello with Professor Leonard Jeffries
Bayyinah Bello with Professor Leonard Jeffries

Bayyinah Bello first traveled to Africa at the age of 12 to join her father in Liberia. She later returned as an adult first to Nigeria where she lived for four years and later to Benin, Togo and other countries in the region. In total she spent 15 years living on the continent. In retrospect, her journey was a circular one in search of Ayiti and it’s indigious belief system, Vodou. Bayyinah discusses her experience and research into religions beginning with Islam, Hinduism and later African belief systems including Vodou as practiced in the Kingdom of Dahomey [now Benin]. She is founder of Fondasyon Felicite, named after the wife of revolutionary hero Jean Jacques Desslaines, Marie Claire Heureuse Felicite Bonheur Dessalines, The foundation is part of Bayyinah’s insistence that to ” knowing is doing” or to know is to do. In this case to know the true history of Ayiti beginning before colonization, before slavery, before the indigenous Taino peope were wiped out by the occupaying forces of Europe, up to the present post 2010 earthquake and invasion of new colonizers in the form of NGOs and missionaries. For Bayyinah, Ayiti’s future is bound with the past, a past born in Africa and lived through African belief systems and not those used to colonize our minds.

Haiti: Collateral Alibis – NGO Watch

Last year I was alerted to the website Turning World @Turning_world by some friends here in Haiti. The site is run by photojournalist Brad Workman who has an ongoing photo documentary project in Haiti. We took issue with the language, his profitmaking approach, and the fact that there is no acknowledgement let alone giving back to those whose lives he invades under the guise of social documentary. I wrote a post on this that asked the question: Photo Journalism or Poverty Porn?

In a similar vein, many of us are now questioning the website content of the Foundation for International Development Assistance – Productive Cooperatives Haiti (FIDA-PCH), a Canadian NGO operating in Haiti which purports to have set up a number of agricultural cooperatives and literacy projects in rural areas. Below are a set of photographs  and text , defining what they, the colonial missionaries, imagine it means to be Haitian.

There are different ways to tell a story without invading peoples’ lives and assaulting their dignity. The photos chosen by Haiti’s Camp Acra residents on their blog should be a lesson on how Haitians see themselves – see here and here. In the 1805 Constitution written by the first President of the Black Republic, victorious revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines (also called JanJak Desalin), declared that to be Haitian is to be Black (Article 14). In other words, being Haitian and being African are one and the same –inseparable. The Constitutions also states freedom of worship and no religion shall dominate.

With this in mind, consider the Western colonial narrative that writes Haiti as “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” composed of suffering, dysfunctional victims, both pathetic and resilient at the same time, lacking autonomy, waiting desperately for “white saviors” to arrive. And so they arrive, with the bible in one hand and stale bread in the other, to live like masters on the plantation in charge of childlike natives whose savage proclivities must be held in check. In their heads, like all previous colonizers, they need justification that goes beyond the practical. In the case of FIDA-PCH, this justification can be found in their photos and text.

This is important as in order for colonialism to function—and let’s be clear, FIDA-PCH and others like them are colonizers—its targets have to be written as passive, incapable, simple and in need of salvation. This pathologizing is necessary to recruit funds and gain acceptance in the home countries of the NGOs and missions. It is also necessary to create this narrative within Haiti to enable domination and recruitment into these fundamentalists groups.

FIDA-PCH and those like them come to Haiti and view the Haitian culture as inferior, and the Haitians as uncivilized. They assume Haitians need to be taught farming and the Western way of life, which of course is not supposed to include Vodou or any African religion that survived the Middle Passage. The country which is the most African of all the Diaspora is, in one slash of the white supremacist machete, disconnected from her ancestral roots. Haiti is presented in the most insidious racist terms, as inherently barbaric, and Haitians as inherently hateful of each other.

Like most NGOs and missionaries, FIDA-PCH’s presentation has no understanding that KREYÒL along with Vodou are the Poto Mitan* (Center Post) of Haitian culture – the latter a permanent historical presence whether practiced or not. The devaluation of Vodou throughout Haiti’s history is the one constant that can be found amongst the vast majority of foreign NGOs, missions and western media that shapes the views of the many who come to “help” Haiti.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that despite all the foreign interventions, the Poto Mitan has never been colonized!  Instead of Haiti written as victims who hate sections of the population such as LGBTIQ people, Vodou writes Haiti as a continuing revolution and one where the core principle is an assumption that I am a living being and it is here that my merit lies.

There is so much violence and destructiveness in the FIDA-PCH text, photos and the actions that must stem from this mindset, and contrary to what they state, it is this which leads to the breakdown of traditions and causes much friction between groups. FIDA-PCH believes that Haitians, and therefore Black people, Africans, have no sense of community or agency.

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Colonialism, imperialism, the ongoing exploitation and genocidal legacy of AmerEuropeans is dismissed. The enslaved and exploited are the ones judged and blamed. But the truth lies elsewhere. At the beginning of the revolution in 1791, the enslaved peoples of Haiti were united in purpose, language and belief systems; overthrowing plantation slavery could not have happened otherwise.

The text accompanying the photo below is particularly vile.

screenshot343-300x181What really happened was quite the contrary.

FIDA-PCH: “She was born into a culture yet to wash its self-esteem of the stains of slavery.”

NO: Haiti “washed” itself clean of the “stains of slavery” when Dessalines led an army of formerly enslaved Africans and beat back the British, French and Spanish to form the first Black Republic – a communal act of courage and bravery referred to as “the first great social revolution in the hemisphere.”

FIDA-PCH: “She remembers that her own tribal chief sold her family into slavery.”

NO: She remember that YOUR ANCESTORS sold her into slavery, transported her chained hand and foot in the bowels of hell, and then proceeded to torture, rape and use her as a beast of burden and dog bait!

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In the above photo, the text claims “he [the Haitian] is acted upon. He turns passive. He resigns. Responsibility seems to him to belong to everybody else.” This is the exact scenario of power and control being created by NGOs, particularly those with Christian agendas and evangelical missions that seek to erase Haitian culture and demonize Vodou. These attacks   have been on the increase since 2003 when President Aristide decreed Vodou as a national religion and “an essential part of national identity.

The first proverb misrepresented on the FIDA-PCH website states, Depi nan Ginen neg pa vle we neg, which they translate as “Back in Guinee and ever since, Africans have no use for Africans.”

The correct spelling is: Depi nan Ginen nèg pa vle wè. It is clear they simply do not understand that the essence of a proverb is in its coded meaning. But we cannot simply dismiss this as an error. We must look at the intent, which is so twisted with toxic consequences. What we see is the inability to imagine that Africans/Haitians use language to express satire, irony, double meanings and a philosophical worldview and existential condition.

The correct translation is: Since Ginen, people don’t want to see people: Since coming from Guinea, the spiritual and ancestral homeland, people don’t want to see people. “Nèg” definitely does NOT stand for Africans; the Kreyol word for African is “Afriken.” The translation of “having no use” is invalid, as wè is to see. “People” and its literal meaning is “Negro,” but in Haiti “Negro” is also used for people that don’t have African ancestry. There is also ti nèg: ti means little and refers to a common person, for example a laborer or peasant;  and gwo nèg, which refers to a rich and influential member of society or a person from the elite class. Not connected to ancestry or ethnicity.

One has to understand that after Haiti’s revolution, Dessalines said that there were only two types of people: blacks, which included all people of non-African ancestry that sided with the freedom fighters against oppression and slavery, and whites, which were all those on the opposing end. This meant, for example, that Polish settlers in Haiti who defected from the colonial troops to side with Dessalines and stay in Haiti were considered as blacks. In so doing, Dessalines made all Haitians equal, and therefore of the three revolutions of the time—French, US and Haitian—Haiti was the only country to live up to the ideal of equality and of freedom. Black for Dessalines was less a racial identifier and more about consciousness and a conscious awareness of justice against the global white supremacist structure of oppression.

The second proverb FIDA-PCH misrepresents is Abitan pa janm konnen, which they translate as, “He pretends he knows nothing even when he knows.” They interpret this revisionist lie as, “a fitting statement of Haiti’s scarred history.” Again agency is removed, history is erased, identity is rendered invisible, and we are presented with a cowering Haitian hiding from their words, life, community.

The correct translation is: The peasants never know. The meaning of which is: the opinion of the poor, the common people, is never sought nor consulted. This is in stark contrast to the meaning given on the website. FIDA-PCH’s Haiti is one full of mistrust, slavish dependency and self-hate whilst they present themselves as the savior in bringing to Haiti a cooperative environment where Haitians are TAUGHT to share and work together.

FIDA-PCH completely undermines indigenous social systems such as the concept of community, helping and trusting others and family in the Lakou system of shared agricultural and living compounds, and the Konbit, a get-together in which everyone donates their labor to help accomplish a common goal for community improvement, or to help out an individual. There are many Haitian proverbs that stress community and mutual help. The often cited Men anpil chaj pa lou, Many hands lighten the load, means things are easier to accomplish when a group works together. So here again you have a proverb that is in stark contrast to the reframing of Haitian cultural identity given on the FIDA-PCH website.

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NGOs, missions and assorted visitors have had free reign in Haiti for too long. There are no visa requirements and no questions asked, no accountability to the public. Their profits are hidden and they can make whatever spurious claims about projects they run, the people they work with or have met. Agricultural projects in particular have a habit of making claims that do not exist in reality. Often they operate using questionable labour practices, in addition to forcing workers and their families to abandon their indigenous belief systems for Christianity in return for food and shelter. This culture of entitlement and ownership of Haiti’s future became entrenched following the January 2010 earthquake when NGOs and so-called humanitarian organisations felt they were beyond accountability, and fundamentalist attacks on the Haitian identity by evangelicals from the United States escalated.

Haiti, Africa and other parts of the African Diaspora are under attack from self-appointed white saviors and religious fundamentalists. The miracle is that the Haitian people have been able to survive at all. The voices of Haitians are no more than what filmmaker Raoul Peck describes in his film “Fatal Assistance” as “collateral alibis.” The outcome of 500 years of the EuroAmerican cultural tradition is one of genocide of indigenous peoples and the genocide of our minds.

We reject this in all its entirety and demand it STOP NOW!

We demand that all the photos and text on the FIDA website are removed and the proverbs replaced with the correct translations.

We are watching!

Written in collaboration with the following organizations and individuals :

Chanjem Leson,

Coalition Pour Humaniser Les Actions Aux Logements (CHAL),

Alyssa  Eisenberg @alyssa011968,

Dominique Esser @dominique_e_,

Stephanie Horton @ducorwriter,

 

* References for the Poto Mitan:

It is the centerpost around which rituals and ceremonies unfold in a Vodou temple.  It represents a great tree which reaches into the heavens, and through it’s roots, it grows deep into Africa, “Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English” edited by Benjamin Hebblethwaite]

Resisting  Freedom in “Invisible Powers: Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture” edited by Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith.

HIV in the Time of Cholera

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Long before 9/11 and the subsequent incarceration of hundreds of so called “terror suspects” in Guantanamo Bay, thousands of Haitian refugees fleeing the military junta in the early 1990s, were detained on the US base. Many of those were detained because they were suspected of being HIV Positive [+].

