The other night, I translated Bernadette’s explanation of how her organization came to be founded, which was also my opportunity to finally get the whole story. Today, I stopped by my first meeting of the organization. Here’s what I’ve learned.
In 1989, Bernadette worked with a nutrition center, where a lot of mothers would bring their kids. Sometimes, the mothers weren’t able to come themselves, so they sent the older siblings to accompany the young ones. She started asking why those kids weren’t in school, and the mothers explained that they weren’t able to pay the fees. Bernadette told the parents that if they bought the uniforms and made sure to send them, she would find a way to sign them up.
They started out with 12 students. Bernadette found a sympathetic priest who was willing to accept them at his school, but then, at the end of the school-year, she wasn’t able to meet the conditions. The priest wanted her to pay full-price, so Bernadette had to start looking at other options.
The land where the school is now used to be a church. She talked to the priest there, and he was willing for them to start having classes there. That was in 1990, but the school didn’t get its official papers until 2 years later, in 1992, so that’s the official founding date. They started with first grade, and added classes year by year. For a while, they stayed at six, and then two years ago they added seventh grade and eighth grade (to comply with government regulations, you’ve got to go up to nine now). There are over 600 students attending the school, and they finished construction in 2014 (although paying off the construction loans is of course another story).
Bernadette offered us a glimpse into her school’s finances. Teacher salaries for grades 1-6 range from $80 USD to $125 USD every month. The teachers for the higher grades are paid by hour, because they’re only teaching a specific subject. Only three of Bernadette’s teachers are “normalized” – that means they’ve spent three years studying education at a “normal school.” If you’re normalized, you’re in higher demand, and you can expect a salary of around $400 USD every month. She’s not able to attract normalized teachers, because they often go work at other schools in the area that get paid better.
AFAL itself was founded in 1996, a few years after the school opened. It stands for Association of Activist Women in Lascahobas. They focused on education and agriculture, providing schooling, seeds, and tools. Bernadette received support from all over: Worldvision, Oxfam, and others. In 1999(?), they joined up with the Church of the Redeemer, a Catholic church in my state, Virginia. A lot of the Catholic churches in Virginia have a twinning program where they partner with a Catholic church in Haiti. The Church of the Redeemer decided to help out Bernadette’s group, even though they’re not affiliated with the church (Bernadette goes there on Sundays, but she’s just a member). They’ve supported the school, a housing project, a small vocational school where they made cleaning supplies, a water treatment project, and other things.
Bernadette told us that she served as AFAL’s first president, and after that others stepped up. But then, around 2003 and 2005, AFAL almost collapsed, and she felt obligated to take the reins again. Since then, she’s served as president, and AFAL has grown to over 150 members.
At the meeting today, there were only 20 women or so. Bernadette explained that not everyone attends the monthly meetings all at once, and there are others who choose to meet in smaller groups closer to their homes at other times. The meeting was supposed to start at 3, but Bernadette told us not to show up until 4.
After we introduced ourselves, Bernadette launched into the lesson. She opened a book about democracy to a page that talked about what being a citizen means. First, she asked the group what being a citizen means.
“You can vote,” said one woman. “But you have to respect the laws,” said another.
Bernadette asked them at what age people become citizens, and they talked for a bit about how you’re considered an adult at 18 (you “become a major.”). Bernadette also talked about the difference between civil rights and political rights. A civil right is something you’re born with, and everybody has one. You have the right to an identity (when your child is born, they should get a birth certificate with their name on it, along with their “siyati” – their last name. Now I know why all the parents were confused when we put “siyati” on the consent forms. It also translates to “signature”, so they idn’t know which one I was asking for). You have the right to claim a nationality – if you’re born in Haiti, you can be Haitian. You have the right to marry, once you’ve become an adult. You have the right to free speech. Everyone has the right to health and education, too.
Political rights involve participation in the system. Voting is the obvious one. Also, you can join a political party and run as a candidate. Plus, you can criticize the government. Bernadette explained that “criticize” doesn’t mean you should just talk about all the things the government is doing wrong. You should also talk about when it does something good. If it does something wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. It just means that it will avoid doing that again in the future.
