A great book if you haven’t read it

I read this book some months ago. The stories have not left my mind and today I picked up the book again. I remember sitting under a tree reading this book when I realised how small my impact on the world is without the influence of others. If you don’t own the book, get a copy of it. I have two copies and I can send you one if you can’t afford it.

“Walking on Fire: Haitian women’s stories of survival and resistance”
by Beverly Bell

The author conducted interviews of women’s istwa (stories) in Haiti (1991 – 1994) and transcribed them to create this book. At the beginning of each chapter she gives a brief history of the different struggles that women in Haiti face. She titles them as resistances. For each struggle the women face, despite poverty and persecution from the government, they are standing up to the oppression.

“Bat tenèb, to beat back the darkness, is one of the many traditions in which Haitians turn their meager tools of survival – in this case, cooking spoons and pots – into a mighty form of power. In a daring and deafening act, women in the slums beat against metal to raise their voices against repression. This book is bat tenèb.”(Preface xiii).

Right from the start the author introduces her experiences with strong women who have a long history of struggle and resistance. The struggle is daily in poverty and generational in governance.
Like much literature on women in poverty and development the feminization of poverty portrays the women as victims. However, the stories told by these women speak of strength to rise again. They are the victims in coups, they are raped and mutilated, they watch their children and husbands murdered and they suffer the consequences of famine and hunger. In peace and in war, the women face domination from dictatorship, local landowners and their husbands. In this cycle of oppression many of the women have organized themselves in “grassroots” groups to support each other.

“…each Saturday, when we have a meeting we put gourde in the fund. When we get up to fifty gourdes (U.S. $3.33), we give it to a peasant. She can buy a small basket of mangoes with it. When she sells them, she gives us back a gourde to put in the cash box so that it’s never empty. And when they need to borrow, we don’t give loans for the normal 100 percent interest. We lend people ten gourdes, they pay back ten gourdes.” (pg. 117)

Where the government has failed, the women have pulled together to not only feed their families but to also educate themselves. Like in many other countries there is a clear crosscutting of the structures of power and access to basic rights. As long as women are pre-occupied with finding food for their families they don’t have the time to organize and change the political system. As long as they don’t have the time to learn to read, they continue to be illiterate and to be left out of the running of their countries. As long as women don’t have the means (e.g. land) to create a sustainable income they cannot send their children to school. Their children inherit poverty. In globalization and development as long as women are left out of decisions making process, the trickling down of benevolent actions comes too late. The feminization of poverty seeks to assume that women languish in poverty because of biology. It reduces the impact of a power structure of widespread domination from the home to the nation. Micro-credit and any other lab directed initiative has not effect on the welfare of these women as long as they are kept out of the formulation of solutions to the poverty that is part of their world. Several of the women in the book offer ideas on how to alleviate poverty (poverty cannot be eradicated, as by the attached articles, poverty seeks to fulfill varied needs). Apart from the usual recommended textbook solutions, Yolette Etienne prescribes an ideal form globalization. These are paraphrased below:

1. Focus on women when discussing development
2. Break patterns of isolation e.g. information systems with other women from other parts of the country and the world on a larger scale
3. More control by women over their lives i.e. autonomy not individuality
4. Work towards goals for success for the individual and the country through shared power in society e.g. decision making where it concerns laws, etc. (This may involve translation of laws and the like into local languages, a tactic many politicians use as a mode of exclusion).
5. Pride in small steps achieved at a national level
6. A search for globalization that enhances and strengthens what the country already posses be it cultures or existing resources e.g. agriculture as opposed to industry
7. Better education of local dealers in world markets so that they understand the world prices and don’t undervalue products from the country

Globalization is ideal in its theory. Etienne describes what the problem of globalization is in a “5 sweet manner.” (email me and ask me about this)

“By the way the big countries define it and apply it, globalization is more in the interest of those producing than all the people who are forced to buy. That is to say, you who used to grow your plantains, who didn’t need to buy plantains, are told, “You don’t have to grow plantains because we make enough for you to buy them from us when you need them.” But where do you get the money to buy these plantains from overseas?” (pg. 120)

The world’s poverty is not based on the lack or reduction of all resources. This is impossible. Poverty is caused by an overlooked but important limited resource. Money. Money is needed to develop goods for sale. Money is needed to buy the goods for sale. If a group of people start off without money or as it is often named, “capital,” they can neither develop nor buy. Hence poverty.
Power, politics, socioeconomics, illiteracy and other major words mean nothing to the mother of a starving child.

“Si pa gen lape nan tet, pa ka gen nan vant. There is no peace in the head if there is no peace in the stomach. The women state throughout their istwa that social and political rights have limited meaning when their children have not eaten since yesterday morning.” (pg. 100)

Bell, Beverly. Walking on Fire: Haitian women’s stories of survival and resistance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

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One response to “A great book if you haven’t read it

  1. The Haitian women chronicled in the text would be so grateful and empowered to realize that their stories are inspiring other women around the world to think seriouisly about the changes that must be made. I am so glad to hear that this book had a positive affect on its readers. I may use it in class again.

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