Collisions between Haitian food sovereignty & US food policy
Immacula Cadet grew up in Port-Au-Prince. When she was young, her family would go to the countryside of Cayes to dance with Papa Loko several times a year. They would celebrate the father of the Hougan priesthood by offering red liquor and cake. The most intricate and beautiful dances are performed for Papa Loko who is very strict about maintaining tradition. Immacula carries tradition forth in her role as Mambo.
Robed in pristine white dresses, the mambo move to the infectious rhythm of the drums. Their ample bodies weave through the close knit group, hips undulating so that their skirts take on the graceful flutter of butterfly wings. Papa Loko is known to move on the wind like a butterfly; nothing is unknown to him. He cannot tolerate injustice. Haitians have long been subjected to the impositions of outsider worldviews while suffering severe injustices by economic globalization. Awareness of this is channeled through the keepers of tradition. Rituals serve as a conduit, connecting participants to countless generations who have maintained fortitude in the face of external and dominating forces. They survive as the only nation born out of a successful slave revolt.
Flying between her ancestral lands and the land which has shaped the history of her nation, Immacula moves between Port-au-Prince and Boston, where two of her five children have joined the diaspora. She assumes the traditional role of grandmother by cooking for her family and taking care of her eight grandchildren. She loves to cook more than she loves to eat.
Food is expensive in Haiti. Traditional farming practices have steadily eroded as peasants are increasingly marginalized by exploitive industrial schemes. External structures of globalization have unraveled the social fabric of rural communities and caused an ecological disaster across the country. Heavily influenced by the World Bank, the ‘American Plan’ instigated monoculture production of exotic export crops, extending a model first implemented during the colonial era. Profits flow out of the country with the exports, benefitting multinational corporations and the oligarchy they support. Displaced peasants migrate to the cities where desperation forces them to work for rock bottom wages which is exploited by assembly industry largely owned by US companies. Further degrading the economic fabric in Haiti, an external framework for production offers little connection to local economies because raw materials are sourced from abroad and products are sold to foreign markets.[i] The earthquake of 2010 levelled even this frail economy as foreign companies fled. Abandoned by the schemers who decimated the foundation of local food production, people in Haiti can no longer feed themselves. Food is expensive because globalization has replaced localized economies. There is no food security, so Haitians rely on imported grain and food aid. The supply of food aid profits none other than the US agricultural sector which is deeply enmeshed with the corporations who debased food security in the first place. In the twisted ghetto alleyways along the Grand Rue, residents are fortunate if they get a single meal in a day.
They live in tiny houses pieced together out of corrugated metal and tarps, which have been propped up against cinderblock walls half tumbled by the earthquake. The dwellings consist of single rooms shared by a whole family. Much living takes place along the twisted dirt pathways and in the streets. At the suggestion that people there may be happier with a bit of private space, the response is that it would lessen the strength of community. At the suggestion that people may be satisfied with more material goods, the response is that it would reduce the value of the few items in their possession. Haitians maintain a strong sense of pride.
In the mornings little kitchens appear, tucked into the corners of the footpath scaled alleyways, and the women begin preparing traditional Creole meals. Food prepared slowly, with love, offers comfort and empowerment to those who are nourished by it. It is a cultural foundation which acts as a strong glue that holds community together in ways that maintain an important sense of identity. The little kitchens consist of a few five gallon buckets which act as tables or a sink, a large bowl that gets propped upon a bucket, a charcoal stove, a couple of large stockpots, a knife and spoon and a large wooden mortar and pestle. A piece of the pervasive rubble is often pulled up as a stool on which to sit during the long hours of preparation.
Immacula has set up a little kitchen in Andre Eugene’s lakou, the courtyard which acts as a nexus for the creative community of the Atis Rezistans. As sacred Veves are drawn with cornmeal around the courtyard in preparation for a celebration, we prepare Tchaka. This stew honors Azaka, the hardworking God of Agriculture.
Hardworking Azaka is well loved in Haiti. Great respect is given to this representation of a gentle peasant, as great respect is given to the hardworking farmer. Referred to as Kouzin, this ‘cousin’ offers a reminder of the importance of family, including deceased members who stay present with those who remain. Haitian peasants would bury their deceased family on their plot of land, weaving together a bond of ancestry to the land. It is a representation of the significance of land ownership which had been won by their forefathers through the ousting of the colonists. Even when displaced to urban areas, Haitians maintain a strong connection to the land.[ii]
Another neighborhood grandmother, Rose Marie, arrives to help prepare the Tchaka. She pulls out a bundle of discarded plastic cutlery with which she lights a charcoal fire. This type of fire starter is plentiful because the Haitian government doesn’t recognize profit in trash collection, so they only do it once a month. Trash piles up on corners, clogs drains and fills the footpaths that weave through these densely packed neighborhoods. Ghetto dwellers have quite literally been thrown out with the trash by an elite who is more concerned with maintaining a tight grip on their own wealth than building the infrastructure of their country.
