Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Haiti’s Caves

Haiti's many caves, were spiritual centers for the Taino people.  Later they served as places of resistance for people fighting against the many oppressors in Hatien history.

When the Spanish arrived in what is now Haiti, the people who greeted them said, “Taino” This was the word for peace.  Christopher Columbus would go on to name the people the Taino’s.    The “Taino” were the indigenous people of present day Haiti, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
 The Taino saw their beautiful islands as sacred, living things.   In a short time, disease, slavery and murder would reduce their numbers to near extinction.  An agricultural society with permanent villages, an ordered government and a great love for their spirits or zemis, were nearly destroyed. I like to say almost because I believe that the spirit and wisdom lives on in the mountains and the people.  Haiti is mostly composed of metamorphic rock; soft, coral Caribbean limestone made over millions of years from decaying sea animals.  This geological past created thousands of small caves, waterfalls and sinkholes.  These caves became spiritual retreats, burial places and the home to Haiti’s beautiful petroglyphs that offer us a window into the Taino’s magical past. 

Sacred water in Haiti

 They were places of resistance.   For the Taino and then for the Africans who escaped slavery and fought a revolution.  The caves served as places for the Taino and Africans to share their knowledge of survival and resistance.  Deep in the mountains and forests were the caves that hid the dedicated resisters of the world’s first successful slave rebellion.

These are in Spanish because the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were also home of the Taino.
How sweet is the baby?

But my favorite Haitien cave resister is Hinche’s local hero, Charlemagne Peralte who created a resistance to the US occupation in 1915.  An educated farmer, the US marines burned down his house and killed his brothers and put him in prison.  After his escape, he organized bands of resistance.   The US trapped him in a cave outside of Hinche but his bravery lives on. Eventually the US left Haiti but only after it further stripped the country of even more natural resources. 

 The Taino believe that human beings, after creation, emerged from Haiti’s caves.   They are places of fresh water, fertility and childbirth.
 These days, in my country, we look for ways to resist, even as we look for caves of comfort and support.   I am humbled by my country’s goodness, in the midst of a conquering enemy on our shores.  The people of my country, boycott, march, and use art and persuasion to resist.  They gather in prayer and song and dance.
 The Spanish came to Haiti for gold.  The French to make fortunes on sugar with slave labor.  The United States came to take natural resources and make it an economic colony. The elite of Haiti, created vast swaths of inequality leading to death and devastation.  In my own country people sacrifice the spirit of earth and community and constitution, for a hoped for wealth and superiority that can never bring lasting happiness.    The Republican Party, as it stands now, seeks to colonize its own country.
 Haiti offers me the image of the cave with its delightful drawings of what can be.  It offers me images of clean beautiful waterfalls as well as a people who knew the meaning of resistance.  I see them sitting by a small fire at the mouth of a cave with the water, clean and bright by the moonlight.  I hear their songs and their drums and smell the food of the forest.   I see women sneaking from plantations with news and supplies, risking everything for freedom.  I see Charlemagne who gave up his good life to resist.  I see his capture and his death and all it inspired.
 On the radio, they count the days of the new administration and all the things it does to attack and dismantle democracy.
But like Haiti, the drums, which is our freedom of press is not quiet.   We meet in churches and homes and meeting halls and walk the streets in a unified message.
 And sometimes we feel so broken, we must find the cave within us; that place that is so deeply connected to earth and water and spirit.
 I think of the ordinary day that the first people of Haiti stood on the shores and said “Taino” to the new guests to their island.   We are never fully prepared for cruelty and discrimination; for a worldview that believes some are intended to be master and some slave.
 We too, were unprepared and so we shrink and suffer and search for the place of resistance and strength within our selves and our families and our communities.   We all have people and places that offer us strength and one of those people are the Taino who greeted their enemies with “Peace”.
The Taino, who did not die but live on in the caves and waterfalls of a spirit that offers all people peace and abundance,

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

 Women, Resistance and the Power of Song “The ability to use song as a weapon of social control is a valued skill in Haiti, as it is in several other Afro-American settings. Where the social norms emphasize the avoidance of direct confrontation, singing, typically under the transparent veil of nondirected, objectified discourse, serves asa vehicle for venting hostilities and exercising power.  ( Richamn, 1987)

