Black Looks: In Haiti, toilets are a human right: From poo to compost in 6 months

I met Sasha Kramer the co-founder of SOIL [Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods] one Sunday afternoon at a Haitian family wedding party high up on the top of a hill in Pernier district of Port-au-Prince.    About 20 of us piled into the flat bed truck and drove up and up at some points the road was so steep and so full of rocks and holes I feared those in the back would fall off.  Sasha and her colleague Nick were already there and later Nick would give a “best man” speech in fluent Kreyol, which was pretty impressive.  As in most Haitian gatherings there was a great deal of singing – I always wonder why hymns always sound so much better when sung in one of the many African languages or in Black churches! This is a whole other story so I will leave it aside for now.

Sasha arrived in Haiti in 2004 working for a Human Rights organisation. Two years later she and her friend Sarah Brownell founded SOIL and started putting up toilets in Cap Haitian in the north of the country.  We think about the right to food, water and shelter but most often forget the sanitation – what goes in must come out – there is no way to avoid it.  And Haiti along with water supplies desperately needs a sanitation system starting with collection of market waste which following SOIL’s vision could be turned into compost for farmers.

After the earthquake Sasha came down to Port-au-Prince to help out and met Rea Dol and began helping out with the emergency food distribution along with Rea’s family, friends and neighbours. Everyone worked day and night buying food, packaging it into plastic bags and distributing to anyone in need. Shortly after the earthquake SOIL were approached by Oxfam and asked to build 200 toilets in the camps across the city. There were moments of panic as they did not feel they were ready but recognising the desperate need managed to gather together a team in PAP and began building the toilets.

The philosophy behind SOIL which they describe as  ”liberation ecology” is

dedicated to protecting soil resources, empowering communities and transforming wastes into resources in Haiti. We believe that the path to sustainability is through transformation, of both disempowered people and discarded materials, turning apathy and pollution into valuable resources. SOIL promotes integrated approaches to the problems of poverty, poor public health, agricultural productivity, and environmental destruction. We attempt to nurture collective creativity through developing collaborative relationships between community organizations in Haiti and academics and activists internationally Empowering communities, building the soil, nourishing the grassroots.

Toilets too are a human right.

The toilets are pretty cool – much needed in Haiti and we could do with some in Nigeria, other parts of the global south and rural areas everywhere.  There had been some problems with the one in the school – getting the kids to put the loo paper in a separate bucket rather than the toilet was frustrating but then with no running water, having to buy water and carry buckets to flush the toilet the compost still remained a better option

The toilets are based on a compost system starting with the poo and ending up with fertilizer for growing food.  First the toilet which consists of two compartments, one for urine and the other for poo placed exactly where you would sit or stand up.

Next to the toilet is a bucket full of wood shavings and one for the toilet paper. After use, you take a handful of shavings and sprinkle over the poo. This continues until the barrel is full.  Instructions on how to use the loo are written on the door.

It is then removed through a side door, sealed and left for 6 months while it ferments nicely towards becoming compost and used to fertilizer gardens and farms.  Eventually the hope is that a complete “waste collection and transport system” will be built including a treatment plant using garden and market waste, tested to meet standards and sold at a low cost to farmers across the country.

The one I used which was near a small church and presumably used by visitors was extremely clean with absolutely no smell, no bugs, nothing and outside was a tap to wash your hands, though to be on the safe side in the time of cholera  people should try and use a sanitizer as well.

PS: If you are thinking about an organisation to donate to in Haiti then SOIL is one to consider – will write more on a couple of other transformational actions taking place.

Sokari Ekine writes and organizes at Black Looks: www.blacklooks.org/. This post originally appeared here: http://www.blacklooks.org/2011/01/right-to-toilets-from-poo-to-compost-in-6-months/. Thanks as ever to Sokari for her work and labor and for her sharing spirit.