The marking of Haitians as carriers of AIDS goes back to the early 1980s when the Center for Disease Control [CDC], identified four high-risk groups, known pejoratively as the 4-H club — “homosexuals, haemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians”.  This was the first time a disease was tied to a nationality but not the first time black bodies have been tied to racist notions of deviance and contagion and of being a threat to whiteness.  [1]

The first documented case of HIV in Haiti was from the Clinique Bon Sauveur in the Central Plateau in 1986. Within two years the clinic had introduced a programme of free testing, counselling, condoms, HIV education and prevention.  By the early 1990s 25% of admissions were related to HIV and by 1995 this had risen to 40%. Two other medical centres have been at the forefront of HIV/AIDs and TB in Haiti; the GHESKIO Centre in Port-au-Prince, a global pioneer in HIV/AIDS research and treatment, and Partners in Health, which has run an extensive preventative and treatment programme for the past 25 years.  Both must take considerable credit for the massive decrease in the HIV+ rate from 9.4% in 1993 to 1.8% in 2011, an estimated 51% of whom are women and 12% children.  Even with the disruption to treatment caused by the January 2010 earthquake the infection rate continued to decrease.

The underlying and most significant contributory factor to both the spread and death from HIV/AIDS and TB in Haiti is not lack of awareness or failure to follow medication regimes as policy officials tend to argue, but life-shortening conditions, that is the material conditions and structural violence under which people become infected.  Paul Farmer writing on Haiti describes structural violence as
……..one way of describing social arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way… The arrangements are structural because they are embedded in the political and economic organization of our social world; they are violent because they cause injury to people … neither culture nor pure individual will is at fault; rather, historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces conspire to constrain individual agency. Structural violence is visited upon all those whose social status denies them access to the fruits of scientific and social progress.[2]

After talking to dozens of patients, nurses, doctors and health officials over the past six months, I am very much aware of the violence of poverty which impacts on people in multiple ways.    Gustave and Emile and their families are just three of millions.

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Gustav Renaud was born in Port de Paix in the north, not too far from Cap Haitian. He is 30 years old and came to PAP six months ago after falling ill. He lives with his mother, sister, brother-in-law and their three children in Camp Acra at Delmas 33. His mother, Gustave Taliette, was the first to move to PAP two years ago to look for work and was followed a few months later by her son-in-law, Jonas, and then his family; altogether they are seven. The family was given the tent by someone who moved out from the camp. This was better for them as there is no rent to pay. Since arriving Jonas has only managed to find a few weeks’ work here and there and much of the burden for feeding the family has fallen on Mdm Taliette, who occasionally finds work washing clothes in the city.

Like the dust in the camp, hunger is ever present in their lives. There is nothing to do except to sit and sit some more as the day passes into night. The day I first met Gustave he was sitting in front of his tent with his mother and some neighbours. On the ground in front of Gustave’s tent are a few very old dusty shoes and bags laid out for sale on a piece of equally old plastic. They reminded me of a piece of still-life art moulded into the ground.

We were meeting to talk about his TB. However, during the nearly two hours we sat outside his tent, he hardly coughed, although he was visibly very ill. His hair was thinned out, and he was covered in dried sores. He complained of feeling dizzy with headaches, diarrhoea, vomiting and pains in his legs. Gustav said he left his wife and two children in Port-de-Paix because she threw him out when he became sick. I found myself wondering if he was really HIV+ and possibly the TB story was a cover. Since arriving he had been to two hospitals, Petit St Luke in Tabarre and Kings Hospital in Delmas33, but he said he did not know what was wrong with him. Although the consultations were free, patients have to pay for the test results and since he had no money he could not get the results. I asked him why he thought he had TB? “Because I am coughing and I am tired, also my chest hurts.” He had been given some medication but he didn’t know what it was and anyway it was finished and this was months ago. It was difficult to really assess what was happening. I explained to him that in Haiti everyone who has TB is also tested for HIV and asked if he had had either test. He said no, he did not think so.

As we sat and talked neighbours passed by along the narrow path between the tents. Some kept walking, others stopped to listen until asked to please move on. At one point, Mdm Taliette got up and began walking away. A while later I noticed her return with a bucket of water. She then sat down on a bench in front of the adjoining tent and proceeded to undress to her underpants and bathe herself. I watched briefly as she stared straight ahead and despite the circumstances of bathing in the public glare, there remained a dignity and a defiance in her actions. I looked at the others; no one was watching. There is no privacy in the camp. No privacy to speak, not even for a 50-year-old woman to bathe. She must do so in front of her grown son, her son-in-law, neighbours and strangers like me.

Later, Mdm Tailette returned from bathing with a smile and a photo of Gustave taken about a year ago. In the photo he is a tall, 6ft. 5in heavy-set young man, far removed from the wafer-thin, balding, aged person sitting next to me.

I was concerned that Gustave might be HIV+. I asked Gustave, his mother and brother-in-law what they were going to do as clearly he needed to see a doctor quickly. They said they wanted to go to a doctor but they had no money so they had no choice but to sit and wait. No need to wait, I thought, there is Dr Coffee!

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A few weeks earlier I had gone to meet Dr Megan Coffee, an American infectious disease specialist and a truly amazing woman. She had come to Haiti a few months after the earthquake and stayed. Dr Coffee runs a TB clinic in the grounds of the Hopital l’Universite d’Etat d’Haïti [General Hospital] in downtown PAP. Her clinic consists of three permanent tents laid out on concrete under the glaring 95° degree heat. The first tent is for in-patients, who are extremely sick and near dying of TB and/or HIV+. The middle tent, which is the smallest, is a meagre office consisting of a desk with an assortment of drugs, papers, masks etc; a second desk with more assorted bits and medical files; a camp bed behind a curtain and a wardrobe. There was also a group of four Haitian nurses who are paid by the General Hospital to assist in her clinic.  She volunteers alongside the infectious disease nurse and they survive on donations, as does the clinic. Food for patients is donated by various charities. The third tent, which is really just a piece of tarpaulin giving shade, is for outpatients and family.

This is the only dedicated TB clinic in PAP. On the day of my first visit I arrived around 11am.  There were six people crowded into the small office tent and the one fan blowing hot air did little to relieve the heat. Dr Coffee hadn’t yet arrived so I took the opportunity to speak to the other volunteer, the infectious disease nurse who had been here for a few months. As we spoke she continued to work, emptying the contents of various capsules into a mortar and mixing away. I was fascinated and wondered if this was what chemists do behind pharmacy doors or was this part of the make-shift world of healthcare in Haiti? The nurse explained she was mixing the cocktail of drugs into individual dose bags to make it easier for the patients to take. The bags were for newly discharged out-patients to take home.

Soon Dr Coffee arrived in her usual outfit of long-sleeved t-shirt, overshirt and broad-rimmed hat to protect her from the glaring sun. Patients immediately surrounded her as she spoke in an impressive accented but fluent Kreyol. Eventually with a few minutes to spare she turned her attention to me and I rushed through my interview, not wanting to take time away from very sick people.

The clinic started with just three patients and now treats 800 annually. At present she has 70 bed-patients, four of whom were near death. I asked Dr Coffee what were her biggest challenges?

“Ensuring the patients take their medication. The patients have their own challenges such as food and surviving so I have to stress the pill is their life… missing it will lead to death.”

TB patients burn excessive calories and they need a great deal of food but at the same time they don’t feel the need to eat. Even when they are eating they are still thin. This is additionally problematic when people are hungry and those coming to Dr Coffee’s free clinic are the very poor. One positive system she has managed to create is a “buddy” system where cured patients give back by returning to support sick patients. This could be by helping to exercise patients, helping to feed them or just keeping up their spirits.

Another problem is due to the poor material conditions under which patients live; they wait until they are really ill before attending the clinic, thereby reducing their chances of full recovery.
The majority of sick people I have met over the past six months have been ill for weeks or months before they went to a clinic and often pregnant women will only attend the hospital after they have gone into labour. Even when hospitals are free people are still reluctant to go for fear of being presented with a bill they cannot pay.

I told Gustave and his family about Dr Coffee. I explained she was a TB specialist and all the treatment would be 100% free. All they had to do was to get to the hospital by 10am and she would see them. I explained that he would have a TB and HIV test and then wait and see what happens. Everyone was happy with the suggestion and we said our goodbyes. The next day I learned that Gustave and Jonas had gone to the clinic but were unable to register. I frantically tweeted direct messages to Dr Coffee who responded saying they must return immediately.

This time I decided to go with them. We all met at the hospital and Gustave registered, saw Dr Coffee and had his tests.  It took a few more visits but finally he received the news that he was HIV+ but did not have TB. Now he has transferred from Dr Coffee’s clinic to the Hopital l’Universite d’Etat d’Haïti as an HIV+ patient. At one point he was going to the hospital a couple of times a week. Attending the hospital has been extremely difficult for Gustave. He is weak from the illness which is exacerbated by food insecurity and poor diet. It takes two buses to get to the hospital which costs 100 gds which is 100 less to spend on food for the family. The choice often becomes either the hospital or food to eat. One day he was so weak he collapsed on the street and Jonas had to carry him by motorcycle taxi. At this point it was hard to persuade Gustave to return to the hospital as he said he no longer cared if he died.

If Gustave was HIV+ then it was very possible his wife was also positive and possibly their three-year-old son. When I asked him whether he had told his wife, he replied she was positive and she had been taking medication even before their son was born, who is also positive.  However, he continued to insist that he did not know he, too, was HIV+.  His wife remains in Port-de-Paix so there is no way for me to follow up on her and the baby’s present health status.

Emile Charles is 16 years old and is HIV+. His whole family have died of AIDS-related illnesses. First his younger sister, then his mother and finally his father. I had seen Emile many times during my visits to the workshop at Delmas 33. He was one of the many young boys and girls who made the shoes and jewellery for the camp shop. I was told he might be HIV + and may also have TB as he was coughing a great deal. He is a thin, intense young man with a soft, gentle, inquisitive face. He doesn’t smile often but when he does, it’s like a burst of light.

Emile’s family were from Hinche in central Haiti. He is not sure but thinks he was six when his father died and he came to live with his uncle in PAP. His uncle did not allow him to play with his own children and Emile had his own food utensils. In 2008 or 2009 he became very ill and was taken to hospital where he ended up spending a year. As a minor, Emile’s uncle would have been told his status and it would be up to him to inform the child. He did not do this. After he was released from hospital he was given a patient card, medication and an appointment. But his uncle never took him back and soon after that Emile was adopted by a neighbour, Jean-Louis [Elie] Joseph who is now one of the main organisers of the Chanjem Leson movement at Camp Acra.

Elie had complained to the uncle about his treatment of Emile and in the end the uncle told him to take the boy but he did not tell Elie about Emile’s medical history. Soon after Emile moved in with Elie and his wife Esther, the earthquake happened and they all moved to Camp Acra.   Emile was constantly sick and at one point was very ill with what Elie believed was shingles. It seems that everyone involved suspected Emile was HIV+ but no one made a decision to take him for a test, the main concern being cost.
At the time I formally met Emile he had again become ill with fever and night coughs. It was at this point that the uncle, who also lives in the camp, finally told Elie that Emile’s family had all died of AIDS-related illnesses and Emile told us he had spent a year in GHESKIO hospital so it made sense for him to return there and continue his treatment. However the hospital had no record of him ever being a patient.

To understand some of the confusion — how was a six or eight-year-old child supposed to know which hospital he had attended, how long he had stayed or what medication he was given? The uncle, possibly not wanting people to know about his nephew’s status, was not forthcoming with information. Despite the decrease in HIV/AIDS and increase in awareness and prevention, there remains a high level of stigma around the illness. Eventually Emile’s guardians found out he had been in a hospital run by nuns in Delmas 18 but the uncle could not remember the name.