Bernadette asked if anyone had questions, and no one did. So, she announced, she would ask questions of her own. First, she asked what a citizen was. After they correctly identified someone who has turned 18, she asked what the distinction was between a member of the population and a citizen. The women understood that a child can be a member of the population, but isn’t considered a citizen until they stop being a minor. There was also a discussion about how someone can lose their rights as a citizen. Bernadette clarified that if you’re convicted of a crime and sent to prison, you can lose your citizenship.
Bernadette asked them to talk about civil rights, but no one was able to correctly explain what they were, so she went over them again briefly. One woman smiled and said “Good health for you, and for me” like it was a joke she couldn’t believe in. Then, they moved on to political rights. This time, there were many more questions after people delivered “voting” as one correct response. One woman wanted to know whether someone who had stolen or committed a crime could run for president. Bernadette repeated what she’d said about losing your citizenship if you went to prison. “One thing you should know is that we’re all equal under the law,” Bernadette declared. “Everyone plays by the same rules.”
The woman in the back wasn’t buying it. “How can we all be equal when a president has more power than I do?” she asked. She also seemed to be implying that she’d never be able to run for president – it was an opportunity that wasn’t open to her.
Bernadette answered that when she was talking about equality she was talking about the legal system and the justice system. As for the political system, apparently there’s a law that you don’t have to be able to read to vote or run for office. In Bernadette’s mind, that was going to open up the system to a lot of previously-marginalized people.
Someone else asked about the age when you can run for candidate. Bernadette said it’s 25 for some local positions, 50 for deputy or senator (those are the representatives that get sent to Parliament), and even higher for a president. Someone commented that instead of saying people have citizenship at 18, they should say 25, because you aren’t able to run for a candidate until you’re 25. Bernadette pointed out that you can do a lot of things at 18, but they aren’t allowed to run until later because most people don’t graduate from college until they’re around that age.
There was still some confusion about what age you can be president. Bernadette said she wasn’t sure of the exact number. There’d been a decree, but she hadn’t read it yet. Someone brought up the case of Baby Doc, who was the son of Papa Doc, a dictator. Baby Doc definitely hadn’t been over fifty when he came to power. Someone pointed out that in that case, it was a matter of succession. If you die, then your first son will inherit everything you own. It took a little more hashing out before they also recognized that the case was unusual not only because the guy was young, but because he was a dictator, not an elected political leader.
After that there was yet another discussion about whether people who commit crimes can still be candidates. One woman asked, “Are you sure that if someone commits a crime, they’ll lose their citizenship, and they won’t be able to be a candidate?” Bernadette told her that’s a question to ask the justice system and the legal system. She also told them it’s a question they need to ask themselves, and she went on a long rant about the idea of community justice.
Basically, in the past, people used to look out for each other. Bernadette seemed to be blaming kids and teenagers for most crimes. “In countries all around the world, not just Haiti, kids go around stealing things,” she said. Before, if someone caught you stealing, they would tell your parents about you, and the gossip would spread all around the town. The parents would discipline the child, and in extreme cases, they would send them away. But now, parents are eager to “tear up leaves and cover up” their children’s crimes. Even if their child does something wrong right in front of them, they’re not going to want to admit it or accept it. They’ll try to hide it from the community. Bernadette related a story about a boy who had stolen a phone not too long ago who got beaten for it. It was unclear how she felt about the community taking matters into their own hands and beating him, but it was very clear that in her opinion things might have been different if the parents had been strong enough to control the boy. Maybe she was implying he wouldn’t have committed the crime if he’d been raised differently, or maybe she meant that the community wouldn’t have had to beat him if the parents had taken care of it themselves.
