The Water of Life
by Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti in 1990 but was forced into exile in 1991 during a coup. With the help of the United Nations he returned to complete his term. He continues the work he began in the Ď80s through the Aristide Foundation for Democracy and Lafanmi Selavi, the center for street children that he founded in 1986. This article is excerpted from his book Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, to be published this spring by Common Courage Press (www. eyesoftheheart.org). This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 1, 2000, pp. 236-238. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
On weekends the kids from Lafanmi Selavi, our center for street children, come to our house to spend time, to share food, talk, play and swim in the swimming pool. It is a small pool, too small for 400 kids, but for them it is a piece of paradise. Sometimes we invite children from other parishes in Port-au-Prince. Sometimes a Lafanmi Selavi bus goes to Cité Soleil, to La Saline, to Carrefour to pick up children who want to swim.
This experience, which may appear at first as merely symbolic, has tremendous ramifications. In a country where only 20 percent of the population have access to clean drinking water, swimming pools are exclusively for the rich. There is not a single public swimming pool in Haiti. The pool itself is a symbol of the elite.
We know the kids need food, we know they need school, but we cannot give all of them these things in a day. So while we are working to change the society, we can give them a day in a swimming pool. We say no child is so poor she does not deserve to swim in a pool. And if you imagine this has no impact on the society, think again.
The kids swim with us, with their teachers, with a group of agronomists who work with them on Saturdays, and with American friends and volunteers working at Lafanmi Selavi. A mix of races and social classes in the same water. Sometimes these images have appeared on television. Shortly after we began this experience we started hearing reports from friends among the upper classes of rumors that I was preparing these vagabon, these street children, to invade their swimming pools. Were it not tragic it would be comic. Perhaps the real root of the fear is this: If a maid in a wealthy home sees children from Cité Soleil swimming in a swimming pool on television, she may begin to ask why her child cannot swim in the pool of her boss.
So it is a system of social apartheid that we are questioning. We saw the same phenomena during the civil rights movement in the United States where attempts to integrate beaches and swimming pools met with some of the worst violence of the period. The same was true in South Africa. What we are facing in Haiti is a form of apartheid. There are no laws on the books enforcing segregation, but the social and economic forces at play are so powerful they create a de facto apartheid.
The polarizations are many: literate/illiterate, rich/poor, black/white, male/female, those who have clean water to drink/those who donít. In Haiti, where these polarities remain so strong, swimming in the same water has both psychological and social repercussions. You swim with people you are close to. If you are a family, if you are a community, swimming together may improve the quality of the relationship. Our experience has shown that the water can help to melt the barriers between us, and wash away the dirt of prejudice.
Officially, slavery no longer exists in Haiti. But through the lives of children in Haiti who live as restaveks we see the remnants of slavery. Restaveks are children, usually girls, sometimes as young as three and four years old, who live in the majority of Haitian families as unpaid domestic workers. They are the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night.
They carry water, clean house, do errands and receive no salary. Often they are from the countryside; their parents send them to the city in the hope that the family they live with will give them food and send them to school. The family that takes in the restavek is more often than not just one rung up on the economic ladder. Most families struggle to send their own children to school -- let alone the restavek. So most often restavek children are not in school; they eat what is left when the others are finished, and they are extremely vulnerable to verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
Officially, Haiti is a free country. But through the economic life of the country we see the remnants of colonialism. Ours is an economy of dependence, a restavek economy. Because of foreign food imports our agricultural production has fallen to historic lows. Because we export little our currency is weak. Haitian workers earn the lowest wages in the hemisphere. We are encouraged to exploit and maintain this so-called advantage to attract foreign companies to come. Because our economy is weak we depend on loans and aid from foreign countries to support our national budget. This makes us extremely vulnerable to pressure from international institutions that control the money.
Bertony was a restavek when we met him. He came to the house with a group of children from our neighborhood to spend the day. He was five years old. That day Bertony played, swam and ate all he wanted. When he went home he bragged to the children of the family with whom he lived about this rare day. When the parents heard, they were angry. They would not stand to have this little restavek teasing their own children who had not enjoyed such privilege. They threw Bertony out, saying that if he was such a big man he should go back to Aristideís house. Bertony had broken the first rule of the restavek. The restavek has no right to speak. Fortunately, Bertony, being a very clever boy, found his way to Lafanmi Selavi, where he quickly became integrated into the life of the house, going to school and working at the kidsí radio station. Today seven-year-old Bertony is a journalist at Radyo Timoun. He not only speaks; the whole country hears him.
Another story came to us after the visit of the famous Haitian-American rap group the Fugees. They played a concert for the rich at Haitiís Club Med. The lead singer was once himself a very poor child growing up in Port-au-Prince. And he continually reminded the crowd of this. One of the concert-goers was heard to say that the singer did not need to keep talking as this would just make the kids in the street plis sou moun. The closest translation is, "they will think they are somebody." Another person, talking about the kids swimming in the pool I will clean it. But if one of Aristideís dogs falls in my pool they will be swimming in their own blood."
In 1991, on the first day of my presidency, I invited the poor to breakfast. The palace doors, forever closed to them, were opened. To this day many among the elite feel that the palace has been dirtied by the presence of the of the poor. At the time the response was the coup díétat which did indeed bathe the country in blood.
