Christmas card we just sent to friends and family:
You can't see it well in the photographs, but Alexis's necklace - gifted to her by a new, dear coworker and friend - spells out espwa, Creole for hope.
Sunday will be our 4th Christmas in Haiti, a place that is unfortunately known less for its beauty, generosity, spiritual vitality, dancing, art and revolutionary heritage than for violence, insecurity and material poverty. Though (or perhaps because) our years here have been marked by multiple hurricanes, an earthquake, a cholera epidemic, political instability and some difficult personal experiences, this place has taught us a lot about the power of Hope.
In a meditation titled "The Gates of Hope," Minister Victoria Safford writes:
"Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness … nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of 'Everything is gonna be all right,' but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see."
What a fitting meditation for this season. In this exciting year, people around the world have taken to the streets demanding change to the systems that create poverty, violence and oppression. All of creation groans for a new heaven and a new earth, a world recreated with peace and justice. At Christmas, we are reminded of Hope and reminded, too, of our responsibility to be gate-keepers of Hope, to imagine both the world as it could be and ourselves as co-creators in building that world.
Hope is in part what has kept us in Haiti. We continue to take joy in Haiti's beauty, spirit, generosity and dancing. That joy usually balances out the daily heartache - and, let's be honest, the frequent frustrations - of living here. Alexis started a new job in July, working for a group called Other Worlds. Ben is still taking pictures. Our garden is green and flowering, Luna (the cat) is still spoiled, we go hiking in the mountains as often as possible and we're still blogging at www.blexi.blogspot.com. We remain infinitely grateful for the love of our friends and family.
Merry, Merry Christmas!
Love, Joy, Peace and HOPE,
Alexis and Ben
“Those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2
Last week Ben was featured, along with Sean Penn and Oprah Winfrey, on the cover of Haiti's progressive newspaper, Haiti Liberté.
Okay, so Ben might be just a little bit harder to pick out... but he's there (right above the microphone). This picture is from the protest in Saint Marc on Human Rights Day and the headline reads, "MINUSTAH: Victims Demand Justice and Reparations." See here for news and updates related to the IJDH/BAI cholera lawsuit against the UN.
Oprah was here last weekend, as were Kim Kardashian, Louis Farrakhan, Ben Stiller, and Maria Bello. Sean is usually around here somewhere, too. Happy Holidays, Haiti.
We're gearing up for another Christmas in Haiti, but have hardly had the time to do the things that usually put us in the spirit. This is what our living space looks like right now, this minute. There's a pile of work right there that I should get back to.
(But at least it's being illuminated by a lovely tree branch).
I hope you, this week, are loving on family, meditating, worshiping, celebrating, singing, snuggling, eating Christmas cookies, and possibly partaking of the other kind of Christmas spirits. We'll be joining in the fun shortly.
[I feel like I should add a disclaimer saying that Ben is not here right now, this minute, and so it was I (Alexis) that took these grainy, weirdly-lit pictures. By the way, and since a few of you have asked: did you know that you can look at the end of each of our posts to see which one of us posted it? Here's another good guideline: pictures of our cat - me; pictures that you might see in a glossy magazine - Ben.]
Interview by Alexis Erkert, Other Worlds
December 20, 2011
"Haitian women are the poto mitan, or central pillar, of economic activities," says Iderle Brenus. Photo: Ben Depp
Iderle Brénus Gerbier has worked with many peasant organizations in support of women's rights and food sovereignty. She is a member of the Haitian National Network for Food Security and Sovereignty (RENHASSA), campaign coordinator for Food Sovereignty in Haiti, advisor of the National Confederation of Peasant Women (KONAFAP), and organizer for the Haitian Social Forum for Food Sovereignty.
In Haiti, peasant women play a special role in the home and in agriculture. We consider peasant women as the poto mitan, central pillar, of economic activities.
When neoliberal structural adjustment programs are imposed on the Haitian government, like they have been for 20 years, they affect our peasant women. They require that the state implement fundamentally anti-peasant programs that threaten to destroy the whole peasant sector. They mean the Haitian government doesn’t adequately fund our agriculture and has left the small farmers unable to compete [with cheaper imported goods] in the local market. Many farmers are forced to abandon agriculture to go work in factories or other activities, in the cities or in the Dominican Republic. And when a man leaves the rural community, the whole responsibility falls on the back of his wife.
