Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Notes from Haiti, Days 10 & 18

Day 10

I've had a bit more rest today and yesterday, as the three American visitors have left and we are no longer whirling through our learning-about-Haiti together. Instead I am drowsing, reading the most excellent novel* about the Haitian revolution, All Souls Rising, by Madison Smartt Bell, and having low-key conversations with kitty cats and five year olds. (*I skipped over the most horrible parts. Impossible to write about those times honestly without including them.)

The cat I talk with most is, like all Haitian cats, slender and attenuated, but she is also the size of a two to three month old kitten. I thought she was a kitten, until I learned she'd had two or three litters. I have never seen an adult cat so small in my life. She's very affectionate, and her claws are like the thinnest of needles. The child I talk with most is slender and attenuated, too, but has had no kittens, and is as full of piss, vinegar, and affectionate depths as a child can want to have. The cat is nameless (I call her Mama) and the child is Mari-Ka.

A highlight this week was sitting in a thatched enclosure with Ari, Carla and my American co-visitors and asking Ari many questions about how he came to think the way he does about Haiti and to do the work he does. This involved his telling not only about his own life but about the mass movement that led to Aristide's election years ago, and the suppression and violence people faced after the coup against Aristide. In the telling we also came to learn how he and Carla had met and begun working together.

Ari was the son of a middle class man and a poor market woman. His father did not legally recognize him, although he did have a relationship with Ari. Later in his life his father's family did, and he was given their last name and told he now stood to inherit. As a child learning about the revolution in school, he wished that he had been born at that time and been able to fight slavery. As he grew older he became involved in the student movement that helped topple Baby Doc Duvalier. When Baby Doc fled, the church, which had encouraged and helped organize the movement, wanted it to stop, but the youth wanted to press on, stay out of school for the rest of the year (the schools had been shut down during the unrest) and mount a full-scale movement for literacy. A rift developed then between the church and the students.

Not long later, the Tonton Macoutes were parading down the streets of Cap Haitien . Some youths standing near Ari heckled the Macoutes under their breath; they were overheard and chased. They ran off but Ari was grabbed and arrested. The treatment he received served to open his eyes to the political realities of his country, and he began to work in earnest against the regime. When he was finally in danger of losing his life, he was smuggled by a volunteer with a development organization, along with two other fugitives, to a house in Port au Prince where Carla and her husband Ron were living.

For many years now Carla and Ari have worked together. Their days of active political struggle are over, and the work they do now—educating foreigners and Haitians alike in the realities of colonialism and racism, constructing a Memory Village where people can learn in a deeply felt way about those issues, mounting a campaign to return to supporting local industry and agriculture and rely less on the subsidized American products that undermine the Haitian economy—are born out of love and a sense of working together, rather than vying against another. This work is what brings him the joy of feeling he truly has something of value to give to the world.

Ari is a great story teller, and a wise and beautiful man. The respect and affection with which he greets the world is contagious and inspiring. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to be with him and Carla and their entourage of co-conspirators for a better world.

Much love.

p.s. Oh, I forgot. Dé, Amanda, Stephanie and I (the Guests), were interviewed for tv the other day. They shot for an hour, asking us what we had heard about Haiti before we got here, what our impressions were now that we are here, why we have come, and so on. It was great.

Day 18

All quiet on the Caribbean front. The constant influx (and outflux) of visitors hasn't abated. Twenty-four teens from a church in Chapel Hill , North Carolina (along with three pastors: 2 American and 1 Haitian) came on Monday. It was quite the event.

There are two households here at Kan Kilonbo (Camp Quilombo, "Freedom Camp", in memory of Africans in Brazil who escaped slavery and set up independent villages)—one house on top of another, separated by maybe forty cement stairs, on a relatively precipitous slope. Any flat horizontal spaces were constructed by the residents and where possible the flat vertical spaces are contained by the ropey roots of weeping figs.

Ari's house, below, is painted yellow, trimmed in pink and white, and shuttered in green, with an overlapping corrugated iron roof. There is a cement yard where Mme. Bertine (a local mambo) placed a large oak pilon (mortar and pestle) and cauldron, and began assembling the elements of a makeshift brick hearth. Across the cement yard Amalia, who sells cigarettes, candy and other necessities from a small shack up the road, shook blackened lumps of branch and woodstem into a recho (charcoal brazier) and prepared peanuts for roasting.

Up four or five stairs and around the side of the house, against a wall of fig roots, Ketja filled a smoothing iron with hot charcoal and set up an ironing board. A few steps further up, at the back of the house, Fernand sat next to a pedal-driven Finger sewing machine (yes, Finger) and across from her Ginia and Ti Karin sat on a cement curb next to two basins of breadfruit, hefty, wide-bladed knives in their hands and more set out on the curb.