(Photo Credit: SOIL)

Black Looks: Women’s movement building and creating community in Haiti

Thousands of words have been written about Haiti in the past 12 months covering everything from the NGOisation of the country, the politics of humanitarian aid, endless questions and discussion on what happened to the $ millions donated by individuals and countries, the horrendous conditions in the camps where some 1.2 million IDP are forced to live and particularly for women and children hundreds of whom have been raped, trafficked to the Dominican Republic and forced into prostitution to survive.  In addition to the earthquake, Haitians have had to live through another devastating hurricane and now cholera which as of today has affected 30,000 people.  And to add to the frustration and anger, an election which by all independent accounts was fraudulent and farcical.    As I write, protests calling for the annulment of the elections are planned this afternoon.   If one is to judge from the many radio phone-ins, people are angry and concerned that the the much hated Preval will announce  his preferred candidate, Jude Celestine as the new leader despite the fact that so far the majority votes appear to be for “Micky” Matterly and Madam Manigat – but all of this can change in a moment.  For women organising in the community the elections are a distraction.   If the Preval candidate is declared the winner then there will be more violence.  If Matterly is declared the winner, it is

One of the stories least reported has been the one about Haitians organising for themselves, particularly stories presented within a framework of feminist organising and movement building.   This is one woman’s story of how she, her family and the people in the various communities in which she works, came together collectively to care for each other’s needs and how that struggle has become the foundation of a new movement  of the poor for  change in education and the material lives of women and men – a struggle for dignity.   Their personal and collective humanitarian response was completely off the radar of NGOs, international institutions and the Haitian government.  Even Save The Children, whose office is located right next to the school did nothing to help SOPUDEP.      However ultimately this was an aside for Rea.   What was important was that those who needed help of whatever kind, received it and beyond that the struggle for dignity and self-determination for the poor people of Haiti.

A mere five minutes passed between the death of one one of the school teachers and the life given to Rea and her teenage daughter – on of three children.

“I was in the school when it happened and I cannot describe the horror around me. The school was empty and did not fall, but the neighbourhood collapsed. Five people were crushed to death just meters from me when one of the outer walls of the school grounds collapsed. My first responsibility was to my family, so I had to get home, but the streets were chaotic. People were panicking and screaming. I had to run home ten kilometers through those streets to find my family. The phones weren’t working. It was horrible.”

Once it was established Rea’s family were all safe – a house just five minutes walk from Rea’s own home collapsed – she set about caring for the many in her community and where ever she was needed.   Everyone was in shock but there was no time to think about what had happened as people were injured.   Many people – students, families knowing about her community work, flocked to Rea’s home and at one point there were some 60 people in her home.  People feared to sleep indoors so they removed all the mattresses, blankets, pillows, whatever they could find and spread them outside.  It was January and freezing cold during the night but anything was preferable to being inside.  Rea said it took her months before she stopped waking up with nightmares of being crushed.  Even now one wakes up and gives thanks that you made it through the night.  I too find myself staring at the ceiling every night and wondering which part would collapse first and how I would get out.

The first day after the quake, Rea went to the shop were she usually bought the school supplies and asked if they would give her credit as she needed to buy food. They told her to take whatever she needed and not to worry.  As much food as possible was collected and everyone in the house, the children, students, guests neighbours, set about making food packs. They worked all night making the packs which they then distributed to anyone on the streets during the day.  As donations from friends of SOPUDEP and organisations such as the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF), the Haiti Action Committee, Sawatzky Family Foundation (SFF) began to arrive, Rea was able to buy more food and medical supplies and continue the distribution.    Food which was only being given to women and mostly bags of rice were available for those prepared to queue for up to 4 hours.   Rea said she did not have the time to queue for 25lbs of rice and preferred to go and buy it with whatever money she had to hand.   Besides, fights often broke out with people tired and hungry and everyone trying to push their way forward.  The military would then beat the women and children.    In total food and water were distributed to 31 centers by Rea’s team.

In addition to financial donations, SOPUDEP received a lot of medical supplies which were taken to the various mobile clinics which had been set up in camps and other locations.    Though the number of recipients decreased over time, the food collection and distribution last for three months.   At a point in time Rea realised this dependency created out of a crisis could not continue.   They would forever be in a state of oppression and remain in the clutches of NGOs, beggars in their own land.

No one ever knew when money would arrive which meant any kind of systematic planning was impossible. It was like waiting for the tooth fairy to arrive and besides what humanitarian aid was being distributed was not reaching Rea’s community.  It was all too ad hoc to be sustainable.

