Working For Free

They put two chairs for us at the front of the room, in front of the bar that separated the heightened dirt-stage with the pulpit from the floor where the congregation sat. I sat in the chair, and one of the boys who works with the church sat next to me. He asked me a few questions about what brought me there, and I talked briefly about how I think it’s important for everyone to participate in the political process. Then, the preacher, who was standing behind us at the pulpit, rang the bell and told everyone to start.

Millienne opened up by saying hi and asking people whether they’d agree to “walk with” Senator Jonas. The immediate response was that it’s hard to answer that question until they know what Senator Jonas is going to do for them. After that, Yolande said a piece about the different projects Bernadette had done. The pastor broke in at that point that they know Bernadette, and they like her. A woman in the crowd agreed. Martha added that she is Bernadette’s daughter, but she also wants people to support Senator Jonas even though they don’t know him. Martha mentioned that they’re looking for someone who can help organize the campaign in the area to spread the word about the two candidates. Then I was supposed to say something. I stood up, and said that I’m not going to tell them how to vote because I’m not a citizen, but I’ve been working with Bernadette over the past year and she’s been really helpful connecting me with people and getting everything organized. I talked about how some people don’t bother to campaign in the remote places, because they’re just too far from the polling places to be relevant. Then I told everyone to not get discouraged about the process and keep participating by voting. Otherwise, they won’t get their voices heard.

After that, they opened the field up for questions. The pastor started off with a long speech. First, he explained that although they’re happy to help out with the campaign, they’re not going to do it for free. If Martha wanted someone to walk all around talking about the candidate, that person would need a little encouragement so that they could buy food to give them energy for all that walking. Plus, fixing his telephone would help a lot with communication. The pastor wasn’t happy that the candidate didn’t come directly to the meeting, and wanted to know when he would be coming up to talk. Martha explained that he was really busy, and had sent us as representatives, and the telephone would serve as a direct line of communication. The pastor said he’d had problems reaching the senator on the phone the other day, and he’d prefer to talk to him face to face about the things the area needed. Martha told him that’s what she was hear for, to take notes on the things that they needed to get the ball rolling with the senator. She said again and again that they don’t want to make any empty promises: “My yes should mean yes.” The most important thing was to find out what people were looking for, and then they’d see whether they had the funds to pay for it.

Martha suggested one problem she’d observed herself – the road is so difficult that if anyone was sick, they’re likely to die up here before they get to a hospital. What the area really needs, she said, is a health center that can serve as first aid. The pastor interrupted with his own ideas. It would be great for the church to have a generator, so that they could play better music and attract more people to the services. They had been working on building a school, and some cement and iron would help. Agriculture needed to be supported, and people had no good water to drink. They get it from springs, and since dogs are getting it from the same place it can’t be clean (I resisted the urge to interrupt with the fact that dog’s mouths are cleaner than humans). In the same vein, a series of latrines would be great. They know they’re too far away from civilization to expect running water or electricity, but all of these improvements would be nice.

Martha dutifully wrote all this down, but the part that threw her was that the pastor seemed to be saying he wanted all of this right now as proof that the candidate would continue to work for him in the future. “You’re asking for too many projects,” Martha said miserably. “Do you think the candidate has this much money?” The pastor went into how they’re tired of being lied to by politicians. If a politician wants them to walk with him, he needs to walk with them first. They’re going to judge people by their actions, not their words. They’ve seen Bernadette’s actions, so they respect her, but they know nothing about this other guy and what he can deliver.
Martha moved on to questions for the audience. One of the boys who works in the church stood up. He suggested that if the senator didn’t have enough money for a generator for the church, they could at least give him a keyboard piano so he can play some music (don’t ask me how it will work without a source of electricity). He also wanted some building supplies for the school. The key point of his message was that all this needs to be delivered before the election. After would be too late. They don’t want to be duped. They’re going to take what they can get now, and then they’ll go ahead and vote.

Martha tried to answer that by bring up again that the candidate isn’t rich. He simply can’t afford to finance all this right now, before the election. A woman towards the back started ranting about how when you’re making soup it isn’t enough to just get the water and the bowl. You need the fire, and you need vegetables, and you need meat. They weren’t going to accept a candidate who wasn’t willing to provide everything. It was an ironic reminder of the Stone Soup story, and how I prefer to do things – everyone does their little bit, and you end up with something great.

The pastor talked again, bringing up the same points as before. They weren’t going to do any work for free, he insisted. If the politician wanted him to work for them, he needed to give something in return. At this point, we’d moved beyond the idea of hiring a local campaign manager to promote the guy. It was pretty clear that they were asking to receive something in exchange for voting. Voting counted as work.