Several steps further along and down a longer set of stairs, Marie Flo filled another plastic basin with water from the cistern. Beside her lay two long bars of washing soap and a knife with which she would cut the soap before forming it into a ball for sudsing. In the kitchen Ti Kan finished preparing the feast begun by the entire female population of the lower house.

Carla had risen early that morning (though doubtless no earlier than those young women) and driven into Port au Prince to lead the two buses of visitors to the base of the mountain where she lives. The teens had been instructed to bring nothing with them but water and a fresh t-shirt.

When they arrived at the mountain's foot, the buses pulled over and the team piled out. They began the rocky, dusty trek up that winding, eroded slope. They passed countless unpainted, unfinished cement walls and houses, passersby sauntering up and down the path, clusters of children and laundering women watching the teens' progress in silence, and eye-tickling festoons of pink bougainvilleas and vibrant, scarlet-flowering flamboyant trees. The hot sun obligingly baked the teens to a fine red hue as they climbed. And all the while, following the example of Carla, Pastors Leon and Clark, and Miriam, the American who organized the group, the teens greeted those they passed with, "Bonswa! Bonswa! Bonswa!"

Arriving at Kay Ari (Ari's house), the 27 visitors filed through the multi-levelled jumble of brilliantly painted rooms, greeting the women working there and a smattering of children slumped around the dining room, watching television. They observed the cement water filter in the tiny kitchen, through which the mountain stream is cleansed, the wicker lounge chair and living room furniture built by local craftsmen (rather than, as in most middle and upper class households, furniture imported from the United States), the Haitian paintings and crafts decorating the walls and tables, and the large framed picture of Haiti's many presidents. Ari himself greeted them in his brightly patterned (and locally made!) clothing, his great warm grin in place.

Shortly afterward the group was hustled up the forty-odd stairs to Carla and Ron's house and trooped up more stairs to the big, airy room where the play would later be held. They looked out over the forest canopy and the far-off riverbed and farmlands, Port au Prince itself mostly out of sight from this vantage point.

At last, already tired from the trek up the hill, and the previous day travelling from Chapel Hill and Miami , the teens descended below once more and were introduced to the women who would be their teachers for the afternoon. At each station they were joined by interpreters—Kenson, a young man who has been studying in the States and was home for a too-brief visit, Gana, just back from two years in Mexico with her father, Carla herself, and the pastors.

Mme. Bertine began the long process of making coffee. Each group assisted her in a different stage of the work—or at least shared the experience, eliciting much laughter at their attempts. They gathered firewood, washed the beans in the cauldron, lay them out in a flat basket and shook and flipped them into the air (or onto the ground) to sort beans from debris. Mme. Bertine poured them into the now waterless pot; she and her assistants stirred them over a low fire for a very long time until they were a rich noir. The roasted beans were emptied into the tall pilon and Mme. Bertine set to work caramelizing tasty Colombian sugar over the fire (the Haitian sugar industry having been destroyed). When the sugar was ready, she poured the beans into the pot, stirred the gluey black mass together, and spread it out on a piece of toll . When it had cooled, it was placed in the pilon again and pounded for a good long while (by many different persons, young and old, serious and silly) until the sweet, smooth, delicious drink was ready to be brewed.

This process took all day. While the groups moved from station to station, stirring roasting peanuts, sewing seams on bed coverings, ironing Ari's household's clothes, peeling and chopping breadfruit, and studiously attempting to emulate Marie Flo's squeaky, scrub-on-the-wrist clothes washing technique, Mme. Bertine worked on in the bright sun. When we stopped our work and filed around the table filled with pressed, deep-fried breadfruit (SO GOOD!), spicy coleslaw, pig knuckles and Haitian rice and beans, washed down with sugar-sweetened passionfruit juice, she stood at her post, smiling languidly at whoever stopped to talk, tending her coffee, eating the plate of food that one of the children brought her.

At last, the group circled around near the rooted slope and discussed their experiences. A young woman from Chapel Hill who had begun the morning's work with the remark that chores were all so much more fun in Haiti commented, through her fatigue, that she was suddenly very grateful for the advantages she enjoys. Leon, the Haitian pastor in the group, said he was aware for the first time just how hard Haitian women's work was, and determined that he, busy as he was, would from now on spend at least one day a month helping his wife with her chores. Two farmers from Hinche described their commitment to organic, local foods, co-operatively grown and marketed, and the spirit with which such foods connect us to each other. A lively discussion arose when Carla asked if people had read the story in U.S. papers about Haitians eating mud cakes because food was scarce—a story which moved readers to shock and pity.