By this time four weeks had passed and Emile’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Soon after I received a text message from my interpreter, Serge Supre, saying he was going to Delmas 18 to try to find out the name of the hospital and to collect Emile’s records so they could treat him again or refer him to the Hopital l’Universite d’Etat d’Haïti. The hospital turned out to be run by the Sisters of Mercy of Mother Teresa fame. But it was not a good ending.

The overall context in which Gustave and Emile are trying to live with their illnesses is compounded by the general insecurity and fear in the camp itself. In April someone claiming to be the owner of the land threatened to burn down the camp unless everyone left. The following day a fire broke out in one section which everyone took as a warning. Camp residents reported the fire and threats to the police who said there was nothing they could [would] do. They then decided to protest against the threats and lack of police action during which two men were arrested and one died in custody. Chanjem Leson activists worked with the family of the deceased and reported the police in question to the Inspector General of Police. Since then they have faced daily phone threats from unknown men, including repeated night visits to their tents.

The whole camp is nervous and fearful of being evicted at any moment. Emile’s adoptive parents, Elie Joseph and Esther Pierre have gone into hiding and he is being cared for by Esther’s cousin Serge Supre. Serge is unemployed except for the little he earns from interpreting, and worries about how he will pay for his 18-year-old daughter to finish high school. Regular evictions have begun to take place around the city and each night people go to sleep wondering if this will be their last. This has also meant disruptions to the small craft and art workshop and the school.

Gustave has started ARVs and although the family is happy with his treatment they want more than anything to return to Port-de-Paix – “if we have to be hungry better to be hungry at home than in PAP!”
For the first few weeks Gustave responded positively to the medication and even planned to find work and try to visit his wife and children. However over the past two weeks he has deteriorated, becoming aggressive, removing his clothes and disappearing for days and worst of all, he has stopped taking his medication. The stress of caring for him has taken its toll on his family especially his mother for whom this is one burden too many.

Statistics tell us the numbers of people living with HIV and dying of AIDS / TB in Haiti has decreased dramatically over the past 10 years due to a policy directed at prevention based on education and increased access to treatment. But there are other realities excluded from official reports and statistics.  Gustav and Emile, and millions like them, are forced to struggle to receive the most basic healthcare. Emile has spent two months trying to get treatment and he’s still waiting. It is hard to say no one cares and even though I have followed him through the repeated hurdles and I know we, his family and his friends care, but without money and without agency people like Emile and his family are regularly treated with disdain. You attend the hospital and people don’t even look you in the face, preferring to watch TV or chat with their colleagues. People treated as “expendable non-persons”!
And Emile is doing badly. The hospital run by the Sisters of Mercy is now in Carrefour but they refused to see Emile because “his uncle gave trouble”. Serge tried to appeal to their “mercy” but in vain…

“They said they will do something for the poor but they cannot help Emile because his uncle brought trouble. I would like to know who are the poor – are we not poor, is Emile not poor and sick and a child? Something must be done for him. He cries at night and I don’t know what to do. On Monday I will return to GHESKIO and hope they will help. If not we have to go back to Dr Coffee.”

Emile didn’t get to GHESKIO. Through a “friend of a friend” he is now waiting for an appointment at Dikini hospital in Kafou where they receive HIV+ patients. I hope he finally gets the treatment he needs.

UPDATE: After visits to numerous hospitals and clinics in PAP, finally with the help of Dr Coffee, Emile finally started on ARVs at the end of September 2013.   He had fallen ill yet again and was in a very poor state and was immediately admitted to Dr Coffee’s TB clinic and placed on medication.  In total it had taken  four months since the initial visit to the hospital for Emile to receive ARVs.  Emile then spent another 4 weeks of almost daily hospital visits waiting for a pediatric and  psychology assessment that would enable him to enter a food and school programme providing him with rice, beans and oil plus school fees and text books.   By the end of October he had begun to put on weight and regain his strength.  Now we all look in awe at the new Emile who is twice the size we all thought he was.  He hopes he will start school in January

1] A. Naomi Paik “Carceral Quarantine at Guantanamo: Legacies of US Imprisonment of Haitian Refugees, 1991-1994”  published in Radical History Review Issue 15 /Winter 2013].
2] Castro, Arachu and Paul Farmer, “Infectious Disease in Haiti” EMBO Reports 2003.
[3] ARDTA – Asosyasyon Respekte Dwa Timoun – Ans Wouj [Association for the Respect for the Rights of Children]
* Not his real name!

 

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

‘Too Black, Too Strong’: Imagining Haiti in Caribbean Popular Culture’.

From the Jamaican Gleaner – Imagining Haiti in Caribbean Popular Culture.

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Whenever I am in the US and  Haiti comes up in the conversation, I am repeatedly faced with varying levels of denigration about Haiti and Haitian people, many of whom are Haitian themselves.  Jamaicans are  particularly prone notwithstanding that most of the people I meet in South Florida are of Jamaican or Haitian heritage.   This piece by Carolyn Cooper challenges the negativity towards Haiti and Haitians by Jamaican and other Caribbean islanders.

Ignorance and self-hate are a terrible thing.

 

A so Mutabaruka seh inna fi im poem bout Haiti pon im ‘Melanin Man’ album weh come out inna 1994. Mi tek Muta lyrics fi di title a one talk mi gi inna Haiti dis ya month. Mi call it, ”Too Black, Too Strong’: Imagining Haiti in Caribbean Popular Culture’.

One big-big meeting did keep up fi di 25th anniversary a di Haitian Studies Association, from November 7-9. More dan 300 scholar from all over di world go a Haiti fi reason bout politics, education, health care, music, literature, language, flim show, economics, history an such di like.

Inna fi mi talk, mi consider Muta poem an one a David Rudder song pon im Haiti album, weh im put out inna 1988. A long time dem two artist a warn wi fi check wiself. Dem a cry out mek wi understand seh di people dem inna Haiti a fi wi fambily an wi no better dan dem. In fact, wi an dem inna di same boat. An if wi no mind sharp, it a go a sink. An di whole a wi a go drown same way.

See how Muta start off fi im poem:

Haiti yu goin an no one seem to care

Haiti yu goin, neighbours, beware!

Di poverty an death that haunts every day

De boat dat leave to de USA.

Same way David Rudder a warn wi inna fi im song:

We are outing fires in faraway places

When our neighbours are just burning.

They say the Middle Passage is gone

So how come overcrowded boats still haunt our lives?

CHAINS DAT KEEP US APART’

Acordin to Muta, di answer to David Rudder question a one long, long story: “Haiti suffers because it made a start.” Muta dig up history fi find di root a di problem:

Yu payin for di afrikaness yu still keep

Yu payin, payin; Boukman is not asleep

Nuff a wi inna Jamaica no know bout Boukman. Im did born right ya so. An im a one a fi wi big-time hero. International hero! Im coulda read an write. A it mek dem call im Boukman. An it look like seh di book im dida read a di Qu’ran. Im a Muslim. An im dida try teach who want know fi read. Di owner fi di plantation never like dat. Boukman a mek trouble. So di owner man decide fi sell Boukman to one Frenchman weh tek im go a Haiti.

An a deh so Boukman mek trouble! When im see wa a gwaan, im couldn’t tek it. Im tek charge. An im turn voodoo priest. Pon August 14, 1791, im keep one big meeting a Bois Caiman, weh di African dem plan out how dem a go free demself from slavery. Dem draw blood an drink it an tek oath fi fight it out. An a deh so revolution start inna Haiti. Di next week, Boukman people dem burn down 1,800 plantation an dem kill off 1,000 a di owner dem.

Muta seh:

Yu gave us Haiti di strength to fight

Black people in di Caribbean, I say unite

Break di chains dat keep us apart

Haiti suffers because it made a start

Mi love di picture Muta draw when im talk bout di chain dem. A mental slavery dat. Di chain dem inna wi mind a tie wi up, mek wi feel seh wi better dan dem other one. Mi glad fi see Haiti President Michel Martelly come look fi wi. Im did come fi talk bout how Haiti an Jamaica can work together. Anywhere Boukman deh, it sweet im fi true.

  • PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN

A so Mutabaruka se ina fi im pouwem bout Haiti pon im ‘Melanin Man’ albom we kom out ina 1994. Mi tek Muta liriks fi di taikl a wan taak mi gi ina Haiti dis ya mont. Mi kaal i, ”Too Black, Too Strong’: Imagining Haiti in Caribbean Popular Culture’.

Wan big-big miitn did kip op fi di 25th anivorsri a di Haitian Studies Association, fram Novemba 7-9. Muor dan chrii onjred skala fram aal uova di worl go a Haiti fi riizn bout palitiks, edikieshan, elt kier, myuuzik, lichricha, langwij, flim shuo, iikanamiks, ischri an soch di laiik.

Ina fi mi taak, mi kansida Muta pouwem an wan a David Rudder sang pan im Haiti albom, we im put out ina 1988. A lang taim dem tuu aatis a waan wi fi chek wiself. Dem a krai out mek wi andastan se di piipl dem ina Haiti a fi wi fambili an wi no beta dan dem. In fak, wi an dem ina di siem buot. An if wi no main shaap, it a go a singk. An di uol a wi a go jroun siem wie.

Si ou Muta staat aaf fi im pouwem:

Haiti yu goin an no one seem to care

Haiti yu goin, neighbours, beware!

Di poverty an death that haunts every day

De boat dat leave to de USA.

Siem wie David Rudder a waan wi ina fi im sang:

We are outing fires in faraway places

When our neighbours are just burning.

They say the Middle Passage is gone

So how come overcrowded boats still haunt our lives?

CHAINS DAT KEEP US APART’

Azkaadn tu Muta, di ansa tu David Rudder kweschyan a wan lang, lang tuori: “Haiti suffers because it made a start.” Muta dig op ischri fi fain di ruut a di prablem:

Yu payin for di afrikaness yu still keep

Yu payin, payin; Boukman is not asleep

Nof a wi ina Jamieka no nuo bout Boukman. Im did baan rait ya so. An im a wan a fi wi big-taim iiro. Intanashinal iiro! Im kuda riid an rait. A it mek dem kaal im Boukman. An it luk laik se di buk im dida riid a di Qu’ran. Im a Muslim. An im dida chrai tiich uu waahn nuo ou fi riid. Di uona fi di plantieshan neva laik dat. Boukman a mek chrobl. So di uona man disaid fi sel Boukman tu wan Frenchman we tek im go a Haiti.

An a de so Boukman mek chrobl! Wen im si wa a gwaahn, im kudn tek i. Im tek chaaj. An im ton vuuduu priis. Pan Aagos 14, 1791, im kip wan big miitn a Bois Caiman, we di African dem plan out ou dem a go frii demself fram slievri. Dem jraa blod an jringk i an tek uot fi fait it out. An a de so revaluushan staat ina Haiti. Di neks wiik, Boukman piipl dem bun dong 1,800 plantieshan an dem kil aaf 1,000 a di uona dem.

Muta se:

Yu gave us Haiti di strength to fight

Black people in di Caribbean I say unite

Break di chains dat keep us apart

Haiti suffers because it made a start

Mi lov di pikcha Muta jraa wen im taak bout di chien dem. A mental slievri dat. Di chien dem ina wi main a tai wi op, mek wi fiil se wi beta dan dem ada wan. Mi glad fi si Haiti Prezident Michel Martelly kom luk fi wi. Im did kom fi taak bout ou Haiti an Jamieka kyan wok tugeda. Eniwe Boukman de, it swiit im fi chruu.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Email feedback to 

 

Who is Michel Martelly and why is the Haitian grassroots movement protesting against him?

