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May 2011 Issue

Nation Under Rubble

The largest tent city of Haitian earthquake survivors.
The largest tent city of Haitian earthquake survivors is located on a former nine-hole golf course in Port-au-Prince. The Petionville Club is host to more than 50,000 people. Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

Women struggle to survive in post-quake Haiti.

The 2010 Haitian earthquake generated a new word in the vocabulary of Haitians: goudougoudou. That’s the Kreyol term many Haitians use today to name the disaster that ravaged Port-au-Prince and nearby cities. It’s alternately written goudou goudou or goudou-goudou.

Supposedly, if you say it over and over again very fast, it’s the sound the buildings made as they swayed and then collapsed during the quake. More than just a word for an event, however, it’s a playful invention used by people to name something so horrible that it’s better to call it something else, even if they had to make up a name.

Linguists call this an onomatopoeia, naming something for the sound it makes. It also has psychosocial value in that it restores some sense of power to people who were made to feel powerless in those 30-some seconds of terror. Yet even with their own name for the quake, few Haitians feel empowered by what has happened in the months since the quake. Like the poor everywhere, though, they don’t have the privilege to despair. Life must go on.

That’s what Marie Yolande Pierre feels as she gets her 8-year-old daughter Jenica ready for school in the sprawling Petionville Club, a golf course turned crowded tent city housing 50,000 people at the edge of Port-au-Prince. Jenica goes to a nearby school run by the Catholic Church, and Ms. Pierre struggles to pay the meager school fees by doing what many urban Haitian women do: buying and reselling vegetables most days, toiletries other days. She sent two children off to live with relatives in the countryside, yet on most days there still isn’t enough food for more than one meal, which she cooks over a charcoal stove at the opening of her tent, now ragged and dirty after more than a year of sun and rain. Yet the hardships don’t keep her from sending Jenica to school in a clean, albeit threadbare, uniform. “If anything is going to change here, my daughter needs an education to be part of it,” she said.

Women step forward

Throughout Port-au-Prince and nearby communities, it is obvious that the quake permanently altered the urban landscape. Yet the disaster also remade the architecture of many affected Haitian families, often sparking the empowerment of women in unforeseen ways, says Yoleine Gateau, director of the Neges Foundation, which works with earthquake survivors in Leogane.

“After the quake, when the men were still in shock, the women stepped forward in the middle of adversity and asked, ‘What are we going to do to feed the children?’” Ms. Gateau said. “The men sat for days and days playing cards. They lost their sense of being the patron, of being the man of the house. They simply weren’t in control any more. And the women said, ‘We have to feed the kids.’ And as the days went by, they started talking more and more with each other and finally said, ‘We’re not going to take this stuff from the men anymore.’”

With support from United Methodist Women Mission Giving, the Neges Foundation built a women’s center and communal kitchen where women survivors of the goudougoudou could meet to discuss their needs and where hungry children could receive a meal on their way to school. Small changes produced a desire for more, Ms. Gateau said.

“Women who in the past didn’t know how to read and write started coming to our literacy program. Often their children in high school accompanied them. We focused on learning English as well so it didn’t seem like they were admitting they were illiterate,” Ms. Gateau said. “This is a good thing that came from the quake. Women have been stepping forward and saying they want to be heard. This is totally different than before the quake. But if it isn’t encouraged and nurtured, this courage to move forward will be lost.”

Stopping sexual violence

While gender roles were shaken in many communities, in the sprawling tent cities where 800,000 people remained living on the quake’s first anniversary in January, traditional patterns of violence and sexual assault against women and girls have worsened, an unfortunately common phenomenon after disasters as predators take advantage of precarious living situations to attack women.

Women in Haiti are fighting back. In December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted a legal request submitted by several women’s groups — including Mission Giving-supported MADRE — demanding precautionary measures by the Haitian government and international community to prevent violence against women and girls in Haiti’s tent cities. The commission ordered the Haitian government to increase security patrols and improve lighting in the camps as well as provide medical care, including emergency contraception, for rape survivors. The commission also recommended that the Haitian government ensure the full participation and leadership of grass-roots women’s groups in anti-violence policies and practices in the camps.

