Susamèle and Haiti

November 13, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

New life and imminent death pull Joegodson in different directions. His wife, Antonia, expects to give birth in January, his two sisters delivered baby girls last month, and his cousin Susamèle brought her daughter into the world four days ago. Meanwhile, beyond the losses from the earthquake, his father Deland is battling two potentially fatal diseases at once. The typhus and malaria have also disturbed his mind, so that he is no longer predictable.

Joegodson missed going to Bon Repos to visit his father for two days running. Joegodson was too ashamed to appear with no money or food to offer his cousin who is overseeing Deland’s convalescence. He didn’t want to face her recriminating stare. Instead, he called to make sure everything was fine. When his cousin called Deland to the phone, he heard his father say that he didn’t want to speak to Joegodson because he had abandoned him. It was a cruel and painful blow, even though Joegodson knew that it was the disease that was speaking and not his father. Paranoia is a symptom of typhus. Joegodson not only has to fulfill Deland’s responsibilities in his absence, but he has a number of his own.

His cousin Susamèle who gave birth to a girl this week. Thankfully, the baby is healthy. Now it needs to be nourished and nurtured.

Joegodson and Susamèle have lived parallel lives. He pities her as he pities Haiti. He sees Susamèle’s situation as analogous to that of his country. If you listen to him carefully, you can see the world from the perspective of a poor, intelligent Haitian.

The fathers of Susamèle and Joegodson were brothers – peasant farmers – in Saut d’Eau. Deland was the elder brother of Susamel’s father. They each married and had seven children. Susamèle was the youngest and Joegodson the second eldest of their respective families. In 1999, both children lost their mother. Cecile, Joegodson’s mother, died in childbirth in Cite Soleil. Susamèle’s mother died of breast cancer. She had travelled to Port-au-Prince for tests at the hospital, but it was too late.

The two brothers faced the same predicament at the same time: how to raise seven children alone when they had already been stretched to the edge of survival with two parents working hard? They had to divest themselves of some of their dependents. Deland kept four of the seven children with him in Cite Soleil, sent the youngest to an orphanage and Joegodson to live with his sister in Delmas 33. Deland’s younger brother sent all of his children to orphanages or relatives. Once they were settled, he left for the Dominican Republic (with no passport, no papers) to try to earn some money. That was eleven years ago. He never returned.

Back in 1999, the widower brothers had a sister who lived in Delmas 33 with her husband and two young daughters. She had already taken Joegodson when his mother died, on the condition that he work in her husband’s furniture shop. When her other brother’s wife died months later, she travelled back to Saut d’Eau where she agreed to take one of her nieces into her family. She chose Susamèle, who was about eight years old at the time. And so Susamèle and Joegodson landed in the same household in Delmas 33 in Port-au-Prince.

Joegodson worked long hours and soon understood that he was being abused in the shop. He was sixteen years old. He organized the other employees into a strike against his uncle to demand decent – human – working conditions. The other workers had been behind him in principle, but all disappeared into their fears when it came time to stand up to the abusive boss. Joegodson refused to back down and so found himself not only without work, but also without lodging. He was immediately homeless with no income whatsoever. Susamèle, a young girl, remained in the home.

Over the years, Joegodson returned from time to time to Delmas 33 to visit his little cousins who had come to see him as a brother during his time with them. He saw that Susamèle was being abused as callously in the household as he had been in the workshop. Her situation is common enough throughout Haiti to be given a name, restavek, never uttered by the abusers. It is part of the unspoken reality of daily life throughout Haiti.

Immediately upon her arrival in Delmas 33, at eight years old, Susamèle was put to work as a street merchant. Her aunt had a business selling plaintain and coal that she got from the countryside. She had brought Susamèle into the household in order to keep the business going so that she could pursue other interests. That meant that Susamèle had to be ready to work at five o’clock every morning. At eight years old, she was forced to manage the enterprise: dealing with the customers and handling the money all day long. When she returned home, she was required to clean and do the laundry. It was on her little back that her aunt and uncle saw their chance to climb to the middle class.

Susamèle had two cousins. Her work in the grocery stand allowed them to go to school. Her work at home kept their clothes clean.

In case anyone should question the situation, Susamèle’s aunt pretended to register her in a school or, rather, registered her in a pretend school. The woman next door had a room in her home and decided to make extra money by calling it a school. A few local kids in Susamèle’s situation were registered. From time to time, the woman had local secondary students over to ‘teach’ the kids.