Today [anniversary of the Battle of Vertieres , 1803 in the war for independence] marks the second of a series of  planned street protests against the government of Michel Martelly.  The protest are organized by Fòs Patriotik ou Respè Konstitsyon [FOPARK] a coalition of pro Lavalas supporters, students, lawyers and  human rights activists.

The first march was November 7th march and ended in Petion-Ville, a bourgeois enclave in the capital Port-au-Prince.  Internataional media reported the protest ‘turned violent’ but they failed to explain the violence was initiated by pro-Martelly, macoute thugs who attacked protestors with the sole purpose of causing violence. Protesters reported at least three people were shot and taken to hospital.   On Friday 15th November at around  1pm, Inorel Delbrun, the attache and cameraman to outspoken critic and president of the senate, Dieuseul Simon Desras,   was assassinated whilst getting out of his car.

Assassinations, death by poisoning, arrests and threats to  human rights lawyers, harassment of activists are common place  actions as a desperate Michel Martelly unleashes his macoute thugs on the popular masses and human rights activists.  To consolidate his brutal repression of Haitians, Martelly is attempting to bring back the army  which was dismantled by President Aristide.   The capital is awash with private security guards many run by former military men and macoutes.   Many  carry  unregistered weapons, and in an industry without any regulation.   Full combat police roam the streets in armoured trucks along with the UN occupying force.  Pro Lavalas supporters are regularly and repeatedly threatened with violence .   Only yesterday three people were murdered in Bel Air.

On Sunday the 17th November,  the government of Martelly distributed food to people in Camp Acra and in Cap Haitian, an act typical  which is reminiscent of the Duvalier regimes when people became restive, throw them some coins or food.

And yet American liberal politicians, journalists and celebrities such as  Sean Penn, continue to give vocal support to the Martelly government.   Predators under the guise of ‘humanitarians’, filmmakers, photographers, missionaries  continue to feed off the misery of the poor.

Today’s  protests are planned in cities across Haiti.

Below Charlie Hinton of the Haiti Action Committee provides a detailed background and analysis as to why people are dissatisfied with Michel Martelly’s government.  Corruption, return to Duvalierism, rewriting and undermining Haiti’s Constitution,  nepotism, corrupting the judiciary, reactionary economic policies.

Haiti Action Committee calls for solidarity with the Haitian people and to start by seeking out the truth of the Martelly government.

 

1. Who is Michel Martelly? Martelly grew up during the 27-year dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc.” He joined the Duvalierist death squad, the Tonton Macoutes, at the age of 15 and later attended Haiti’s military academy. Under Baby Doc, Martelly, a popular musician, ran the Garage, a nightclub patronized by army officers and members of Haiti’s tiny ruling class.

As another way to signal their opposition to Martelly, the Haitian masses march with red cards, which, when given to a player by a football (soccer) referee, mean he’s out for that match and the next. The people are telling Martelly to get out. [Haiti Action Committee]
As another way to signal their opposition to Martelly, the Haitian masses march with red cards, which, when given to a player by a football (soccer) referee, mean he’s out for that match and the next. The people are telling Martelly to get out. [Haiti Action Committee]

After Baby Doc’s fall in February 1986, a mass democratic movement, long repressed by the Duvaliers, burst forth and became known as Lavalas (“flood”), from which emerged Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular liberation theology Catholic priest, who was elected president in 1990 with 67 percent of the vote in the first free and fair election in Haiti’s history.

Martelly quickly became a bitter opponent of Lavalas, attacking the popular movement in his songs played widely on Haitian radio.

Martelly “was closely identified with sympathizers of the 1991 military coup that ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” the Miami Herald observed in 1996, and ran with members of the vicious FRAPH death squad from that period, infamous for gang rapes and killing with impunity.

On the day of Aristide’s return to Haiti in 2011, after eight years of forced exile in South Africa and two days before the “run-off” election, Martelly was caught in a video on YouTube insulting Aristide and Lavalas: “The Lavalas are so ugly. They smell like s**t. F**k you, Lavalas. F**k you, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.”

Down with Martelly graffiti in Port-au-Prince [Haiti Action]
Down with Martelly graffiti in Port-au-Prince [Haiti Action]
2. The fraudulent presidential election of 2010-2011: In the presidential election cycle of 2010-2011, the Electoral Council ruled that Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Party could not participate, which de-legitimized the whole corrupt process. Voter turnout was less than 25 percent in the primaries and less than 20 percent in the “run-off.”

The top two candidates announced after the primaries were the wife of a former pro-Duvalier president and the son-in-law of Rene Preval, the president at the time. Martelly was declared third, but his supporters demonstrated violently, and an OAS “investigation” of the elections ruled that, in fact, Martelly had finished second.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince in January 2011, at the height of the Egyptian revolution, to reinforce this decision. Martelly received $6 million from an anonymous donor in Florida to hire a PR firm that had worked on the campaigns of Felipe Calderón in Mexico and John McCain in the U.S.

3. Corruption: Corruption scandals have followed Martelly since he refused to divulge who funded his campaign for president.

  • Bribes – Award-winning Dominican Republic journalist Nuria Piera broke the story in April 2012 (later reported in Time) that Martelly was alleged to have accepted $2.6 million in bribes during and after the 2010 election to ensure that a Dominican construction company would receive contracts under his presidency. In addition, the vote to make Laurent Lamothe the prime minister is known in Haiti as the “tout moun jwenn vote” (“everyone got their cut” vote).
  • Surcharge on international calls and money transfers for “education” – Questionable new taxes have also fed controversy. A $1.50 tax on money transfers and a 5 cent per minute tax on phone calls to Haiti are alleged by Martelly to support education, but the poor majority continue to face unaffordable school fees, and critics say no money from this tax has gone to schools. Moreover, Haitian teachers have been marching to demand back pay. Martelly’s new taxes were not ratified by or presented to Haiti’s Parliament, making them illegal.
  • Travel expenses – When traveling, which he does often, Martelly’s entourage receives an outrageous per diem from the Haitian government. According to Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, Martelly gets $20,000 a day, his wife $10,000 a day, his children $7,500, and others in his inner circle get $4,000 daily.
  • A plan to establish an illegal parallel customs system to circumvent legislative control – This allegedly involved the selling of a membership card and gun to anyone who wanted to be part of the Martelly gang. The membership privileges included tax-exempt status at customs. The program had to be scratched when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration complained about members facilitating drug transport on the strength of their membership.
Photo by Sokari Ekine
Photo by Sokari Ekine

4. Rewriting and undermining Haiti’s Constitution: The overthrow of Baby Doc in 1986 led to the creation of a new democratic Constitution in 1987, ratified in a referendum by an overwhelming majority of Haitians. It recognized Haitian Kreyol as an official language, along with French, and legalized Vodun, the spiritual practice of the majority of Haitians. It provided for grassroots participation in national decision-making, decentralized the nation’s finances and political structure, and provided for protection of human rights.

On June 12, 2012, Martelly announced new amendments, which concentrate executive power and herald the return of Duvalier-style dictatorship. The new illegally amended Constitution, written by non-legislators and never seen nor voted on by the Parliament prior to its publication, creates a top down method of choosing a Permanent Electoral Council to run elections, undermining grassroots participation and centralizing control from above.

It allows the president to appoint the prime minister after merely “consulting” the heads of the two chambers of Parliament instead of requiring Parliamentary ratification. In cases of “presidential vacancy,” the new amendments make the prime minister the provisional president, so presidents can resign, appoint the prime minister to succeed them, and thereby maintain perpetual control.

New amendments provide that a “general budget” and a “general expenditures report” can replace line item annual budgets, thus limiting parliamentary oversight of the budget.

New amendments return Duvalier era and other retrograde laws, including:

  • A 1935 law on “superstitious beliefs,” which would ban Vodun once again.
  • A 1977 law establishing the Court of State Security to increase state surveillance and repression.
  • A 1969 law that condemns all “imported doctrines,” thereby attacking freedom of thought and freedom of association. Violation of this new law can result in the DEATH PENALTY. The 1987 Haitian Constitution had eliminated the death penalty.

5. Restoring the army: In one of the most popular moves of his administration, President Aristide disbanded the hated Haitian army in 1995. Since the coup that overthrew Aristide for the second time in 2004, U.N. troops and police, currently numbering 8,754 uniformed personnel, have occupied Haiti. One of Martelly’s campaign promises was to restore the Haitian Army, and now new Haitian troops are being trained by Ecuador and Brazil. In addition, well-armed former military and paramilitary personnel have occupied militia camps since early 2012, supported by Martelly.

 

Photo by Sokari Ekine
Photo by Sokari Ekine

Sen. John Joel Joseph has identified senators that he claims are marked for assassination. He identified the people who have been paying the “hit squads” on behalf of Martelly. He denounced one of the men as an escaped criminal who had been caught red handed with a “near death” victim behind his vehicle. Said victim sent the police to a house where two more victims could be found.

Sen. Joseph identified the leader of the death squad and his vehicle, denouncing the group as the one which recently assassinated a grassroots militant. He accused the president and his wife of pressuring the chief of police to remove the senators’ security detail, in order to facilitate their assassinations. He denounced a previous instance when Martelly tried to pressure former police chief Mario Andresol to integrate a hit-man into the police to assassinate Sen. Moise Jean Charles.

7. Death of a judge: Martelly set up his wife and son as head of governmental projects, but with no parliamentary oversight. A Haitian citizen, Enold Florestal, filed suit with attorney Andre Michel before Judge Jean Serge Joseph, maintaining that the Martellys were siphoning off large amounts of state monies, which the Haitian Senate has no jurisdiction over.

Judge Joseph moved the case to the next judicial level, which required depositions from the Martellys and various governmental ministers. Enraged, Martelly and Prime Minister Lamothe called two meetings with the judge – which they deny took place – to demand he kill the case, the second on July 11. The judge drank a beverage offered him at that meeting.

On July 12 Judge Joseph became violently ill and died on July 13. Haitian police arrested Florestal on Aug. 16 after viciously beating him, and Haitian authorities have issued a warrant for the arrest of attorney Michel, who has gone into hiding. A commission of the Haitian Parliament is now calling for the impeachment of Martelly based on illegal meetings with the judge, interference in legal matters and threats to those involved in the case.

8. Corrupting the judiciary and Parliament: The Martelly regime is working to establish executive control over the judicial system through the use of “controlled” prosecutors and judges. In violation of the Constitution, he appointed as Supreme Court chief justice, Anel Alexis Joseph, who is 72. Haitian law says a judge must be 65 or under to be named to this position.

The chief justice also leads the commission that regulates the entire judicial system, so Judge Anel Alexis Joseph is using his power to block an investigation into the death of Judge Jean Serge Joseph and to protect Martelly and his henchmen from all legal challenges, thereby granting impunity.

Martelly has also corrupted the legislative branch that could bring charges against members of the executive. He ordered the arrest of Deputy Arnel Belizaire in spite of parliamentary immunity and his legal counsel’s advice.

He has so far failed to call elections for 10 senate seats in January and is trying to force the 10 senators whose terms he says are up – they say in 2015, not 2014 – to leave office. Since elections have still not been held for 10 additional seats, if these new 10 seats are vacated, it would leave the 30 member Senate without a quorum, allowing Martelly to dissolve the Parliament and rule by decree.

