Challenging Oppression in Haiti: The Power of the People

By UUA International Resources

UUSC is excited to be partnering with the Unitarian Universalist Association on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti for youth and young adults, August 20–27. The following post was written by Charles Huschle, UUSC's senior associate for foundations and corporations and one of the UUSC staff members on the trip. The eco-village has grown since UUSC was last here in May. Five houses near completion, and three more are being started. We are led by Mimine, our construction supervisor, to a huge pile of stones and the site of a new house. A foundation has been dug, and a few workers are mixing cement and laying stones. These are local workers as well as members of the displaced families who will be living here. In a couple of hours, the UUSC team — ranging in age from 16 to 28 (and the ageless UUSC staff) — has moved the stones either into the foundation or into piles ready to use for the next house. One of us trowels cement onto the growing walls. The heat is intense, and we all drink water and plenty of rehydration mixes to counter the sweat that is pouring off of us. It begins to rain and we return to the MPP compound for lunch. After lunch we have been scheduled to attend a "popular education" session with a group of about 75 Haitians from all over the country who have come to MPP to receive training in community organizing. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, MPP's charismatic founder, begins with a short review of the principles of popular education as outlined by Paulo Freire. As an educator working in Brazil and Latin America in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Freire's intent was to teach illiterate people how to read and, in the process, help them become aware of oppression in their lives and then act against it. His method was extremely effective: he was able to alphabetize students in only 40 hours. According to Freire, liberation from oppression comes about first through awareness of one's economic, historic, and social situation. The next steps are critical thought followed by action. Liberation involves not only freedom from, for example, a police state, or hunger, or poverty, but also "freedom to create and construct, to wonder and venture" (from Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Awareness, critical thought, and action — what Freire termed "conscientizacao" (or "conscientization") — are reached through dialogue. In teaching a group of students - or, in the case of our afternoon at MPP, a group of peasant community organizers-in-training - the education becomes posing problems, with teachers and students investigating together the themes of their village and greater society. The dialect then becomes reflection-action, reflection-action. As Chavannes puts it, "When I recognize I can learn from somebody else, that person can also learn from me." The tools of popular education include songs, theatre, and reflection on images. These can be discussed and examined so that community concerns can be raised. Like Freire, who pointed out that oppressed people can come to believe that it is their "fate" to be poor or incompetent or illiterate — and experience a sense of subordination to some master — Chavannes mentions that many Haitians live with a sense of fatalism. He gives the Haitian proverb: "Not all fingers are the same length," meaning that each person is born with certain characteristics that will never change. He cites other beliefs and sayings: "I'm poor because God made it this way ... I'm sick because of the witch doctor put a spell on me" — expressions of the belief that people in poverty are controlled by other forces, not by other men or women. Chavannes says that popular education helps people open their eyes to reality. They see that Haiti is poor. Then they ask, why is Haiti poor? These reflections then lead to organizing and action. Later, Chavannes' lead teacher, Fanfan, presents a series of images designed to make the group think of the divisions in their communities and the ways in which they are exploited. He shows a drawing of a big fish consuming a school of small fish. He asks us to think of ways in which big fish eat small fish in our own lives, and how that makes us feel. Then, he shows the small fish schooling together to chase off the big fish, illustrating how organizing can bind them together. "Divided, they are eaten. Together, they eat." The group sings a song, which has the effect of placing in our bodies the theme of the day: "We're in misery because we're divided." Division makes people enemies. When we ask what forms of division exist in rural Haiti today, the group gives several examples: land disputes, witchcraft, cockfighting, jealousy between men and women, politics, gambling, devil worshipping. It was impressive and moving to see so many adults in one place, intent on bringing their best selves back to their communities. Chavannes and Fanfan were under no illusions that helping these people raise their voices would be easy. Fanfan concluded, "It's not easy to change a person's thinking. People think God put them in their misery, that it's their destiny, that not all fingers are the same size. We tell them it's not God who put them in this situation, it's people." View photos from the service trip!

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