Martha took another question from the audience. Another boy who worked with the church stood up. The first thing he said was that since he works with the church he’s not allowed to get involved in politics really, but as a youth he’s got some concerns that he’s sure others in the area share. He talked about the advantages that a school would bring, and suggested at least providing the cement if they didn’t have the money to do the metal for the roof as well. At that point, Martha was getting really tired of having to reiterate the point about Jonas’s limited resources. The pastor saw this, and he broke in to explain that they’re not asking for Jonas to buy them. “I would never sell myself, not for one gourde, not for three hundred gourde,” he said (privately, I wondered if he would accept four hundred gourdes, and tried to keep myself from smiling). “But I’m not going to work for free. The church isn’t supposed to get involved in politics, but we could organize an outside committee. If you want that to happen, though, you’ve got to show us that you’re worth it.” The pastor talked about how other parties had helped them in the past. For example, they donated the megaphone that he used in the service. Apparently, that was an acceptable gesture of solidarity. Martha explained that actually, she’s working for free. She likes what Senator Jonas is doing, so she paid for food and water to come up here with her own money, just because she cares.

The boy who’d been the first to speak up was standing in the doorway, eating a mango. He threw away the seed with a flourish, and added the same thing everyone had been saying: they won’t walk with Jonas until he shows that he’ll walk with them. He said that the town was like a girl who a lot of guys want to date, and they had to be sure they were making a good choice. I couldn’t help wondering whether any of the other candidates had bothered to walk up. The woman who’d talked about Bernadette before took up the theme. She said that they’re fine with Bernadette, because she’s done good things already, but they’re not going to take any more lies from other politicians.

With that, the meeting seemed over. The pastor spoke one more time, reiterating everything he’d said. He also added at this point that it might be good for them to get a voting center closer to town. Martha pointed out that it’s the state’s job to do that, but they’d see what they could do. She said they’d see what they could do on the other questions, too – now that they know what people want, they can go to the candidate, and he can see what’s possible. The pastor talked about the importance of getting him a phone, to make communication easier. He seemed offended that Bernadette lives so close, in Lascahobas itself, but hadn’t made the trek up herself. He also kept getting confused about who was running for what, and from what party. He thought Bernadette was running for mayor, instead of deputy, and he didn’t realize that the senator was from a different party than her. Martha asked for a paper and wrote it down for them. As everyone filed out from the church, we talked a little with the two boys who had spoken up. Neither of them had a working phone. Martha gave them her phone number, and tried to get something she could leave messages on.

On the way down, we talked over what had happened. I offered the idea that it’s inappropriate to ask for a generator and a keyboard for the church services: “That will only benefit the church congregation, not the whole community, and besides, the government shouldn’t be involved in religion.” Martha replied, “Well, where you come from, you don’t conduct campaigns in churches,” which was fair. They eventually decided together that the best thing to do would be to send six or ten sacks of cement for the school, if possible. Martha continued talking about the idea of a health center and school. She helps Bernadette out at the school, and she’s got a huge passion for children. Like me, she was upset that everyone wanted to receive the benefits before the election, but I think we were upset for slightly different reasons. I was upset because I think voting is something that you do, and so it should be just a matter of choosing what candidate to vote for, rather than deciding what to vote. Martha saw things with a different logic: “If you ask to receive benefits before the election, then after the election the politician will have no motivation to keep serving you.”

After that, we were all busy barreling down the hill and didn’t have time to talk further. I knew Martha also felt bad because Jonas is her “almost-boyfriend” and she’d been hoping that he’d notice if he helped out with this campaign. I think the woman from Mirebelais was supposed to take charge of things – Mirebelais is where Jonas lives, and I think he sent her. He certainly wasn’t happy that she couldn’t come – they called him from the trail. Martha had only prepared a message in her notebook to read out loud about her mother, but then when she did the Q&A part it was very clear she cared a lot about Jonas’s campaign, too, and not just because all the questions were about him instead of Bernadette because he’s the unknown one.

I met Jonas once, late at night. He treated me like a little kid, reaching down to grab my nose. He talked to Bernadette about the necessity of forming an alliance. He told her she needs to spend 20% of her campaign funds within 500 meters of the polling place. It’s not worth spending your time and money on places farther away. You build up your base. He also had other interesting little tidbits. Like, when you have a radio interview, make sure you come late, so they’ll know you’re a busy person. I had decided I didn’t like him.

As we made our way back down, tired from a long day, I also found myself thinking about the ridiculousness of what everyone was being asked to do. We were supposed to go up the mountain to campaign. They were supposed to come down the mountain to vote. They were supposed to get a health center and a school in their town, instead of moving to a town that already had those things. I thought about ski lifts. I thought about human-sized hamster balls that kept you from getting hurt as you bounced down the mountainside in them. I thought about jetpacks. I think jetpacks might be the answer. Then everyone could go anywhere, without losing their homes, without losing their selves. But I’ve heard they’re impractical and dangerous.

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