A Tribute to Haitian Patience

April 17, 2010

by Joegodson and Paul

Johnny

For systemic reasons, foreigners stifle the voices of the poor of Port-au-Prince. Sometimes it is out of ignorance; sometimes self-interest; usually a combination. Here, we will enter into a small neighbourhood called Simon in Port-au-Prince. Although it falls officially within the administrative borders of Delmas, it is generally understood to be a part of Cite Soleil with which it is contiguous. It is also adjacent to the Sonapi Industrial Park. Many of the women of Simon work there for long hours in the  sweatshops of the rapacious foreign apparel giants for under 4$US daily, if they aren’t cheated.

Johnny, the brother of co-author Joegodson, was raised in Simon and is a friend of Paul. In 2007, he created an organization whose founding document explained:

We, the founding members of ‘DAD,’ have come together in Port-au-Prince on October 10, 2007, in the interests of founding an active and unified organization. We hereby announce the founding of ‘DAD,’ Dialogue and action for development. We work towards:

  1. Supporting the most vulnerable people among us and improving the living conditions for everyone
  2. Helping to make the country secure
  3. Reducing the level of juvenile delinquency
  4. Rehabilitating the environment, introducing community cafeterias and a system of micro-credit for the well being of the population.
  5. Decentralization
    1. New primary, secondary, and professional schools to complement existing schools in both the urban and rural environments
    2. An orphanage for the most destitute children and a home for the elderly
    3. A health centre, dispensary, and hospital
    4. Sports, artistic, and cultural centres for the youth
    5. A system of water distribution and electric installations in the provinces
    6. An emergency transport system (ambulance) especially to serve pregnant women and those with medical emergencies
  6. Our goal is to create an active and unified organization working towards sustainable development.
  7. Our work is voluntary

(translated from French by Paul)

DAD represents directly approximately 150 people of Simon in Port-au-Prince and is supported in principle by many more. The founders of DAD came from different parts of rural Haiti. Johnny was born in 1982 in Saut d’Eau; others come from Jeremie and Artibonite, for instance. All remain sensitive to their peasant origins throughout rural Haiti and the need to coordinate urban development with the countryside.

The legacy of Lavalas is obvious in their founding document. We know that poor Haitians paid an enormous price in blood when the imperialist powers from the north reacted violently to the attempts of the governments of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to pursue the policies that DAD continues to advocate. While foreigners may find the program that DAD advocates (above) perfectly sane and laudable, we need to keep in mind that successive American and Canadian governments have rejected its realization by Haitians and for Haitians. By meeting to discuss a better future for their community and their country, these tragically poor residents of Simon are innocently laying the groundwork for war. In imagining sustainable development, education, schools, hospitals, and rural development, the residents of Simon are inadvertently defining themselves as terrorists threatening the interests of the United States and Canada.

The eleven committee members of DAD have met weekly since 2007 to consider how to realize their program for the development of Simon in the context of the broader, changing political scene. Periodically, meetings bring together hundreds of people to discuss the state of their community. They know and understand each other. Life in Simon is lived in intimate proximity.

Renette of OFEDES, Organisation des femmes dévouées pour le développement et l’éducation sexuelle

There are a number of similar organizations in the neighbourhood of Simon that address other community needs. Renette has established OFEDES (Organisation des femmes dévouées pour le développement et l’éducation sexuelle); Bodelais has organized FFAMIPL (Fondation famille pain de lumière); Kerby heads MAD (Mouvement d’action pour le développement). The level of active community organizing in the poor neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince is astounding. The people are in a continuous dialogue about their needs and the options for action available to them. These organizations are also practical. Everyone knows that, in the absence of a reliable, trustworthy Haitian state, the advancement of community and national interests depends upon foreign aid organizations. Also, if your organization succeeds in securing some funding, your own loved ones may suffer less.  And so local people register their organizations in order to be recognized by the Pan American Development Foundation. However, the PADF is a tool of the American government and will not sanction meaningful local and national self-governance in Haiti that threatens the material interests of the American Empire. Haiti has been down that bloody road before.

Bodelais of FFAMIPL, Fondation famille pain de lumière

All informed, thinking people must ask themselves a simple, vital question: if the American government was willing to undermine and violently overthrow the Lavalas governments of Haiti throughout the last twenty years, will it promote the interests of non-governmental organizations dedicated to the same goals of sustainable domestic development and self-governance? We are in a Catch 22 that is often overlooked even by well-meaning community organizers in Haiti, let alone the naïve residents of the North. Those poor Haitians live daily with the results of foreign interventions in their country: a weak and corrupt state, extreme poverty, and the absence of services, education, and basic infrastructure. Their reflex is often to blame the government. Johnny, the founding member of DAD, is – typically – dismissive of the Haitian state.

Simon falls officially within the borders of Delmas. However, it is generally considered to be part of Cite Soleil with which it is contiguous. Back in 2007, Johnny tried to register his organization with the Delmas civic administration, whose civil servants capriciously put obstacles in his way until it became clear that he would never succeed. Neither would anyone defend his right to register his non-profit organization. So Johnny went to Cite Soleil where the local administration helped him to register without difficulty. Once registered, the members of DAD realized that they would have to find foreign NGOs to help them to realize their goals. However, despite the group’s intrepid attempts to interest NGOs in its program, DAD never received any funding. Nevertheless, its members continued to meet weekly to discuss Haiti’s future. According to Johnny, it had accomplished exactly nothing up until the earthquake.

