Seeing Value

September 18, 2010

Paul Jackson 

Joegodson

You’re a twenty-eight year old cabinet maker in Port-au-Prince. You will be married on October 1. In early 2011, you will be a father. You have no home. You have no money. Rents are well out of reach since the earthquake, given that there are very few habitable spaces. (Those that exist go to people who can pay for them, like the foreign humanitarian workers with good salaries.) You eat almost nothing to avoid creating an appetite that you know you couldn’t alleviate.

You have the fortune/misfortune to be the friend of a poor citizen of a rich country.

On the polished shelves of Canadian apparel stores, each of the articles of clothing that your neighbours manufacture sells for many times their daily salary of about three dollars. Under the quota system in the sweatshops, they might make a thousand items each day.

Your neighbours and friends all confront similar daily struggles for survival in Port-au-Prince. Few think of the future as you do. Everyone is subject to starvation wages for their work. Even still, those wages often go unpaid. And so the present perpetuates itself.

So you work with your impecunious Canadian friend to establish a non-profit company that brings together the most talented artisans, tailors, and designers to market directly to the Canadian public. The profits will be reinvested to improve the living and working conditions of the workers. In other words, you don’t wait for the right government to be elected. It won’t be. You don’t ask for charity. Why should you? Neither do you cower in the face of the bullying of those with money and power.

That non-profit company currently being registered is all about value. It is called Ann Bay Valè, a supple Creole term meaning Creating Value or Let’s Make Value or Towards Value.  We will soon be showing that things considered to be worthless can be transformed by lively imaginations into items of value. Mostly, we are reconsidering the value of people in the current global economy.

Joegodson is the Haitian inspiration behind Ann Bay Valè. Since we must begin with small items easily imported into Canada, we are forced to exclude his own work. However, it is representative of the creations we will soon be introducing through our new company. And so, we offer a sample here. This is the soul of our enterprise.

How do you prepare to raise a family without money? Into what kind of society will you be raising your children?

In June, Joegodson had the good fortune to be offered a gift of five hundred dollars from an anonymous donor in Canada to help towards his future with his fiancée Antonia, expecting their first child. How to use it? There were two possibilities: he could lay the foundation for a home or build the furniture that would go into it. Here is the conundrum: building a home was and remains a very risky undertaking. But without a domicile, what would they do with the furniture?

It is unclear who owns any property. Wealthy Haitians claim much of the country. The validity of their claims will be judged by their peers. However, throughout Haiti’s history, people have squatted on unoccupied lands. In time, their use of the land justifies their claim to ownership. Joegodson and Antonia, like thousands of other homeless people after the earthquake, fenced in a small plot in the vacant hills of Canaan. With the help of his cousin, he built the foundation for a home on a perpetually windy slope. That required iron bars (rebars) to reinforce the concrete so that the structure would resist the next earthquake. There were two options. The poor of Port-au-Prince have been recovering the iron bars from the debris and selling them for about half the price of new rebars. Joegodson opted for new bars. He judged that those recuperated from the earthquake debris had been weakened by being deformed and subsequently straightened. He bought twenty bars at eighty Haitian dollars each: 1,600 Haitian dollars (320$US.)

However, once the foundation was in place, Joegodson, along with many others, decided that the risks were too great to proceed further with the construction. How would the Haitian oligarchy respond to the new residents springing up in Canaan? He, like all of his potential neighbours, risked losing everything.

Joegodson turned to the furniture. Whatever might happen in Canaan, he could at least craft some furniture. The price of wood has skyrocketed since January 12. Wood has always been expensive in deforested Haiti. However, in view of the devastating effects of the collapse of concrete buildings poorly reinforced, it is the preferred building material. As a historical footnote, after the devastating earthquake of 1770, the small city of Port-au-Prince passed a by-law requiring that all buildings be made of wood.

Joegodson had enough money left to buy three sheets of plywood, each four by eight feet, at the Marché Guérite in the centre of Port-au-Prince. However, he has built most of his furniture with debris recovered from the collapsed clinic on whose grounds he lived. He was able to recuperate the doors crushed under the concrete and to transform them into a bed, a sideboard, tables, and a vanity. He has worked outdoors, for the most part with borrowed tools. It requires patience and imagination.

Joegodson and the vanity, so far.