The Haitian society is essentially macho, and the Haitian politicians and international interests oppress Haiti’s own children. Farmers become victims again and again and women are always held back. But these women continue to support their country.
Our goal is to achieve respect for the rights of Haitian women. Despite their position as poto mitan, as the main carriers of the national economy, rural Haitian women always suffer in our society. Most of these women have no direct access to agricultural lands and income is strictly controlled by men, despite their role in agriculture.
Many rural residents are forced to give away the children they love because they don’t have the financial capacity to keep their children at home and send them to school. The majority of these children become the slaves of women living in Port-au-Prince and in other cities. If women farmers could earn income from their hard work, they’d be able to keep their children at home.
The majority of the women working in the informal economy in the city come from the countryside. Many rural residents lost their lives because they were at the heart of the earthquake looking for employment in Port-au-Prince, working for pennies at a factory or selling bottled water in the streets. The earthquake increased the responsibilities that were already too heavy for these poor women.
I’ll repeat over and over that these women who lost their lives, their children, their husbands, and other loved ones in Port-au-Prince, lost them mainly because of lack of infrastructure resulting from the neoliberal policies in the country. But they’ll never be discouraged. They’ll always be involved in all kinds of constructive activities and keep supporting their country. After the earthquake, they went to Port-au-Prince searching for their children and ended up offering help to others who were in need. In the cities and in the countryside, these women work without rest.
We need to advance the struggle of women by redefining the concept of feminism in Haiti. To do this we have to reshuffle the cards and reduce the differences between our urban and peasant women. Right now there are two kinds of women: women with a capital W and women with a small w. Even within the women’s struggle, there are a lot of contemptible practices that have yet to be overcome. Most of the urban well-off women look down upon the poor countryside women, calling them tèt mare, wrapped head, because of the kerchiefs rural women often wear on their heads. The rich and educated town women forget that the poor peasant women make up the core of the rural communities that constitute the greatest part of the country. It’s not fair that a small minority have the privilege of monopolizing almost all of the society’s resources and wealth.
Peasant women are always present in all activities to win human rights, respect for life, and food sovereignty. October 15 was declared “Day of the Haitian Peasant Woman,” but unfortunately this day has never been commemorated. We have to recognize and appreciate women farmers for their significant socio-economic worth. We have to give them the compensation they deserve and support their efforts. We need to increase their visibility in efforts to build food sovereignty in the country. Rural women and those struggling with them, here in Haiti or overseas, need to shore up their strength. We must advocate for the rights of women.
Many thanks to Joseph Pierre for translating.
Alexis Erkert is the Another Haiti is Possible Co-Coordinator for Other Worlds. She has worked in advocacy and with the Haitian social movement since 2008. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.
Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Alexis Erkert and Other Worlds.
Today, folks all over the world are celebrating the 63rd anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
This week also heralds the 20th anniversary of several Haitian human rights organizations, including the 7-member Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH) and the Action Group for Repatriates and Refugees (GARR). The timing is no coincidence. A military coup d'etat took out democratically-elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide in September 1991 and the period following the coup marked a time of mass popular resistance against the civil and political repression of an illegimitate military regime backed by the United States.
POHDH: 20 years of struggle for the respect of Human Rights
Yesterday I attended a commemorative event at POHDH. Although members of POHDH's executive committee talked about the pressing human rights needs in Haiti today, lack of government accountability and the structural and ideological barriers to economic & social rights, they also emphasized that huge gains have been made in the last twenty years.
Human rights discourse has seeped into politics, entertainment and even general conversation in a big way as Haitians are in general more aware of their rights. Many more media outlets exist, demonstrating increased liberty of expression, and popular organizing is commonplace in all sectors (small farmers, factory workers, displaced people, women, youth...).
And, as evidenced yesterday, more protests are taking place. In St. Marc, cholera victims demonstrated in front of the MINUSTAH (the UN peacekeeping mission) base, asking that their claims for reparations be acknowledged and responded to by the UN. The event was organized by the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). BAI and their stateside partner, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) have recently filed a landmark case against the UN on behalf of over 5,000 cholera victims.