Joegodson remembers visiting his aunt’s house and seeing Susamèle late at night with a candle burning next to her and a book in her hands. She was so tired that her eyes were rolling and her head swaying, but she was trying to read the book. When he tried to help her, he immediately understood that she had had no instruction whatsoever. She was hoping that she might learn to read by staring at the pages. He saw her another time when she had fallen asleep and was using the book as a pillow, the candle still burning next to her. She was on the floor where she slept. They gave her a sheet, but nothing more. Her two cousins, girls of the same age, were trained to see her as a servant and not of the same class.

“She was treated like an animal,” Joegodson says. (Joegodson has developed good relations with all of the members of that family, including his abusive uncle. He refuses, however, to sanction what they have done to Susamèle. He forgives his uncle and aunt, but holds them accountable.)

Susamèle had one older brother who was concerned for her welfare. After a few years, he came from Saut d’Eau to make sure she was well. Immediately, he understood the situation. He was horrified to see his little sister suffering such indignities. He vowed to himself to save her.

He went to Delmas 2 to see their aunt, the sister of their deceased mother. He hoped that she might help him rescue Susamèle and allow her to live with her family. After some reflection, she agreed and, together, they went to Delmas 33 to liberate Susamèle from her captivity.

There was a violent scene. Both the aunt and uncle refused to part with their slave. Susamèle had become the cornerstone that held up the domestic economy. But the aunt from Delmas 2 and Susamèle’s brother would not relent. Susamèle’s cousins grabbed her bag to prevent her from leaving. (The domestic chores would have fallen upon them.) Since there was nothing in it worth fighting over, Susamèle gladly let them have it and clung to her brother. The patriarch kicked and struck the aunt who was stealing the family’s slave. But Susamèle escaped and went to live in Delmas 2.

Susamèle’s brother – the only family member who had shown any concern for her – soon followed his father’s footsteps and left for the Dominican Republic to find work. Like his father, he has not been heard from since.

Meanwhile, in Delmas 2, Susamèle soon found why her other aunt had gone to such lengths to liberate her from her prison in Delmas 33. Immediately, she was put to work as a street merchant, selling candies that she was taught to make. Her sales were appropriated by her aunt, her dead mother’s sister. There was no time for school and no concern for Susamèle’s welfare. She had simply been transferred from one prison to another.

A couple of years ago, at sixteen years of age, she escaped and went to Saut d’Eau. There was no one there to take an interest in her. She found her aunts and uncles, but they all were weighed down with the responsibilities of their own families. Her brother had never returned from the Dominican Republic. She was alone on Earth, except for people who wanted to exploit and mistreat her. She was unschooled and uneducated, except in the businesses that profited others. She had been taught how to be a slave.

She returned last year to Port-au-Prince. She went to Cite Soleil where Deland, her uncle, agreed to let her live with his family. Deland’s small house was already overflowing.

After the earthquake, Susamèle caught the eyes of a young man while walking in Port-au-Prince. She is an innocent. She was easily seduced by the young man who promised to care for her. He had a room still standing after the earthquake where she could live with him. And so she moved in. She thought that she had found someone who would share her life.

It lasted until she became pregnant. He immediately kicked her out.

She returned to her uncle Deland who accepted her back into his household. His two daughters were also pregnant. The walls of his house had fallen, someone had stolen his working materials and, with them, his livelihood. Then, his health began to fail as the population of his household was going through the roof – itself tenuously supported. As the typhus and malaria took over, he lost control of both his body and his mind.

Joegodson was trying to provide for Susamèle and his sisters in Deland’s absence. What would happen to the unborn babies if the expectant mothers didn’t eat? He was happily taken by surprise four days ago when Susamèle gave birth to a healthy girl. Now, however, both mother and daughter need care. Joegodson is empathetic towards Susamèle. They have shared the same path to get to the present. He sees her still as an eleven-year old girl, trying to read a book without anyone telling her how.

He feels such concern for Susamèle not only because he has shared a personal history with her. They passed through some abusive situations in close succession. A few years her senior and so more able to defend himself, he watched her suffer what could have been his fate had he been her age, her sex. But more, she represents for Joegodson the tragedy of Haiti, past and present.

He sees Susamèle as a symbol of Haiti’s situation in the face of violent and arrogant colonial powers. Quite possibly, this vision stirs in him an even deeper empathy for his cousin, Susamel.

Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492. He found there a people known to history as the Tainos Indians. Apparently, they were a happy people who had developed an economy based on agriculture and fishing, in harmony with the island’s ecology. They welcomed the European with gold, an unfortunate misstep.

When Queen Isabella got word of the ‘people’ with quantities of gold, she sent the troops to force them into slavery, mining it to enrich the Spanish throne. They were soon reduced to misery. Slavery did not become them. They expired almost to extinction.

Africans, in seemingly limitless supply, were brought over to work in their place. Likewise, Susamèle’s aunt came from Delmas 33 to Saut d’Eau to find a slave to help her colony (her household) enrich itself in relation to her competitors. Her competitors were not the other European empires, but the struggling households of Port-au-Prince.  Like many others, they believed that the fastest way to the middle class was by stepping on somebody else’s back. And that would become the fate of Susamèle. For the Spanish and then French colonists, Joegodson’s ancestors from Benin in Africa filled the same role.

Just as the colony grew under French rule, Susamèle’s aunt and uncle began to advance in Delmas 33. The majority of slaves, like Susamel in Delmas 33, accepted their fate at the hands of the French colonists, no matter what they felt in their heart. Meanwhile, they kept alive the notion of overturning their hated masters and taking control of their lives. But while the sentiment of freedom was widespread, it needed a spark to ignite it. At different times, courageous slaves like Mackandal and Boukman lit the fire. Like Susamèle, the fact of hating your predicament and detesting your oppressors was not enough to make you act. The slaves needed the support of others, sometimes more clear-headed than they in relation to their situation. Sometimes more courageous. Toussaint Louverture was such a visionary: a slave who refused to accept his condition and refused to think himself inferior. Such a man was destined to die in a musty French jail cell.

In Susamèle’s life, her brother (Louverture) appeared and brought with him the determination she needed. She needed someone to assure her that she was inherently worthy of dignity and respect. Her brother offered his hand. He showed her an alternative future and she happily followed him out of her nightmare.

Like Louverture, her brother then disappeared forever, leaving her alone to manage her new ‘independence.’

When Susamèle’s cousins took her suitcase, they were playing the role of the French government that refused to allow the newly independent republic to establish itself. If you leave, you leave with nothing. If you refuse to enrich us, we will impoverish you. The indemnity imposed by France was equivalent to refusing to allow Susamèle to leave even with a bag of filthy old clothes. No consideration was given to how much she had enriched the family (the colonists.) Like the colonists, the family had been trained to inflict violence. They saw it as their right to profit from Susamèle’s misery. They were willing to use violence to deny her freedom.

The aunt, who had come to rescue Susamèle, turned out to be a tyrant cut of the same cloth, just as the victorious revolutionary leaders eventually profited from the slaves that they had led in the fight for their freedom, two hundred years ago.

Susamèle, having never known love since the death of her mother, found herself thrust into the world as an attractive young woman. Seduced by a man who said he would care for her, she discovered, when the dye had been cast, that she would pay an enormous price for his ‘help.’ He supplied the seed that has resulted in a baby for which she must now care.

He left. It’s not his problem. He had only a passing interest in her. Once his lust was satisfied, she didn’t interest him.

America and Americans are that seducer, supported by all the industrialized, ‘advanced’ countries. For the last century, their intrusions have come with the flimsiest claims to help Haitians. Instead, America has left the Haitian masses in increasing misery each time, having satisfied itself. (Haiti is only one tiny corner of the world; its experience fits into a global pattern and system.)

Once again, America comes in the guise of the seducer, hiding behind offers of technical competence (and jobs that they can’t seem to create in their own country) to help the inferior Haitians who tried to learn to read in the dark, the candle waning, exhausted, and without instruction. The trap is when Haitians think that they should learn to read from this same book that cannot be a model for any other ‘domestic’ economy, for the simple reason that Haiti has no other ‘Haiti’ to exploit. The model depends upon the exploitation of others.

“We’ll do it,” they say. Never do they say, “We’ll profit.” And yet it always comes out that way.

The moment Haiti is pregnant, and loses its attractiveness, Americans will simply leave. If their enterprises in Haiti are not profitable, they will look elsewhere. Why not? It’s not their business. They tried their best, they will tell themselves.

This is an old story. Haitians like Joegodson, with the capacity to step back and see how the world functions, can see it. Americans, not so much.  

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