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Mark Schuller

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Did You Drink Soup? Strains on Solidarity in Haiti

Posted: 01/06/12 03:28 PM ET

"Ou te bwe soup?" (Did you drink soup?) is one of the most common questions the days following the new year in Haiti.

This question refers to a tradition for January 1, also Haiti's independence day, when in 1804, former slaves for the first and only time in world history threw off their former masters once and for all. Haiti's independence sent shock waves throughout the world, particularly the slave societies in the Caribbean, where the colonial powers made their money through sugar. This fear helped British abolitionist Wilberforce achieve an end to the international slave trade three years later, in 1807.

Mostly, however, the reaction to Haiti was one of punishment. For example, the former colonial power of France extorted Haiti for 150 million francs in 1825 for accepting the fait accompli. This indemnity plunged Haiti in a 120-year debt, draining its resources to repay slave owners for their loss of "property." The U.S. invaded Haiti 26 times from 1849 to 1915, when it began a 19-year occupation, ostensibly to protect its business interests but always exploiting and reinforcing Haiti's status as a pariah state.

To commemorate this singular achievement in world history, Haitian people make soup joumou, pumpkin soup. Several of my students have done papers on the social history of this dish, which is contested. What is not contested is that joumou is an expensive dish. Moreover, those who can afford it put beef in their soup; often this is the only time during the year.

People who have the means return to their lakou, their traditional family compound, to drink their own mother's soup. Since Haiti's massive rural exodus that followed the implantation of neoliberalism in the 1980s, January 1st heralds a temporary return to andeyò, to "outside" -- the provinces. Traffic, notably private vehicles, was indeed light these past few days.

Another part of this tradition is that this soup is shared; it is a symbol of solidarity. Who you drink from acknowledges and helps strengthen your social ties. Again, for those who have the means, it is one of the greatest honors to invite guests to visit on January 1st to partake of the soup. Neighbors send a bowl to one another. A stash of a couple bowls remains in case visitors come. The ambiance, even in the crowded capital, is one of conviviality and reflection.

This is another poignant example of how the earthquake is impacting Haitian society.

I led a five-week study of eight of Haiti's internally displaced persons (IDP) camps this past summer. Student teams each went to a particular camp five days per week for five weeks, observing the conditions, goings on, economic activity, foot traffic in and out of the camp, and social interactions. In addition to this participant observation, during the first several weeks student teams conducted a 56-question household survey (please e-mail me if interested in the survey). Students selected 100 respondents from a random sample of every nth tent; for example if the camp had 400 families they visited every fourth tent. In all we constructed an Excel spreadsheet with 800 families' response to the questions.

We were interested in knowing the impact of the earthquake, and the official aid, on "civic infrastructure" -- the inter-twined network of social relations of a community. Central to the building blocks of any society is the family. Like most post-plantation societies, Haiti is traditionally "matrifocal" -- with the household unit centering on the mother and where she lives. Her pot of soup, if you will. Also like most post-plantation societies, the household unit is traditionally comprised of what we in the U.S. call "extended family" -- where people live with cousins, grandparents, and so on.

Even as millions of people fled Haiti's rural areas after the forced eradication of the Haitian pig in the early 1980s and the invasion of cheap, subsidized, rice from the U.S. as conditions for U.S. emergency aid in the 1990s, among other neoliberal policies that destroyed Haiti's peasant economy, people still chose to live together. It was not uncommon to find six, seven, or sometimes eight extended family members living in a 7-foot-by-7-foot single-room shack. Recorded interviews (80 in all, ten per camp, also chosen at random that are half transcribed, a few translated to English) explain why. While it's true there were little other alternatives for people to go, a 24-year old mother of two who had lost two members of her household to the earthquake argued, "It was better having us all under the same roof (tòl). You know there were never many jobs in the country. So if one of us made money that day (touche) then we all ate. You see?"