Kerby founded MAD, Mouvement d’action pour le développement

However, when confronted with popular contempt for the Haitian state, it is wise to ask the poor of Port-au-Prince if they have always felt this way. Of course not, says Johnny. When confronted with any problem, President Aristide’s first response was to talk with the people affected. Aristide was one of us, says Johnny. He knew that we were competent, what we wanted, and how we organized. We were building Haiti with him and he with us. How? Because Aristide had grown out of precisely the community organizing that the poor continue everywhere in Haiti. Now, no one knows where President Preval is and no one really cares. No one wants to deal with the Haitian state and its capricious, corrupt, and unaccountable civil servants. And so, by default, we try to find foreign NGOs.

For example, a pastor from Simon, also named Johnny, recently went to an NGO in search of aid for all of the people in his neighbourhood of Bois Neuf. The NGO gave him 2,000 cards to distribute. The cards are necessary in order to receive whatever the NGO in question is offering. It is not clear what you will get until you stand in line and exchange the card for aid. The local civic administration of Cite Soleil complained that all aid should go through them. Preval’s government responded by saying that civic administrations (autorités communales) should control the distribution of cards. However, the foreign NGOs retain control of the actual aid. In order to resolve the conflict between the pastor who had the 2,000 cards and the civic administration of Cite Soleil who claimed that he had usurped their responsibility, they went together to the NGO. The pastor turned over the 2,000 cards to the Cite Soleil administration that then decided to give him 100 cards in return for the use of all of the people in his neighbourhood of Bois Neuf. However, 100 cards were not nearly sufficient, and so the pastor refused to dignify the offer by accepting any. Soon, the civic administration was selling the same cards to local citizens for 50$H each, about 8$US. (Now, they are fetching more.) Pastor Johnny went back to the NGO and explained the situation. The NGO gave him 1,300 cards that the people of Bois Neuf shared.

Residents of Simon working on their first project: latrines to serve the local people still sleeping under the stars three months after the earthquake.

Today, three months after the earthquake, Johnny and his little daughter of ten months are sleeping, like everyone in Simon, under the stars. They have been scrambling for food and water since January 12. Johnny says that, for all their planning, they are reduced to reacting to each immediate life-threatening crisis. At first, foreign NGOs entered directly into the local neighbourhoods. However, when the earthquake victims were herded into huge camps, the NGOs focused their attention there, where it was easier for them to work. But the people of Simon wanted to remain together with their friends and neighbours. The residents of Simon continue to look to each other for emotional and psychological support. The four local neighbourhood groups (pictured above)  joined together to form COAViS, Coordination des organizations pour l’accompagnement des victims du séisme dans la Zone de Plaine du Cul-de-Sac. This new group works together to represent the needs of the people. How?

Co-author Joegodson made 5$US for a day's work constructing latrines. That represents 5 dollars more than either co-author has ever made for their articles.

Like others in the group, Johnny searches the streets of Port-au-Prince for white aid workers that he might entice to return with him to Simon to see the gravity of the situation his family, friends, and neighbours are facing. Fortunately, Johnny speaks enough English to communicate with the foreigners, who hail from what poor Haitians always call “the rich countries,” now dispensing the necessities of life. He managed to convince a young member of an Irish NGO to follow him to Simon to see the desperate needs of his people. She gave him a phone number and promised that her NGO would help. He called four times. Each time, someone told him that the message would be passed along. Never did anyone respond. Coincidentally, someone else from Simon, like Johnny, trolling the streets for help, happened upon another member of the same NGO. This time, Johnny was able to convince the NGO to fund the construction of latrines next to the camp where the local people were temporarily sleeping under the stars. Through the Cash for Work program, the local youth are now making $5 a day constructing fifty latrines, now that a foreign NGO has approved them and offered an engineer, who works with a (subordinate) Haitian homologue. Johnny and his friends from COAViS have a number of vital projects in mind – water, rudimentary tents, food – that have displaced the more ambitious program that DAD had developed but never realized.

Simon will have fifty toilets.

The poor of Port-au-Prince, having been deprived of the government that represented them and that understood them, are now struggling to speak in foreign languages to foreigners who are funded by the same “rich countries” that have been undermining economic and political development in Haiti for more than two centuries. The last twenty years has been particularly revealing. In their refusal of Lavalas and Aristide, the imperial powers have totally forfeited the moral right to organize the reconstruction of Haiti. Haitians understand the foreign NGOs as the latest wave of imperialists, this time with money rather than guns. And with guns, too. Much has been stolen out of Haiti by the countries that these aid workers represent: money, dignity, and democracy. They have now returned, sent by the same imperial powers that refuse to respect the Haitian right of self-determination. People like Johnny, with the patience of Job, submit themselves to foreign aid workers who now control the country that has been stolen several times over.

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