Singing and dancing as a means of resistance and self identity in Haiti

 From the book, Where Hands are Many
This community song, speaks to my country, as well.
 Home Folks Where Are You? Home folks where are you?Let us join together to advance the struggleThe struggle is hard, we must move forwardLet’s get together and see if we can do it. We’re living in a country torn by animosityPeople are betraying their friends for moneyThey’re assassinating a population for seeking after libertyHome folks where are you? Women, where are you? You must say where you stand!The struggle has room for all,And women have a role at the helmTighten your headscarves, hold hands and let’s forward.Where are you women?
   In Haiti, everything of importance begins and ends with a song.   Mothers are taught the warning signs in pregnancy through song.  The matrones are taught sterile technique through song.  Singing is woven into the fabric of life. Once I was helping to support a protest of cutting old growth forests in Oregon.  It went on for many days and nights.   When we decided to sing, a person stopped us and said, “Singing is for the 60”s.   We don’t sing anymore.” I considered the possibility of resistance without song; of all the civil rights songs and labor songs.   I think of how song united generations to oppose unjust wars and oppression. 
 “We don’t sing anymore.”    That moment has stayed with me.  In a protest; one person telling another that they cannot sing.
 My country loves singers but not necessarily singing.   Our Grammy winning singers make statements for us but, we, as a culture, don’t sing.  We listen to singers.  We have famous singers at our rallies and protests but singing is difficult.
 Singing is related to talent in the US.  We have popular television shows about talent- not the joy of singing.  In Haiti, singing is part of being human, a part of the community, of being Haitien.
 I once started a school, in which we agreed that we would start each day with a song.  This was back when we were dreaming up a perfect school day.  When we tried to think about the importance of the flow of a day and not just what was taught. 
 At first, everyone loved to sing.  It was a powerful part of the school day and the teachers all 100% sang too.  The songs taught cultural norms of kindness and respect as well as concepts of ecology and history.  Being a “good “singer was not important.   We sang with love and joy.  It was a form of joyful resistance to mainstream education.   Back then; we had many partnerships with Native American groups who reinforced the belief that singing was a vital part of any day.   It was a means of offering gratitude. Overtime, the singing was cut back.  Teachers rarely sang with their classes.   A specialist was required to lead singing.  It became a subject and not a core part of the human experience.   The children, learning from the adults, also stopped believing.   It no longer was a core identity. It was a tradition without belief. 
 Some people believe we are all born with a song that will take us through life; a note, a phrase, a sound that stays with us.  We only have to find it and bring it into the world. In these post- inauguration days, I wonder who will write and sing our collective songs of common identity and resistance?  
 At night, in Cabestore, I listen to drumming and singing that goes on all night long.   People walk many miles to places I cannot see and sing in unison for hours.  Someone says, “Are you afraid?”   But I am not afraid.  I am in awe. My generation sang their way through the Civil Right movement and Vietnam.  But at some point, the collective song gave way to entertainment and rock icons and millionaire. I was at Woodstock.   This was later called a defining moment of my generation.  The Woodstock generation is in the white house now and in congress and it is anything but a “Summer of Love.”   We stopped singing, sat back and bought more and more technology to listen to music; not to be the music.  We became iPods and iTunes but rarely “we sing. “   We karaoke but even that is competitive.
 At Woodstock, Country Joe and the Fish screams,  “There are thousands of you out there and I can’t hear you sing.” and he tried again. “One, two, three, four, what are we fighting for.”   But neither the song nor the movement lasted for long.
  Pete Seeger kept saying, “You need to learn to sing together. I will sing with you but not for you.” For over twenty years, I hosted a Family Sing but over time, the guitar players left to become performers and the singers felt too lost without them.
 And so in my lessons learned on resistance from Haiti, I offer the suggestion of song.    When Haitien women sing, I can see that they have transcended poverty to a place of power and self-identity. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Community Organizing
Lessons in Resistance from Haiti

The first time I saw an agricultural organization, at work in Haiti, was on LaGonave.  A group of men were walking down a dirt road singing with machetes over their shoulders.  When we returned form conducting a mobile clinic, the fields were cleared and being planted.   

Combite or agricultural work party; a place to work, ing and share stories in rural Haiti

Later when I asked some small boys to bring a wheelchair to a woman down the road they picked it up and ran in unison, singing the same song.   

I did not need to know the words to the song. I could feel the pride and commitment and unity.   Ah, I think to myself this is the story of Haiti no one tells.   It also became the story I wanted to know. 

Observers say that when the marines landed on LaGonave the island was organized into agricultural zones with a queen for each zone that helped guide the growing and harvesting and distributing of food.  The island was self -sufficient and there was enough for everyone.  

This practice was brought from Africa and after the revolution, evolved into its own unique Haitien form of small, local cooperatives that worked together, played music together and helped each other through difficult times.

My country and its wealthy allies in Port Au Prince and Florida, did everything they could to undermine this system.   It’s a familiar formula.  Create fear and mistrust of one another.  Divide people and all the while work towards a profit for the few.  Destroy public education and minimize local power.  Use the church to undermine local spirituality and Christian behavior.  

In my own country, the last decade has brought the destruction of local democratic organizations.  They seemed like a good idea but then they seemed too messy and too much work and they stood in the way of “progress.”    In Portland neighborhood associations are compromised. In schools, site councils have all but slipped away.   Students tell me the once vibrant super indent council is a hoax.  Parents say all decision-making bodies are simply a rubber-stamping of a principal or administrator's agenda.   These bodies are law but in the last decade, people got busy and worked more and let their local, democratic organizations loose much of their power.   People joined more gyms than local, service organizations. 