MADRE has worked closely with a Haitian women’s group in providing whistles for women to use if they are attacked as well as peer counseling for survivors of rape in the camps. Yifat Susskind, MADRE’s executive director, says that sexual violence has a variety of secondary effects, including the political disenfranchisement of women. In a blog posting, she described a February visit with women in Port-au-Prince:

“The women said they knew about the election, but had not been able to vote,” Ms. Susskind wrote. “Back in November . . .they were too afraid to leave their children alone in the camp because the threat of rape is so grave. As one woman told us, ‘I cannot leave to go find a voting station. Voting takes hours. In the summer, I left the camp for 20 minutes to fetch water and when I came back a man had slashed the sides of our tent and was trying to rape my daughter.’”

Roads to nowhere

Haiti’s recovery from the disaster has by all accounts been painfully slow. That’s not surprising, given how the quake virtually destroyed the central state apparatus in Port-au-Prince. Government land archives, tax records, banking information — and many of the people who managed such data — were buried by the rubble. More than a year later, less than a fifth of that rubble has been removed. There’s not even a government agency charged with rubble removal. Nor has there been any large-scale movement toward rebuilding housing or clearing the myriad legal and financial obstacles to people building or rebuilding their own housing if they had the means to do so.

While small-scale projects can be found in almost every neighborhood, the big picture remains somber. And the bulk of the billions in promised international aid remains unspent, an eerie reminder of a line from Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a satiric novel about Haiti in the mid-1960s: “Haiti was a great country for projects. Projects always mean money to the projectors so long as they are not begun.”

Critics lay much of the blame on Haiti’s government for essentially sitting out the disaster response, and in recent national elections, many voters rejected the ruling political class. After candidates from former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s popular Fanmi Lavalas political party were not allowed to run, many voters supported presidential candidate Michel Martelly, a singer popularly known as “Sweet Micky.” Although a proponent of bringing back the military which Mr. Aristide abolished in 1995, a position Mr. Martelly leverages off popular discontent with the 12,000-member United Nations “stabilization force” in Haiti since 2004, Sweet Micky became the “none of the above” candidate, symbolizing rejection of the politicians and parties that had done so little to provide education or health services for the poor majority. Though his platform was as thin as his political experience, he won a March runoff in a landslide, although most voters stayed home. 

The reluctance of Haiti’s ruling families to favor structural change that benefits the poor is nothing new. It goes back two centuries to the ouster of the French in favor of governments controlled by the lighter-skinned and mulatto elites. Throughout Haiti’s modern history, those ruling families, which by the 20th century were backed by frequent invasions of U.S. Marines, have opposed authentic change that favored the poor. Witness their violent opposition — supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations — to Mr. Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who favored land reform and government investment in health care and education.

In a dynamic that has kept Haiti poor while at the same time transforming it into what some call a “Republic of NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations), the wealthy elite have long welcomed foreigners who came to build schools and orphanages and clinics. Such paternalism, while often well meaning, nonetheless has had the effect of tamping down dissent, removing social agency from the poor, and essentially letting the rich off the hook.

One of the factors keeping the poor majority of Haitians from fighting off dependency by uniting around common political projects, Ms. Gateau said, has been the division sown by outside religious groups that see Haiti as a preferred place to fish for converts. “Many religious groups come here because it’s a poor country, and they offer people a bag of rice to convert. But that manner of conversion takes away any belief that you have in yourself, it takes away your soul. You’ll believe whatever is necessary to get some more food from the foreigners,” she said.

One of the consistent talking points of outside religious groups is to blame voodoo for all manner of Haiti’s ills. Voodoo is a homegrown Afro-Caribbean syncretic religious movement that is practiced in one way or another by most Haitians, including many Christians. Conservative U.S. evangelical Pat Robertson claimed last year that the earthquake was God’s punishment for voodoo, in particular an alleged “pact with the devil” at the end of the 18th century that insured Haiti’s independence from France.

Such ahistorical nonsense is part of a concerted effort to undercut real democracy in Haiti, Ms. Gateau said. “Blaming voodoo for everything bad that happens in Haiti has been a way for other religions to come in and turn people into zombies, taking their culture away and leaving them blank, with no sense of self-esteem,” she said. “But who are you, and how can you accomplish anything, if you no longer believe in yourself? When you take away people’s culture, what’s left of you? Nothing. You become a zombie.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He has traveled to Haiti many times, including immediately after the earthquake as a member of the Rapid Support Team of Action Churches Together (ACT), which includes United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). He lives in Oregon.
 

Last Updated: 03/21/2014
 
 

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