Rocks in the Sun …

July 2, 2010

by Joegodson and Paul

Woch nan dlo pa konn misè woch nan solèy. A rock in the water doesn’t know the misery of a rock in the sun.

Antonia and Joegodson are expecting a baby. They met with their pastor on Tuesday.

The pastor wanted firm answers to hard questions: “What are you doing now? What are your plans?”

Joegodson described our efforts to establish a network through which local artisans and skilled workers might market their creations to customers in more wealthy countries for fair prices and thereby escape the penury of foreign exploitation. Somewhat hesitatingly, he also discussed the book that he was writing with (this) Canadian co-author. The book describes our experiences in the global economy and reflects upon relations between rich and poor.

The pastor stared at Antonia and Joegodson with no apparent comprehension. What might he have made of a boyish man from Cite Soleil claiming to be writing a book on the effects of globalization on the Haitian poor? Any reader who has dared to step outside of a proscribed role might understand the response: get to work! The pastor told them that Joegodson must find employment that will pay enough for him to build a proper home on the plot of land that they have claimed in Canaan.

Earlier that morning, Joegodson had been talking with his friend and fellow furniture maker Joseph in Delmas 19. A colleague of Joseph arrived to ask him if he would be interested in working as a carpenter for a group that was building temporary shelters in the neighbourhood. Joseph agreed, although he had another small job to complete first. So, Joegodson took his place at the meeting with the understanding that both would contribute their carpentry skills in exchange for a salary.

The depot controlled by Mme Nicole in Delmas 19 in Port-au-Prince. From here, unpaid Haitian workers build USAID shelters.

 So Joegodson followed the fellow to the office, not far away, run by a Haitian woman named Mme Nicole. In front of her home, a number of young Haitian men had assembled with their own tools, ready for the day’s work. After thirty minutes, a foreman appeared telling them to enter for a little talk before heading out. Joegodson joined the meeting, even though he was not yet officially accepted onto the project.

The foreman began by welcoming everyone:

 Dear friends, I have to talk to you about your complaints. I know that things aren’t going very well for you, especially since many of you are fathers of families. Others have responsibilities even if you aren’t fathers. I know that many of you don’t live nearby; you have to take the public transport to get here and you leave nothing at home for your wives, children, and others. I also know that many of you work all day with nothing to eat as a result of having no money. But listen, brothers: try to build a bridge by borrowing some money from your relatives or your friends to get through the present period. It might take a few months, but CHF will not disappoint you because it’s a reputable international NGO. Even if it takes a few months, you will receive your money and you will be able to realise your dreams. The problem is that CHF has a lot of responsibilities beyond just this project of building shelters, like stabilizing the area and so forth. You understand the situation and I think that with patience you will be fine.

After he was finished, an engineer took over and carried on in the same direction. It was clear that they had their story straight. He mentioned that each shelter was worth 10,000 Haitian dollars, including materials and labour (2,000 $ US.) Labour was supposed to include three people: two bosses and one worker. Each boss was to receive 150 Haitian dollars and each worker 50 Haitian dollars a day (10 $ US). The workers were required to build one shelter a day or risk losing their heretofore-unremunerated jobs. In fact, as Joegodson would soon learn in the meeting, after months of working for CHF, funded by USAID, no Haitian worker had yet been paid. Not one cent. (Presumably, the Haitian managers had been paid.)

When they had finished, one of the workers (a foreman) took the floor. He raised his hand and asked the committee to examine it:

There are five fingers, but they are not all the same length. Similarly, we do not all have the same financial means. It’s true that we all have neighbours, but all neighbours are not the same. A neighbour may be able to help you for a couple of weeks, not for several months.

He resumed the situation with a saying familiar to all Haitians, Woch nan dlo pa konn misè woch nan solèy. A rock in water doesn’t know the misery of a rock in the sun. He asked whether CHF would behave as it does if it were in the place of the homeless Haitian workers. He said that even half of the pay that was due to them would be enough to relieve the suffering.

Mme Nicole took the floor to explain to the workers how foreign NGOs function, from the perspective of someone who works on the inside of CHF. She told of a man who had worked for months for a foreign NGO with no pay whatsoever. Finally, however, the worker received, all at once, 15,000 Haitian dollars that he then used to buy a plot of land that he had had his eyes on for a long time. She continued, “My dear friends, I’m not saying that you have the same goals as that man, but rather that you must suffer in hope. When your wife and children ask what you’re doing with the money, explain the situation to them and they will understand.” Another worker, not convinced, asked why CHF didn’t have committees organized to deal with the various things that it was involved with in Haiti. The spokesmen and Mme Nicole had no answer.

CHF headquarters, Delmas 19.

 By now it was 11:00 am. Joegodson went to find a beneficiary of the CHF shelters that these Haitian carpenters were building. He spoke to one of the local woman who was now living in a CHF shelter. He asked her how she like it. She told him that people had to say they like them because it was the only thing offered. But in reality, she said, people slept uneasy in them. They were plastic and robbers could enter them with a knife. If only they had been given the money that it cost to build them, she said, they would have been able to make themselves decent homes.

Joegodson finished in time so that he and Antonia could meet the pastor who, as the reader knows, advised him to take a paying job as a carpenter in order to assure a home for his new family.

Later, the two authors spoke from Canada to Haiti, with so much in between.

It pained Joegodson to know that some people were suggesting that Antonia and he should not have the baby. The very idea of terminating a pregnancy was too painful to consider. The answer to poverty and injustice is not birth control.

Joegodson was dejected by his pastor’s advice. Is it true that in response to parenthood, one must accept corruption and injustice in order to assure the livelihood of one’s own family? If so, then what world do you bequeath to the child? How can you honestly raise a healthy child if you resign yourself to an unhealthy society? What can you teach your child about justice and truth if you refuse to confront injustice and lies? What advice would the pastor have given to Martin Luther King? Mohandas Gandhi? Vandana Shiva? “You’re going to be a parent now, so it’s time to forget all this social justice business and get to work!” What must the pastor think of Jesus Christ?

Of course, Joegodson knows that, no matter how long and hard he works, there is a great chance that he will never be paid. With the money that CHF is apparently paying for each foreign-conceived shelter, he could build his future family a Haitian castle. Meanwhile, CHF is not paying the Haitians who are working long hours without pay and whose families are waiting at home, hungry.

And so, the two authors remain in business. We are both committed to a window of decency – a fair exchange of goods – between our two homelands, and any lands in between.

 

In the second part of this article, … Rocks in the Water, we will look more closely at USAID and CHF.

 

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