The next money she received was a sum of $3000 and she began to think of another way.  Instead of buying  food but she would deposit the money in the bank and start a small micro-credit-saving programme. It took courage and was a huge risk because people were hungry but determined to create some degree of sustainability and stability, in a moment she made up her mind.     A meeting was called and the idea  put to the 21 women with whom she had been working over the past months and though there were doubts  they trusted Rea.   The Micro-Credit scheme “Fanm SOPUDEP AN AKSYON” [SOPUDEP Women in Action] begun with $3000 and 21 women.

I was surprised when I heard Rea had started a Micro-Credit scheme as there were so many negative reports on schemes which rather than enhance and empower women, ended up impoverishing them even more.   So I was interested to find out more about the SOPUDEP scheme, whether it was working and why it worked and I will write about this later after meeting with the various women’s group.

Rea’s philosophy is that each individual has to take responsibility for themselves and the notion of something for free is neither healthy nor sustainable.   Both the school and the women’s project are framed within the idea of personal and collective responsibility.   Education in Haiti must be available for all and everyone encouraged to attend and no one is turned away from SOPUDEP because they cannot pay.   However everyone is asked to try to contribute something when they can, even if it is 5 gouds or helping in the school somehow [$1=40Gds appx].    The school operates two sessions – the main one in the morning and an afternoon session for those who have never attended schools both older children and adults.

The elections are a distraction.    Leaders have the power to bring change but no one believes any leader will do anything for the poor.  Everyone I asked about Aristide wanted him back because they believed he was one leader who could change their lives for the better.  Right now the only way is for communities to reach out to each other and create alliances which is what SOPUDEP is beginning to do.  Rea’s vision is one I share.  We cannot fix Haiti, but we can fix our community and help others fix theirs.  Eventually as all these communities build alliances amongst themselves, they will become strong and then maybe begin to fix Haiti.

Since the earthquake there has been an increase in the awarness that communities have to help each other and work together.  People are not only more determined to improve their lives and that of their community, they truly believe it is possible.  Two more schools for the poor have come under the umbrella of SOPUDEP.   One in Bobin with 250 students, children and adults and one in  Boucan Lapli with about 60 children.   The main school which started in 2002 with 182 children from Petion-Ville presently has 486 students.

I have spent two days at the school with the freedom to roam.  I came across a class whose teacher was absent and I ended up teaching English for 45 minutes followed by the students giving me a lesson in Kreyol.   Now I have been asked by them  to teach the same class for the next couple of weeks till they break uap for holidays.  The school is truly like  family. Since the Micro-credit scheme, parents and school staff have all been encouraged to open savings account.   The children are continuously greeting and kissing Madam Rea. Her office which she shares with the accountant / office manager, Billy Bataille, is a constant hive of activity with women coming to deposit their repayments, students wanting things fixed or asking advice from Madam Rea or Billy.  Outside the office, women clean beans and rice in preparation for tomorrow’s food – the door is always open. Yesterday Rea opened a suitcase of books she had bought with donations from a partner school in the US.  She now has some 15,000 books [mostly in French so more Kreyol and English books are needed] which have to be indexed and will form the school library.   A volunteer teacher from the US has promised to take on the task.

SOPUDEP nevertheless faces many challenges.   The building survived the earthquake but remains in disrepair.  All the external walls of the compound collapsed along with most of the surrounding buildings with the exception of the Save The Children building.  The building housing the school dates back to the Duvallier days and was always structurally superior to others in the neighbourhood.   All the classrooms are open to the elments as there are no windows.  There is no water and since the earthquake, no electricity.   Recenly a group of NGOs met to discuss how to  control the spread of cholera within the country’s 22,000 schools.  The idea is to hold training sessions for district heads and some school directors on precautions to take.  Many schools are already doing this but a more coordinated effort would improve the situation.  However as Rea pointed out, we can do all we can in the schools but what happens when the children return to their homes where they are reliant on standpipes and no santitary facilities?  The majority of people are unemployed yet there is masses of rubbish and rubble to clear – the solution seems quite simple really.

Through donations, SOPUDEP has purchased a piece of land in Delmas 83 and have so far managed to build the fencing wall. It will take six months to build but all that depends on how quick they can raise the money needed to complete the project.  I find it sad that an organisation like SOPUDEP which is real and which has a history has to rely on small donations from international friends and parents to survive.  If they are not deserving of more sustained support then I wonder who is.

Sokari Ekine writes and organizes at Black Looks. This post appeared originally here.

