Love and Sex in Port-au-Prince

March 2, 2011

Joegodson and Paul

Manouchka and Frederique are having troubles. Last night, they came to ask Joegodson’s help in resolving them. Joegodson’s intuition was that the situation had to be seen in its entirety before Manouchka and Frederique could live with it. As usual, they are willing to share their experiences with the readers here. Their personal problems, we will see, are rooted in the Haitian social, economic, and political context.

Manouchka and Frederique want to get married, but neither of their families can pay anything towards that goal. Everyone they know lives from hand to mouth and, very often, even that action is rare. At their church, there are many people in the same situation and so the pastor performs group weddings periodically. One just took place; another is scheduled for the end of April. Each couple pays 1,000$ Haitian (about 200$US). Still, they have to pay for some requisites, like the marriage license. This represents a minimalist marriage that simply allows the couple to be sanctioned by the local church. But even that is out of range for Manouchka and Frederique. The costs for what many might think necessities are well beyond any possibility of realizing; for instance, a wedding ring could cost 2-3,000$H. Appropriate clothes represent another expense. In any case, even the simplest marriage is out of the question.

Manouchka has been frustrated and increasingly angry for some time. Even though she works long hours everyday at the SONAPI Industrial Park for the foreign sweatshops, she can’t afford the most minimal of marriages.  She lives under a plastic tarp. She cannot afford to eat properly and is not strong enough to perform her physically demanding work at the sweatshop. She is constantly angry at Frederique because he hasn’t worked since January when he caused an uprising in a SONAPI factory. She complains to him … constantly.

For his part, Frederique acknowledges that he does not want to work in the sweatshops. He has tried a few times now. Each experience ends with him demanding to be treated with respect. Each experience ends badly. He is also frustrated. Nevertheless, in response to Manouchka’s prodding, he goes to stand outside the factories in SONAPI waiting for another job that he really doesn’t want. In any case, he is never chosen and so he winds up standing around all day with the other unemployed men. Women are chosen first to enter the sweatshops because the managers feel they are less volatile and not so potentially disruptive as the men. In the case of Frederique and Manouchka, their judgment is well founded.

However, when Manouchka and Frederique reunite under their tent in Delmas 31, a different dynamic from SONAPI takes over. Manouchka reproaches Frederique for not working. She complains and berates him for not earning anything. Frederique cannot stand the nagging and simply leaves the tent and walks around Port-au-Prince for hours. He returns to see if Manouchka will stop complaining. If not, he leaves again.

In conversation last night, they came to see what was fueling the emotional tension that has been threatening their relationship.

Manouchka, for some time, has belonged to a sabotay at work. A sabotay is a voluntary union of workers who are underpaid in the sweatshops of Port-au-Prince. Sabotays have been in existence for decades and there are, at any given time, a number available to join. When Joegodson worked at SONAPI, he was the “Papa” of a sabotay. If a woman organizes it, she is called the “Manman.” The Manman or Papa must be well-respected for their honesty and good judgment. The workers are motivated to join a sabotay because they can trust the organizer and the other workers to honour their responsibilities to the others.

Like her fellow workers at SONAPI, Manouchka works sixty hours a week. She is paid 400$Haitian (80$US) every two weeks. Not only does that salary not allow her to save anything, it is barely enough for her to return to work. And so, when Frederique was working with her at SONAPI, she decided to join a sabotay. The idea is simple in principle. No worker can save anything. And so there is never a possibility to leave SONAPI and begin a business of one’s own, such as a humble street merchant. A sabotay is organized to allow workers to save enough money to attempt to realize some dream. Each payday, the members hand the Manman or Papa a portion of their pay. Also, each payday, one member of the sabotay receives the collected amount of all the others. The amount depends on how long you have been paying and how much you contribute each payday. There are all sorts of sabotay available depending on what you can contribute and how big are your dreams. The sabotay pays you back only what you have contributed, less a small administrative fee for the Manman or Papa. So why bother? Why not just save the money yourself or hand it to a trusted friend or put it in a bank? Because no one trusts him or herself to save anything. When you are hungry, you eat if there is any money available for you to buy food. However, if your money is in a sabotay, you cannot access it until the date that you had agreed upon in entering it. There are risks, of course. But workers trust the Manman or Papa to have stronger will power than they have. The Manman or Papa will allow the participant to go hungry, knowing that, in several months, he or she will be compensated for their sacrifices by their payout.

Manouchka pays 300 of her 400$H each payday into a sabotay that will be paid back to her in July. She cannot leave it until it is finished and all the members have been compensated as she will be. She joined the sabotay when Frederique was working with her in the sweatshops of SONAPI. He worked in a nearby factory and would bring her food and drinks bought with his salary. That allowed her to place three quarters of her salary into a sabotay and carry on working. When Frederique stopped working after the insurrection, the two of them were left with only 100$H (20$US) between them for two weeks. The price of food is rising in Port-au-Prince as everywhere. Now, she cannot eat enough to fuel her daily work. She is indebted to the local street merchants for plates of rice. She settles her account with them on payday out of what remains after she pays the Manman of her sabotay. She is weak, underfed, overworked, and always angry. According to the rules of the sabotay, if she stops contributing her fixed amount in order to access her full salary, she would then lose everything that she has already contributed. Moreover, she would be short-changing the members whose turns have not yet come to collect their benefits. It would be unethical. Contributors go to great lengths to avoid letting down their fellow members of sabotays

But there is a greater fear underlying all of that. Manouchka watches the other women who work in the sweatshops of SONAPI. She says that many of them, precisely because they are confronted with the situation in which she finds herself, fall into a kind of casual prostitution as the only way out. Men offer them food and drink so that they can continue, but they want sexual relations in return. The women are typically married and trying to support their children and others with their little salaries. Their husbands, who don’t work at SONAPI, are often unaware that, in order to not spend the bulk of their salary on food to fuel their bodies through a day’s work, their wives become unfaithful to them. Last night, Manouchka said that she was angry with Frederique because she saw herself in the future being forced to enter into sexual relations with other men like her co-workers do – out of desperation. And so, Manouchka’s anger at Frederique is caused by the fear that she may be forced by the circumstances they face to be unfaithful to him.

For his part, Frederique does not think he can change nor does he want to. He is willing to work again as before. He stands in the crowds outside the SONAPI factories each day waiting to see if he will be accepted. He says he hopes he isn’t hired because he knows how it will end. SONAPI won’t change. He can’t. He won’t.

So, what does Manouchka want to do with the sabotay when it comes due in July? Her dream is to give it to Frederique so that he can establish some little commerce. She knows that he cannot work in the conditions of SONAPI. In fact, if he did accept them without a fight, she probably would not be drawn to him as she is. In effect, she is angry with him for being who he is. She loves him for who he is.

Frederique is trying to think of how to best use the money when they get it. Planning a future in the situation that the poor in Port-au-Prince face is no easy matter. Getting to July safe and sound is already a big challenge for both Frederique and Manouchka.

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