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Patching up the Cracks

Latin America and the Caribbean

Since the First Supper served by the Community Kitchen last Wednesday, the organizers have been meeting with the discontented. Joegodson returned to his home community on Monday to help repair fissures that, left untended, threaten to topple efforts to rebuild and to unify.

He tracked down the young men who had disrupted the First Supper and then threatened to destroy the Kitchen and appropriate the materials. Joegodson brought together seven guys from the group, each about sixteen or seventeen years old. They spoke at some length about their frustrations. They feel excluded from their own community and see no future for themselves: only demeaning sweatshop jobs if they agree to enslave themselves. It made sense that they threatened to take the raw materials of the Kitchen–the corrugated roof, the wooden frame–to serve their future. There is nothing else. A couple are already fathers with no means to care for their children. The Kitchen gives priority to the most vulnerable people in the community. However, the boys say that it’s not their fault that they aren’t pregnant, old, or handicapped. They agreed that the Kitchen was important but they want to be a part of it. It wasn’t difficult to find a way to integrate them into the project. If the Kitchen continues to operate, they will be hired on a rotating basis to assure order in the distribution of meals, protect the building from vandalism, and help with the general upkeep. They will be paid out of the provisions made for busboys and waiters in the plans. They are content with the prospect.

Jhony, whose organization DAD (Dialogue pour l’action et le développement) conceived the Kitchen and organized its First Supper, tracked down those who were angry that they were not served. Many had never supported the Kitchen. Sometimes the rejection was based in nothing more than jealousy or personal dislike. Now they regret the fact that their neighbours who supported it from its inception are eating and they are excluded. Jhony searched with them for ways to keep the cracks from widening. Finally, the solution to which everyone agreed was that at least one person from every household would benefit. If the Kitchen cannot feed everyone, then whoever is most in need in each family takes a turn.

One of the reasons that many people resisted the Kitchen is a distrust of all promises of humanitarian aid. They have been subject to people coming through Cite Soleil taking censuses. Nothing has ever come of them. People come by with a clipboard and record the names of the members of the households. Then they go away and nothing changes. The general consensus among the people of Simon is that some NGOs are then using those records to pretend that they represent a list of people who have received aid. Of course, the local people have received nothing. Now, they trust no one. They don’t give out their names because they think that they are only helping others to extort money that was intended to help them. They refuse the scams. The First Supper was also the first aid (beyond the latrines built with Haven) that has actually materialized. It demonstrated that there was actually the possibility of aid. Now, they are opening up to that possibility.

In another part of Cite Soleil, a man with political ambitions is operating a similar Kitchen. There, the local people have determined that the bourgeoisie is funding him in the hope that, through the Kitchen, he will be able to buy the votes of the local people. This is an established tradition in Haitian electoral history. (In passing, it must be recognized that vote buying has a long tradition in all democracies. In earlier generations, those with means literally purchased votes. Still today, in advanced democracies, voters are bought with promises of tax reductions, healthcare reform, or ending imperialist wars.) In the election of 2006, the American candidate for president of Haiti, Charles Henry Baker, was well known to have distributed large sums of cash in return for votes. People took the cash while it was available. At the same time, they knew better than to vote for Baker, a notorious sweatshop owner. Similarly, they are eating at the man’s Kitchen but will certainly not vote for him come November. Everyone knows that the day of the election will be the final meal at his humanitarian enterprise. That is one pragmatic argument in favour of postponing elections as long as possible. There is no certainty that the initiative will continue to operate. The main issue at the moment is to assure that the community of Simon supports it and that everyone sees it as his and her Community Kitchen.


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