His friends have offered their skills to add value to his creations. For instance, Cemè contributed his talent as a wood carver to decorate the drawers of the vanity. Cemè is also a member of Ann Bay Valè, looking forward to the chance of marketing his work, in cooperation with the other members like Joegodson, directly to Canadians. After the quake, Joegodson worked for the Cash for Work program for five dollars a day, a wage certain to perpetuate poverty. Cemè also sees that if they could be paid reasonably for their work, then the profits could go towards creating decent living and working conditions, beginning with a community workshop. The workshop is intended to bring together a number of talented workers who can share their skills, tools, and imaginations to create unique products. At the present time, we want to shift the discussion in Canada away from the framework of charity and victims. The members of Ann Bay Valè are all working hard and are confident in their skills. We want to change how Canadians and Haitians understand the market under which corporate power decides that Haitian workers are worth a maximum of five dollars a day. We don’t think that is a fair reflection of the products produced. We’ll allow the Canadian market to decide.

Joegodson's sideboard, so far.

One of the conundrums that Joegodson and Antonia face is that they may soon have furniture and yet there is no place to put it. Joegodson can create beautiful pieces of furniture for their future family. Like their friends and neighbours, they have no home and cannot afford to rent. So, the furniture sits in a courtyard until the owners tell him to move it. That could happen at any moment. He covers the pieces under construction to protect them from the heavy rains. Why not sell the furniture on the Haitian market? He has tried. The only people who have any use for his creations (those with a domicile) refuse to pay him even enough to cover the costs of the plywood. They know that they can afford to value his skills, time, and imagination at nothing. His friends like Molière and Cemè, members of Ann Bay Valè, value each other for their talents and skills, but have no money to translate that into purchasing each others’ products. All live under tents and eat as little as possible, like Joegodson.

What should be obvious is that the formal economy that pays three dollars a day is also part of the Canadian economy. Look at the labels on the clothing in any high-end apparel store to understand your economy. The workers are not seeing any of the money that you are paying. Who does see that profit? Why, Canadians should ask, is it necessary to send charity to Haitians who are skilled, imaginative, and work well over ten hours every day? Who is pocketing the wealth that they create? If Haitian workers are indeed part of the Canadian economy, we at Ann Bay Valè are going to assure that they are valued for their work in that market.

In other words, imagine a shantytown on a vacant lot in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto where all the adults are employed by the largest, wealthiest corporation in the city. They work from six in the morning until five thirty in the evening, including Saturday. The children beg or scavenge during the days because they can’t afford school. The adults bring home twenty-five dollars a week to take care of the family. Don’t, by the way, imagine that life is inexpensive in Port-au-Prince. It isn’t. I am describing our economy. I’m simply imagining the working-class district next door to you and not a world away.

Joegodson and the headboard for his bed and two tables, all made entirely from recycled debris from the earthquake.

At the moment, Joegodson is stuck. He has gone as far as possible with material recycled from the earthquake debris. To finish, he needs actual money, for the paints, for the bedrails for the mattress – not to mention the mattress itself. His planning for the non-profit company Ann Bay Valè as well as his articles on the economic and social conditions that have led him to establish that non-profit company have cost him much time and the very little money that has passed through his hands. His articles have been published throughout the alternative press in Canada and the United States. He has received nothing whatsoever for them. Anyone who has appreciated his insights and analysis might consider offering him financial support to allow him to plan his own future and to continue to organize the other artisans and workers (twenty to date) into Ann Bay Valè. Anything is welcome. Write him at keayiti@yahoo.ca. If you can afford a few dollars, you could send it directly to him in Port-au-Prince via Western Union. His actual name is Vilmond Joegodson Deralciné.

In Joegodson’s life, Jesus is the ultimate example of how to live. However, since Antonia is pregnant, their pastor has refused to allow the marriage to take place in their Baptist Church. The choir of which they are members has been told not to sing at their ceremony. Joegodson takes it all in stride. Like Jesus, Joegodson consistently concerns himself with the poorest and most abused people in the community. Two of the members of Ann Bay Valè are young patients in a home for incurables in Port-au-Prince. Struck by stray MINUSTA bullets in Cite Soleil, the paralyzed youths are eager to find meaning in their lives and demonstrate their skills as artists. On the headboard of the bed, Joegodson has inscribed, ‘Open your heart to Jesus.’  On the top of the sideboard, ‘Jesus loves you.’ You don’t have to believe, as he does, that Jesus was the Son of God to see the value of his actions.

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