Yesterday, too, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) a women's rights group supporting victims of rape and gender-based violence, hosted a sit-in in front of the Haitian Parliament during which they delivered an open letter on women's protection to the President of the Senate. Meanwhile, GARR hosted a packed-out day of remembrance for renowned Haitian-Dominican activist Sonia Pierre who passed away last week.
Towards the end of the event yesterday, Antonal Mortimé, POHDH's Executive Secretary, pointed out that increased awareness, free media and popular protests are quantitative versus qualitative in terms of impacting people's access to very necessary social and economic rights like education, food, water, healthcare and liveable housing. Still, he said, they are important steps towards a society in which human rights and dignity are respected.
Here's to twenty years of struggle towards that vision.
We started the day Thursday with a nippy bike ride on our 70's-era Motobecane roadies, pulled out from their storage spot above Ben's parent's woodpile. Whenever we get on these bikes, I marvel that they once took us all the way across the United States. (Check this video out. That's us!). And I give thanks for my best friend, the adventures that we've had and the adventures that we keep having.
This week's adventure? Thanksgiving in America. It's been a few years since we spent a holiday here and I didn't grow up in this country, either. So, there are things about "the holidays" that seriously creep me out. Like lines of kids waiting to talk to people dressed up as Santa Claus. And Black Friday. Driving to my sister's house Thanksgiving night I was amazed (and let's be honest, a little bit self-righteously horrified) by packed out store parking lots.
I also think dedicating an entire day to the glossing over of our nation's history is weird. Did you know that the original Day of Thanksgiving was declared by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in celebration of the massacre of 700-some native peoples? Just saying. It's important that we acknowledge the truth about our heritage and holidays...
So that we can then reclaim them! Because I think it's wonderful to have a day once a year to dwell specifically on the things that we're thankful for. We probably need more than one day. I came up with quite the "thankful for" list, myself.
Near the top of my list, I give thanks for our families. Spending time with them these last two weeks has been fantastic. My parents are in Cameroon and it's very sad not to be able to see them, but we've gotten in good quality time with my sis, Ben's parents and some of his siblings (big family, 10 kids). The food our families have been feeding us has also been fantastic. (Seriously, that bike ride was not just for fun. And we probably need to go on about ten more, except that with broken front brakes and a chain that needs replacing, my bike is sadly more out of shape than I am). My brother-in-law went so far as to brew beer and butcher a rabbit in anticipation of our visit.
Maybe with enough coaxing, Ben - who tonight is sleeping in the JFK airport en route to Haiti - will post a picture or two of family time.
We're posting this from North Carolina. I know, our trip snuck up on us, too! I found myself calling friends and a few colleagues on our way to the airport Saturday to let them know that we would be out of the country for a few weeks. Oops.
October was such a busy month that we didn't get around to blogging about some really important stuff. Like the worrisome fact that grocery stores in Port-au-Prince had Christmas decorations out by mid-October. And the excitement of finding shallots sprouting in the compost pile.
Like friends getting hitched.
And like the peasant women's association celebration we attended during which I, in all my plaid-shirt and hiking-booted glory, was asked to give an impromptu speech.
In Haiti, Gede (or any of its alternate spellings) welcomes us to November. November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, All Souls Day, are national holidays. The gede are the somewhat raunchy spirits that preside over death... and sex.
Here is a picture Ben took last year in the National Cemetery:
Also, check out these photos from Day of the Dead celebrations throughout Latin America. I think Port-au-Prince needs a zombie walk.
I was way out in the countryside a few days ago and I met this doktè fèy, leaf doctor. I bought a small bottle of her medicine after this amazing sales pitch: "It's cold medicine. It works great on children. It's also good for any type of pain you have. The ingredients are sugar cane liquor, honey, and all of the leaves that make good pain killers." I took a capful and it numbed me for the following few hours I spent bouncing down dirt roads. I just tasted it again to remember what it tastes like and it made me not want to type anymore...
"BEN: Try to be a human before being a photographer - if you have the chance to save somebody's life, do it. Walking away from a malnourished child on the edge of death or a cholera victim that needs transport stays with you."
It is getting dark now at 5:30. Even at summer solstice it is only light until 6:30 or so. Still, an hour makes such a difference in our hectic lives.
No matter how hard we try to create space, things never seem to slow down.