Rose Marie pours water that had been treated with chlorine into a large stockpot and places it directly on the coals. After the earthquake, UN workers brought Cholera to a country who had never had to worry about the water borne illness. The problem of water borne illness is exasperated by the loss of natural filtration systems offered by trees and undergrowth as it is removed with deforestation. Ghetto residents share the leaks that have sprung out of industrious hacking into a civic plumbing infrastructure to which they are not given official access. They know to add chlorine so it will not make them sick.
Immacula washes a single green onion, peels the dried outer leaves and feeds these to the fire growing in the charcoal stove. She throws the whole onion in the stockpot which she covers to let the water warm. Haitians have an intricate understanding of their history and maintain a strong sense of identity that is deeply rooted in African traditions. In describing trans-Atlantic connections, Moyo Okediji describes the daily creative acts of women from his homeland; “Just as the cooking pot is central to the Yoruba concept of family, the pot is central to the way Yoruba women define themselves – it is a voice, a mind, a meeting point, and a vehicle of transition.”[iii]
Immacula finds a chair, and sits upon it as if on a throne. Slowly, she picks through 3 cups of cracked yellow corn, throwing the brown pieces to the hen and her three chicks who are scavenging about the urban yard. After washing the broken corn, she drains the water by splattering it across the cement, cooling it from the pounding tropical sun. She adds a small spoon of Baking Soda to the warmed water in the stockpot, then throws the corn in by the handful. Adding enough water to the fill the pot two thirds full, she covers it to boil for about an hour as the coals slowly die down.
Haitians remain sensitive to the neo colonial powers that displace them from traditional lands in order to exploit them in an abusive labor system. They are not blind to how they echo the colonial structures that brought their ancestors to this land as slaves. As much as they are able, they fight it. Peasant farmers have recognized the abuses of the Monsanto Corporation in the way that they tie farmers into a system that is dependent on purchasing yearly supplies of engineered seed instead of the traditional methods of saving and replanting seed. They know that from this system grows a disastrous debt that peasant farmers in other countries have suffered. They recognize the health as well as the environmental impacts of the chemicals necessary to grow the modified seeds. So when the industrial giant offered a donation of genetically modified corn seed after the earthquake, there was a widespread call by the Peasant Movement of Papay to burn the huge piles of seed.[iv] Their call was heard, but officially heeded by the government for only a year.[v]
While the corn is simmering, the grandmothers pick through three cups of red kidney beans by the handful, throwing out the brown and deformed ones. After washing and draining the beans, they add them to the stockpot. Rose Marie replenishes the charcoal, replaces the pot, and covers it to bring to a soft boil. The stew cooks gently for 45 minutes as people start to gather, drawn to the lakou by rich smells emanating from the pot. The grandmothers continue by peeling half of a medium pumpkin, removing the seeds and strings. Leaving it in large pieces, the orange flesh gets added to the pot.
She then adds a pound of thickly sliced viande conchon, which is like bacon on steroids. Azaka loves the fat in this dish, so Rose Marie splashes in a bit of extra oil as well. The pot continues to simmer for an hour.
During the night of August 14, 1791, the catalyst for the Haitian revolution grew out of the ritual slaughter of a black Creole pig by a wild haired Mambo who embodied the lwa Erzilie Danto at the Bois Caiman ceremony. The congregation was called into a pact of resistance by the Vodoun Priest, Boukman Dutty.[vi] The insurrection began eight days later, and within a week the northern plain was in the hands of the former slaves.[vii] Beyond these symbolic ties to a proud part of their history, the Creole pig was an essential component to rural life. They offered a strong foundation to the rural economy because they provided a large cash return on an initial investment. Furthermore, they provided a substantial value in the overall system of sustenance farming. Inexpensive to keep, the pig rid farms of waste which included weeds and pests like the May beetle larvae which was particularly destructive to crops. Their nitrogen rich excrement then provided free fertilizer for the crops. It contributed to the cycle of harvest by following its rooting nature and digging up the fields after the food was taken in, which prepared the earth for the next planting. Like Haitians themselves, they were survivors who had adapted to some of the most miserable living conditions in the world. [viii]
In the early 1980s, the United States led a massive eradication program of the Creole Pig. There had been an isolated outbreak of swine flu in the Artibonite Valley that had come down the river from the Dominican Republic. The US felt threatened that it would reach our shores, even as the Creole pigs proved to be resilient to the disease as they had acquired a strong natural immunity to most endemic disease. Not only did they exterminate the pigs throughout the Artibonite Valley, the US government extended the geographic area to annihilate pigs throughout the country. They would fly over the mountains, killing wild pigs from helicopters. After failed efforts to replace the pig with American breeds, French and Chinese breeds have been introduced. However, it will take many generations for these pigs to develop the same sort of resistance to the harsh living conditions that made the Creole pig so hearty. Meanwhile, the rural population turned in desperation to charcoal production, speeding up the deforestation and desertification that plagues Haiti.