9. Reactionary economic policy: Martelly enforces the Clinton-Bush plan for economic “development” of Haiti through sweatshops, tourism, and the selling of oil and mining rights to transnational corporations. Under this plan, money donated for earthquake relief has been used to build a duty free export manufacturing zone in the north of Haiti, which was not affected by the earthquake, and several luxury hotels in Port-au-Prince. The Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund made a $2 million equity investment in a hotel called the Royal Oasis to give foreign tourists and investors an “oasis” to escape the miserable conditions under which the majority of Haitians live.

At the same time, the Martelly regime viciously represses the economic activities of the poor super majority. The phone and money transfer taxes cut into their incomes. Taxes have been arbitrarily increased on imports, affecting small merchants. Thugs wearing masks have burnt markets in different cities, causing merchants to lose capital they had been accumulating for years, forcing them to raise new capital through usury loans. Street vendors are harassed and removed forcefully, then, after hours, their stands are looted.

10. Duvalierism returns to Haiti: Martelly warmly welcomed the January 2011 return to Haiti of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century, after his decades of luxurious exile in France. Duvalier still has many supporters in Haiti, some of whom are armed and have a history of killing political opponents.

Martelly’s government is filled with Duvalierists: Hardline former Haitian army officer David Bazile is now interior minister. Magalie Racine, daughter of notorious former Tonton Macoute militia chief Madame Max Adolphe, is Martelly’s youth and sports minister. Public Works Secretary of State Philippe Cinéas is the son of longtime Duvalierist figure Alix Cinéas, who was a member of the original neo-Duvalierist National Council of Government (CNG), which succeeded Duvalier after his fall in 1986. In addition, Duvalier’s son, Francois Nicolas Jean Claude Duvalier, is a close advisor to Martelly.

Conclusion: A major objective of the Duvalier dynasty was to institutionalize dictatorship through death squad brutality, supported by the United States and other powers. Martelly is an example of their policies having come to fruition. He’s restoring a government of impunity per the Duvalier era, building an administration of right wing ideologues who believe in dictatorship and who collaborate to sidestep all legislative and judicial controls.

His goal is to implement extreme neo-liberal economic policies on behalf of Haiti’s less than 1 percent with control over all natural resources. The people will be at their mercy for factory work and other “subservient” positions, under the boot of a U.N. occupation force of 8,754 army and police personnel, the beginnings of a restored army, paramilitary training camps, death squads, gangs and mafias that use the cover of the corrupted executive and judicial systems to operate.

The Haitian majority does not accept this return to the bad old days, however, and has been actively and massively protesting this repression for the past year. They deserve the support and solidarity of freedom loving people everywhere.

 

For more information on the Haitian Grassroots Movement see:  Haiti Action Committee  action.haiti AT mail.com.

Charlie Hinton may be reached at ch_lifewish  AT yahoo.com.

 

 

Haiti: Liberation Ecology: Poo to compost to nutrition and sustainable living

World Toilet Day! [19th November] reports that 40% of the world’s population do not have access to toilets which is about 1 in 3 people.  Sanitation and waste disposal is a human right but like most rights, exist only on paper and in echo chambers of  election promises, UN organisations and NGOs. The consequences are sickness, death, and for women the increased risk of sexual violence and the loss of dignity in having to piss on the streets, behind parked vehicles or some small little corner of space.   The alternative is to have to hold your bladder for hours on end till either night or when somewhere private can be found which results in excruciating pain and repeated infections.  Repeatedly we hear of ‘development’ measured in the number of mobile phones in the global south particularly in Africa where we are told the growth is astronomical and bringing positive changes to  the lives of everyone.  Why not begin to measure developing and rising countries in the numbers of people who have everyday easy access to toilets and water?

The Africas are rising  and here in Haiti, which is now also open for business, the largely unregulated construction industry is booming at huge environmental costs, along with new garment factories opening every few months.  You may now have a job, albeit a low paid one, but still there is no private, safe, sanitary  place to shit.  Still there are no houses being built and there are no government plans to improve sanitation.  As I wrote in “BAYAKOU, Why I Am Talking Shit on World Water Day

 We know that in certain situations shit can kill and the poorer you are the more likely you could die of a shit related illness CHOLERA is a prime example, so shit is a poverty issue and a class issue.  We know there are issues of privacy, access to ‘toilets’ especially at night and sexual violence in unlit densely populated urban areas, so shit is also a gender issue…….

The crisis in toilets is exacerbated by the accompanying crisis in access to water both for sanitation and for consumption.   To meet both these challenges in Haiti, SOIL [Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods] was formed in 2006 by Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell.  A small venture which began with installing compost toilets, one toilet at a time for compounds and households in Cap Haitian in the north of the country.

SOIL Poop Truck
SOIL Poop Truck

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, SOIL was approached by Oxfam to build 200 toilets across the internally displaced people’s camps in Port-au-Prince.  I recently met with Sasha to discuss SOILs progress over the past three years and the move from building compost toilets to using human waste as a fertilizer and then  to full scale production  of compost for both their own small scale garden use and commercial sale.

“SOIL first began  producing compost towards the end of 2010 and since then 100,000 gallons of compost has been generated from the emergency response. The primary buyers are local nurseries, NGOs working on agricultural projects which is somewhat a false market and not necessarily a sustainable market, but a market nonetheless. Also resellers  and backyard gardeners – people who buy a few bags for their own use.

The next step after compost toilets was then to focus on  on refining our composting process, testing and trying to make the process as operationally efficient as possible.  The third year has been focusing on getting the compost back into agriculture and testing it on various crops for efficiency and then marketing and generating revenue as well as reducing cost of the whole process.

Sasha’s logic about using human waste as a fertilizer was that if she was eating nutrient rich food then surely she would produce nutrient rich poop and all that was necessary was to find a way to kill off the unwanted pathogens and  reuse the nutrients.  Although this made sense,  I was still skeptical as most human poo is produced by carnivores  which seems unsuitable,  so is there a history of recycling human waste?

Interesting there is an ancient history of using recycling human waste for agriculture and because its based on biological process on decomposition its always happened.  Before we had sanitation our waste was always naturally recycled.  In China they had this organized for over 5000 years where people would collect human waste for farming.  However they were not using a compost process and where putting it on raw which has risks due to human pathogens which can make you sick.  And now the US some 50% of human waste is recycled back onto farms and in Europe the percentage is even higher.

Like the Bayakou who are responsible for cleaning the septic tanks in Haiti, shit, poo, poop is not something we  talk about in daily conversation.  I was surprised to learn from Sasha that  human waste in the US and UK is used for farming and often used as untreated sludge and as she points out, there is considerable controversy around this process.  However this is different to composting human waste which is growing as a commercial process through heating and removing dangerous pathogens.  As far as SOIL is concerned the process of producing the compost is itself low tech and very safe.

SOIL is the largest scale operation of composting human waste outside of the US and Europe.  The interesting thing with meat and human waste is that even though people say your poop smells more if you eat meat which is probably true but if you eat meat you are probably eating more protein unless you are careful with your beans and nuts intake.  So naturally you are then excreting more nutrients so there isn’t any risk as long as the waste is heated to at least 122F for at least a week which kills all the pathogens.  Actually the poop heats itself when its mixed with sugar cane waste so all the moisture, carbon, nitrogen mix and reproduce. and naturally heats itself up.   The process takes two months for the pathogens are removed then a further 6 months till decomposition.

The next stage in SOIL’s development of human waste as as fertilizer was to carry out various tests and experiments on different crops which is still ongoing so a large part of their work could be seen as research.   SOIL also have their own gardens where they grow vegetables and some fruits.  The process of composting toilet waste is a long one and can take up to 12 months but once ready it is a fine rich black texture and proven to be effective as the photos below show.

Rich compost ready for use as fertilizer
Rich compost ready for use as fertilizer

3/4 gallon compost

3/4 gallon compost
1/4 gallon compost
1/4 gallon compost

SOIL has  now shifted its focus from building toilets which they see as the role of the government and or private entrepreneurs, to that of promoting and demonstrating the functionality and sanitary benefits of installing compost toilets. I mentioned to Sasha the experience of SOPUDEP school with their compost toilets installed by Give Love.   Due to lack of support and maintenance, last month the school decided to remove the toilets and return to traditional latrines.   The problem was with 700 children it was impossible to maintain the toilets daily and they could not afford to pay someone to do this.   Also the waste compost was stored only yards from the toilets and the kindergarten classrooms – a classic case of NGOs installing technology and then failing to follow up with support.   We both agreed that follow up and in this case collection of poo on a regular basis is essential.

SOIL is presently at a turning point in their organization as the plan is to move away from implementation towards research and in doing so recognizing that we as people are responsible for the earth and its ability to reproduce or not.

The idea is that over the next three to five years is to move from being an implementation organization to a research and consultancy organization where we will work on training people in Haiti who are interested in business opportunities in sanitation and composting.    The idea of moving from toilets to composting developed around the question how could we create a great sanitation system in Haiti that not only addresses sanitation but also begins to get all that human waste that’s polluting rivers, streams and the sea and get it back onto the soil so that it can be used to rebuild the soil that is being lost.  So how can we not only address sanitation but also livelihoods, malnutrition and so many of the problems that are really tied into the fact that we are not closing the loop we are eating all this food,  we’re stripping nutrients  from the lands, we excrete them and they go into the water instead of recycling and using them.

In addition to selling their compost to NGOs and local gardeners SOIL recently sold $30,000 of compost to Heineken [ last year they bought the Haitian beer, Prestige] who will be using it for the production of Malta as well as for research testing it on Sorghum.  Whilst SOIL has focused on urban needs and big business I was interested to know if they had been able to work with farmers in rural areas.

Compost is very tricky for small farmers living on the edge economically as its expensive to produce so in order for them to benefit it has to be subsidized from one end to the other.  Either you subsidize the production and sell it at a cheaper price or just cut your price and loose on the money.  So its a difficult situation. We have to decided that we have this quality product which we can sell to a high end market and that then makes our sanitation services cheaper so we can reach more people with sanitation.  or do we sell it at lower price which makes our sanitation more costly.

Its a tricky one. There are two ways to support small farmers. First is to train them in how to produce the compost which is the most effective and the other way is through the Heineken model where they buy it at the price and sell it or distribute to the small farmers. So either the government or big business supporting the small farmers.

Finally I asked Sasha what she felt was the relationship between SOIL’s work in sanitation, recycling,  creating compost and agriculture to the issue of preventative health in Haiti.

I’m glad you said preventative because it really is important because sanitation addresses diarrhea  diseases which are the leading cause of death of children under five and then agriculture addresses good nutrition. even in the case of mental health just the tremendous amount of stress families feel due to the medical issues they are dealing with  has to be enormous. So preventive health around physical issues also impacts on mental health.

SOIL’s success is lies in the fact they started small with one specific tasks, installing compost toilets in Cap Haitian.   They then grew according to local needs and in dialogue with the communities where they worked.  Over the years they have included the training of Haitian staff at all levels and developed an excellent understanding of the environment including WASH and the socioeconomic landscape in which they work.

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

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.

Haiti: Photo journalism or poverty porn

To be poor in Haiti: is that to be nothing and hungry, sick or dead in a photo album on a desk in New York, sold  for $10 a piece?

To be poor in Haiti: is that to be nothing  and desperate and needy, to be pitied or saved.   Take my bible and I will feed you the bread?

To be poor in Haiti: is to be reformatted as ‘troubled’ and to feed the pockets of foreign NGOs and journalists.?