I recently read the book, When Hands Are Many; Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti by Jennie Smith.   I read this on my bed in Haiti, while a new administration in my country destroys much of what I held dear. 

I like, many people, wonder what went wrong in our country.  People are always wondering what went wrong in Haiti.   But I suspect they are one and the same.  

Jennie Smith paints a picture of rural community organizations in which men and women come together to solve their own problems and improve their communities.  In some organizations, they help each other with fieldwork and play in bands together.  They pay for each other’s funerals and when a woman, in labor, needs to be carried down the mountain on a door, they are the ones to do it. 

And so, while my government, rounds up the people I offer you the image of these same men who grow our food and scares the children of our country as sure as the dictators of Haiti scared the rural poor, I offer an image of a group of men in Haiti, walking to a field to work together as brothers.   The owner of the field offers a good meal under a broad canopy of shade.  They sing and later, as night approaches, play music on homemade tin instruments. 

I offer you this inspiration from a place of deep poverty and corruption; a place that has known unspeakable violence; this image of local cooperation and friendship.

To be honest, I have only had glimpses of this in Haiti.   I suspect that the United States saw it as communist or voodoo and had no real idea of its purpose and nature.   USAID, Monsanto and missionaries worked to bring the people into their own forms of local organization which often revolved around a priest who was getting really, really rich.   Stories are lost and the people displaced.   This rich history of agricultural collectives is increasingly lost. 

As my country faces a political party that won the Electoral College by appealing to small, rural communities but now forces the heavy hand of executive order, I consider the power of resistance at a local level.  We can get to know our neighbors, join our neighborhood association and get involved in our communities. 

I doubt that a rah-rah band will accompany me to my meetings this week but I will keep the spirit of the Haitien agricultural cooperative in my heart, as I move forward.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Where women go to pray
Lessons of resistance in Haiti

“I have been to the mountaintop.”
Martin Luther King Jr

All over Haiti, at sunset, women go to Prayer Hills. They stand arms towards the sky in worship.  They lie on the ground and pray to a God that one might think had forgotten them.  They sing.  They sit alone or with others.   Their faith, against all odds, mixes with the beauty of the surrounding countryside.   

These churches have no walls or creeds or priests.   The churches of Haiti; the ones the mission groups often support, are exclusive.   A poor woman with no church clothes or shoes would not be welcome there.  Being able to afford to go to church is a status symbol.  

The poorest little girls in a village are never invited to dance for the priest.  The little girls from “better” families are imported for the occasion.   A poor disable boy in rags is removed from church. 

But the women, their hearts so close to God, find a way.  After hours of work in gardens and yard and walking to get water, they go to a hill where the spirit of God welcomes them with love and grace. 

As the sun sets, in my country, we are in cars or on buses.  We head for bars or coffee shops or cafes.  We go to gyms or classes or out for a run.  I try to find the “prayer” hill in my community.   I try to find that collective “yes”.

Our churches are mostly locked. 
People say they are spiritual but not religious. 
Our views; the places to inspire and comfort us are covered by high rises. 
Praying in public is not exactly encouraged. 

In Haiti, the church tried to deny women prayer but they resisted and found places of prayer and community anyway.  These women, on the Prayer Hills of Haiti are so inspirational.  They defied all the class barriers and the priests and found a way to pray.  No building. No stained class windows or priests.    Just women on a hill about as close to God as one can be. 

In my city, I try to find my Prayer Hill.  The thing about a Prayer Hill is that it is public.  You’re with other people.   Its outdoors.  I find myself heading to this one dog park at sunset.   I could walk my dog in the forest but I want the Prayer Hill so I walk quietly surrounded by dog owners and their dogs.  It’s the closest I can get. 


Some may think the women on the hill are practicing voodoo. because they are outside and are not in a formal church.   It is hard for any non-Haitien to ever understand voodoo.  Simply put, it was the religion the African people brought with them during slavery.  It later became infused with Christianity.     

Here’s something to consider.   Imagine you are a young man in Africa and someone captures you and sells you to Europeans because their Dad is mad at your Dad.   The slave trade, I learned in Ghana, was filled with revenges between people who were mad at each other.  And so it seemed that a person could really put a bad curse on you – so bad that you were put in a ship and never saw your family again.  If Haitians believe people can hurt them when they are mad at them, they have centuries of evidence.  

Currently the Republicans have waged a war of fear.  They want us to believe that certain people are a curse; that healthcare for all is a curse.  They fill our screens with fear and revenge.  They have filled us with fear about not having enough, even though we are piled high with things.  The Republicans have used hate to control and curse us, even as slave owners used fear and retaliation.


When Haitien women were denied access to churches, they made their own.    Their faith more powerful than the fear.