Grasses of Ginen

On March 20, 2010 I was honored to serve as the keynote speaker for the Penn State student organization, Club Kreyol’s annual banquet. Following is the little speech I gave.

Speaking at Club Kreyol

Grasses of Ginen or Haiti’s Way Forward

First off, let me thank Valerie Marcellus for the incredible vision that I have seen from her in just the few months that I have been here. Let me also salute you for the amazing work you’ve been doing to galvanize the community around supporting our brothers and sisters in Haiti.  Finally, I want to thank all of you for inviting me to deliver this short talk; to make my small contribution to the forces of hope and perseverance that must come together as Haiti recovers from this current crisis.

The title of my talk is taken from a Haitian saying that I got wind of for the first time the other day. It came from a woman named Tanya Felix who had survived the earthquake. Speaking with Beverly Bell, coordinator of “Other Worlds” a fabulous organization which promotes social and economic alternatives to business as usual, she said, “Remember the Haitian expression, “We are the grasses of Ginen. Even if you burn us, as soon as the rains come, we will grow again.” Ginen refers to a symbolic ancestral home of enslaved Africans.

The sajes (wisdom) of the Haitian people never ceases to astound me. Their ability to reach back to their ancestral homeland from whence they were viciously ripped to be brought to toil for trinkets in the diaspora gave them the strength and yes, the temerity to demand their freedom as millions of others remained under the yoke of slavery. It has continued to sustain them for centuries, as they suffered economic isolation for their transgression even as they were being forced to pay France 150 million francs in indemnity. It sustained them as they waged battles against the American Marines who occupied the country from 1915-1934. It kept them alive as they endured one corrupt and murderous politician after another. Yes, Haitian people are like the grasses of Ginen. They are like phoenixes who will rise from the ashes.

I have spent many of my days and nights since the earthquake listening to and reading the words of “experts”, intellectuals who are positioned to lead Haitians and the international community who are involved in the rebuilding efforts forward. I have been largely disappointed. Business as usual.

The other day I watched a symposium on the crisis in Haiti from Harvard University. There were “experts” from several fields all giving their spin on what Haiti needs post-earthquake. The only one who made sense to me was an artist, the Dominican writer, Junot Diaz. He seemed to be the only one of all those gathered who could see the potential for a new day in Haiti. All the rest seemed too bogged down in their own mental and historical baggage to see what the people of Haiti have shown us time and time again: that there are mountains beyond mountains, yes, but they will continue to climb over them. And they will do it with such dignity, such flare, that those of us who did not believe will be left once again, stunned into silence. This is a revolutionary moment.

Diaz described the earthquake as apocalyptic. He used the word, apocalyptic in two ways: one, to discuss the total devastation that the earthquake wreaked on the tiny island nation. But also, to talk about the possibilities that the end of what was opens up for the future. I share his vision. It is up to us working hand-in-hand with those on the ground to make this vision a reality.

Let me be more specific, clearer, as I find that clarity is severely lacking amongst too many of us trapped in the ivory towers. The ivory towers are not just places; they are states of mind; ones that create fissures between our heads and our hands. And I think that if we are going be a positive part of Haiti’s future then we must rethink our commitments. Do not misunderstand me: the work that we do as thinkers is incredibly important. The dissemination of ideas and information is integral to the work of rebuilding. But so is imagination. So are our abilities to use our bodies in very practical ways to contribute to progress. First, we have to imagine a place where the first thing we hear about Haiti is not “The poorest country in the Western hemisphere” because we know that Haiti is so much more than that. And when someone says that, we have to be able to say that Haiti did not become the poorest country on its own. And after we break down the incredible history of resilience and resistance citing such revolutionary writings as So Spoke the Uncle by Jean Price-Mars, or “An Unthinkable History” by Michel-Rolph Trouillot or The Making of Haiti: The Haitian Revolution from Below by Carolyn Fick, or Haiti, History and the Gods by Joan Dayan to name just a few then we can talk about the work that we are doing as individuals and as part of collectives—again looking to Haiti for a model of the kombit-a blueprint for working together to affect change. “Mete tet nou ansamn”. Finally we can ask them what they are doing to change the world and ask if they would like to join us. We cannot, I repeat, we cannot continue to sit back and let the historical injustice that has led to this ecological crisis stand.

There are some amazing alternatives to business as usual being proposed from “below”. One suggestion comes from Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, Executive Director of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP by its Creole acronym) and the spokesperson for the National Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papay (MPNKP). Again, speaking with Beverly Bell who has been reporting from Haiti for at least the past month he says, “We have to take advantage of this catastrophe and say, ‘The clock is set at zero.’ We have to build another Haiti that doesn’t have anything to do with the Haiti we had before; a Haiti that is sovereign politically and that has food sovereignty. It has to begin by building agriculture.”