To be poor in Haiti: is that to be nothing and no one of value and dignity and meaning and sacred potential? Accountable for in the story of this country?**

Brad S Workman - Turning World
Brad S Workman – Turning World

 

I was alerted to the website Turning World - @Turning_world – by some friends here in Haiti. The site is run by photo journalist, Brad Workman who has an ongoing photo documentary in Haiti.  I took issue with his language, the project, the fact that there is no acknowledgement let alone giving back to those whose lives he invades under the guise of social documentary.   The books and prints are for sale on the website.  and  previews here.   There  are different ways to tell a story without invading peoples lives and assaulting their dignity – see here and here the photos chosen by the Camp Acra residents on their blog which should be a lesson on what Haitians see for themselves.   Teju Cole’s 7 point tweet analysis of the   “White-Savior Industrial Complex”  is a must read for any white saviors or potential white saviors embarking on a savior mission..

4 – This world exists simply to satisfy the needs – including, importantly, the sentimental needs of white people and Oprah

7- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an ey on it, for you know it is deadly.

The story be dammed – people are more important.  Enough already!

My email only begins to touch on the whole issue of the  ethics of disaster photo journalism and the white saviour mindset.  Two well known examples of disaster voyeurism are the  one of a  young Haitian girl, Fabienne Cherisma, who was photographed dead having been shot by a policeman after the January, 2010 earthquake.  The accompanying text states that looters then ‘went through her pocket to steal what they could” meanwhile  all 14 photographers stood by her body adjusting their lens for further shots- a kind of double shooting, one causing death and one prolonging death as imagery forever.   Two of the photographers won an award for the series.

A second even more disturbing photo is one of a Sudanese baby dying of hunger whilst a vulture  waited in anticipation of  her death.  The photographer, Kevin Carter, who also won an award, waited 20 minutes before chasing it away.  Journalists in Sudan had been told not to touch famine victims so instead of,  at the very least holding and caressing the child to at least give human comfort or try to get her to the nearest field hospital and treatment she was left alone.

There are  also many questions around  the unequal power relations between photographer and their subjects, objects. Photos rarely come with context beyond what was in the photographers lens at that moment and their decision to click.  We the observer are left with the photograph and our imagination to interpret what we see and if this is to influence thousands of white saviours to invade Haiti then I see that as problematic.  A question that constantly returns is why is it that so many white Americans, the majority who have no contact with Black people in their own country,  feel the need to spend their life saving the people of a Black nation?

In the case of Workman, the idea of photo journalism as non-interventionist is serialised across the global south under a guise of non-partisanship,  shooting people in distress and  ‘enmeshed in political or social change’ and for his own material gain as well as satisfying   ‘emotional needs’ and white privilege.  It’s certainly not driven by notions of solidarity and struggle for justice but rather flowing from sentimentality and who knows what other emotions are carried behind the choice to avoid the words ‘slavery’ and describe structures of violence as ‘troubles’!

 

Mr Workman

I am writing in response to your description [Turningworld.org] of your photo journalist project in Haiti where I note  you have visited 20 times.   Specifically I wish to respond to the your presentation and thereby engagement with Haiti based on the language used in the description which I find highly disturbing.

Firstly without text and context photos do not tell the story that needs to be told. So even before your photos are presented, the text you write is a shadow of the reality behind the story – So how will the truth be told?

You use the words ‘human bondage’ and Haiti’s resistance to this.  Why not simply be clear and upfront by using the word slavery and writing that Haiti has a history of revolution beginning with the only slave revolution which led to the first black independent nation?  Instead you imply that this ‘human bondage’ is not only continuing but you erase the very resistance you attempt to speak of.    Presumably after 20 visits you have an in-depth knowledge of Haiti’s history, culture and politics?   Incidentally are you aware that after Haiti’s independence many enslaved people who escaped managed to travel to Haiti to live as free men and women?  Are you aware that Haitians including the revolutionaries fought on the side of the Americans against the British. Are you aware that Haiti’s debt is a direct result of being forced to pay reparations to France for ending slavery and then being punished for demanding the return of these monies which have contributed to the impoverishment of the Haitian economy?

You write that ‘Haiti is a deeply troubled country’ and go on to speak of poverty as if poverty happens outside of the socioeconomic and political regional and global landscape. How is Haiti troubled in ways that other countries are, by implication not troubled?  This kind of Eurocentric exceptionlaism is counter productive as first of all it ignores the underlying systemic structures of capitalism which perpetuate poverty from Guatemala to India to Nigeria to Haiti to South Africa.   Secondly it singles out Haiti as being somehow different to other sites of poverty in for example the above countries which are at the very least as poor!  One just has to know and understand the racism  that underpins the US’s  relationship with Haiti, something I note completely ignore by those who come to ‘publicize and save’ Haiti from all manner of ‘misery’ to question a simplistic statement on poverty in Haiti.

You talk of hunger, child labor, street children, environmental degradation, limited health care, cholera as  ‘troubles’ ..  These are not TROUBLES, they are acts of violence and the direct effects of colonialism, elitism, occupation, capitalism and rampant disaster capitalism and what Paul Farmer calls structural violence for which western nations, the US, France etc are the driving force.    Attempting to de politicize Haiti in view of presenting a non-partisan perspective just doesn’t work because it erases the  proud history of this country, it erases the destructiveness of US and French imperialism, it erases the truth behind the poverty, the street kids and the non existence healthcare and the fact this present government is systematically disposing of the popular masses to the extremities of the city and the country.

You speak of MINUSTAH but only in half truths i.e. you fail to explain why they are in Haiti or the violence they have committed  in poor neighborhoods plus their responsibility of cholera.  You fail to mention the militarization in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake which added to the trauma of people’s lives.

I have viewed the first stage photos and I am deeply concerned at showing photos of wounded, hungry, sick vulnerable people.  This is a objectifying and insulting and pure pornography of poverty.    So the world will see these photos and the false narrative that Haiti is a poor diseased violent country is perpetuated.  Yes this I know to be the narrative.  It is one told to me regularly whenever I visit the US and mention Haiti, the one the media loves to describe as ‘the poorest country in the western hemisphere’  as if that is the sum of 10 million people and 300 years of history! .How on earth does this help Haiti?  And why do you feel you need to publicize the struggle rather than support or come in solidarity.   Whats the response OMG,  how awful these poor people are suffering, lets make way for more of the  faith based missionary and the NGO industrial complexes to save Haiti.

How about giving Haitians cameras and letting them take their own photos; how about providing equipment for Haitian photographers to train youth and kids so they can document their own lives as they see fit instead of a self-centered careerism on the backs of the poor people!

You mention ‘promotional’ photos on your web page without giving some proper explanation on the monetary value of these and what you intend to do with monied raised from this and the rest of your work.  I see no where  you explain how you will give back to the communities and people who will be come subjects [objects] of your work?

His reply which I  will leave for readers to interpret…

Dear Sokari Ekine:

Thank you for taking time to write such a thoughtful e-mail! I hope to
have additional contact with you as I work to complete (and possibly
expand) the “Embracing Haiti” project.

For now, I must go but will remain

Sincerely Yours,
Bradley S. Workman

 

 

** From from DMKW and from June Jordan

Haiti – Feminist Series 5, In conversation with Paulette Joseph

During his campaign for presidency of Haiti, Michel Martelly made education was of his priorities.  Once elected he quickly established the “Program for Universal Free and Obligatory Education (Programme de scolarisation universelle gratuite et obligatoire – PSUGO)” PSUGO was supposed to increase access to education for millions of primary school children through the allocation of funds for first and second grades. The amounts for public schools are tiny at $6 per student and $90 for private students who are by far the majority.  However an investigation into PSUGO by Haiti Grassroots Watch found the programme seriously lacking and questioned the figures claimed by the government.

Book supplies, food and other resources have not been forthcoming. Rea Dol of SOPUDEP school explained that even where funds have been received, it is only for the first two grades and only for a selected number of children rather than all of primary school as promised.   Compounding the problems with resources is the postponement of school until October, made just  a few days before September classes were due to start thereby putting even more pressure on teachers and students to complete the curriculum by the end of the year.

Many schools, both free and private are struggling with decrepit buildings and minimum resources.  The majority of parents are struggling to pay fees and in schools like SOPUDEP which provide free education they are over subscribed despite the lack of resources with class sizes as much as 60/70 children and some as high as 100.

Prior to the now extended summer holidays I spoke with educator and community activist, Paulette Joesph at the Excelsior School which she founded in 2003.   Since then, Haiti and Paulette have gone through numerous crises. The 2004 coup in which President Aristide was forcibly removed and flown to Central African Republic. The  violence unleashed against members of Lavalas in which hundreds were murdered and thousands went into exile or hid in the countryside.  Those like Paulette who remained in the capital did so with fear in their hearts.   Then in January 2010, the  earthquake struck, and soon after the cholera epidemic, floods and hurricanes. In spite of all of these challenges she has managed to remain strong, the school is still going and she continues to work with women in her community.

Paulette, like her friends, Rea Dol of SOPUDEP and Roselaine Derival Fabre of Mojub, an adult literacy and kindergarten school,  began as ca community activist working with women in their communities many of whom including Rea and Paulette were or are single mothers raising children on their own. 

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How and when did you become involved in community work.

PJ: I first started working with both men and women in my community when we organized as KADSK, a commune or  village solidarity to keep our community clean and campaign for clean water and electricity.  This was in 1991.  At that time  President Aristide and Preval were in government and they helped us a lot in our commune.  After the coup against President Aristide things were very difficult for all of us.

SE: Why did you move from a mixed community organization to working solely with women?

PJ: You know in Haiti many working class women don’t have money to send their children to school.  They don’t have jobs or business yet they have to take care of their children by themselves. 70% of Haitian women are raising their children on their own as so many men do not take responsibility for their children.  But there is a paradox because the men leave when the child comes and then the women look for another man in the hope that he will change their life and bring them out of misery.  But in most cases this does not happen.

I saw the way women were living miserable lives and said, we need to start an organization where women can defend themselves and create something for themselves.  This was in 1996 and we called ourselves Organization Fanm Vanyan [OFAV] meaning organization of strong women.   And you know women work hard and they  know how to work together but they need to have respect and dignity. One day a women in the organization told me her husband had punched her in the face.  Her eye was swollen and I said no this is not right so it was the organization’s work to explain and to educate women on their rights in the house and what to expect.   We were able to come  together as women and speak about many things but always we found that it was our children that were our  greatest greatest concern as many of them did not have fathers.  So it is from here that I had the idea to open a school for poor children and those being raised without fathers, that is for the women in our organization.

SE: Before we go on to talk about the school, can I ask you to tell us a little more about yourself?

PJ: Well we are talking about women living on their own,  I was married in 1980 but have been divorced since 1990.   I have two sons, my first son died when he was six months.   Now I live with my mother and my youngest son and my only focus is my work. I think this is important for my son because  I don’t want him to grow up with violence in the house, I don’t want him to have to live with someone who disrespects his mother.   So I  take care of my family by myself and spend time with my son.  Every time President Aristide asks me, how is your son, and in this way he gives us some advice and focus on him  because in Haiti it is hard to stay on your own.

I believe some women feel they need to have a man to take care of them but I do not feel like this, I am not afraid to stay on my own.  Our organization meets every last Sunday of the month and I always try to tell other women that they don’t have to depend on anyone but themselves, they can live by themselves.  No women has to accept violence. If you have 100 $Haitian [500gds or $11] you can make something for yourself.  You can survive.  But let me say this, one problem we have in Haiti which we have to be careful is HIV, I think this is very dangerous for women and  children because of the men who do not protect themselves.

SE: Speaking of health, what about cholera in your community and the school?