Before the earthquake, almost a half (377 of 791, 47.7%) of people counted on family members to share food with them when they needed it. As families constitute the backbone of solidarity, this is not surprising. People also counted on friends from time to time (144, 18.2%), as well as neighbors (6.1%). Over one in six people said "no one" gave them food when they were hungry (138, 17.4%) -- with some waiting for miracles, saying "Bondye" (God) or "Jezi" (Jesus) gave them food: 54, or 6.8 percent.

So what -- if anything -- did the earthquake change? And how did it change this?

To begin with the sharing relationships, people count on their families (40.8%), friends (15.8%), and neighbors (5.3%) less. More people report that no one helps them out (23.1%) -- or they wait for miracles (7.6%).

Sharing relationships are in the process of being transformed by other factors as well, such as greater dependence, an influx of cash to certain people, by financial transactions, and by the aid distribution itself.

Early on, in February 2010, INURED published a report on the conditions in shantytowns like Cité Soleil following the earthquake, reporting that they had found families splitting up in order to have members in several camps when aid distribution occurred. A Housing Evaluation study commissioned by USAID also quoted a camp leader making this same argument (p. 35 of the draft), saying that families would splinter in order to have multiple female heads of households for aid distribution following January 12.

Given the context of donor/NGO policies of aid distribution, these decisions made sense: as resident after resident told us, it didn't matter to aid agencies whether your household had three people or eight, you still got the same bag of rice. Also, it is important to remember that the food aid was distributed through a system of cards given via camp committees. Rather than using a single roster that could have easily been drawn up with a list of family members, including the number of children, elderly, handicapped and dead -- which in fact was done by several neighborhood groups and camp committees -- and with this roster coordinating with other aid agencies, agencies appeared with cards to give to individual committee members. As several journalists and researchers have reported, this system which was more efficient for NGOs was rife for abuse. As NYU School of Law's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice found, this included transactional sex.

There were alternatives to this top-down card distribution -- CROSE in Jacmel worked with grassroots groups to distribute equitably; and the Haiti Response Coalition worked in some forty camps in Port-au-Prince with nine trained community organizers to assure a participative distribution.

So individual households made decisions responding to the external rewards system set in place by the aid agencies such as splitting up to have greater chance of receiving aid. This reward structure of aid agencies in turn responded to the rewards system put in place by their superiors, central offices overseas, and donors.

Before the earthquake, the average household size of the 800 respondents in the survey was 5.37. This is about the national average as recorded by the Institut Haitïen de Statistique et d'Informatique, Haiti's Census Bureau. The Housing Evaluation study noted above used the number of 5.2 as average household size because it was "so consistent as to arguably be considered a law" (p. 31). Following the earthquake, the family size in the study was 3.36.(1)

As an NGO representative said, "This is the single biggest disaster that came, and it came after the earthquake: the way aid was distributed destroyed the family. And I suppose you know that the family is the central pillar of our society, our solidarity. This is more important than the buildings that fell down. When the family is crushed, so is society."

Can this solidarity be rebuilt?

Time will tell.

My next door neighbor, who still has a growing lakou where they are building yet another house, shared soup. Most ti pèp (poor people) on my street, and all my friends living in the IDP camps whom I called to wish them happy new year (about a dozen), did not. It could be simply the continuing rise in living costs, the lower value of the Haitian dollar in financial transactions, and a continuing and worsening poverty.

May 2012 bring reasons for celebration come next independence day.


(1) We asked clearly who they lived with: cousins, grandparents, etc. before and after the earthquake. We also asked who they lost in the earthquake, with an average of .8.

Gratefully acknowledged is support from the National Science Foundation (1122704), the Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York, and the Chancellor's Initiative of CUNY, and the research team: York College -- Sabine Bernard, Sandy Nelzy, Adlin Noël, Stephanie Semé and Tracey Ulcena and l'Université d'État d'Haïti -- Marie Laviaude Alexis, Théagène Dauphin, Mackenzy Dor, Jean-Rony Emile, Junior Jean François, Robenson Jean-Julien, Roody Jean Therilus, and Castelot Val.