Different Realities

October 25, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

Joegodson was born in Saut d’Eau, the spiritual centre of Haiti. Its waters flow into the Artibonite River. In mid-July, Vodouists and Catholics make a pilgrimage to purify their souls in the waterfalls of Saut d’Eau, home to the Virgin Mary and Erzulie Dantor.

Now, with the cholera epidemic looming, Joegodson keeps in touch with his family in Saut d’Eau. His aunt is listening for the response of the local peasants to the knowledge that their waters are the source of the current cholera epidemic. Joegodson listens in Port-au-Prince and Gros Morne.

There has been a campaign to educate Haitians to the science of cholera. Authorities appeared at churches on Sunday to describe the bacterium that reproduces in human intestines and spreads by faeces carried along waterways. But Haitians aren’t convinced. Haiti has never had sewage treatment plants. So when people say that the cause of cholera is untreated excrement in the water system, Haitians don’t see what has changed. The earthquake didn’t destroy a pre-existing sanitation system. Moreover, the Artibonite River, the presumed source of the infection, was not affected by the quake. Haitian peasants, like their ancestors, have always allowed their waste to be carried away along with that of the other life forms of Haiti. So have most urban dwellers. So, Haitians are still looking for the cause. Why cholera? Why now?

A couple of Americans drowned a short while ago in the Artibonite near Saut d’Eau. When their bodies remained submerged, the locals witnessed Americans dump some chemical product in the river that they assumed was intended to preserve the bodies. Now they think that the Americans deliberately infected the river with cholera bacteria. At first, two young Haitians in Saut d’Eau died of no apparent cause. Their families buried them. Now, the locals think that they were the first victims.

Why would Americans infect the water to kill Haitians? As Haitians have known for generations, Americans covet Haiti. They have sent the marines to kill Haitians outright, they have tortured and killed Haitians who have resisted, and they have aligned themselves with the rich to take their small plots of land away. And they believe, based on this incontrovertible evidence, that Americans are conspiring again to take their country. As Haitian peasants die of the disease that Americans have planted, they will quietly occupy their lands.

People who want to harm you never offer the real reason. As usual, the Haitian peasants have some folk wisdom to guide them in the present situation: Le yo vle touye chen yo di’l fou. When you want to kill a dog, you say it has rabies. When the Americans wanted to stick Haitians with the inferior American swine, they required that Haiti’s spineless dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, exterminate the Creole pig. Haitians have neither forgotten nor forgiven that outrage.

In Saut d’Eau, Joegodson’s aunt doubts that the peasants will respect the directive to not eat the food that grows by the Artibonite. The waters of the Artibonite are used to irrigate everything. The locals are calling it an embargo on their own food. It is possible that peasants all along the Artibonite valley will have similar responses to the interdiction of their water and food.

In Port-au-Prince, authorities are telling people to drink only bottled water. And so, based on their experience, the poor first ask whether the water merchants are behind the epidemic or whether they are simply misinforming people in order to sell water. The first (and potentially deadly) question that the Haitian poor ask is, who is trying to profit from our misery?

Others, who are not convinced that the epidemic is spread by human faeces, believe that the Americans have distributed contaminated food. Haitians are used to paying for merchandise rejected in the North American market. For instance, retailers commonly dump expired merchandise on the Haitian market. (Check the expiration dates of the merchandise offered to the poor.) Haitians have every reason to doubt the value of every product dumped on them from the North.

Deland, Joegodson’s father, is presently convalescing on the porch of his godson’s home in Gros Morne. Deland was born and raised in Saut d’Eau. Joegodson asked him if he thought the rumours from their native town made any sense. Deland responded, “Any thought that you can have could be true.” He carried on to explain that your thoughts and suspicions come from some truth.

All of these Haitian truths could prove devastating in the current context. The problem is that the atmosphere is fatally poisoned by ill will. It is tragic to watch wide-eyed foreigners ignorant of history think that they can help Haitians without understanding their reality. My guess is that, any foreigner who happens to hear this type of rumour will dismiss it as ignorant. That judgement will itself be based in ignorance.

A couple of days ago, we tried to show how peoples are separated by the way they understand their place in the world. North Americans and Haitians don’t interpret anything in the same way.

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