Jesus Speaks Kreyòl: On Whiteness, Poverty, and Child Trafficking

When I lived in Haiti in 2010, I would go to the tap tap (a truck converted into public transport) each morning. On my walk to the town center, I would pass the local barber near the bridge by the house where I lived.  We stopped and chatted every day, but one day I received the special wave in.  Several clients and other barbers in addition to a few neighbors were watching the story of Jesus as can only be seen in the orange colors of Vista-Vision cinema with the cheesy fake beards and pearly white skin that of course Jesus not only had in “reality,” but maintains in every representation I had ever seen in Haiti.  Jesus was not only white, but in Haiti he also spoke Kreyòl (Creole).

In Haiti there is a lot of mention of “whiteness” and as I walked down streets where I was often called “blanc” (irrespective of my sex or ethnicity). More often than not the mention of color is incidental, a means to communicate something else entirely. Whiteness refers to anyone who is experiencing even a temporary moment of wealth from having been paid to work to having received contributions for a wedding celebration.  Whiteness refers to the onslaught of light-skinned foreigners who come to the country, especially foreign Evangelicals. And whiteness certainly represents the regime of power of Papa Doc Duvalier‘s years in office (1957-1971) which was marked by his resistance to white hegemony both outside and inside Haiti. Specifically, Duvalier produced the ideology of noirisme (literally “blackism”) which took aim at the “mulatto elite.” Duvalier attempted to toss out lighter-skinned Haitians from positions of power and return to these posts those who he viewed were more representative of the black population and less reminiscent of the country’s white colonial heritage.  My friend Guy, a local farmer, told me, “‘White’ is what they call anyone who is perceived as richer than them. They call me ‘white’ all the time.’”

One day I jumped into the front of the tap-tap and moments later came an elderly lady who desperately wanted to ride up front with us—but there was no more room. So she guilt tripped the other female passenger in the cab seated nearest the window who had initially told her to go to the rear of the lorry.  The elderly woman won her plea with the younger woman saying, “But you let the white person in.” A gentleman sitting between me an the woman gave his seat to the grey-haired woman and he went back to sit in the carriage of the truck with the other passengers.  The elderly woman then came into the truck and sat next to me and I turned to her and I asked her in  Kreyòl, “What makes you think I am white?”  She smiled.

Many Haitians of this woman’s generation are quite religious, many of the younger generations are not at all.  We were a few days away from the Christian holiday, Easter, which celebrates the suffering of a human who was also God, a fact which is markedly pronounced in a setting like Port-au-Prince, a city where so many people are themselves suffering. There are more than a million people in camps, there is no sign of major debris removal, no water for the schools despite their impending opening on Monday, there are now many cases of malaria, cholera, and typhoid, and infant mortality is already soaring.  I was approached by Haitians daily for tents and while working with permaculture specialist from Portugal, Rodrigo, as we organized the construction of houses à la Hasan Fathy’s “architecture for the people.”  I worked to erect recycling sites and buildings from ready-made material—earth, rubble, pieces of wood.  The rains at certain times of year are non-stop for five days and flooding is a reality.  It was a battle against time as the vast sea of tents throughout Port-au-Prince were soon going to be the instruments which would drown people in six weeks’ time as the rainy seasons would show no mercy upon these tent cities.

As we work, Rodrigo and I discuss the “special” project on which we worked the day before—we went undercover posing as a couple looking to adopt a baby.  This all started when several days before while leaving the UN’s WASH meeting, just outside the gates, immediately next to the UN guards from Nigeria, Rodrigo and I were approached by three men holding photos of infants and adolescents, showing us documents of their orphanage, asking for money, looking for help for these “orphans.”  Light brown skin in Haiti indicates money, NGO status, and upward mobility for those with none. I asked if they did adoptions and the older gentleman, a preacher by the name of Louis, said that they did.  I asked if they gave discounts for more than one child and these men said we would have to discuss it further, but that, of course, anything was possible. They showed me documents from the Office of Social Services certifying their orphanage from 2001.  I asked if that was their latest certificate and he claimed it was not but that he did not have a more recent certificate to show me.

I pulled out my iPhone, pretending to speak on the phone, and recorded our “transaction” of the children by sound as I took pictures of this incident to present this to the parliament the following Tuesday. Coincidentally, I was working with many other actors within the Haitian government on drafting better child protection and adoption laws, and such instances were helpful to illustrate the pervasiveness of child trafficking in the country.  I made plans with these men to visit the orphanage, Orphelinat de Sion, in Arcahaie with my “husband,” Rodrigo.  So a few days later, off we went.

Upon arriving at the orphanage, it became immediately apparent that Pastor Estivenne, his son and son’s friend were not a high-end child-smuggling operation. I suspected that they were economically strapped running an “orphanage” beyond their means and sadly had no idea of the ethical problems of shopping children’s photos on the streets, nor the dangers such actions imposed upon these children.  Estivenne told me how he couldn’t get any financial support for his orphanage, nor could he borrow money even if he could consolidate his debts from his farm. And his reliance upon NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for financing was slim given that most financing today in the form of microcredit or other programs back by various INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) is solely directed at women.  The reason for this has been long established: women have a better track record of managing money, paying back loans, the loan enables women to adopt healthier living conditions and lifestyles, and they make better use of the loans.

While Estivenne had told us that he had 70 children, in reality, we saw the orphanage only had only 32 present.  Where were the other children?  At that, the children we saw were miserable and were clearly posing for us, dressed in tattered clothes, mismatched shoes, and amongst the already thin bodies, a few girls were extremely malnourished.  They were, as is typical in Haitian schools, in audience for the “visitors.” And after the director presented them to us, they broke out in song from English, French and Kreyòl with songs of Jesus and his love bestowed upon us.  One girl, about eight years of age, was so emaciated that her arms were no more than five inches in circumference, her knees bowed.

