Popular media frequently describes Haiti as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere.” The epithet is often used to focus only on Haiti as an underdeveloped and extremely impoverished nation, with Haitians as helpless, passive recipients of foreign benevolence. My flights to Port-au-Prince are always filled with well-intentioned American church groups wearing t-shirts that declare their perspective: “Hope for Haiti,” “Serve Haiti,” or even, rather humorously, “CSI: Haiti.” Their mission is to help Haitians, or better, help Haitians help themselves. Accounts of meetings between the desperate Haitian poor and their generous friends from the North are plentiful, published everywhere from church newsletters to Internet weblogs.
But this is not the whole story. Often absent are narratives about how Haitians relate to other Haitians. Do they help each other, even those outside their families? Do they seek to give, even when not merely distributing external aid? Little documentation explicitly answers these questions, but I attempt to do so in this paper. In my reading and personal experience of Haiti, I have found that Haitian peasants, although they are deeply poor themselves, live a preferential option for the poor. Their Christian spirituality moves them to become neighbors for others, acting on their behalf as the Good Samaritan did for an anonymous roadside victim.
After describing the basic history and lifestyle of the Haitian peasantry, I analyze Haitians’ actions regarding three aspects of the preferential option for the poor, as presented by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez: defining identity and otherness, creating neighbors, and making the option itself. The last of these, making the option, involves both living in solidarity with the poor and refusing the conditions of poverty, a denial that contains hints of the spirituality of Bartolome de las Casas. I use one significant personal experience to frame my analysis, but also bring in other Haitian testimonies and accounts of community life. Throughout this discussion, I show that the preferential option Haitians make for each other is an overarching theme in their spirituality, effectively forming a country of Samaritans.
The Haitian peasantry was born two hundred years ago in response to the remnants of a highly profitable plantation economy. After achieving independence from France in 1804—the world’s only rebellion of slaves that militarily defeated a major colonial power—Haiti struggled with establishing full equality, and so it resorted to a new racism. Class lines and systems of wealth developed around the fairer-skinned mulattos taking power over the blacker majority, who were appropriated to continue living effective serfdom as Haiti continued its cash-crop agriculture of sugar, rum, cotton, and mahogany.1 While the poor majority was able to own small plots of land, their need for cash to purchase imported household goods necessitated devoting their entire farm to price-volatile export crops.2 More than 66 percent of the current population of 8.8 million continues to cultivate bare, browning mountains.3 Still engrossed in the global economy, cellphones connect farmers to world markets, yet schools and health services are sparse. These peasants (peyizan in Creole) describe themselves as moun andeyò (outside people): referring to their feelings of abandonment, left out of modern advancements.4
As Jennie Smith notes, the term peyizan is difficult to define, for it is not simply an economic differentiation. Since more rural farmers own land in Haiti than in most other Latin American and Caribbean countries, she cites this ownership as the peasantry’s distinguishing characteristic, arguing that it affects the entire community structure and daily life for the population.5 When I use the term, I refer mostly to this group of rural farmers. Yet, urbanization is occurring at a rapid rate, as survival on increasingly less arable land becomes untenable; most migrants become slum-dwellers, living day-to-day by informal employment. Because of this phenomenon, I include in my analysis of peasant spirituality these inhabitants of slums around Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitian, and Gonaives.
Peasants, whether tilling their rocky plots or displaced as urban squatters, live poverty. And, as Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez writes, being poor is a “way of feeling, knowing, reasoning, making friends, loving, believing, suffering, celebrating, and praying.”6 While I do cannot assume my analysis of the peasantry’s spirituality is applicable to each individual Haitian, I do think the largely common experience of poverty enables me to identify general features in the way these people follow Christ by living a preferential option for the poor.
To describe the manner in which Haitians make this option, I will start with a story about Robenson, my translator and friend. We had nearly finished with our day’s work and were tired, both our shirts damp with sweat. “Wait a minute,” Robenson said, stopping in front of an alleyway on the road home. “I saw a lady around here today, and she said her mom was real sick. I told her I’d come back with you, to see, ya know, if we could do some thing to help her.”
He led me into the stranger’s house. Indeed, an old, emaciated woman lay on a blanket on the ground, heaving with each breath. After sitting with the family for some time, I gave the woman’s daughter 500 gourdes for a hospital visit. Robenson told her to find him to tell him how much more she might need—that we’d take care of her. Very early the next morning, Robenson came to me. The woman died. In the hospital, waiting for treatment, because we found her too late. “I just thought about that old lady all night, Ms. Bre. I can’t stop thinking about her.”
