A Haitian Love Story, continued

November 7, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

On June 2, we left Manouchka at death’s door at the CICIMED medical clinic in Delmas 19, Port-au-Prince. Her boyfriend Frederique had tried to get her back pay from SONAPI to cover the costs for the tests that the staff said she needed, but he had failed. Both were desperate in the face of her impending death.

Manouchka preparing for work before she came down with malaria in June.

The medical personnel told Frederique that Manouchka would have to be transferred to another clinic where she could be diagnosed and treated. CICIMED is an upscale clinic that normally takes only paying customers. Clearly, they counted Manouchka and Frederique among working Haitians. And working Haitians could not afford CICIMED bills. Manouchka was delirious and deteriorating quickly. Frederique was desperate.

Things changed. Soon after, the medical staff told Frederique that Manouchka had malaria. They also agreed that they would provide her with the antimalarial drugs that would save her life.

Things could have been worse. We can understand both her illness and recovery in relation to the earthquake. The earthquake led to the squalid living conditions in which malaria and other potentially fatal diseases thrive. It also brought organizations that temporarily infused local private clinics like CICIMED with cash. In order to qualify for the cash, we speculate, they were obliged to accept cases like Manouchka. Before the earthquake, the poor people living in the neighbourhood of CICIMED never considered it in relation to their health. You need money to be admitted into CICIMED. That window of treatment for the poor has closed again. The old healthcare model has re-established itself.

To understand the difference, consider the experience of Manouchka in June and Deland this week. Deland, it must be underlined, is suffering from both typhus and malaria. Also facing death, he was required to travel in insalubrious and uncomfortable conditions to line up for hours for a quick examination and diagnosis. He was then sent away with a prescription for expensive drugs. Hundreds of poor Haitians lined up with Deland at the same public clinic from five o’clock in the morning, for want of more humane alternatives.

When Manouchka left the clinic in June, she did not want to return to her old job at SONAPI. She tried to imagine another way to survive. When she returned for the back pay that they would not give to Frederique a couple of weeks earlier, she learned that receiving it depended on resuming the job that she detested and that had almost cost her life. She acquiesced for want of an alternative.

Meanwhile, Frederique was unemployed. He had erected their tent in Delmas 33, but it was a shoddy affair even in relation to the other makeshift shelters. He was ashamed to be at “home” while Manouchka worked long hours at least six days a week.

Frederique with Manouchka in the CICIMED clinic in June.

After a few weeks, Manouchka was able to save 10$US so that Frederique could take a course in operating a sewing machine and thus enter the formal labour market. The course completed, he presented himself outside a factory at SONAPI. He was hired. However, since his skills were rudimentary and he was unable to work fast enough to please his bosses, they fired him.

He was able to find another job in one of the many sweatshops of Port-au-Prince. While he came to work efficiently, he refused to accept the degrading treatment from his bosses. He spoke back, asserting that he was a man and therefore refused to be treated as a child. He also refused to relent in the face of the constant derision. He says that his resistance angered the boss who saw it as a test of wills. Frederique came to see that insisting that he be treated with respect was upsetting the equilibrium of the sweatshop. The daily salary of three dollars US came with constant humiliation. Learning how to operate the sewing machine was only part of the job. More important was accepting the subordinate social role of worker.

We should note that the sweatshops do not even train the workers they abuse. Men and women must already have paid for a course that allows them to be financially and socially maltreated.

Before long, the boss realized that Frederique would not submit and fired him. By now, Frederique was proficient at the work. He would need to at least pretend to accept the proposition that he was the social inferior of the bosses in order to keep his next job.

Men wait outside the gates of one of the SONAPI factories in June. When an employee is judged too slow or troublesome, he or she is quickly replaced by these unemployed, always in great supply. Women are chosen first which accounts for the fact that this photo (illicitly snapped by Joegodson) shows men waiting their chance to make four dollars US a day.

