June 26, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, Joegodson was allowing his mind to wander at church. It was a Sunday morning and the pastor was preaching in French. More than three-quarters of the congregation do not speak French and understood only vaguely what the pastor was saying. Everyone speaks Creole. Why not preach in Creole? Joegodson had already raised the issue several times, but the pastor laughs him off. In the pulpit, the pastor wants to project an image of authority and affluence, to align himself with the wealthiest element in the pews, and to attract people to his church who speak the language of the rich. To attract the rich.

But the poor go to the church for comfort and for encouragement. Joegodson thinks that the church fails them badly. As the pastor spoke, three-quarters of the congregation were joking among themselves or staring into space. He knows them well. They are no better off than he is. Those who work cannot afford more than a tiny room in the slums. They cannot feed their families. For the last few weeks, Joegodson’s daughter Joenaara – now seventeen months old – takes his hand and leads him to the china cabinet he built where she hopes he will mix her some milk. But he hasn’t been able to afford the powdered milk. He’s not alone. He knows that most of the Creole-speaking people in the church were wondering, like him, how they would get by.

The situation is clear. The people need money to survive. There is very little money in circulation. Never enough. They look for help. But where? The pastor plays to the class that wants to rule. He doesn’t even pretend to be addressing the poor. The only way that life is materially tolerable is to enter the system that exploits others. The pastor thinks that people are better off when they can get a job that allows them to exploit others. (In fact, any and all jobs are scarce.) For instance, a foreman in a sweatshop where the workers are terribly exploited. For Joegodson, the pastor is like the priests that the plantation owners brought over from France in the days of the colony to tell the slaves about God. God was in France. But Joegodson is drawn to Jesus’ message of humility and love. Don’t exploit, don’t be exploited.

As the pastor spoke to the rich, Joegodson let his mind wander, thinking about the poor all around him. And an idea presented itself. In his childhood in Saut d’Eau, he was used to seeing the peasants working in konbit, in cooperation with each other. Faced with an overwhelming job, people took comfort in working together. They shared the work. They shared the harvests. They encouraged each other. They didn’t have to face life alone.

Joegodson thought of all the people in his situation in Port-au-Prince. Many have a plot of land in Canaan where they dream to move. Like him, they want to escape their rooms in the slums. Not all have even a room. But, also like him, they have no money to complete construction. You need to buy cement. You need rocks. Sand. You need iron bars to reinforce the building. No one can manage it and so they will all lose their plots and their dreams.

So, he started to bring together all of these people. Eighteen so far. Some were in the church, some outside. The main criterion was that the people be trustworthy, respectful of each other, and serious. He put together a sabotay for home construction. (A sabotay is a kind of cooperative, usually for saving money. This one is a variation.) This is how it works: No one can afford the materials it will take to finish their home. No one can do it alone. But together, it is possible. For instance, if everyone accepts the responsibility to contribute two sacks of cement and one iron bar every two weeks, then they can pool all of that material so that one person in the group can advance the work on his or her property. Not to completion, but substantially. Some people who are skilled in masonry, ironwork, and engineering are included to ensure that the construction is sound. Then everyone works to help one person. Two weeks later, that person contributes, along with all the other members, to the next person in the sabotay. After the end of the cycle (nine months from the beginning), they begin again at the property of the first person, to take that dwelling to the next level. For instance, they may be able to finish the foundation. Then, on the next round, they will complete the walls. Then, maybe the roof. At that point, the member will be able to take possession. But the sabotay will continue, with everyone helping the others. Joegodson can see that, as time goes along, all skills can be called into action. His own talent as a cabinet-maker will be helpful once there is a need for furniture. And cultivation, and clothing. There is no end to the needs. It can grow forever.

He has christened it Sòl-Kay. It’s clever. Sòl is another word for sabotay. It also refers to the ground or the foundation. Kay means home. So, it means that the co-operative is dedicated to the building of the community’s homes, from the ground up.

This initiative cannot take them out of the money economy, where they will never prevail. They still need to purchase sacks of cement, reinforcement bars, rocks, and sand. But it minimizes their vulnerability. Instead, it places the focus on the community of people that it brings into existence. Imagine the community that they are creating. These people will someday live together in Canaan. But they will have brought their community into existence together. Alone, none of them would have been able to escape their present situation.

The people who are coming together have confidence that they will be dependable. They depend on each other. That is a recognition of their interdependence. Many people in the same situation cannot be included because of their egoism. If they were to be unreliable and dishonest – that is, if they would abandon Sòl-Kay the moment that their home was completed – then they are unwelcome. Humility is the cornerstone of the enterprise. You have to accept that you are vulnerable alone. You have to be willing to accept the help of others. The pastor of the church where many of the members originate is not yet mature enough to partake in Sòl-Kay. He wants to divide. This group wants to include. But Joegodson has structured into Sòl-Kay a disincentive to leave. The first round will not be enough to complete the construction of a house, so that members will be motivated to stay for the next round to advance their homes further.

They are no longer isolated. Whatever happens, they will face it together.

This is also a response to the arrogance of the international NGOs and others who come to Haiti to help the poor. Joegodson sees the same spirit among them as the pastor demonstrates. They are proud. They are superior. They have to come to lead. They say “help.” Humility is unknown. They are structurally divided from the poor by their salaries and their living conditions and their accountability to corporate interests in foreign countries and bourgeois interests in Haiti. Moreover, it is clear that there is structurally no chance of economic advancement for poor Haitians in this era of global capitalism. There never was. The very notion of the “developing” world was always a cruel piece of propaganda. The members of Sòl-Kay are responding intelligently.

It is difficult for those of us who have accepted the notion that all the world is developing towards liberal democratic affluence to face the reality of global capitalism in 2012. Some apparently still imagine that the rich countries want to, or can, help the poor. They cannot help themselves. But there is another lesson to be learned here. Charles Eisenstein reminds us that the Golden Rule of Jesus is best translated, “As you do unto others, so also you do unto yourself.” Sòl-Kay is, literally, a concrete example of that wisdom. The lessons that need to be learned today must flow in humility and in all directions. To create a community based on sharing and in mutual co-operation, with as little emphasis on money as possible (effectively scarce in any case) should be understood as visionary for all the world.


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