 

(Photo Credit: SOPUDEP)

Nascent Collectivities 2

Everlyn Masha Koya

In my previous posting, I looked at testimony of Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer educator from Isiolo, Kenya. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade led me to reflect upon contradiction between women’s economic contributions to nation-state and the nation-state’s desire to control women’s behavior and women’s sexuality. Yet it is also a story about state efforts to provide women with different economic opportunities and about women’s efforts to negotiate better lives for themselves and for other women. What else could Ms Koya’s story tell us?

Ms Koya’s grant from the state suggests that it, or its agents, have an interest in expanding women’s economic opportunities. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out, the state isn’t a monolithic structure. It is made up of different institutions and individuals who do different, sometimes competing, things. While one arm of the state might be securing its sovereignty by making it possible for sex workers to have access to military bases, another arm of the state might be securing grants to give women training so they have a wider range of economic opportunities. As Sunder Rajan argues, “any understanding of state-citizen relations requires…attention to the microlevel workings of state regimes” (6).

Ms Koya’s testimony suggests that the state might participate in the exploitation and oppression of women’s bodies and lives. But if we look at different branches of the state, and different individuals who work for it, the state also can be used to improve women’s lives. As Ms Koya reports, “Then in July [2009], officials from the [government’s] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit. They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.”

What else can we learn from this story?  Within the situations that she has inherited, Ms Koya’s efforts to transform her own life and the lives of other women, to work for freedom from violence tells us about what women are doing within, and against, epistemic violence. In some locations, because of their economic contributions and their perceived social role of servicing male sexual need, sex workers have been able to emerge as a collective and make demands on the state. As Cynthia Enloe points out, there have been efforts by women in Kenya and in the Philippines to create networks of women in countries that host American military bases. This is a step towards addressing and dismantling the global gender structures on which military bases depend. There are other transnational and local efforts, including daily work of survival by growing gardens and recycling waste, organizing gender forum; occupying leftist organizations which don’t address gender and gendered labor; fighting back through state institutions and on the streets; union organizing; reporting which reframes issues as women’s issues; reporting which reframes issues as more than just women’s issues; story telling; women, and people around them, saying “enough,” and many other activities for dignity and well-being.

If we look closely, we see women actively participating in public life. Women are at the forefront of resistance movements in places like Honduras and South Africa. Women protest the failure of the state to investigate the systematic murder of women in Vancouver and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Women challenge the meaning of public space and public mourning in Argentina and Iran. Women organize feminist media in Costa Rica. And there is the more quiet, everyday work of women to improve the daily conditions and work to enable themselves and their families to survive in the face of everyday poverty or ‘natural’ disasters. This happens just about everywhere and has different contexts but let’s point to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as one place where women struggle to survive.

Paying attention to gendered violence and power, all forms and mixes of it, that work through the family, the community, the state and its institutions, and through economic structures and arrangements is important work. But so is paying attention to women’s individual and collective efforts, in the context of gendered power, all forms and mixes of it, to “transform the conditions of their lives” (Kabeer, 54). Women are not just victims of material forces, state power and cultural patriarchy. Women actively seek to work for the health and well being of their families, their children, other women, and their communities. In the context of structural constraints, we see women like Ms Koya struggling, negotiating, working, and, even, organizing. It’s important to pay attention to what women are doing, their activities and obstacles to their activities, in relation to the gender-structured conditions that they’ve inherited.

 

(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)

Child-ghosts in the society of the spectacle

In November 2008, La Promesse, a school in Port-au-Prince, collapsed. Three stories came crashing down, at least 84 children and staff were killed, over 150 injured. It was not an earthquake that brought death to those children. It was shoddy construction, it was greed. Immediately afterwards, the mayor of Port-au-Prince stated that over half of Haiti’s building were poorly built and unsafe.

Michele Voltaire Marcelin tried to understand, to live with, the calculations that leave children suffering and dead under the weight of preventable destruction. She tried to understand the promise we make to our children:

The Promise
— For the Haitian schoolchildren who 
died under the rubble of “La Promesse”

children die
do not talk to me about prayer
or paradise
talk is cheap
children die
and my anger supercedes my grief
remember
it was a november morning like any other
when the plaster the brick the mortar
came crashing down
children die
under the rubble of the promise
women cry
the air is heavy as lead
the air is filled with dust
we live in heartless times
and children die
looking for paradise

Children die. We live in heartless times and children die. Those children become child-ghosts. We live in an age of spectacle in which children die and living children are treated as dead. Both are child-ghosts.