He talks about the historical exclusion and exploitation of the peasant population saying that those who struggled to get their independence did so in part to get land from the colonialists. However, from the moment of independence, the Haitian army generals forced those same revolutionary souls to work their land.  Jean-Baptiste proposes having development centered on peasants, with the creation of jobs for the rural milieu. This would allow those who are part of the exodus to rural areas after the earthquake to stay. Decentralizing Port-au-Prince and building up agriculture could make that happen. He also proposes having some of the rebuilding and construction materials made by the rural sector.  If there is electricity, if there are schools, if there is work, no one has a reason to move to Port-au-Prince.

Haitians must have access to land and security over it as well as support for them to develop organic farming, or agro-ecology. They need policies to promote food sovereignty so that the county has the right to define it own agricultural policies, to grow first for the family and then for local market, to grow healthy food in a way which respects the environment and Mother Earth. Above all else, Monsanto must be kept out of Haiti. Local organic seeds are part of Haiti’s base of food sovereignty. In the Americas, especially the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina Monsanto has already developed big farms to produce genetically modified seeds. If they start sending these seeds into Haiti, it will be the death of peasants, who since independence more than 200 years ago have protected their seeds. It’s urgent that Haitians buy local seeds.

Haiti will need big ideas to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that left a death toll of over 230,000 men, women and children and incalculable reconstruction needs in its wake. Another excellent suggestion that I read the other day was to create a 700,000-strong national civic service corps made up of Haitian youth.

There are many reasons why such an entity makes a lot of sense. Haiti is a young country where an estimated 70% of the population is under 30; the 15to 29 year-old segment alone makes up 50% of the population. Demographers have long cautioned how excessively youthful populations can potentially exacerbate underdevelopment and accentuate political instability. Although Haiti registers among the lowest levels of education in the Western Hemisphere, Haitian youth are a wellspring of creativity, talent and potential. You don’t need to be a community-development specialist to know that they are stifled by a lack of meaningful opportunities. We all saw how incredible they were in the days and weeks after the earthquake. What would happen if that creativity and energy and desire were harnessed to support the rebuilding of the country?

Haitian people do not need yet more paternalism. If anything, NGO’s like USAID have justified their existence on the backs of Haitians. From what I know of Haitians, they do not want hand outs. They want to be able to support their families, to realize their potential just as everyone else in the world. They have historically been kept from doing that.

I want to propose that now is the moment to begin anew—to help Haiti’s revolution instead of hindering it. This revolution does not include sweatshops or tourism as we have seen it ravaging the rest of the Caribbean. It does not need neoliberal policies that undermine the nation’s agricultural sector and make it impossible for people to support themselves and their families. It needs a government that is not in the back pocket of the world powers. It needs a viable educational system that will empower. It needs vocational programs so that people who have an enormous amount of raw talent can be given the tools to make a living.

I propose that the Haitian diaspora should play a key part in the new nation that takes shape. Rather than focus on what divides us: ideas about privilege vs. authenticity, we must return to the revolutionary source: the ideal of freedom, freedom from oppression, freedom from terror, freedom from exploitation, freedom to have a community, freedom to be treated with dignity and respect. Haiti is still searching for that ideal. I propose that the young people of Haitian diaspora should be the leaders of Haiti’s rebirth. The country will need the architects, engineers, midwives, the psychiatrists, the mathematicians and the teachers educated abroad to work with those educated in Haiti to help us all realize that still elusive ideal. The question is, who among us will we answer the call?

In the spirit of putting our heads together for Ayiti I handed out portions of Beverly Bell’s interviews with people in Ayiti on what they wanted from the US and had someone from the audience read each person’s words. That text follows:

(March 17, 2010)


By Beverly Bell

We asked Haitians in civil society organizations, on the streets, in buses, “What do you want from the U.S.? What help can Americans give Haiti?” Here are some of their answers.

Roseanne Auguste, community health worker with the Association for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health:

The U.S. people don’t know us enough. The first thing that Haitians need from the American people is for them to know our history better. They just see us as boat people. Especially Black Americans, we need them to know the other parts of our history, like that we defeated Napoleon. This would let them know that we’re the same people.

By contrast, Haitians know what they like in the U.S. They don’t agree with American policies, but they have no problem with the American people. Rap music, Haitians appreciate it a lot: Tupac, Akon, Wyclef – even though he’s originally from Haiti.  The Haitian people feel strongly about Michael Jordan, a Black man who beat up on the other players. On the back of taptaps [painted buses] you see Michael Jackson, the Obamas. It doesn’t matter that Obama is a machine of the establishment; the fact that he’s a Black American, they identify with him.

