Haiti is a beautiful country in spite of the tarnished images we use when we discuss it; it is rich in color, culture, and unexploited resources. When I was young I dreamed about a big mobilization effort that would help improve our neighborhoods and I believed it would begin in the church. At that time I felt too small to be responsible for channeling this message, because I knew it could make a big impact across the country.
You may not know much about the Haitian people, but as a Haitian I can tell you we are a strong, spiritual people who either believe in God or believe in the spirit. Even those who are practicing voudoo call upon God in times of need. Haitians believe in the churches’ position for representing every decision they make. The message of the church restores hope for all of life’s difficulties, even those as inconceivable as hunger. Therefore, using the church to discuss ending the restavek system and valuing human life is necessary.
When Pastor Bilda invited me to be a part of his team for the pastors’ conferences that RFF was hosting, I was excited! I have always believed that cultural change in Haiti would only be successful by working through the church. All the speakers in our conferences did great job discussing the issue of restavek; my presentation was based on my experiences with the children. Sometimes community members who wanted to attend our conference had to walk more than 4 hours before arriving at the bus station! We made a significant impact on audiences everywhere. At the beginning of the trip I had imagined that I would only be a speaker but quickly I realized that my help was needed in every part of the conference.
Each pastors’ testimony was about how they appreciated the initiative. I was certain that it was the first time people dared to speak out loudly at the same time, all over the country, against the cultural practice of restavek. The word “restavek” itself frightens people; they know the ill-treatment and suffering that the practice brings. Since this word frightens many, the question always comes up, “Why did the foundation chose the name Restavek Freedom”? We respond by saying, “Yes, the word frightens and is the ugliest word, but as a Haitian proverb states, Hiding a disease does not find medicine.” We are afraid of this word because everyone knows what it is. If they did not live in restavek themselves, then they have a child at home who is living in restavek, or they have sent a child into restavek, or a neighbor has a child living in restavek. Pastors and community leaders refuse to preach against or to talk about what is happening under the false pretense of minding your own business. Even among the pastors and leaders we have found victims who testify about restavek, and others who hide shame or deep wounds inside because of the fear of having a negative image.
After the pastors’ conferences, I felt no more significant than I had before. Then I began to think about this quote: “Lock yourself in a room with a single insignificant mosquito; it will prevent you from closing your eyes.” You will see how much your voice matters, and just how un-crazy you are for wanting to change things for the better in your community.
Although my time spent on the pastors’ conference allowed me to escape from Port-au-Prince and admire the beauty of Haiti, I was also able to admire the determination of families living in the country-side. I admire their courage to carry Restavek Freedom’s mission as far as it will go. I understand the wisdom with which these people approached us and I believe that they will change the country for God.
Nadine Augustin-Paul, Child Advocate