Most of these children had families who could not afford them, but clearly neither could this orphanage.  Hence, the term “orphan” does not refer to what we think of by the term. In Haiti, “orphan” largely refers to children who have lost one parent to death or abandonment.  The Ministry of Social Services and the Office of Social Welfare offer no relief to this preacher, so is it any surprise that I found these men looking for their light-brown skinned savior of children in the bodies of the UN, UNICEF and other NGOs in this part of the capital? Of course Jesus is light-skinned when the only people holding salvation, sic money, are those who come from afar with direct “help.”

I heard about Sean Penn’s having travelled down just a few weeks earlier with a suitcase full of cash handing it out directly to people to get the job of post-earthquake recovery under way given that little had been done before his arrival by any other NGO or government agency.  But the reality is that those receiving the money were in the capital city, were male, and by all measures were far better off both economically and physically than these children in the countryside.  When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, there were hundreds of thousands of Haitians without tents who slept in their cars, under linens stretched over tree branches, and some even slept in excavated tombs of the Petionville cemetery.  Penn rightfully distrusted NGOs which, to this day, have generally done very little for the million-plus Haitians living in utter misery, to include the Clinton Foundation which under the co-leadership of Hilary Clinton, co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), is being held responsible for the majority of the missing $13.3bn raised for the Haitian people.

Although viewed cynically by most, when Penn landed in Haiti and handed out money directly to the people, he not only demonstrated how quickly things could be addressed, but he unwittingly contributed to the already existing class problems of who has access to food, housing, medicine, and jobs.  Despite the fact that the camp which Penn’s organization has created was not the ideal solution, it beat out all other organizations in Haiti which discuss action and yet are slow to engage it—if ever.  This camp established, in a matter of days, safe living conditions for approximately 50,000 people.  This was not the situation of this orphanage in Arcahaie.

The director of the “orphanage” and his son were extremely well-dressed on the one hand, while the 32 children slept in two rooms of approximately eight by fourteen feet.  In the boys’ room two beds on frames for adults and three mattresses on the floor to be divided by 16 boys.  And for the girls no mattresses whatsoever and two proper beds for the women guardians.  There were no changes of clothes for any of the children.  At whom to be angry I asked myself? The non-existent state which had been long marginalized and made surrogate to the IMF and World Bank deals? The greedy preacher who just wanted to construct himself a church and hence, having little of a congregation, fills the church/schoolhouse with these children whose appearance and origins he can barely explain? Children are just delivered to him, yet somehow there are families that must sign off on the adoptions I discuss with him.

It is clear that these children were not receiving education as they cannot read, are listless, and quite sad.  This preacher was willing to sell me children in exchange for funding of his orphanage and this was a small fee.  In the end, he had lost funding after Aristide’s ousting when the Christian Revival Center out of Atlanta, Georgia sponsored them to the tune of ten children.  This is the price of financial hardship—it is rarely long-lasting and comes at the cost of children working the land as the preacher later told us.

The brutal fact is that these kids are restavèk (indentured servants, from the French, rester avec, “to stay with”).  This preacher tells us how it was his dream to have an orphanage while the children remain seated staring at a wall in the courtyard, waiting in order to sing to us our “welcome song.” In this courtyard there are extremely complex English sentences on the blackboard behind us; yet none of these students speak any English aside from the memorized song with which we were greeted.  In the church/schoolhouse are countless Bible verses.  How is it that such an “orphanage” can legally exist as the conditions are inhuman and the fraud so evident.

Having read copious amounts of historical texts, it is interesting to observe how slavery has been morphed throughout the years.  It is transformed by those who control it, who need to shift the language of enslavement to skirt around laws in vigor.  Long gone are the slave ships—for that is too expensive.  Let’s starve countries, charge individuals for visas and air transport and the underpay migrant workers.  And when our population is unable to reproduce, let us buy the children from these regions.  It is restavèk all around the world from Haiti to France and few seem to think there is anything wrong with the status quo, except, of course, Haitians themselves.

In the contemporary practice of restavèk, the family typically leaves their child to be raised by the aunt in the city so the child can get an education. Sometime this works out and often, the child is merely turned into house help, fed very little, and often is barred from going to school.  In an more traditional form of restavèk, the child is sent to the plantation farmer in order to ensure she is fed while she must work as a slave cutting cane for her life “indebted”—much in the same way Napoleon indebted the Haitians to pay indemnities for their liberation in 1829—to this master.  In both forms of restavèk, sexual predation is not uncommon and has now included sex and organ trafficking with the introduction of various transnational mafias in the country.

Children are often “given” to others due to poverty and misery in Haiti and international adoption has ironically followed this very same model.  But you cannot simply give a child to slavery as you cannot give her to another person.  Restavèk is commonly practiced in the countryside and in the capital, as it is not uncommon to find that stuttering child or an adolescent who is “too slow” for school serving as the houseboy or girl.  Though Haitians are aware of this practice, many not aware of the abuse inherent that takes place within this practice.

So whenever a foreigner who has adopted a child from Haiti tells me, “But her mother told me to take her,” there is clearly no difference between this woman from British Columbia who sees herself as helping a child by co-opting her and that preacher from Arcahie who thinks he is saving children and doing the “Lord’s work” by taking in the abandoned and utilizing this life as labor for his coconut and banana plantation.

The restavèk of the orphanage and the private adoption companies are cultural practices which need to end.  We ought to have learned from our ancestors in Western nations that buying humans is immoral no matter what you call it, in whatever language you choose to employ: be it slavery, restavèk or adoption.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: