Unbearable Burdens

March 31, 2011

Paul and Joegodson

Joegodson went to an Internet cafe on Monday to prepare to transfer the videos he has been filming so that we can post them here. Our goal is to allow our readers the chance to listen to poor Haitians in conversation with each other about the situation that they face. That will have to wait a bit. Why?

Joegodson hasn’t been in front of a computer since his first camera was stolen in September 2010. He received the video camera in February 2011 and is now ready to share his work. Before September, he used to pay for time at the Internet cafe just to transfer the photographs for our site. It costs about seven Haitian dollars for an hour of time at the cafes. The signal is not reliable; you lose the connection often. It’s not secure enough to transfer large files like videos. But the problem is deeper. Like all poor Haitians, he has had only minimal exposure to the Internet. For instance, when he used to transfer the photos we have posted here, he had to follow the instructions that I passed to him over the phone. Of course he managed to do that on his first try and thereafter managed alone. Each time, it cost him money at the Internet cafe, but he became proficient. Readers who are used to the Internet might have to remember what it was like the first time they sat in front of a screen. On Monday, it was a bit like that for Joegodson since he hadn’t needed to look at a computer since last September. His old e-mail address was no longer active so he had to make a new one, but he was having a hard time because the screens had changed. He decided that, instead of wasting the time he had already paid for, he would look at our site and review the postings. He has less access to these postings than all the readers who simply take the medium for granted. His friends and neighbours have even less access; why would malnourished people spend money to learn how to use the Internet? And so, the progressive elements of this global “democratic” medium called the Internet may speak of the poor, but those same poor are not able to see what is being said about them. That is one of the reasons that we want to post Joegodson’s videos. At least they will be speaking for themselves.

For Joegodson, reviewing our writings was a moving experience. He went back to last year’s postings to see how we began to speak of his father, Deland. He saw the photos that he had taken of his dad with his sisters in the background. He followed the writings through Deland’s depression, his illnesses , the difficulty in finding healthcare, and up until his death and burial. He said, “Paul, you can see that he was dying in the pictures. At the time, I was so drowned in my worries and reacting to every crisis that, even though I knew the situation was serious, I didn’t see his illness the way I can see it now by studying the photographs. The problem was that he looked like so many of the poor around me everyday. They are all sick.” In fact, this morning, Joegodson is sick also. He has the same toothache that has been causing him pain since the earthquake. He also has a headache and his arms and legs have been feeling weak since last night. He wanted to post these reflections anyway. “We followed that person who was my dad on our website until his death. Do the readers realize that we aren’t making up stories?” he asked me. I could only answer that I couldn’t answer. I have a lot of ideas about that, but I’ll leave them aside and give the space over to Joegodson …

He asked our readers to look at another thread in our writings: Manouchka and Frederique. How they met, fell in love, worked in the sweatshops, resisted and resigned themselves to that work, and confronted the challenges of creating a life together in the circumstances of the perpetual post-earthquake conditions of Port-au-Prince. “Do people in your country realize how they have to live? Do the readers understand how they are suffering?” Joegodson asked. Manouchka and Frederique allow us to write about them in the same way that Deland had authorized us to describe his life and his death. Manouchka and Frederique are representative of the youth of Haiti; they could be any couple, including Joegodson and Antonia. Not all people respond the same, of course, but they confront the same world. Manouchka and Frederique tell us of the pressures that their relationship can no longer withstand. They are open about it with us and, through us, with you. They confront the same situation and they have two different responses. Manouchka accepts the sweatshops and hates them; Frederique hates the sweatshops and will not accept them. For her, they are an inevitable indignity. For him, an unacceptable indignity. She can see no other future. He cannot work towards the future that she envisions, shackled to the sweatshops. She acknowledges that he is right that there is no future worth working towards in the sweatshops. But there is nothing else. So, you work towards a future that you do not believe is worth working towards. He says that they must then make a different future.

Frederique’s challenge is that he can’t see how to create something worthwhile yet. He has nothing. He can’t get started. She can’t support him in looking for something else, because she is afraid of the present; they are hungry, living under a tarp. He says that they will always be hungry and living under a tarp as long as they submit to the lowest wage that the sweatshops can get away with paying. He says that Manouchka’s future is just the present perpetuated. If the present is unliveable, then why bother? And the politics of the sweatshop owners are clear. Manouchka and Frederique are trying to establish different futures: she is resigned to a miserable life under the thumbs of the sweatshop managers; he wants to create a future that isn’t yet in view, but isn’t the one that Manouchka accepts. But since Manouchka only harps at him to get a sweatshop job, he doesn’t feel free to search for alternatives. He feels trapped everywhere, including under the tarp they call home. And so they seem to be incompatible. She has been setting aside a sabotay, but they both know that when she receives it in July, it will go to emergencies unseen at the moment. Frederique now resents Manouchka for refusing to consider options. He thinks she is motivated by fear and he doesn’t want to give in to it. So, they now see that they have no future together – no future they can build together. Something will have to change. Joegodson and Antonia see it like another death. This time, it’s a social death – the death of a union, the death of love. But the cause is the narrow economy that is being imposed on Haiti. The planners of that economy will read this article with delight. The pain that Frederique and Manouchka bear will demonstrate that the global division of labour is serving the bottom line. There is no alternative, just as Prime Minister Thatcher once happily warned the producers of the world’s wealth.

Joegodson says that the pressures crushing Manouchka and Frederique are weighing down upon all of the poor. The price of petrol has increased and, with it, the cost of everything else. The poor are paying and it is breaking them. The taptaps that used to cost just five gouds have raised the fare to ten. Children who cannot walk to school can no longer afford to go at all. The prices of all foods have risen. People who just a couple of months ago were able to survive on a plate of rice are now noticeably malnourished. Joegodson sees the shadow of his father cast over everyone that surrounds him. They are all sick and weak. The poor are dying.

As he spoke, Joenaara started to cry in his arms. Antonia says that she is adding her voice to our conversation. At two months old, she needs the nutrients that come from Antonia’s milk. But as Antonia cannot manage to eat properly, Joenaara suffers.

Over her wailing, Joegodson says that it is the weakest who are carrying the greatest load. Joenaara agrees. The price of everything has gone up. The miserable salaries that the sweatshops pay have not budged. They are poised to go in one direction only. Those who don’t (want to) understand why the sweatshops are there in the first place cannot follow our writings.

“The situation is really grave,” Joegodson says.

We will post his videos if we find a way.

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