Sunday morning, May 16, seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones lay asleep in her bed, when Detroit police rushed in with guns drawn and, quickly, blazing, and killed her. An accident, they said, in apology, as explanation. `A Tragedy in Detroit, With a Reality TV Crew in Tow’, according to The New York Times. The police were participating in an A&E reality show, The First 48. For some, this is an issue about reality shows, for others police violence, for others the value of the lives of people of color, of girls of color. These are all worthy lines of lines of inquiry.

At the same time, Aiyana Stanley-Jones is precisely not a tragedy because her story is too familiar and too often repeated. She is one with the girls of La Promesse, young, Black, dreaming, and killed. A ghost-child.

The next day, Monday, the US Supreme Court decided that “juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” “An incredibly important win for kids who’ve been condemned to die in prison”? Perhaps. A step in the right direction, but not a long enough nor a strong enough step? Probably. A ruling that addresses neither the inequities of life without parole nor the cynical inequalities of the parole system? Most likely.

Sentencing a child to life without the possibility of parole turns that child into a child-ghost. Once he or she, and the majority are he (and he of color, at that) is sentenced, the game is over, the play is done, the curtain is drawn. All that matters is the spectacle of society being defended, the courtroom drama that assures that humans will be protected from monsters. How? By sending them to the beyond. That those monsters actually are still alive is irrelevant. Who really cares about ghosts produced in a society of spectacle? No one.

And what of those children whose only crime is that of seeking safety?

On Wednesday, the British Home Office announced that children would no longer be held at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland. The decision came soon after a Pakistani woman asylum, Sehar Shebaz, and her 12 month old daughter Wania were arrested on Monday, and sent to Dungavel. People protested. The Home Office said fine … and then prepared to ship Sehar and Wania Shebaz to Yarl’s Wood.

Yarl’s Wood … again: “Anne McLaughlin, SNP MSP for Glasgow, called for an immediate end to the policy across the rest of the UK. Ms McLaughlin has been a key activist in the high profile campaign to prevent Florence Mhango, from Malawi, and her 10-year-old daughter Precious, who were held at Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood, from being deported after seven years in the UK. She said: `From Precious we know the horrific impact detention at Dungavel has on young children, but we also know that her experience at Yarl’s Wood was no better. By removing children immediately to Yarl’s Wood they are being taken away from the support networks and services they have built up in Scotland. The House of Commons has been highly critical of child detention in Yarl’s Wood and we must see this practice brought to an end across the UK as soon as possible.’”

A child seeks asylum and is sent to prison. A woman seeks asylum, with her child, and is sent to prison. Does it matter which prison? Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, out of options, out of light, out of life. They are ghosts, and they are treated as such.

Today is May 22, 2010. May 22, 2009, seven girls perished in an altogether preventable fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, Georgina Saunders, all 16 years old; Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15, and Stephanie Smith, 17. The Prime Minister called it a tragedy. Of course. A video and petition campaign has begun to make sure that the Prime Minister and the Director of Public Prosecutions work harder, work better so that the tragedy is not repeated.

These child-ghosts, these girl-ghosts, under the rubble, under the gun, behind the bars, in the flames, they are children, living, breathing, human children. In fact, they are our children. We must teach them as we ourselves must learn and live the lesson of the Griot, “You got to be a spirit! You can’t be no ghost.”

 

(Photo Credit: Herb Boyd / Voice of Detroit)

Haiti, “mes cousins jamais nés 
hantent les nuits de Duvalier”

Nadia François

Tragic haunting has moved recently to the center of the world stage. Tragic haunting is the haunting of singular, incomprehensible, inexpressible moments, and Haiti is the epicenter of the tragic haunting.

There are the images. Michael Mullady is a 26-year-old photographer, currently in Haiti. He’s been trying to photograph the conditions on the ground: “What I’ve witnessed will be sure to haunt me.” The tragic haunting of the witnesses is in the certainty of the ineffable trace the experience leaves on the soul and on the eye. Part of the tragic haunting is also the recognition that witnessing is a luxury. Haitian women and men don’t have time to witness. They gather. People like Nadia François from Delmas 75, in Port-au-Prince, spend the whole day and much of the night gathering and distributing for the community. Everywhere Haitian survivors are taking very good care of one another and of themselves. Hope rises from the ashes of the fires women make to cook, to clean, to purify. When the quake struck, what articles did the women take? They took pots and buckets. They knew. The work of sustaining leaves little time for witness. That time will come, but not now.