It is a not unusual instance of misinformed reporting. The truth is that Haitians have always had access in the markets to cakes of clay. They are eaten medicinally, especially by pregnant women, and as a sort of candy by children. They cost money—they may be cheaper than other things, but they are not a famine food. The background truth is that food prices have soared as a result of foreign economic fluctuations, and gasoline is astronomically high, adding to food prices by increasing the cost of transport. People who were already very poor are now even poorer. There have been food riots. But there is not famine.

When the discussion was finished and the other teachers and interpreters thanked, we returned to Mme. Bertine and received a cup of rich, dark, astonishingly sweet black coffee, which we carried to Carla and Ron's house and the upstairs meeting room. There we sipped this low-caffeine, delicious drink while volunteers from among the teens got up and, guided by Carla, did an impromptu version of the play "Three Innocents and a Spirit". This mime was written by Carla and Ari and their former associate, Djaloki, for their organization DOA/BN, to use as a teaching tool about conquest, slavery, liberation, and reconciliation. They have twice toured the U.S. and will be visiting Ottawa , Toronto and Winnipeg this September to perform the play and raise funds for their work.

As in the teens' earlier experiences, climbing the long hill in the hot sun or gathering wood, scrubbing t-shirts till their wrists were red or grappling with ideas and preconceptions about Haiti, they were game to follow Carla's lead, and didn't miss a beat when she pointed to the Church as one of the culprits in the genocide of the Taino native population and brutal enslavement of African people. Then they were whisked out the door and down the mountain again, to meet with their returning buses and go back to their billet for the night.

DOA/BN works with a variety of different groups, individuals, and government departments, so they have diverse approaches to how and what they teach. This was an experiment and because of the enthusiastic participation of the Kon Kilonbo residents and their friends and neighbours and the group from Chapel Hill , it was a success.

As I write this installment of Haiti , Day 18, I can hear the sound of an American Indian flute upstairs, interrupted by the sound of medieval clerical chants, and the barking Spanish proclamation of Ayiti's first conquerors. Carla, Ari, and Ginia are practicing "Three Innocents and a Spirit". A wonderful, lively household.

If you are interested in seeing their play, let me know and I'll keep you posted about dates and venues. If you'd like to contribute to their funds (a most welcome endeavour—they are very much hand to mouth, yet energetically pursue their educational and cultural-healing goals) you can either send them directly to Carla or to me (see bottom). For those who would prefer to contribute to the community in La Vale that I wrote you about last time I was here, I am still sending them regular cheques as well, and can let you know how to do that if you write me. Thanks, Jean, for reminding me to ask for donations.

This evening when all the film-making and play-practicing and writing were done, a few of us settled down to watch Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. It follows filmmaker Katrina Browne after her discovery that her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine cousins embark on a trip that encompasses the Triangle Trade—between Rhode Island , Ghana and Cuba . The film reveals the extent and impact of the slave trade in the northern state of Rhode Island , which continued long after the practice was made illegal, and examines their reactions to their developing awareness of slavery and racism. The film will be aired for the first time in three days. I highly recommend this thoughtful and inspiring work.

POV (Point of View) PBS, June 24th 10PM EASTERN TIME. http://www.tracesofthetrade.org/ http://inheritingthetrade.com/blog/?p=106

Love to you all. I am having a wonderful time, and I am soooooooo glad I came.

If someone could print these messages out for Mom and Dad, that'd be great. Howard—could you tape the show for me?


contact info


Carla Bluntschlii & Ari Nicolas • Ph 011 (509) 2511-5580

web http://www.haititravels.org/welcome

CHECKS (US$) c/o Lynx Air, P.O. Box 407139 , Ft. Lauderdale , FL 33340-7139

DOA/BN specializes in sharing an independent and authentic Haitian perspective on history, politics, spirituality, and culture with groups, visitors, volunteers -- in other words, anyone who wishes to discover and learn more.

We offer interactive presentations and seminars as well as full- or half- day experiences with the Haitian people: in their communities, homes, and lives.

One very special specialty we have created is a unique experience called "The Road to Memory" (inspired by our long-term vision, "N a Sonje").

(see the website for more details.)
to view the Memory Village blog and see the vision, click here.

to learn more about the 2008 North American tour of Three Innocents and a Spirit, or to invite the play to your town, please contact Carla & Ari at the DOA/BN address above.

blessings on us all.

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