In August, he went back to SONAPI. Manouchka, after a year, is considered a profitable asset. She, like Frederique, was fired from her first jobs at SONAPI and in the more informal sweatshops because of her inability to work at the pace of the quota. In August, she was able to convince the boss to hire Frederique who waited outside the factory. For the last couple of months, they have been working together in the same shop. They each make under thirty dollars for a seven-day week.

They live still in their tent in Delmas 33. That means that they have to take a taptap to and from SONAPI each day. Since the factories all open at six-thirty in the morning, they must leave at least an hour in advance to have a chance to arrive on time. At six-thirty, the gates close and the latecomers are shut out for the day. Likewise, returning after five or six in the evening (depending on when they are dismissed) is chaotic. All of the commuters are under the same pressure to arrive on time and they fight with each other for spots on the limited number of taptaps.

Like Frederique, Manouchka refused the treatment when she first arrived from the countryside. She still hates it. However, now, she wakes up before Frederique, who is less resigned to their fate. She makes sure that they leave early enough to arrive at the factory on time. He allows her to lead him. Both ponder their dreams as they are pushed around Port-au-Prince: Manouchka to be a florist and Frederique to open a karate club. However, they work such long hours and are so exhausted that they have no time or energy for anything but survival.

They managed to save enough over the last two months so that Frederique could buy some two-by-fours in order to reinforce their tent. In other words, they seem to be building a life in the tent. Their employers in the formal economy – the sweatshops run by wealthy Haitians in the service of the multinational clothing corporations – are profiting from their squalid situation. Manouchka and Frederique are motivated to continue to suffer the abuses because of their young love and their dreams of a future together.

At home, there is little in the way of domestic chores because there is nothing there. They have no time or wherewithal to cook and so they buy their plates of rice from the street merchants. On the Sundays when they aren’t required to work, they buy from the merchants near their tent in Delmas 33 and eat together.

Antonia and Joegodson watch their friends with great sympathy. They too are looking for a way to escape the inescapable trap set by the powers that control Port-au-Prince within the global economy.

“It’s so tragic,” Joegodson mused the day after the hurricane as his own father faces death from malaria and typhus. “They are in love and they want a future, but it’s hard to see how they can escape the fate of people like Mayou.” Mayou is Joegodson’s elderly neighbour who lost her only son in the earthquake. She has never been able to live independently of her equally poor mother despite working all her life at the SONAPI Industrial Park. (We called her Seret in a previous article, but she is no longer concerned about us using her real name.)

We wonder how the employers will respond to the deadly epidemics that are present in Port-au-Prince and show no signs of dissipating. With the public healthcare so ineffective at even keeping people alive, skilled, overworked employees like Manouchka and Frederique living in squalid conditions will be increasingly vulnerable. Manouchka has already escaped death, but could more easily succumb to the next bout of malaria, cholera, typhus, or tuberculosis, all of which are flourishing in the squalor.

We must take note of the fact that Haitians are not at the bottom of the global pay scale. Other populations in Asia are living in squalor and receiving even smaller salaries. It is possible that, around the boardroom tables, executives are calculating the birthrate and the availability of replacements for the deceased. (We can’t know how they are calculating their bottom lines because their strategies are protected from public scrutiny. Private, corporate entrprises are fundamentally totalitarian.) Joegodson highlights the fact that the birthrate has exploded since the earthquake – a phenomenon well documented after other disasters and wars. In other words, the exploitative employers will not lack for victims. He observes, with mordant accuracy, “We’ve already replaced everybody who died in the earthquake. More, probably.”

Manouchka is alone with Frederique. Her female relatives, with whom she was living after the earthquake, refused to accept Frederique; she thinks out of jealousy. In choosing Frederique, she faced the abandonment of her relatives. While she resents having been forced to make a choice, she is happy with the one she made. They are fortunate to have good relations with Frederique’s mother and brother, who are struggling like them. Frederique’s mother has recovered from her broken leg and has resumed her work as a street merchant. Again, she benefited from the funding that NGOs (Doctors Without Borders) temporarily offered after the earthquake to have her leg set in a clinic.

Meanwhile, Frederique and Manouchka are trying to figure out how they can escape the prison of SONAPI. They aren’t alone.

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