How do we wash away the dirt of prejudice? Little by little? With a cleansing flood?
When my daughter was born in 1996, we asked, Where should we baptize her? In this country of rigid social delineation, the place that we chose Lafanmi Selavi. There at the house, among the children of the streets, and in the presence of many friends of all social classes, Christine was baptized by her godfather, Bishop Willy Romélus. The water of life can baptize us all new. One people, Godís children, swimming together in the water of life.
In Haitiís countryside the people are crying out or the water of life, too. The 70 percent of Haitiís population that lives in the countryside needs water to grow the food that can feed the country. If Haiti is to be economically independent, we must be able to feed ourselves. To do that we must heal the land. We can trace the roots of our current ecological crisis to Haitiís heavy debt to France in the 19th century, which encouraged the logging of Haitiís tropical forests for export to Europe. Today only 3 percent of our forests remain. Without the trees to hold the soil, 1 percent of Haitiís topsoil washes to sea each year, driving Haitiís peasant farmers further into poverty as the land produces less and less each year.
Since our independence in 1804, every Haitian government has governed on the backs of the peasants, taxing their produce and giving nothing back in return. A deep chasm between people in the countryside and people in the capital has always existed. This chasm is inscribed in the language. Anyone who lives outside of Port-au-Prince is called moun andeyò -- literally, "outside people," outsiders. And the language was inscribed in the law. Historically, paysanne ("peasant," in French) was listed on the birth certificates of anyone born outside Port-au-Prince. When I became president in 1991, by presidential decree we changed the law, so that now all birth certificates are the same. Now we must keep working to change the language -- and the realities of life in the countryside.
On our continent, the banking industry has grown from 40 percent of the economy to 57 percent over the past ten years, while agriculture has shrunk from 30 percent to 15 percent over the same period. In Haiti, agriculture was 50 percent of our gross national product ten years ago -- now it is only 28 percent. The banks in Haiti extend only 2 percent of their lending to the agricultural sector. How can we ask the poor, who are mostly peasants, to put their money in these banks?
Article 247 of the Haitian constitution says, "Agriculture is the principal wealth of the nation and the guarantee of the well-being of the population." Yes, but where will we find water to irrigate the land? If only 2 percent of bank lending goes to agriculture, how will the peasants have money to irrigate, to buy water pumps, to buy seeds, to invest in the land?
In the world at large we see this same picture: 3.1 billion people make their living in agriculture. Their lives are on a collision course with globalization. They cannot compete with industrialized Western agriculture with its heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. And yet the world economy is not creating new jobs for them. What will they do?
Peasants are forced off their land and move to overcrowded cities where they find neither jobs nor health care, nor schools for their children, nor even clean water to drink. The people follow the land. After the trees are cut from the mountains, the soil washes to the plains and the people follow. When the soil washes away from the plains, the people once again follow, moving to the slums of cities by the sea.
The economically powerful are not protecting the land, the trees, the soil or the people who have existed on this land for generations. Can we expect that aid programs will help our environment or our people who depend on the land? If 84 cents of every dollar is going back to the donor country, how much is left for water for the peasants? Or for trees to hold the water and the soil? The question is dramatic. What will we do to have water?
We are at the millennium and there is still no water for the people to drink -- let alone water for the land. Sometimes foreigners think we are lazy, asking for food, asking for handouts. But in fact we are asking for water. In our rich country, where the sun shines every day, I assure you that if we have water, we will grow the food we need to eat.
Some may ask how a strategy of national development based on agriculture can possibly succeed in this day and age, in the face of the macroeconomic realities we are facing. In fact, we cannot know for sure. But what we can be sure of is that as long as Haitian governments continue to receive instructions from international institutions we will move from the same to the same, the same program to the same program, from bad to worse.
On the other side, if we see organizations in Haiti among civil society looking for strategies that come from the people, this represents a candle in the night. Hope in a night of despair. We can offer an alternative -- an alternative that will not make us rich, but may at least save us from starvation and lead us to poverty with dignity. If what we propose is not perfect, what they proposed has already demonstrated how disastrous it is.
This is a strategy for subsistence, for survival. And that is just what the poor have always done in the face of macroeconomic realities that have never been favorable.
The neoliberal strategy is to weaken the state in order to have the private sector replace the state. Through cooperatives we can perhaps preserve some margin of public services. Without a national mobilization of human resources, we will never be able to create a balance between that economic power and that human power. The human power in my country is the huge majority of the poor. The economic power is that tiny 1 percent that controls 45 percent of the wealth.
The coup díétat of 1991 showed how terribly afraid the 1 percent is of the mobilization of the poor. They are afraid of those under the table -- afraid they will see what is on the table. Afraid of those in Cité Soleil, that they will become impatient with their own misery. Afraid of the peasants, that they will not be moun andeyò anymore. They are afraid that those who cannot read will learn how to read. They are afraid that those who speak Creole will learn French, and no longer feel inferior. They are afraid of the poor entering the palace, of the street children swimming in the pool. They are not afraid of me. They are afraid that what I say may help the poor to see.
But in the end, on this small planet, we are all swimming in the same water.