PJ: Cholera in Haiti is now the biggest problem.  We have had a lot of cholera amongst our children.   But we also have to talk about MINUSTAH [UN force in Haiti] who are responsible for cholera in Haiti.  It started in their camp by the Artibonite River which was contaminated by the shit. This is how cholera spread in Haiti.  Imagine please if the Haitian army went to the US to help them and the Haitian army then spread a sickness like cholera. What do you think the Haitian government is supposed to do if not to take responsibility.  So the UN must take responsibility  and compensate all the victims of cholera.  But you know we are a Black nation and they think they can forget us.  We were the first black country to get independence and we are still paying for that.  But you see also our government is silent, they say nothing about cholera or MINUSTAH.

SE: Can I ask you about the present government in Haiti?

PJ: [Laughs... If you have a good government. A government which represents the people then for example if you are a business and you come to my country you must pay tax.  If you come to my country and you want to employ people you must pay them a good wage like $8 /9 a day.  But here nobody pays tax,  nothing, The government gives them the freedom to do what they want.

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SE:  I would like to end by asking you specifically about the school.

PJ: I started the school in 2003 with 50 children most of them the children of the women in OFAV.  We have kindergarten aged 3-5 years and primary from 6-12 years.  Now I have 500 children altogether.  As you can see our building is very small and very crowded and we need so many repairs especially when it rains, it is terrible.    But this is Haiti and that is how things are [laughs] we struggle but we have hope.

We had to end our conversation rather abruptly as children were changing over classes and it was no longer possible to hear ourselves speak amidst the chatter and laughter of 500 3-12 year olds!

 

 

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

After the bees and the frogs we are not far behind

In an August 2013 report, Haiti Grassroots Watch wrote that Haiti’s mineral wealth could be worth as much as $US 20 billion and for this already land has already been given to US and Canadian businesses fronted by Haitian firms.   These awards have been taking place over the past five years and behind closed doors with no oversight.

The “gold rush” in Haiti has been going on for the past five years or so, since the price of gold and other minerals rose. Until last year, the government and the companies cut their deals behind closed doors. After an investigation revealed that 15 percent of the county was under contract, on February 20, 2013 the Haitian Senate adopted a resolution demanding all activities cease in order to allow for a national debate and for analysis of all contracts.

Writer Edwidge Danticat goes further by tracing the quest for Haiti’s gold back to Christopher Columbus who set in motion and ongoing disaster for Haiti  culminating in the present day unregulated quest for gold.   People have already been displaced, land will be destroyed which forebodes a warning for something more to come such as the disappearance of frogs along with the disappearance of people.

The land has been  destroyed, the rivers, and all of nature.   Greed has no respect for any of these – It  takes  and takes and takes till there is nothing left, then pockets full of dollars,  moves on to somewhere else and repeats.

From The Coffin Factory an interview with Edwidge Danticat ….

The Coffin Factory: You have this whole environmental aspect of Claire that I haven’t seen in the other books. There are what initially seem to be surreal, almost magical, elements, like the exploding frogs. But then you explain that this is part of climate change.

Edwidge Danticat: The Cuban writer Mayra Montero published a wonderful novel a few years ago called In the Palm of Darkness, which is about two men, one Haitian and one foreigner, who are looking for a very rare kind of frog in Haiti. Every once in a while some rare species of frogs are discovered in Haiti, which are either endangered or extinct elsewhere. Given how little tree cover there is now in Haiti, something like less than five percent, it is amazing that something like this is even possible. I did some research and it seems that frogs, like bees, are a bellwether species. Like the Jean de la Fontaine poem the radio personality quotes in the book, when all these types of animals start disappearing, we can’t be far behind. So the facts that the frogs are disappearing in Ville Rose is a sign that something big is going to happen, something even more environmentally drastic—and everyone knows it. In a way, you have this ongoing disaster in Haiti that started with Columbus’s quest for gold and continues through the renewed interest in Haiti’s gold mines today.

 

 

 

 

Haiti: Occassional Musings 21, A brief encounter with King Henry!

The Citadelle Henry
Citadelle Henry

A week ago, 17 of  traveled to Okap [Cap Haitian] for a few days vacation.  Apart from reunion with family, the center piece of our visit would be a trip to the Citadelle and Sans Souci, palaces built by Henri Christophe, [King Henry] one of the three revolutionary heroes of Haiti.   I’d seen photos and paintings of the palaces but as these can often be deceptive, I  didn’t have great expectations.   By 11am we were still not ready to leave and there were concerns that the climb would be too much under the midday sun.  Because no one could agree on what to do, the final decision on whether to go or not was placed with me.

My response was I had just traveled some 10,000 miles from Port Harcourt, Nigeria for the sole purpose of visiting the Citadel so not going was not an option – rain, sun, hail and unbelievably steep road!.  Not quite true but that’s how I felt at the time and used this as my argument for going.     The first part of the journey was by truck, up and up the steep winding cobbled road and still the palace was in the distance.  We arrived at the car park where we were harassed by tens of  souvenir hustlers and young men trying to get us to rent one of the small skinny horses all of whom we  ignored and began the long climb.  The initial half mile or so was so steep I honestly wasn’t sure I could make it and being surrounded by horse hustlers trying to get me to hire one didn’t help.  My legs moved in slow motion as if tied to chains and cannonballs.  One of our group tried to sit on one of the horses but promptly jumped off as the horse skipped precariously near the edge of the path.  Eventually the hustlers gave up and we were left in peace and sweat to make the climb in our own time.

Citadelle

The kids raced ahead whilst I and the rest of the old adults made the climb in just over 30 minutes.  As we got closer and closer we began to feel the grandeur of this magnificent palace, now a world heritage site, built on a foundation of rocks atop the highest point from which even the hills of Cap Haitian are over looked.

King Henry was born in Grenada in 1767.  According to a Haitian historian friend, at the age of 12, Christophe joined a ship’s crew and set sail for Saint-Domingue.   He worked as a waiter before joining the French army in Saint Domingue.   At the time the Americans were still fighting the British and had called upon the French for support.  In a  twist of irony,  Henry Christophe, soon to be Black revolutionary hero,  was one of 500 Haitian soldiers – the Corps de Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue,   who fought alongside  the Americans against the British at the Battle of Savannah in 1779.  I doubt many in the US today are aware of the role of Haitians in securing their own freedoms.   Another lesser known fact is that after Haiti’s independence  in 1804, many Black Americans began emigrating to  the island.

christophe

On his return, he left the French army and eventually joined with the revolutionary leaders, Janjak Desalin [Jean Jacques Dessalines] and Tousssaint L’Overture in the hills of Cap Haitian in the war to free Haiti from France and slavery which would lead to the country being the first Black independent nation in 1804

More on Henry Christophe at Kreyolicious

Haiti: The Last Camp Standing

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On Monday 19th August 4 residents of Camp Acra & Adoquin and their lawyer Patrice Florvilus were summoned to court following criminal charges laid by  Reynold George, the claimed owner of a section of the camp land,  devotee and lawyer of Jean-Claude Duvalier. The residents included Camp Acra coordinator and founding member of the housing action  group, Chanjem Leson,Jean-Louis Elie Joseph, Darlin Lexima who had previously been detained and beaten by the police following a protest in April this year and the family of Civil Meril who died whilst in police custody.   

Reynold Georges had previously visited the camp in April threatening to set it on fire if residents did not leave what he claimed to be his section of land.  In the period since his threats, members of Chanjem Leson  have been living in fear  sometimes having to go into hiding following visits from unknown plain clothes men and threatening phone calls.  So it was with great apprehension that the residents prepared to attend court on Monday 19th August.  Fortunately for everyone, and through the hard work of human rights lawyers, Reynold Georges was forced to withdraw his charges.

There have been a number of reports on specific persecution of human rights activists in the US mainstream media [here and here] and on Twitter by members of the foreign media and human rights community in Haiti.  However it is unfortunate that in these reports the voices of camp residents, who are far more vulnerable to the threats of from power elites, are erased from the story which becomes one about the human rights lawyer and western human rights activist.  Even the protestors, it is claimed, where there for the lawyer rather than stating they were there to save their camp!

This is not to fully recognise the importance of the legal profession in defending people’s rights or  to dismiss their excellent work.  However there is once again an erasure of the voices of the popular masses.    For example Darlin Lexima, Elie Joseph, Esther Pierre and other vocally visible camp activists do not only have to contend with living in fear and in hiding from  the likes of Reynold George and having their property and lives at risk from fire, they also have to contend with living in deplorable camp conditions for nearly 4 years, unemployment, sickness and sickness of relatives – in short living with the worst aspects of structural violence.    

There are two related issues in this matter.  One that of  Reynold Georges, is about evicting specifically 300 families from an area of Camp Acra & Adoquin with a view to evicting all 32,000 residents [6000 families] plus the fate of all remaining camps and this is where the focus needs to be.  As Chanjem Leson write on their website,  they have a plan for the housing of all camp Acra & Adoquin and a means for them to create their own income generation projects. The second issue is that of persecution of human rights lawyers and camp activists.

The erasure of the voices of popular masses is how the western media works – it selects a name and runs with that name at the expense of everyone else and western human rights activists on the ground are complicit in this formula.   In addition to ignoring the voices of those actually living the human rights abuses in the camps,  missing from the commentary is a critique of the role of the  US as the puppeteer pulling the strings behind the  Haitian government or of corporate interests which seek to exploit the labour of Haitians at the cheapest rate possible.   Although the UN occupation forces, MINUSTAH are mentioned failure to consider the US influence over the UN ends up with only half the story.  The failure to critique US foreign policy and call for an accountability from  the US government  is a frequent omission by western activists working in the global south who speak of rights as simply a local politic.   Ezili Danto is one of the most articulate voices speaking the truth of western involvement in Haiti as she explains in this piece on the US “rewriting the Haitian Constitution to better serve the one percent”..

As long as white supremacy paints Haiti as a failed state because of weak public services, when Haiti is prevented by US unfair trade and World Bank/IMF structural adjustments from investing in its own local economy and paints the Clintons, Paul Farmers, UN, World Bank SaveFrom.net, the NGOs and their three-piece suited Eurocentric-Haiti collaborators with the mark of international distinction and service to humanity, Haiti’s pains will continue to be their cash cow. (Conflict of Interest: World Bank to Rewrite Haiti Mining Law, while Invested in Mining in Haiti, through the IFC.  US mining companies – through the World Bank/IFC – are writing Haiti mining laws to mine Haiti’s 20billion in gold while the people are disenfranchised under the US occupation behind UN guns.)

Again as evidenced in the support of Trayvon Martin family, activists from Chanjem Leson recognise the injustice they face here in Haiti is closely connected to the injustice faced by black youth like Oscar Grant,  Marissa Alexander, Travyon Martin and Jordan Davis.   I would go further in saying that human rights violations in Haiti should also be seen in the context of US human rights violations in Guantanamo, targeted assassinations and drone killings of civilians in Yemen and the harassment of US journalists and their families by US immigration and their allies. It is therefore hardly surprising that the US government doesn’t just close it’s eyes to the gangsta politicians and elites in Haiti, it protects them in so far as it’s main interest is in acquiring Haiti’s natural resources and using cheap labour to drive US and other international corporate interests.

There is presently a call to support Haitian Frontline Defenders – namely the human rights lawyers, their workers and families…

Front Line Defenders fears for the safety and physical and psychological integrity of Patrice Florvilus, DOP staff members and their families in the light of the previous threats against them. Furthermore, Front Line Defenders is concerned at the precedent that the summons may set in undermining the independence of the legal profession

Not a mention of the front-line defenders at the Camp in Delmas 33!   Let their voices be front-line news, their faces circulated so everyone knows who they are.   IReynold Georges has announced on the radio that he will surely remove everyone from  Camp Acra & Adoquin.  It’s hard to imagine anyone including the Mayor of Delmas standing in his way and it’s hard to imagine that 2014 will not mark the end of camps at least the large two in Delmas which sit on prime real estate.

