Monday, April 28, 2008

FIRE IN THE BELLY: Haitians Eating Dirt to Survive

I refuse to believe that we good people
Would forever turn our hearts and eyes away.
Haiti I'm sorry
We misunderstood you,
But one day we'll turn around
And look inside you.
Haiti I'm sorry
Haiti I'm so sorry...
But one day we'll turn our heads
And restore your glory.
(David Rudder -1988)

“Poor Haitians Resort to Eating Dirt.” I read the article and looked at the photographs months ago but the image of hopelessness and perpetual poverty is still etched on my mind. I have a feeling that it will be there for years to come.

There is no doubt that the mass of impoverished Haitians suffer the most debilitating and demoralizing misery of any people in the world. There is nothing redemptive about not having enough food, clothing, medical attention, water or shelter. Moreso in these days of plenty when developed countries like the US and UK are battling an obesity epidemic and rich capitalists such as Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim Helu have personal fortunes in excess of $62 billion and $60 billion respectively according a recent Forbes listing. Another Forbes- listed billionaire, is building a 26-storied palatial home in England.

Yet in Haiti, the poorest and the blackest country in the Western Hemisphere, people are literally eating dirt to survive.

But how did a country, once known as the world's most prosperous colony in the 18th century, become today's “poorest country in the western hemisphere?” A brief look at its history reveals that by 1780, Haiti, a French colony, was one of the wealthiest regions in the world. The economy was knitted together by a high demand for sugar and tobacco, African slave labour, a deeply entrenched class system predicated on colour, race, fear of voudou (voodoo) and brutality. But in 1791 a protracted slave uprising began and it was led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean Jacque Dessalines and Henri Christophe. The slaves would eventually overcome the best efforts of the French armies, even defeating the great Napoleon Bonarparte to oust French rule.

In 1804 the island became the first black independent nation in the western hemishere. But, the European ruling classes never forgave Haiti and her black slaves for the insubordination and humiliation. The two centuries which followed independence were marked by bloody internal atrocities, class conflicts, black dictators and racially-motivated indifference from the imperialist powers of Europe calculated to destabilize the only republic ever founded by slaves.

Today, slavery is a distant, half-forgotten memory in the past but for the black masses mired in poverty, living conditions have hardly changed. With food prices on the rise, more of Haiti's impoverished are now eating dirt to stave off the prospects of death by starvation because they cannot afford to buy rice, corn or flour. They are eating mud cookies are made from dried yellow dirt, salt and vegetable shortening. One mother from the oceanside slum of Cite Soleil, describes the cookies as having a “buttery, salty taste.” She admits that they cause stomach aches but she has no choice but to serve them as meals for herself and her emaciated 16 month old son.

Another unemployed Haitian Saint Louis Meriska, told reporters that his two children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. Haiti’s ever burning hunger, has become fiercer than ever in recent weeks as global food prices spiral out of reach. According to World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, "In just two months, rice prices have skyrocketed to near historical levels, rising by around 75 percent globally and more in some markets, with more likely to come.”

He also pointed out that the price of wheat has jumped 120 percent in the last year, doubling the bread prices, in places like Haiti where the poor spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food. In recent weeks, Haitians like their starving counterparts in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Bangladesh, Egypt, The Cameroons, Malaysia, Mozambique and India took to the streets in angry protests. The Haitians bashed in the front gate of their presidential palace burning tires and confronting the soldiers and the police.

“It’s the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” said Jeffrey D Sachs, the economist and special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Prices for all basic food commodities including corn and beans have spiked because of higher oil prices, increasing prices for fertilizer, irrigation, transportation, and the heavy demand for biofuels such as ethanol, which has diverted food into energy production. Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, has called using food crops to create ethanol "a crime against humanity."

The World Bank announced a $10 million grant from the United States for Haiti to help the government assist poor families but the question is, how much of this will reach poor families and how far will it go before they are hungry again?

Most impoverished Haitian families have no hope of ever reaching beyond subsistence living.
Many are not certain if there'll be shortening available to make their dirt cookies tomorrow.

Human suffering in the form of physical hunger is something that I never can quite get my arms around. I do not want to rationalize it as part of the natural order of life. It is too unnatural. Maybe the real cause of hunger is really a shortage, no - not a shortage - but famine of fairness and human compassion. Maybe the few with a social conscience are barely surviving ourselves and perhaps like me they are all cried out - to the point of numbness.

-Carol Ann Mohamed


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