First Supper

July 30, 2010

 Joegodson and Paul

The Community Kitchen served its first meal on Wednesday. The event will be remembered in Simon. At the moment, the introduction of a source of food has opened as many wounds as it has nourished the hungry. The organizers in Simon now face challenges greater than when everyone was hungry.

The kids got dressed up for the event. But food, they learned, can divide them from their neighbours.

How did it come about that the Kitchen was able to begin operations? The people from Canada Haiti Action Canada (notably Roger Annis) studied the plan that the local civil groups had tabled for a Community Kitchen in Cite Soleil. CHAN agreed to offer 450$US to the people of Simon in support of their goal to shape their own future. That was a generous offer in light of the limited means available to CHAN, a group that speaks out against injustice. But CHAN has gone a step further in entering into active relations with the Haitian poor. We will continue to probe the results and difficulties entailed in this enterprise, as long as it lasts and we are able. We will begin to see today why Canada’s ‘legitimate’ NGOs choose to limit their reports to heart-warming stories of zombie-like victims thankful for the beneficence of North Americans. Anything else must deal with the realities of the chronic and intended maldistribution of wealth, globally and locally. It’s not an accident that some humans are hungry.

Jhony and Baudelais ruminated over what to do with the windfall. Of course it was a far cry from what they need to carry out the program they had planned: one nutritious hot meal daily for the most vulnerable of Simon. So, they altered the plans to fit the funds donated.

Geurdie at the helm of operations, cooking for the members of the community most at risk of malnutrition.

They asked Geurdie if she would agree to cook. Geurdie is well respected in Simon. She had been an assistant to the local Madam Sarah. ‘Madam Sarah’ is the colloquial term for women who travel to the peasant markets outside of Port-au-Prince to buy produce that they resell on the streets of the city. When her friend died, Geurdie filled her role as the local Madam Sarah and became the sole parent for the three girls she left behind. In preparation for Wednesday’s community meal, Geurdie traveled to the market at Arcahaie where she normally buys produce from the peasant farmers.  This time, with help, she brought back enough to feed 150 people. As she used to accompany her mentor, she has several young women who help her. Through her, they meet the peasants, learn how to buy, transport, and sell produce. They joined Geurdie in the trip to Arcahaie and helped her to prepare the Kitchen’s first meal of rice, vegetables, and beef. Geurdie has cooked for large groups in the community before.

Waiting for the Kitchen to open.

In anticipation, the local people arrived at the Community Kitchen early to not miss out. Jhony and Baudelais had already listed the most vulnerable who had priority. They lined up to the left of the Kitchen entrance: pregnant women, children, the elderly, women, and the handicapped. On the right, the men waited their turn. At first, everyone was good-natured and calm, respecting the line-ups, laughing and joking. 

Arons and Odel organize the distribution.

Inside the Kitchen, members of the local committees organized the distribution of food. The Community Kitchen has open sides that welcome any current of air to pass through. However, the walls are covered with mosquito netting to ensure that the food inside remains untouched and that people may eat in the shade and at peace from flies. Jhony and Baudelais borrowed tables and dishes. Once the produce and transport is paid for, the community is equally living on borrowed time.

Chen grangou pa jwe.

The problem began when a group of approximately twenty boys from the neighbourhood arrived and insisted on their right to be served. For them, the notion that children, pregnant women, the elderly, and handicapped people deserved special attention was unacceptable. Meanwhile, those who had been waiting in line reacted to the challenge. Gone was the goodwill. Some would eat and some would not. Everyone wanted to be in the first group. A Haitian proverb describes the scene: chen grangou pa jwe – a hungry dog doesn’t feel like playing. Inside was calm; outside, the community spirit degenerated into a struggle for a plate of Geurdie’s food. People feared that what had seemed a sure thing only minutes before was now uncertain. They became impatient, believing that a few well-directed insults and complaints might secure them the meal that they needed.

One of the patrons.

The Kitchen was conceived to address the problem of hunger and malnutrition. Pregnant women and children are given priority. But everyone is hungry.

A father assures his child's health.

The elderly.

The disappointed - angry.

 The young men were only one of various problems that the Kitchen has wrought. Many residents had been  skeptical that anything would ever come of the Community Kitchen. The previous week, local people assembled at the Kitchen to have their photos taken to promote the initiative. It was through that appeal that CHAN became interested in the Kitchen. However, a number of people refused to be photographed with the others, scoffing at the conceit that some of their neighbours might succeed in realizing the Kitchen. Now that there was actually food being served, everyone wanted to benefit. But since the amount of food was limited, those who had supported the Kitchen from its inception were given priority. Having sewn the seeds, it was fitting that they should reap the rewards. As the line lengthened and the food ran out, people who had not eaten became angry. Even many of those who ate at the Kitchen grumbled that the initiative was of such short duration.

When the day was over, Geurdie, Jhony, and Baudelais were exhausted and proud. They had brought something of value to Simon and everyone knew it. But they also recognize that they have much reconciliation before them. The boys want to eat. The people who doubted that the Kitchen would ever serve food are still hungry. The problem is that an insufficient amount of food is serving to divide the community, rather than bring it together. The boys have threatened to destroy the Kitchen. Simon became a reflection of the world, where food is used to divide people. And so the people who are, literally, responsible are looking for ways to reconcile with those who feel excluded. Hungry people don’t feel like playing. Everyone is vulnerable to hunger. Everyone needs to be cared for.

What will happen if they bridge all the divisions in Simon? How will the adjacent neighbourhoods react should the Community Kitchen succeed in assuring that everyone in Simon is properly nourished? Will they declare war? On the other hand, it would be possible to imagine this intiative, controlled by Haitians as in Simon, reproduced throughout Cite Soleil and beyond. As the local groups understood when they devised the plan, the Kitchen promotes Haitian agriculture, offers real employment for the community at a number of levels, and addresses the need for food. If the will exists, their model could easily be expanded throughout the poor districts.

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