Saturday, March 8, was International Women's Day and March is Women's History Month. In keeping with the purpose of recognizing the achievements of women around the world, especially those who have suffered from poverty and oppression, the Independent asked local photographer Jane McBee to share what she learned on a recent trip to Haiti. McBee focused on the remarkable efforts of the women of Mapou Rollin who, with the help of the nonprofit Lambi Fund, have started a woman-owned, woman-run grain mill that is providing food and income for the women who work there and their families. Here are McBee's photos and her story.
Sunshine warms the sky-blue steel and concrete building that houses the hopes and dreams of the women of Mapou Rollin, a small farming village in the mountains of Haiti. They sway like reeds, dancing and singing passionately about
overcoming hardship and banding together to change their lives. They know plenty about these things; it's in their blood, their roots.
Today, this gathering of wives, mothers and daughters celebrates a journey out of abject poverty, and for some,
domestic violence. Against incredible odds, they've founded a small grain mill at Mapou Rollin that is entirely women-owned, -operated and -maintained. One by one, they speak proudly of the changes in their lives since opening the mill barely a year ago.
"We share a lot of problems. As women we've suffered humiliation as well. Before we opened our own mill, a woman could walk for miles, carrying corn on her head, and wait, wait, wait and not get her turn," said one woman, her head wrapped in colorful cloth. "It would get dark and she'd have to walk all the way back home with her unmilled corn. Sometimes the mill owners were not honest and she would lose part of her corn. Here we have good service. We make well-milled grain. In the marketplace, people ask 'Where did you get such fine corn flour?'"
The women eagerly display their milling process. One person starts up the gasoline-powered motor while others measure and prepare grain to be milled. As predicted, both cornmeal and fine light flour are produced.
Despite this grain of economic hope, survival is tenuous for the average Haitian subsistence farmer who scratches out a living from a tiny plot of land, often no more than a half-acre. Add to this the self-serving intervention from the international community and a virtual parade of rulers, mostly ruthless and corrupt, and you get one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, where the average annual income is $200 and the life expectancy is less than 50 years. The United Nations' World Food Program estimates that 4.7 million of Haiti's 7.7 million people suffer from "acute malnutrition."
Exploitation and plunder
Haiti has been dominated and plundered by a succession of looters since Christopher Columbus first set foot on her white-pebbled beaches in 1492. In the name of Spain, the explorer depleted Haiti's gold mines and in the process decimated the native population of Arawak Indians with forced labor, cruelty and disease.
Next came the French plantation owners who built Haiti into the richest colony in the world, doing so on the bones of an estimated 3 million African slaves. These men and women were kidnapped from their homes, shipped to Haiti in chains and kept in wretched conditions. Floggings, amputations and being buried alive were a few of the more notorious management tactics used to keep the help in line.
But this extraordinary cruelty didn't deter the slaves from secretly organizing themselves to beat Napoleon's army, the most sophisticated military force of the times.
Haiti declared her independence in 1804 and became the first black-led republic in the Western Hemisphere, posing a tremendous psychological threat to the United States whose own economy was slave-driven, as well as Spain, Portugal, England, and the Netherlands, which all held slave colonies in the Western Hemisphere.
At this pivotal moment, there was no aid forthcoming from the international community to assist Haiti in restoring her war-torn economy. Once again, she fell prey to looters from within her own borders and without.
U.S. support of the brutal dictatorial regimes of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") for almost 30 years in the mid-1900s did nothing to help the working class of Haiti, but assured cheap labor for American companies. When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected in 1990, then overthrown in a military coup in '91, the United States and the Organization of American States imposed an embargo on Haiti with the exception of goods produced in Haiti to be exported to the United States. Haitian workers in American-owned factories were paid an average of 14 cents an hour.
In 2000, still reeling from paying reparations to France and deeply in debt, Haiti was forced by International Monetary Fund policies to open her economy to U. S. rice corporations.
Rice Corporation of Haiti, an American-owned company, promised to improve Haiti's rice production and create jobs.
Instead, as reported by Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post, RCH has destroyed the livelihood of impoverished Haitian rice farmers by flooding the Haitian economy with cheap U. S. government-subsidized rice. This made Haiti the fourth-largest customer for American-grown rice in the world.
Simultaneously, the Haitian government was forbidden by the IMF to subsidize Haitian rice farmers, which would have enabled fair competition with the American-owned company. When the Haitian government attempted to levy fines on the RCH for customs fraud, Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed a hold on $30 million of promised aid to Haiti.
Steps to sufficiency
In the days before they opened the mill, the peasants of Mapou Rollin were forced to borrow money at the exorbitant rate of 20 percent interest per month to purchase seeds for planting. Now, the mill group makes small loans to its members who support each other every step of the way, from the fields to the market.
The Mapou Rollin entrepreneurs credit their successful mill operation to The Lambi Fund, a nonprofit organization that empowers existing peasant groups to change their own lives with loans for equipment and in-depth training in agronomy and business.
Josette Perard, a native Haitian and one of the founders of Lambi, is quick to quick to point out the resilience of Haitians, despite seemingly impossible odds.
"Haitians have a long tradition of banding together to confront a problem, even in the days of slavery," said Perard. "The Mapou Rollin women had already proven themselves and had a base to work from. They already had power themselves."
Violen St. Pierre, whose husband died recently from unknown causes, is the 32-year-old administrator of the Mapou Rollin mill and the sole support for her 2-year-old daughter, Elaine, and her disabled mother, Katerina. She also leads the local chapter of SOFA (
Solidarite Oganizasyon Fanm Ayisye), the women's solidarity organization of Haiti. This national movement works to improve the condition of Haitians in general and women in particular with training on issues such as exploitation, empowerment and women's health.
"When we were little girls, we didn't know what organization meant," said St. Pierre. "But, I had an older sister who was involved in the church. She heard a bishop speak about organizing some men's and women's groups. So, many people got together. They walked all over these mountains to gather the women together. The women were suspicious, worried about being arrested under the dictatorship. They didn't want to come out and go to meetings."
The power of solidarity
Despite their well-founded fears of persecution under the repressive Duvalier regime, Haitian peasants began to secretly organize themselves, preaching the power of solidarity.
"Women have always been at the heart of the power in Haiti," says expatriate Micheline Briere. "They are the greatest resource that Haiti has." Briere immigrated to Colorado Springs after several members of her family were murdered by the Tontons Macoutes -- Duvalier's hired thugs.
When the Duvalier reign of terror ended in 1986, the underground peasant groups came out in the open and joined forces with SOFA.
Katerina St. Vil is a 78-year-old widow and the mother of Violen St. Pierre. Her long struggle for survival is etched deeply in her face and work-worn hands. St. Vil recalls the dangerous, grueling trips to the capital with her older daughter, where they learned to organize the women of Mapou Rollin. She listens intently to the testimonials of the younger women before she speaks, barely above a whisper. "Now that I'm old and blind, and we have the mill here, people come by and give me a little corn and millet. I have a little hope that they will help me out -- it's a very hard life."
Saint Pierre says, "We have many things in front of us. Things are so hard; we have to have someone coming up behind us to carry on the work. We want our children to go to school. It's a huge question how to keep the women organized, how to keep the organization growing. My sister who helped found all this is now deceased, but we are going to break through the sky and continue to progress."
Saint Pierre is a tall serious woman with sad eyes, but when she gets to her feet to begin another song, she becomes animated, the leader, the one who keeps the women moving forward. Dusted with their excellent fine flour, they laugh, sing and dance their victory over the odds.