Below are my notes from Saturday’s conversation with Chanjem Leson members.

We are happy the criminal charges against made by Reynold Georges has  been withdrawn and we are thankful to our lawyers especially Patrice Florvilus. But right  now many camps have faced evictions  – in Place Boyer, Champ de Mars, Acra 2, St Pierre, Tabarre and so many others and this is still going on every month there is one camp less.  Where are the people going? Many come to the remaining camps, some to their families and some rent a house if they are lucky to get compensation.  What will happen after that we do not know. We do not want this to happen to us here at Delmas 33.

Reynold George has dropped the charges but we do not think this is the end of the matter as he wants what he is claiming as his land.  Possibly he will go to the courts and try to get an eviction order for the 300 families in the section of the camp he claims is his, then they will have maybe  three months to leave maybe less.   There is a [back] story to this land.  Before the earthquake the land was designated as public by Wilson Jeudy, the Mayor of Delmas. [Note, Jeudy is no friend of camp residents for whom he has shown nothing but disdain.  He has only visited the camp once plus he has been responsible for violent evictions in other camps in Delmas]   He went to court with people who claimed the land was their including Reynold Georges. There was a plan to build a commercial complex  for Delmas on this land.  If the eviction process is successful this will benefit the mayor who may then return to challenging George and others  claiming the land.   As you know the camp is huge and you can imagine what they can do with this land so possibly they will end up fighting each other once they have evicted us but I believe it will be very difficult for  Reynold George to acquire this land.  In the camp at Delmas 40b where there were maybe 9,000 families there are already evictions and I believe some people have received compensation so this eviction threat is a very real one.

As you know we have had a plan including an architect design to provide houses for all the families who wish to go with us. The land was given to us in 2011 but now we are having to fight for this again as the NGO is saying they know nothing about this.  But we have evidence.   Once we have the land we have to find money for the notary then  we have to find an organisation willing to build homes for us on credit.  It is a huge struggle for us.  We will start with 1,500 families or those who are willing to join us.  This is our  focus at this time because we want to leave the camp, we are tired of living in tents.  By January we have been here four years. This is too long and we are all very tired and many of us are getting sicker and there is no employment. The stress is too much.

 

Haiti: Occasional Musings, 20 – Further attacks on LGBT community in Port-au-Prince

446px-LGBT_flag_map_of_Haiti.svg

On May 17th  I attended a public gathering of LGBTI activists and friends in a downtown hotel in Port-au-Prince as part of a weekend of IDAHO events.   There were workshops, testimonies song and dance and a short play demonstrating street harassment and violence against LGBTI people but nothing on the scale of what has taken place in a short space of 6 weeks following a faith based anti-gay protest on 19th July.  2 murders, 47 people beaten with machetes, sticks and rocks and last weekend two further attacks. 

On Saturday in the areas of Morne Lazard in Petion-Ville a private house party was attacked by unknown people carrying machete, knives and stones.   They also carried Molotov cocktails which they threw into the house where a British and Haitian gay couple were celebrating their engagement. The police did try to intervene but either they didn’t try hard enough of the crowd was too large and no one was arrested.    On Sunday in the area of Delmas,  Marjory Lafontant who is the coordinator of lesbian organisation, FACSDIS,  was harassed and attacked with stones and bottles by a crowd…..

” They said they do not wish to have an LGBT activist living in their neighbourhood – this is very serious for the community”

Although President Martelly has condemned the violence, his words have clearly not reached local police as no one has been arrested for any of the above crimes.  The attack on Ms Lafontant in the vicinity her own home is  a further escalation in the violence against the community.    And because of the relative openness in the past LGBT people are extremely vulnerable at this time leaving everyone in a state of fear and anxiety over what will happen next!

 

 

A History of Haiti and the Legacy of Violence in Jamaica

From Left of Black: A History of Haiti and the Legacy of Violence in Jamaica with Laurent Dubois and Deborah Thomas

Host and Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal is joined in-studio by Laurent Dubois, the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University A co-director of the Haiti Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Dubois discusses his new book Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan Books). Dubois gives historical context to the longstanding relationship between the U.S. and Haiti. Also the author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, Dubois also talks about how he uses athletics as a gateway into political and cultural engagement.

Later, Neal is joined via Skype© by University of Pennsylvania professor of anthropology Deborah Thomas. The author of Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship and Transnational Jamaica and co-director and co-producer of the film Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens, Thomas discusses common misconceptions and stereotypes against Jamaican people. Thomas dives into the history of the Rastafarian Movement and their oppression. Lastly, Thomas talks about her film, and how her background as a dancer inspires her scholarship.

Haiti: Occassional Musings 19 – Bondye from the mountain top

Last Sunday I took a trip up to the highest point overlooking the city of Port-au-Prince and took a few photos – it wasn’t particularly inspiring

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until I saw this little girl in luminous green – I missed the full body shot

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whilst being harassed by street vendors all selling the same old same old except for these fellows on sewing machines.

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This is Haiti so it was no suprise to come across a bus of white saviours – they are everywhere, sent to Heal Haiti which assumes she is sick

 

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An overheard abusive comment directed at a young white woman goes something like this – ‘please marry me so I can have babies that look like you and I will never be hungry again’ – the damage though not altogether irreparable is severe enough to elicit rage in side of me and the heroes of the past become meaningless caricatures amongst the endless parade of white and black faith healers calling for the heads of queer folk, upholding biblical patriarchy and responding to poverty as some biblical pestilence due to sin and human failings.

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I learned that there is an organisation in the US called Feed my Starving Children supported by corporate sponsors including the Minnesota Vikings football team. They raise tens of millions to feed the poor in Haiti and 74 other countries -Their website has a photo of two young white well fed children full of cheer as they bag up cups of dried soya, this juxtaposed with photos of a Haitian toddler sitting on a dirt floor eating the reconstituted packed food and a smiling Guatemalan boy holding a pack of Manna [as in manna from heaven] Rice. FMSC hopes to put an end to starving children by the miracle of compassion

With God’s help Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) will strive to eliminate starvation in children throughout the world by helping to instill compassion in people to hear and respond to the cries of those in need.

Manna from Corporate Heaven and providing a great deal of people with the feel good factor that they helped feed God’s starving Haitian and Guatemalan children.

Feeding hungry children is laudable but if you have been doing this for the past 25 years and people in the same towns and villages remain hungry then clearly this is no solution to liberating people from the prison of hunger unless of course you believe the poor exist in order for you to feed them thereby ensuring your ascendency to heavenly glory! I lament over the fact that FMSC raises tens of millions every year to feed hungry kids in dependent perpetuity but a project like Growing Haiti to provide commercially viable and sustainable urban farming cannot even raise a few thousand – a project that would initially provide jobs for 150 women so they could feed their families fresh nutritious food rather than dried up rice and soya nuggets melted in boiling water. Maybe Oprah could help out now she missed out on the $38,000 bag in the ‘you cant put a price on racism’ drama!

I left the hilltop and stopped off at St Joseph’s Mission in Delmas rebuilt after the earthquake – my friend sits and contemplates the day and plans for tomorrow – I walk around taking more photos only to later discover my battery died which could be a metaphor for something .

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CatchAFyah – Caribbean Feminist Network Call to Action

CatchAFyah has a Call to Action directed at CARICOM across the Caribbean  including organisations in Haiti  [Kouraj, SeroVie] Jamaica, [CVC COIN, Jamaican’s For Justice, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica,]  and Pan Caribbean – [CARIFLAGS,  Caribbean DAWN] denouncing recent transphobic and homophobic acts of violence in the region.  In Haiti two gay men were murdered following a religious anti-gay demonstration and a further 47 gay men were beaten in the past two weeks.

CatchAFyah Caribbean Feminist Network is a collective of young, passionate Caribbean activists and organisations. We span the Caribbean, representing such nations as Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We are farmers, social workers, artists, social entrepreneurs, counsellors, researchers, teachers and students. We believe in everyone’s right to a good life and everyone’s right to be.

CatchAFyah calls on African feminists on the continent and in the African Diaspora to join their Caribbean sisters and brothers to take a position on homophobic and transphobic violence by blogging tweeting sharing whatever  – you can  Sign on to the Call to Action here

Queer in Haiti

From Kasama Project – Queer in Haiti, Living and Dying

I was born a masisi. I am an effeminate homosexual.

My sexual orientation was given to me at birth. I did not choose to be who I am. But I am not going to be ashamed of my sexual and gender orientation either.

Haiti has become a dangerous place to be homosexual. Recently there were protests against us. A mob of religious protestors armed with sticks, machetes and rocks beat two men to death in the downtown area of the city. This happened at the conclusion of the march against homosexuality organized by the so-called moral leaders. They say we are asking for rights that we don’t have the right to have. But we are human beings!

For myself, I am a student and being from a poor zone, I have always lived in fear. At the state university I experienced discrimination and was forced to leave because my professors said they could not teach a homosexual because it conflicted with their religious beliefs. Now I attend a small university where my professors are mostly diaspora and foreigners; they accept me for who I am and they do not authorize any discrimination.

In my neighborhood I experienced a lot of violence so we were forced to move to another neighborhood. I was beaten by some men when I was only 15 years old. They said I was an animal. They hit me with sticks and rocks. I thought that I would be killed by these men.

After this incident my mother said I must be more careful so I did not leave the house for five months. But one day I was obligated to leave to go to the pharmacy to get some medication for my sister. She had a fever. When I was on the street a man saw me and he started yelling at me, calling me a masisi. A large crowd gathered and they were pushing me, throwing trash at me, and hitting me and kicking me. I was so afraid.

I escaped and went home.

My mother took me to the police and said she wanted to make a complaint because her child was attacked. They said I was a pedophile and would be arrested. The police officer took me into the back of the police station and told me to give him oral sex. I cried and screamed. My mother yelled a lot and the police let me leave.  After that time we were forced to move to another neighborhood… Continue reading 

Haiti: KOURAJ: “Be True to Yourself”

The evangelical churches responsible for driving homophobia in Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and the USA have begun a campaign of violence and hate in Haiti. On Friday, an all faith coalition of homophobic haters called [The Haitian Coalition of Religious and Moral Organizations ] held an anti-gay protest in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Homosexuality is not criminalized in Haiti and although ostracized socially within Christian faith communities , LGBTI people are very much a part of the Voudou practicing community, who themselves are facing increased hostility from these same moral crusaders many who receive huge financial support from churches in the USA.

LGBT activists from Kouraj and Facsdis explained that whilst homophobia is rampant, it is not murderous and many activists are out to their families. Kouraj is working with lawyers from the Defenders if the Oppressed to draft anti-homophobia and anti-discrimination law and also to,push for an open dialogue on sexuality and fixed notions of gender.

With the rise of the religious haters what progress has been made is likely to be compromised and the possibility of murderous acts increased as two men were beaten to death during Fridays protest.

In response to ‘Anti-Gay” protests

Haiti in solidarity with the Black race

> If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.. Audre Lorde

From Chanjem Leson, Haiti in solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s family friends and black people everywhere (www.chanjemleson.wordpress.com)

We would like to inform you that Chanjem Leson, supports the family of Trayvon Martin and on behalf of the black race we demand justice.

These pictures were made in our workshop by the children and youth of Camp Acra