After that, Bernadette decided to continue. She told them she wanted to talk about “some general things that a good senator or deputy would do.” She proceeded to give a list of priorities and projects, all of which were things she herself has worked on in the past. First, micro-finance and collectives are important, especially when there’s an emphasis on women’s rights, since they’re the ones who “hold the largest loads on their backs.” Infrastructure’s also important to consider. When people talk about the environment, most of the time the first thing that comes to mind is trash or deforestation, but it’s important to remember that the environment is everything around you. Environment is also a question of infrastructure. There’s lots of good food available up in the mountains, but it’s being wasted because the women can’t carry it all down the path on their heads. A better road would help. Next, a safe place for children is important. After the earthquake, lots of children ended up on the streets. That’s not good. They should be taken care of. Houses for adults are also important. You might be able to live outside when it’s sunny, but what will you do when it rains? (Haitians really hate rain). Bernadette announced that even if her funding source for the housing project runs out, she’ll go looking for money in other sources. However, she announced, the funding source had just told her they were willing to keep going, which was very good news. Bernadette went on to briefly mention agriculture. She said that seeds and tools were important. Then she touched on health. One of the best hospitals in the country is only half an hour away, in Mirebelais. But there are people who sleep outside just to guarantee their spot, because it’s so overcrowded. You can wait up to eight days just to see a doctor. It would be better if each area had its own clinic, so the Mirebelais hospital only had to see the most severe cases, or the ones that required a specialist. Finally, education is important. It’s such a big question that all the politicians are going to have to work together to tackle it (were the other questions not so big?). School should be free and available up to university, and it should be focused on the idea that when people graduate they should be able to find a job. She said she wanted to talk more about the idea of employment, but she didn’t have much time. She moved on to electronic voting, which would make it easier for more people to participate. Then, she passed it over to another woman, who was going to talk about immigration.
The Dominican Republic denies citizenship to children who are born on its soil to Haitian parents. They’re sending 130,000 “Haitians” back to Haiti very soon. Everyone was shocked at the number. Apparently, for many of these deportees it’s actually their first time in Haiti. They’re like refugees. In Haiti even more than other places, survival is based off who you know. When you need something, you rely on your family or community. These people may not know anybody. The woman warned people to take precautions. Who knows what diseases these people could be carrying? Some might have AIDS or syphilis. If they can’t find work, food, or a house, they’re going to turn to stealing. She urged everyone to get locks for their doors. There would be all sorts of people coming: criminals, homosexuals. They would drive the price of food even higher, by stealing or buying food that Haitians needed to eat. The gist was, “Batten down the hatches. A crisis is coming.” It would be 45 days or less before they arrived.
They asked me what I thought of the woman’s message. Maybe they could tell it didn’t sit well with me. I said I’m not Haitian so I really shouldn’t say anything. But it irked me to hear them talking about these people like they were trash that the Dominican was throwing out. “Everybody is somebody,” I said, using a Haitian proverb to make my point. “These people share the same language and culture with you.” “No, they don’t,” Bernadette interrupted. “Most of them don’t speak the same language.” Some of the people being sent here have lived in the Dominican for three or four generations. I floundered: “Well, they were Haitian long ago. You still have a common enemy. It’s not like these people are choosing to come here. The Dominican is sending them. Be mad at the Dominican, instead of at these people. This is a crisis for them too.”
Bernadette cut me off and went into a rant. She talked about how after the earthquake they all had to take people in and feed them. People have already showed up at her door from the Dominican, asking for help. Almost everyone in the room knows someone who’s currently in the Dominican, whether it’s friends or family. “These people are going to be descending on you, and you’re going to have to open your doors to them,” Bernadette said. That still doesn’t solve the problem of people coming who have no connections, but at least it was something.
After that everyone left the meeting in a hurry, because a storm was coming. Normally, rain here is just a downpour of warmish waves of water. We debated whether we’d walk to go visit some people, and then things got worse and our decision was made for us. The wind was blowing really hard. It drove rain in through the windows of the house. Standing on the porch, we saw hail bouncing off the pebbles in the front yard. I picked up a stone, and brought it in to show Martha, marveling that there was something cold naturally occurring in Haiti. Puddles collected on the floor of our room because it wasn’t possible to completely close the windows. We moved papers and electronics to safe corners. The roof leaked less than I’d expected – it turned out they’d plugged up a lot of the holes, so we no longer had a small pond collecting under the columns in the living room. After the storm passed, everyone went up on the roof to shovel off the wet sand and sweep the water towards the drains. It’s not sloped, so you have to put in a bit of extra effort.
“Maybe Haitians have a good reason to hate rain,” Aidan commented. “That looked like a hurricane.”