Today, Ben is off to the North for three days. He's taking pictures of agricultural work supported by Groundswell International. Check them out. We are increasingly critical - on our worst days acrimonious, even - of the international humanitarian aid and development world, but there are still plenty of organizations out there that humble and re-inspire us. Groundswell is one.
The manuscript for the book that I have spent the last four months helping to edit, research and fact-check is due on October 30th. Let's just say I'm a wee bit stressed out.
Thankfully, Saturday and the annual Artisanat en Fête provided a nice break from my computer and a chance for me to acquire yet more Haitian art (eeps).
Now that the mayor of Pétion-ville is repressively cracking down on street vendors, some of my favorite market ladies - think pumpkins, piles of gleaming shallots and vine-ripened tomatoes, sour oranges and bunches of chard - have been pushed from their usual spaces to a spot approximately 500 feet from our front door. Are we spoiled or what?
Meanwhile, Luna's new favorite napping spot is among the bright orange impatiens that I planted last week. She spends her days looking like she's posing for a cat calender. It's seriously too cute.
Kids in Desarmes, in the Artibonite valley, have made up a song that they sing to the tune of Shakira's "Waka Waka":
Diri ak sos pwa, // Rice with bean sauce, mayi moulen ak pwa, // cornmeal with beans, yon sache dlo, de ji dola // one bag of water, two ice pops, landan legliz la. // in church.* Ou fin manje, // You finish eating, ou kouche, // you lay down, gen diyare // have diarrhea, ou leve. // you get up. Vwazen mwen, sa w gen la? // My neighbor, what you do have? Vwazen mwen, sa w gen la? // My neighbor, what you do have? Vwazen mwen, sa w gen la-a-a? // My neighbor, what you do ha-a-ave? Genlè se kolera! // Looks like it's cholera!
*It's unclear why they are eating the rice, cornmeal and ice pops in church.
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the introduction of cholera into Haiti. As of the beginning of October, 465,293 cases have been reported and 6,559 deaths. Ben - who has spent a fair bit of time photographing cholera in the countryside - thinks that in reality there have probably been four times that many deaths.
Although it was tapering off, cholera has spiked again with heavy rains that began in August. Doctors without Borders (MSF) reported that in Port au Prince in the last month, cases in their clinics have increased from less than 300 admissions a week to more than 850, while "resources for adequately preventing the disease remain rudimentary and at the mercy of the uncertainties of life in the country." Resources remain "rudimentary" in part because many NGOs withdrew from the cholera response shortly before the rainy season. [See this excellent August report from the Center for Economic Policy Research explaining why Haiti's cholera epidemic is the worst in the world despite the outrageous number of NGOs working here.]
Haitian and international human rights groups are calling on the United Nations to acknowledge that the epidemic was brought to Haiti by peacekeeping troops, a fact that has been corroborated by multiple experts and researchers, and asking that the UN pay restitution to Haiti. As one Haitian social activist put it, "The irony is not lost on us that a Chapter VII peacekeeping mission [which are often deployed in response to crimes against humanity], is refusing to acknowledge their complicity in the deaths of so many people. Cholera is a crime against humanity in Haiti."
In protest, some of the organizations that we collaborate with marched yesterday from Fort National to the National Cemetery. We met up with them at the cemetery, arriving just in time to join the protestors as they rushed into the graveyard with exuberant ra ra instruments, a spray-painted goat [a popular nickname for UN soldiers here is "volè kabrit," or goat thieves, after a soldier stole a goat a couple years back], and a miniature wooden casket to symbolize the peacekeeping mission.
The casket is painted with the words, "Down with MINUSTAH: goat thieves, fags." (Even among activists, homophobia is so strong in Haiti that is more of an insult to call soldiers "fags" than it is to call them rapists. This, of course, is in reference to the incident in Port Salut in September.)
After speeches, someone threw spray paint cans into the casket, poured kerosene in and lit it on fire. Amid much cheering, the casket exploded. And as the crowd disbursed I heard someone yell, "MINUSTAH is finished!"
On the contrary, the mission's mandate has just been extended for another year. It doesn't seem like the UN will be taking responsibility for Haiti's cholera epidemic anytime soon. [In fact, last week when Ben was in Mirebalais taking pictures outside of the UN base that was the point of origin, he was detained and, as he puts it, "diplomatically threatened" not to publish the pictures in any stories related to cholera].