This tragic haunting, though singular, is not the first for Haiti. In November 2007, the Montreal-based band Arcade Fire announced its affiliation and with support for Partners in Health and its Haitian sister organization, Zanmi Lasante. In performance, word, song, and deed, they raised money and support for Zanmi Lasante and raised awareness about the ongoing devastation of Haiti by multinationals, by foreign forces, and especially by the United States. Their song “Haiti’ captures a bit of that:

“Haiti

Haïti, mon pays,
wounded mother I’ll never see.
Ma famille set me free.
Throw my ashes into the sea.

Mes cousins jamais nés
hantent les nuits de Duvalier.
Rien n’arrete nos esprits.
Guns can’t kill what soldiers can’t see.

In the forest we lie hiding,
unmarked graves where flowers grow.
Hear the soldiers angry yelling,
in the river we will go.

Tous les morts-nés forment une armée,
soon we will reclaim the earth.
All the tears and all the bodies
bring about our second birth.

Haïti, never free,
n’aie pas peur de sonner l’alarme.
Tes enfants sont partis,
In those days their blood was still warm”

My unborn cousins haunt the nights of Duvalier.

Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying tells the story of her father, her uncle, herself, her family, including Maxo, her cousin who died last month in the earthquake. Danticat’s Uncle Joseph and cousin Maxo were arrested and sent to Krome Detention Center, outside Miami. Krome: “a place that … all Haitians knew meant nothing less than humiliation and suffering and more often than not a long period of detention before deportation” Uncle Joseph died at Krome. Krome was a death sentence for a man of his age and ill health.

The penultimate chapter of Brother, I’m Dying is “Brother, I’ll See You Soon.” It is the book’s climax and the articulation of the tragic haunting. Uncle Joseph is buried in Queens, New York, not in Haiti. The chapter is framed by two mirror reflections of Haiti’s tragic haunting.

First, Uncle Joseph’s: “Uncle Joseph’s most haunting childhood memory, and the only one he ever described to me in detail, was one of the year 1933, when he was ten years old. The U.S. occupation of Haiti was nearing its final days. Fearing that he might at last be captured by the Americans to work in the labor camps formed to build bridges and roads, my granfather, Granpè Nozial, ordered him never to go down the mountain, away from Beauséjour. Uncle Joseph wasn’t even to accompany his mother, Granmè Lorvana, to the marketplace so that he might never lay eyes on occupying marines or they him. When he left home to fight, Granpè Nozial never told my uncle and his sisters, Tante Ino and Tante Tina, where he was going”

One day, Uncle Joseph had to go down the mountainside to the market. He came upon a group of six or seven white men in dark high boots kicking something on the ground. This is what the ten-year-old saw, what haunted him: “They kept kicking the thing on the ground as though it were a soccer ball, bouncing it to one another with the rounded tips of their boots. Taking small careful steps…, my uncle finally saw what it was: a man’s head. The head was full of black peppercorn hair. Blood was dripping out of the severed neck, forming dusty dark red bubbles in the dirt. Suddenly my uncle realized why Granpè Nozial and Granmè Lorvana wanted him to stay home. Then, as now, the world outside Beauséjour was treacherous indeed.”

The chapter ends with Danticat’s father’s tragic haunting: “My uncle was buried in a cemetery in Queens, New York. His grave sits by an open road, overlooking the streets of Cyprus Hills and the subway tracks above them. During his life, my uncle had clung to his home, determined not to be driven out. He had remained in Bel Air, in part because it was what he knew. But he had also hoped to do some good there. Now he would be exiled finally in death. He would become part of the soil of a country that had not wanted him. This haunted my father more than anything else.”

For Haitians, the tragic haunting is not new. It comes with US Marines and US immigration officers and Haitian dictators. Hope rises from the ashes, from the songs, from unmarked graves, from the memories, from the tears, the bodies, the warm blood. Meanwhile, in Miami, they’re moving prisoners out of Krome to prepare for the “potential influx of Haitian migrants”.

