Thursday, April 07, 2011

Haiti: Dieubon’s Story - One Haitian man describes his efforts to help build a community out of farmers struggling alone

Source: The Open Society Foundation

Author: Chuck Sudetic

Dieubon’s Story

Sinomé Saint-Clair is my real name. But through most of my life’s journey, I have worn the name Dieubon like the broad-brimmed farmer’s hat that keeps the Haitian sun from my head. My country produces many life-or-death moments for its people. Crops fail. Cholera strikes. Cows die and shacks catch fire. The money runs out or disappears when infants are stricken with deadly illnesses too far from a doctor; mothers sing them to sleep with hymns. In times of trial, people appeal to God with these words: Bon Dieu Bon. They are an expression of complete submission to the Good God in the hope of winning a miracle.

I have not taken the name Dieubon in vain. I strive to organize hard-headed individuals who pray for miracles because they too often find themselves in situations where there is no one but God to hear them. I draw such people together. I help them to overcome their fear and mistrust. I urge them to work together to solve their problems. FOKAL [Fondation Connaissance et Liberté—the Open Society Foundation in Haiti] has helped, for this kind of organizing is the first step in building a community out of individuals struggling alone, hoping against hope to escape dollar-a-day poverty. These people are averse to new ideas. They fear risk, because failure can bring catastrophe. I think peasants everywhere suffer peasant jealousy. They hate successes they do not share.

My job requires spending days under the beating sun with peasants and their cows. To reach them, I climb mountain trails and trek into villages in hollows and lowlands located many hours by foot or donkey from roads that vehicles can pass. I want Haitian farmers subsisting in these remote places to be able to feed themselves and their families better. I want them to earn more from their labor by cooperating to raise small, village herds of cattle instead of keeping single cows.

My career as a peasant organizer began during the rule of Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. The Duvaliers, François and his son, Jean-Claude, wielded absolute power for more than three decades. They were years with no right to gather together, no right to speak aloud, no right to eat, no right to go to school, no right to health care. The Duvaliers oversaw Haiti’s only legal social organization. Its members spoke a great deal about development, but produced none; and the Duvaliers’ police thugs, the Tontons Macoutes, used the organization as a platform to spy on people and listen for hints of discontent or disobedience.

I knew a man who tried to create an independent social organization; for this, the Tontons Macoutes cast him into prison and he never returned. I organized covertly, under the auspices of the Catholic Church. I was careful as I walked, and soft when I spoke. And I waited long under a hot sun for change to come.

After Jean-Claude Duvalier’s fall from power, Haiti’s rural people felt excitement and called it liberation. Many scrambled into Port-au-Prince and sought jobs. Many tried to escape by taking to boats and rafts and setting sail upon the Caribbean; some made it to distant shores, and some of the clothing and bags of the others washed up on far-away beaches. The loved ones and neighbors they left behind in their home villages remained as they were: afraid, reluctant, hungry, desperate. These are the people I have worked among.

I am presently a coordinator with an environmental organization; we support an association of dairy farmers and a peasant cooperative. The members have problems raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. Our task is modest: to teach the peasants better methods of raising livestock and poultry and to convince them to pool their efforts in doing so.

Most peasant families have no more than a cow and a few pigs and chickens. We are showing them how to support more animals on the same amount of land, how to pasteurize milk, and how to trust veterinarians and vaccines. These people need training. They need information. They need to keep their animals in sanitary conditions. We distribute cows, calves, vaccines, and medicines. The numbers of livestock have increased significantly in places where no one ever counted the head.

In the Haiti of the Duvaliers, our work would have amounted to a capital offense. In today’s Haiti of political turmoil, the earthquake, the cholera outbreak, kidnappings, extortion, and a battery of unnamed challenges just as tragic and deadly, our work can help forestall moments of life and death. Without organizing more peasants, they might always believe that the words Bon Dieu Bon are all they have.

As told to Chuck Sudetic.

licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative License .