Robenson’s action parallels that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, and along with other sources, is revealing for the way Haitians perceive others, define their neighbors, and make an option for the poor and suffering.
Smith agrees with my observation that, unlike the stereotypical American emphasis on proper names and titles, Haitians nearly always address each other in relational terms: zanmi (friend), sè m (my sister), tonton (uncle), or chef (boss, intended jocularly).7 Even at first meeting, people call each other “friend.” In addition to relationship labels, Haitians describe others based on their social and economic statuses, using terms such as gwo nèg (big shot), tipeyizan (little / average peasant), and pòv malere (desperately poor person); they also readily call themselves by these terms, openly proclaiming individual identity and accepting the attitudes that receive it—sympathy for the pòv and disdain for often selfish gwo nèg.8
Robenson’s identity brought a negative connotation: deportee, meaning he had lived in the United States for several years (hence his perfect English), but then committed a crime, served a jail sentence, and was ultimately deported. Marginalized by his background and appropriation of American hip-hop culture, I saw Robenson subjected to consistent harassment throughout the summer. Even children sneered “deportee” when we passed, intentionally remaining just within earshot. In this respect, Robenson resembled the Samaritan: an “other” among the Haitian peasants and the Israelite exiles, which themselves are outsider groups.
Along with this openness about one’s identity comes an awareness of capabilities, which like relative economic status, is also shared knowledge. Smith describes the phenomenon of konbit, or work party, in which a small group of peasants takes turns working on each member’s field, accomplishing more together than they could individually. Many group members are not relatives or close acquaintances.9 People take responsibility to collectively help others, but in doing so, recognize that not everyone possesses equal capacity to contribute. The konbit members accept apparent lethargy from other group members, with one remarking that “Not everyone has the same kouraj [strength]. You never know what problems may be weighing on someone.”10 Even in these casual acquaintances, Haitian peyizan immediately perceive the possible suffering of others, and they respond with kindness. They recognize that not all are on the same level; some are weaker and suffer more, and therefore deserve more kindness.
This analysis is akin to the “asymmetrical ethics” Fr. Gutierrez described, in which one elevates the other above self.11 In konbit, peasants help each person, in turn, on his field, regardless of how much comparative manual labor that other person might later give them on the next work party. Therefore, this communalism goes beyond ideologies of political collectivism, which place a premium on a work-group’s utility. Shared labor occurs instead simply because others’ need the help; it is a spiritual ethic. In that day of working the land together, the host’s needs are elevated above each worker’s personal aches and struggles, and the peyizan love others as themselves—fulfilling the One Great Commandment, un solo mandamiento, in which loving God and loving neighbors become one act.12
Yet, something deeper than this generosity toward others operates in Haitian peasant spirituality to drive them to opt for the poor. The suffering of others evokes an innate, visceral reaction within, moving them to action. Returning to the story of Robenson and the sick woman, we can wonder why he promised to help her, why he brought me to her? Robenson’s own problems are many. No matter how much I pay him for his work, he never will have enough to care for his entire extended family, which comes to him for food whenever they hear he has cash. Robenson could very justifiably appeal to me for extra help, which admittedly he does, not unconcerned with his personal situation. Yet, on this day, he brought be to an anonymous old woman. I did not ask his reasons at the time, but I suspect his motivation was akin to the Good Samaritan being “moved with compassion,” or as Fr. Gutierrez translates the Greek, having his “bowels yearn.”13 Unlike in the case of konbit, in which all participants share a common experience of farming challenges, Robenson did not fully understand the woman’s suffering. He was not heaving on the cold floor as she. But something, some deep internal reaction to seeing her pain, drove him to take action. He saw injustice in her suffering, and her death tormented his mind through the night because despite his efforts, he could not make the situation right.
When Robenson acted, with no motive of personal gain, simply because he was moved with compassion, he became a neighbor to the woman. Other stories of the Haitian poor demonstrate this quality. In September 2008, four tropical storms and hurricanes ransacked Haiti, literally flooding the entire country. Zanmi Lasante, a system of community-based clinics near the hardest hit area, responded by rallying a relief effort, despite the organizations’ inexperience in disaster work. A driver for ZL, Jean Benoit Isaac, or “Ti Ben,” is described as working indefatigably as soon as he realized the situation. He even remained in the devastated Central Plateau region despite knowing that his own family’s home had been destroyed in Port-au-Prince. On this, he merely commented, “What’s done there is done there and I know they [my family] are safe…I can’t leave. These people need to eat. Mothers and babies need clothes. This is my work now.”14
In Walking on Fire, Beverly Bell relates the personal testimonies of 39 Haitian women. One of these, Louise Monfils, describes her motivation for being a neighbor to others by raising children not her own, organizing peasant groups despite risk of political persecution, and generally “answering the cry for help by someone at night.”15 She is driven, she says, by the presence of Christ in all people: “If I need to meet Jesus, I meet him in my brothers and sisters, I meet him in the work I am doing, in helping them live as human beings.”16 By encountering Christ in those she meets, Louise is driven to work on their behalf.