Into the large wooden mortar and pestle that had been lathed in this woodworking community, Rose Marie throws three cloves of peeled garlic and mashes them into a smooth paste. She then cracks a coconut by throwing it on the cement floor. Draining the water into a bowl, the drink is shared amongst friends. The meat is extracted, washed and grated on a repurposed coffee can punctured with nail holes. Immacula pours two cups of water over the shredded coconut meat and massages it to extract the milk. She pours some into the pestle to rinse the garlic, which she empties into the Tchaka pot along with the rest of the strained coconut milk. Repeating this processing, coconut milk is added to fill the pot. The chickens eagerly receive the coconut shreds. Rose Marie rinses a handful of Grand Saline salt with a flourish and throws it in the Tchaka; as if the movement is an expression of the belief that salt is life, and will keep zombification at bay. A bouquet garni made with parsley and thyme brought ages ago by the French colonists adds that portion of their history to the pot, while three habanero chilies bring with them the flavor of the Caribbean region. By this time, the beans are bien cuit, tender. They take out the large pieces of cooked squash to pulverize them in a sturdy bowl. Thinning the mash with broth, the liquid is returned to the pot through the strainer, working the pulp through the mesh with the pestle to thoroughly extract the smooth flesh from the stringy strands. The stew warms to a boil as Rose Marie adds two tablespoons of butter and three Maggi chicken stock cubes. Immacula throws in a handful of the cornmeal used to draw the sacred Veves. Just before serving, the Tchaka is finished with juice from one sour orange.
As the pot is taken off the fire, the coals are quickly whisked away to feed another smoldering stove in the neighborhood. Charcoal production is by far the largest contributor to deforestation which leads to soil erosion and desertification. Monoculture production of exotic crops for export was established by the colonists in the most fertile areas, and continues to be supported by a global system of agriculture. A marginalized peasant population was pushed into marginal areas up in the mountains, where they have eked out subsistence farms to feed the country. As economic pressure mounts due to things like the decimation of the Creole Pig, so does desperation, and making charcoal eases the hunger that results from a system of exploitation. Forests bring rain, when they are cut down the rain is not pulled down and the land becomes parched. During the monsoon seasons, too much rain washes away the precious top soil which is no longer held in place by tree roots. The cycle of desperation deepens. It is said in Haiti that “the mountains have grown old. You can see their bones poking through their skin”[ix] because in places, severe erosion has exposed the bedrock. Food security is intricately linked to environmental sustainability. After many outside organizations have attempted sustainability programs, it ends up that traditional farming techniques are the most effective in maintaining environmental balance. The organizations who respond to the requests of the farmers for native trees over exotic export crops yield the highest success rates. The farmers know that multipurpose trees have always been the foundation of a homestead, providing wood, fodder, medicine, shade and food for the farmers. Working in harmony with the land, traditional Haitian subsistence farmers rely on a diversity of crops grown using biodynamic, polyculture growing methods. For a population who has grown wary of the systematic subjugation to an elite supported by outsider structures, it is essential to base assistance on collaboration and participation through working with the traditional knowledge maintained by the elders of rural areas.[x]
During the ritual for Azaca, the Tchaka is offered to the spirits for about 20 minutes before the rest of the gathering shares in the feast. During this time, any of the family may partake in sharing the pot. There is a set hierarchy of how people eat in the ghetto as well. The grandmothers sit above their pot and ceremoniously dish up the porridge, passing it first to the leaders of the community, before working their way around to serve those who have contributed most to maintaining the tight weave which has given this neighborhood strength. From these heaping servings, the community leaders eat their fill and pass off their plates to the next member of their families. The plates end up being passed off three or four times so that those with ties to the community fabric are nourished.
This meal was prepared as a collaboration between Immacula Cadet, Rose Marie & Lee Lee during the 3rd Ghetto Biennale – Port-Au-Prince, Haiti
[i] Haiti Info, Haiti’s Agricultural Production, 1996
[ii] Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
[iii] Moyo Okediji, “Returnee Recollections – Transatlantic Transformations,” Catalog for the exhibition, Transatlantic Dialogue, Contemporary art in and out of Africa, Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000
[iv] Beverly Bell, Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Hybrid Seeds, The World Post, 5/17/10
[v] Beverly Bell, http://www.otherworldsarepossible.org
[vi] H. Pauléus Sannon, Histoire de Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1920
[vii] Stéphen Alexis, Black Liberator, 1949
[viii] Bernard Diederich, Swine Fever Ironies, 1985
[ix] JM Smith, When the Hands are Many: Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti, Cornell University Press, 2001
[x] Nathan C McClintock, Agroforestry and sustainable resource conservation in Haiti: A case study, 2003