There have to be more exchanges between grassroots organizations in the U.S. and Haiti. If the American people knew more about Haitians, if they had a chance to meet more often people-to-people, they’d see we have lots to share. We could build another world together.

Marie Berthine Bonheur, community organizer:

Do the U.S. soldiers come to bulldoze? No way. We have a people who are traumatized. Is that a situation that you respond to with arms and batons? We’re not at war with anyone.  They would do better to come help us get rid of this crumbled cement everywhere. We need equipment to help us demolish these building. Help us have schools and hospitals. We need engineers who can help us rebuild, and psychologists and doctors.

We don’t need soldiers.  They just increase our suffering, our pain, our worries.

Adelaire Bernave Prioché, geologist and teacher:

This country has a problem with skilled people, like all Third World countries. Once people get trained, they go to other countries.

This country needs youth to be trained in all domains. First, the Americans could help with this, for example with geologists. We lost so many teachers, we need people to teach.  Second, we need massive investment to create employment to let people stay in Haiti.

Christophe Denis, law student:

The way the U.S. is distributing aid… a line of people waiting for rice and then across the street, a line of street merchants who can’t sell their food. Are they sacrificing a class of people in the framework of aid?

Instead of supporting international trade to come in and crush us, reinforce our capacity for production and reinforce our self-sufficiency.  The international commerce is just helping a small percentage.  All that’s produced in Haiti, it has to be strengthened.

Jesila Casseus, street vendor:

We want partnerships, people putting their hands with ours in the cassava pot to reconstruct our country.  We don’t want orders. We won’t accept another slavery. We don’t want dominion over us, we don’t want to be turned into a protectorate.

Partnerships, okay.  But NGOs are coming and sucking the country. They’re taking our money and sending it back to where they came from.  They’re taking our riches and making us poorer.

Judith Simeon, organizer with peasant organizations and grassroots women’s groups:

The American policy towards Haiti: none of the Haitian people want it.  It’s no good.  The peasant economy was destroyed with the killing of Creole pigs [in the early 1980s, when USAID and other international agencies killed the entire pig population, allegedly in response to an outbreak of African Swine Fever]. That was the biggest crime of the American government. After that, the free market, neoliberalism – without thinking about the consequences – has crushed peasant agriculture and the rest of the economy even more. As for the rice that’s coming in as international aid, what happens to the people in [the rice-growing area of] the Artibonite?  Their production is destroyed.

If you’re helping someone, you have to respect that person first. I can’t tell you how it felt to watch the American soldiers distributing aid by throwing rice and water on the ground and having people run after it, like we saw on TV. That’s not how you respect someone.

I can’t suggest what else the US people should do.  If you don’t respect the dignity of a people, you can’t help them. All this racist sentiment and action, we don’t need that.

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, director of the Peasant Movement of Papay:

When we speak of American imperialists, we make a distinction between government and people.  We believe that a lot of people are conscious of what has happened to Haiti and don’t want the imperialist project of the American government.  There are a lot of things that we can do together.  There are people here thinking seriously about alternative development in Haiti. There are many ways that progressive American people can help with that.

We need people in the US to tell the American government that what they are giving is not what we need.  Why do we need 20,000 U.S. soldiers?  We don’t. In Clinton’s plan, there are free trade zones. We don’t want that. We don’t need them sending in American firms to reconstruct Port-au-Prince, either, which will just lead to its returning as the center of everything in the country. Rural areas could start producing construction materials that we need to rebuild. We need fruit plantations, we need irrigation systems, we need local agriculture industry.

American progressives could lead delegations to come see the country, so that when they return, they could help us reject the imperialist plan. Go out to the countryside, see that people have hope that they can change their lives. In the chain of solidarity, instead of sending food, send organic seeds, send tools, help with the management of water. A group in the U.S. can work with a group in Haiti and help it build a cistern, dig a well, reforest, build silos to create seed banks of local seeds. Support groups that are reconstructing rural Haiti, that are creating work in the mountains. Help us establish rural universities. Help people who have left [earthquake-hit areas and gone to the country] be able to sustain themselves.

We need American people to say, “we stand with the popular project for the rebuilding of Haiti.” We need it to be permanent, for Americans to continue to accompany the Haitian people, because the reconstruction of a Haiti is something that will take years.

This is the time to thank many groups for showing how much they are with the Haitian people, for doing all they can, for collecting medical supplies. There’s been an extraordinary demonstration of solidarity.

Rony Joseph, policeman:

We need help reconstructing: roads, infrastructure, schools. We need a country that is modern. If you look at the world, you see globalization happening.  Everyone has things that Haiti doesn’t have.

You know, foreign countries are helping us a lot today, but I think they have an interest in it, too.  When we have a problem in Haiti, the U.S. and Canada get very concerned and start helping. Otherwise we might end up on their doorstep.

Then the party…


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