 

(Photo Credit: João Pina / Kameraphoto / New Yorker)

Haiti, like this woman’s song

Last Sunday, Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean stood before a gathering in Calgary, broke into a song her mother used to sing to her, as a child in Haiti. She sang a song in Creole, and then, in English, said, “It’s a song of hope. Like this woman’s song, rose from the wreckage, that song that traveled over the airwaves to reach us. So I thought, even when we have nothing left, there’s always a song. There’s always music, words and then steps, to bring us back to life, to bring us together and to provide hope.”

You have to hear and see her sing to understand the power of the moment, to feel that moment in which she fuses her mother’s song, her mother’s daughter’s song, and the song of the woman rising from wreckage, songs that bind and songs that bring.

The past two weeks have been filled with many reports, many images, many words, many silences. Images of women emerging from the rubble, ghostlike with the chalk and dust covering their faces and bodies. Pictures of girls, panicked, traumatized, barely emerging from the rubble, from les décombres, from the ruins. The images, the stories, the words are haunting.

For me the hardest part is the living. There have been so many dead here, corpses are so common both on the street and oozing out of the wreckage, that it’s the living who haunt me.”

But what is the quality of the haunting?

Edwidge Danticat’s cousin Maxo died in the earthquake, died as well because the United States refused his asylum appeal.

“When Maxo was a teen-ager, his favorite author was Jean Genet. He read and reread `Les Nègres.’ These lines from the play now haunt me: `Your song was very beautiful, and your sadness does me honor. I’m going to start life in a new world. If I ever return, I’ll tell you what it’s like there. Great black country, I bid thee farewell.’”

Those with experience of Haiti know the intricate and intimate filaments of the tragedy, they know the names, which they must speak and share and weave into something new:

When Robinson and I last toured Cite Soleil in March of 2009, a small girl approached me from out of nowhere, shoving a tiny piece of paper into my hand. Then she ran away. On that paper she had scribbled her name: Adline Verne. It took me some time to understand how powerful it was that she had no concrete expectations and had asked nothing of me. She merely wanted me to know, for future reference, that she existed. Because she opened her hand to extend to me this information, I feel obligated by journalistic responsibility to report it. In Haiti, there are millions of voiceless, nameless people like Adline. Maybe now their voices will be heard.”

The Haiti that haunts cannot be the Haiti of the living dead nor can it be the Haiti of rubble. It must be the Haiti of the living, including the living who have died. It could begin with a song sung by a woman conjuring the woman who was her mother singing that song to the girl she once was, a mother’s song that then forms a chorus with another song, a song sung by a woman emerging from the wreckage, refusing to become one with the wreckage, refusing to become rubble, rising and traveling and reaching, among others, us.

 

Black Looks: Haiti Cherie

Haiti Cherie

What word can encompass stretch its arms and wrap them around
A day when the world returns to the dust it was
Before we fashioned orderly chaos and became free
The First Negro Republic raises weakened arms to wipe
The Ash
From its eyes water and ash to mould human tragedy
What word can encompass… we have asked before
Encompass passion itself when it screams whimpers
Haiti mwen
Haiti nou
Nou la épi zot

The word that encompasses has not yet been created
Bondyé ki pa bon
The word cannot be found
Under the rubble of ash and water edifices
Buildings made from tears and dust that crumble into a void of screaming and loss
A hellish void of independence and burnt out communication lines sparking revolting revolutionary pain
And yet is Haiti so epic that
Hurricane-proofed we sink into the earth from which
Yo di
We came
The dead in the streets and the word cannot be found the dust will not settle for the word to be found
She hides in the folds of warm pervasive stench heavy and loud as shattered eardrums
She cavorts with criminals buried under police stations and wives caressing newborns to deep deep sleep

Reveal yourself, word!
One hundred French citizens buried beneath a thousand Haitian bodies
Ki té ké soucouri corps mwen
And they keep coming
The hits
The hits
Les coups n’arrêtent pas
What more do we ask but to find the word that can
That will
Reach long arms around the day when God gripped us in His loving hands
And shook and shook
Finality
He set us down gently like lambs beautiful black sheep and
Poured ashes onto our heads?

Annie Quarcoopome

Annie Quarcoopome writes at Black Looks. This poem appeared on Black Looks, January 13, http://www.blacklooks.org/2010/01/haiti_cherie_.html