“You need to step into other people’s skin” in order to serve them effectively, Louise says.17 Robenson and Ti Ben, whether or not they personally knew the suffering of those they encountered, could for a moment step into the person’s skin, which moved them to act, and in that action, become neighbors to that anonymous other.
In addition to the manner in which Haitians perceive others in relation to themselves and act as neighbors to others is a still deeper commitment arising from the peasants’ spirituality. They make an option for the poor among them. Fr. Gutierrez describes this option as committing “to enter the world of the poor,”18 but Haitian peyizan are already in that world. For them, the option entails pledging to remain in the world, with the poor. First, making this option drives them to stay in concrete solidarity with those suffering the most around them, and second, “to refuse the conditions of poverty”19 so as to transform the oppressive systems under which the poor struggle to live.
Solidarity, writes Fr. Gutierrez, “is the concrete expression of Christian love today,” and it flourishes among the poor and oppressed of Latin America.20 I have already mentioned some ways in which Haitians practice this solidarity, such as the konbit that pervade rural parts of the country. These are built on the principle of youn ède lòt (one helping the other), in which individuals enter into a reciprocal relationship with others. Haitian peyizan need to act in solidarity, based on this reciprocal relationship, because of their very tangible interdependency, which is described in the common proverb, “yon sèl dwèt pa manje kalalou” (one finger alone cannot eat stew).21 When people have, they share. When they lack, they trust that others will share with them. This phenomenon is, to me, one of the most captivating, though desperate, features of life in Haiti: few have cash to buy food, so those who survive the shortages do it on currency of I.O.U.s. Everyone, at some point, is giver and receiver.
Actions of solidarity are done with a spirit of hospitality. In konbit, the host is expected to offer food, drink, and occasionally, modest entertainment to the other workers. Expatriates involved in Haitian development have occasionally misinterpreted this hospitality as a “food-for-work” arrangement. Peasants, however, conceive of the hospitality as gratefulness for others’ “‘gift’ of labor.”22 This reciprocal giving and receiving, as Fr. Gutierrez writes, is integral to Christian living together as members of the body of Christ. Living in Christ involves a very real struggle against death.23 Since Haitian peasants know well the difficulty of cheche lavi (seeking life) in a country now courting famine, it is only by living in solidarity with each other, tèt ansanm (literally, heads together), that they can opt for life over death.
Although these acts of solidarity in making an option for the poor do engage the peyizan spirituality, Haitians also directly bring prayer into their actions, with faith in God to lead them through the actions that seem too difficult. An overwhelming majority of Haitians, 96 percent, are Christian, with 80 percent of these Catholic followed by a growing proportion of Protestants.24 Many of these Christians are devote; in my experience, 6 a.m. Mass is standing room only as people pray emphatically for God’s mercy in their struggles. As Fr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide preached at his parish in the slums, “Let us put everything that is created in darkness aside and let holiness grow through prayer.”25 Alerte Belance, one woman whose story Bell recounts, described her horrendous experience of being nearly beaten to death by a paramilitary group, for speaking the truth after the 1991 coup d’état. Alerte credits her survival fully to God, and it was experience of prayer during her physical healing that gave her strength to then work against attacks on women similar to her experience. She explained simply, “God resuscitated me for a reason.”26
Committing oneself to solidarity with the suffering—in actions of service, possibly driven by prayer—is one aspect of making a preferential option for the poor. The second involves a broader refusal of the conditions of poverty. Instead of just responding to the situation, do not allow the suffering to begin at all. If the Good Samaritan made this option, he would begin a campaign for greater protection against bandits, or work to eliminate the causes of banditry in the first place. It is this aspect of the making the option that Haitians pursue with perhaps the greatest vigor.
