Haiti: Where Solidarity Means Survival -- Lessons for the Policy Makers

After the earth heaved, Lina Jean-Juste remembers, "It was a long night. Long, long, long. But you never felt alone. It was a huge collective grief without end. You saw people crying, then they'd sing."
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Perhaps more than anything today, Haiti needs a new macro-economy, one based above all on meeting the needs of its citizens. Post-earthquake economic restructuring could include equitable distribution of resources, high levels of employment with fair compensation, local production, and provision of social services. In the meantime, what saved many during the earthquake, and what is keeping them alive today, is a culture and economy of solidarity, or mutual aid. Solidarity is an essential strategy through which on-the-margins communities, and their individual members, can survive and thrive. Today the generosity is on overdrive. Yolette Etienne, a development worker, commented: "The tremendous chains of solidarity of the people we saw from the day of the earthquake on: that is our capacity. That is our victory. That is our heart." Gifting and solidarity are time-honored traditions in Haiti, as around the world. The non-monetary transactions of services, care, and goods are both spontaneous and organized. They honor human relationships and attention to the well-being of the whole, not just oneself. They minimize the role of profit in economic and social relations, and thus keep respect, cooperation, and ethics thriving. Sylvain Pierre, one of the national coordinators of Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, or Heads Together Small Haitian Peasant Farmers, described the tradition in Haiti. "When there were massacres [against Tèt Kole members] in Jean-Rabel and Piatte, when there were arrests, when there is work to be done, when there are political fights, there is always solidarity. When they know we need political pressure, they give it. Some people bring food. Some bring wood, some bring water. Those who have money, they give money. Those who only have a little change put it into a sack as a collection for other members." What he described is not just organizational culture, it is in fact part of the national culture - many profiteers and crooks notwithstanding. In the days following the catastrophe, community members pulled together to dig out survivors from collapsed houses, usually with only their hands or rudimentary tools. They unearthed corpses, set up brigades to clear rubble, and organized security teams in the streets and camps. Charles Arthur of the Haiti Support Group writes of an eyewitness report from outside of Leogane. "At the sound of the lambi [a conch shell blown since slavery to gather the community], people would gather from far and wide, picks and hoes in hand, to clear blocked roads, dig each other out, rebuild homes, and prepare to accept refugees." Lina Jean-Juste, an unemployed community volunteer, told how she experienced the mutual aid the day the earth heaved. "It was a long night. Long, long, long. But you never felt alone. It was a huge collective grief without end. You saw people crying, then they'd sing. "But it was sweet, too. Everyone was working together. No one shouted at anyone. We all spent the night trying to get people out of their houses with our fingernails. When we were finished, we'd go to another house and start over. "One man who was by himself, all by himself, he went into a collapsed building 15 times to try to get people out. It was so dangerous. He pulled, he moved blocks, he found a saw and cut a steel door. He never did save anyone, but he wouldn't give up. "Someone asked for help to transport a fat woman. I remember a guy who said, 'Okay, I'll go. I don't know what's happening with my family, but I'll help.' I said, 'But cheri, you have to go see about your own family.' He said, 'No, I'm going to help her.' "My sister died when a house fell on her. The man who she'd been visiting with, who was a friend of the family, wouldn't leave her body until I got there. He didn't even know yet what had happened to his own family, but he wouldn't leave her." The Catholic lay worker Henri Mesillus recounted that, the day after the earthquake, he saw a young man on a street with four candies and a small plastic sack of water. The young man passed the candies and the water bag to strangers who happened to be around him. Henri heard him tell them, "Don't take too much water; it's for all of us." Mesita Attis of the market women's support group Martyred Women of Brave Ayibobo said, "We've shared our pain and our suffering. If you heard your baby in the ruins crying 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,' fourteen people would run help you. If you don't have a piece of bread, someone will give you theirs." Everyone, once asked, has a story to offer. Economist Camille Chalmers told of losing his diabetes medicines within his crushed house. No more were available in Port-au-Prince, and without them he could not live. The word got out, and solidarity came in from other countries. Friends sent new supplies from Cuba, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. "Now I have a whole stock," he laughed. In areas both directly hit by the earthquake as well as those to which survivors fled, locals have organized themselves in the mutual aid tradition. Many have taken in others whose houses don't have water, or who no longer have a house at all, to join those already sharing beds and filling up space on the floor and the yard. People have pooled their time, belongings, and funds to share food and tarps; look after the injured and ill; provide child care; give money for medicine; keep a protective eye out for women and children who are at high risk of violence; and take in orphaned and abandoned children. Judith Simeon, an organizer with peasant and women's groups, said that after the earthquake, "Everyone was helping everyone. What people had, they shared with others. It was truly those who had nothing who did that most. "I put together a group of people; we each went and helped others. People didn't have any food so we shared what we had. The youth could get by, they could walk to get what they needed, so they weren't my priority. I was interested in people who couldn't get by. I used what I knew with dehydrated people, especially little children and elderly ones who were so weak. I gave them oral rehydration serum with water, salt, and sugar. I also used my knowledge of herbal medicines, how to use natural remedies with plants and leaves, to help people heal. "During two weeks, two friends and I were taking care of a group of 14 children whose parents had died, while we tried to find their family in the countryside or other cousins and neighbors who could take them in. The kids were as young as three. "No, I didn't have any relation to them. It was our citizen obligation to take care of those who needed it." Gisner Prudhomme, an agronomist, and his wife have been hosting two adults and four children for more than two months. Only one is a relative; the others are neighbors who lost their houses. Like Judith, Gisner seemed surprised when a visitor inquired about his hospitality. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "You have to." At the conclusion of the funeral for her 87-year-old mother, who died in the quake and is now buried in the back yard of her crushed house, development worker Yolette Etienne told the group gathered, "From now on, let nothing we do be for the individual. Let it all be for the collective."

(Next week, part II will focus on what organized solidarity could mean for a new national economy.)

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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