Despite their typically low-level of education, and often illiteracy, Haitian peyizan understand the causes of injustice in their country, many of which involve powerful governments, such as my own, making deals with the Haitian bourgeoisie to keep the small country’s resources in the hands of few. Throughout The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer documents Haitians’ awareness of injustices from their dictators’ corruption to the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank. Their acute knowledge is reflected another common proverb, bay kou bliye, pote mak sonje (he who deals the blow, forgets; he who bears the mark, remembers).27
Haitians remember these injustices, and find many ways to speak the truth about them. One popular manner involves creating short songs, called voye-pwen (sending points), with specific political messages embedded in their symbolism: not blatant enough to justify reprimand, but with a meaning apparent to most listeners.28 Here is an example of a pwen about extractive leaders:
Si Ayiti pa fore, sak fè ou jwenn tout bèt If Haiti isn’t a jungle, why then all
Ladan l? these beasts?
Ou jwen lyon, ou jwenn tig, ou You find lions and tigers, you
Jwenn rat find rats
Songs such as these, some made massively popular at the annual Carnival celebrations, have become anthems of popular resistance, and even were implicated in the 1990 forced resignation of junta leader Prosper Avril.29
Other declarations are more direct. For instance, in 2001, at an annual human rights symposium in the mountainous village of Cange, the patients of a local health clinic delivered a statement. With the current first lady and other public officials in attendance, they declared,
“We have a message for you who suffer from the same sickness as we do. We would like to tell you not to get discouraged because you do not have medications. We pledge to remain steadfast in this fight and never to tire of fighting for the right of everyone to have necessary medications and adequate treatment.”30
Although they already had access to quality medical care, these patients committed themselves to others—likely because they understood the suffering of untreated illness and were moved to act for others who still suffered in this way. Beyond simply acting in solidarity with love, as in the previous examples, these Cange patients proclaimed their action. They publicly assert themselves on behalf of the marginalized, even marginalized strangers.
Refusing the conditions of poverty in Haiti also entails formal groups and movements. These may generate organically from konbit activities, called sosyete or attribisyon or, in the case of Gwoupman Peyizan receive direct support from external development initiatives.31 In both cases, however, the groups provide a forum for peasants to “expose and analyze the structural causes of their impoverishment and disempowerment.”32 As a tool for this analysis, a number of groups have specifically learned, usually from Catholic priests or sisters, the method of gade (observe), reflechi (reflect/judge), aji (act); in other groups, variations on this method are practiced without formal instruction.33
The proclaiming act of refusing poverty follows some aspects of the spirituality of Bartolome de las Casas. He asked a similar question the lawyer asked Jesus, prompting the parable of the Good Samaritan. Yet instead of inquiring, ‘who is my neighbor?’, Las Casas asked, ‘who is the Indian?’ Since, as discussed above, the Haitian poor clearly answer the former question by becoming neighbors to those in great need, it is logical to ask how they would answer Las Casa’s question. First, Las Casas agreed with other theologians of his time by asserting that the Indians were born “free and equal” to the Spaniards. Yet, he added to this answer his conviction that the Indians were preferentially loved by God because they were poor.34 As the above examples of Haitians speaking out against injustice show, the peyizan believe they are born free and equal to both the blan foreigners and the bourgeoisie. As the authors of the Cange Declaration state, “Yes, all human beings are people. It is we, the afflicted, who are speaking.” Because they suffer poverty, Haitian peasants make a preference for those in poverty and assert as las Casas did, that people—including themselves!—must love the poor as God loved them.
Organized groups have contributed to actual transformation of Haiti’s political system. The ti kominite legliz (ecclesial base communities) grew in the late 1970s, inspired by an earlier Church-based rural development group founded by St. Croix priest, Fr. Yvon Joseph.35 The TKL movement is credited with contributing—via the priests who preached justice and the parishioners who protested to demand it—to the ouster of dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986.36 By courageously refusing the conditions by which the state oppressed its people in poverty, the Haitian poor were able to change the structures. It is still an extremely poor country, but—significantly because of the peyizan continually “emerging from within”37 the world of the poor to opt against the conditions of poverty—Haiti now has a democratic government more attuned to its peoples’ needs.
The struggle against death is long, but the Haitian peyizan attempt to preserver in solidarity as the body of Christ. They are honest about their identities in relation to others, and when called for, place the needs of the other above their own. Seeing great suffering moves them to act with compassion as neighbors, for they see injustice in the pain. They make a preferential option for the poor—which entails remaining in the world of the poor, acting and praying in solidarity, and then, emerging from within that world to attempt to change the structures that oppress them. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but they keep struggling, opting for life in an environment that conspires for their death. Haitian peasants again explain with a proverb: yonn sèl nou fèb / ansanm nou fò / ansanm ansanm / nou se lavalas.38 Alone, we are weak / together we are strong / together, together / we are a flood