Homage to My Mothers: Restavek, Vodou, and Haiti’s Stolen Children
“There are no orphans in Haiti!”
After a long silence at the other end of the line, my friend Jordan murmurs: “Come again?”
He must be thinking I lost my senses. I realize how I sound. Someone else might imagine that I am ignorant of the extreme poverty in which most Haitians live, but Jordan and I have known each other more than 20 years.
“Okay. I did not mean that there aren’t any orphans. Of course, many Haitian children lose their parents. But these children are never abandoned. Our families are very extended. When a child cannot be cared for by a living parent or becomes orphaned, a grandparent, aunt, uncle, sibling, cousin, or some other relative, adopts the child. If after the child becomes a teenager the family still cannot care for her, she is placed with a more prosperous family well known to the parent – often the home of a godparent.”
“Oh?” Jordan replies, waiting for more explanation.
There is no quick way to explain to this close black-American friend, with no direct knowledge of Haiti, the customs of Haitian families. Would he understand, for example, that women routinely adopt and love the children born by the poorer mistresses of their unfaithful husbands? Two of my close cousins come from such arrangements. I could tell him too that a terrible Haitian insult is to be called a “sanmanman.” There is no equivalent word in any other language I know. The literal translation is “motherless,” but this pejorative is worse than “bastard.” It defines a person who is such a degenerate that no one would mother him or, depending on context, someone who has known no love and is so torn from his roots to have sunk to the depths of depravity. Instead I take a deep breath and say:
“Jordan, look at the picture I sent you of the little kids strapped into the airplane seats, would you? How is it that every child who has had the good luck to be adopted was also not harmed by the earthquake? Earthquakes kill children and maim adults, so they kill more children than they do parents. Right now, every pervert, grifter and religious fanatic is in Haiti packing his load of little children to France, Holland, Utah and Pennsylvania, among other places. These kids have families!”
Within 24 hours and in separate incidents, irate Haitian families hang several men who attempted to snatch their children, and the Haitian Prime Minister, feeling the prevailing wind, declares a moratorium on the removal of children from the country. The swift and categorical response of angry Haitians to the removal of their children hardly registers in the foreign press, except for a derisive article which suggests that Haitian Vodou practitioners believe their children to be fodder for werewolves.
Jordan calls me.
“I get it. I saw the news.” He starts, with characteristic economy.
He is referring to a widely broadcast interview in which the prime minister casually explained that Haiti’s children are well-known prey to organ traffickers and other predators.
“Why are there so many orphanages in Haiti, if the children have families? And why are all the adoptive parents I’ve been seeing in the news white?” Jordan asks, bewildered.
“This will take a while to explain, Jordan,” I answer, knowing full well that Jordan will raise many more questions, and his analytical mindset will expect nothing short of a complete answer.
“Have you heard of Australia’s Stolen Children?” I ask.
He has not, though he knows that there must have been horrific abuses. I promise him a longer chat in the coming weekend.
One cannot talk about orphaned Haitian children without confronting two highly controversial and interwoven subjects: Vodou and restavek. Both are part of the very fabric of the Haitian family, which is currently under vicious attack.
The word Vodou means God: a supreme fount of goodness that is indifferent to human affairs and utterly inaccessible. The closest analogy might be the sun. On the other hand, the pantheon of Vodou includes many elemental spirits, some of them similar to the Greek gods. Gods are temperamental, as gods are apt to be, and so one learns to keep one’s promises.
“Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius.
Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” – Socrates’ final words
Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine and healing. The analogy to Greece only goes so far. Vodou’s god of death, for instance, is a lewd prankster that sometimes revels in exposing the frailties of the deceased in life. Love is manifested in three goddesses. Èzili Freda is the flirt who can make a grown man blush, and Èzili Dantò the mother-warrior who can make him tremble. The third, Lasirèn, represents the irresistible call to vocation and action. Èzili Dantò is partial to griot, a Haitian twice-cooked pork delicacy. In fact, without exception, our gods eat local fare. They are mostly black, though at least two are white. Larger-than-life personalities and respected family members can acquire the status of gods.
In Vodou, trees have spirits. There are no proscriptions about sex. On Saturday nights, one can dance with one’s gods if one feels so inclined. This extraordinarily joyful religion has stuck a craw in the designs of imperialists for centuries. It is not the sort of authoritarian and infantilizing religion one can easily subvert into the worship of a king. Vodou is so entwined with Haitian life that most of its practitioners do not know that their innocent customs, such as their prayers to their ancestors, or the offering of their first yuca crops to their communities in a celebration of their harvests, are a part of a religion.
The system of partial adoption that I described to Jordan, especially the case where a child is placed in the home of a more prosperous, though often unrelated, family is the restavek (to stay with) system. This system, which is well on its way to becoming as vilified as Vodou, is now a pretext for calling Haitians slavers even while they are being enslaved and their children are being stolen. In reality, for hundreds of years this kind of partial adoption has safeguarded young Haitians from the depredations of foreigners. The restavek system is profoundly subversive in that it intimately binds Haitians of different socioeconomic classes.
Enough polemic. Let me tell you a story.
On my bedroom wall, near a mirror in which I look every day to apply my make up, hangs a picture frame with the photos of my mothers. Each of the six ovals within that frame holds the image of a woman who has braided my hair, clothed, fed, sheltered, taught, and disciplined me. For the purposes of this story, I will mention only two: my biological mother and Angelia.
Mom became a restavek in her paternal grandparents’ house when she was 10 years old. This arrangement was brokered by her mother, who could only support three younger children, a paternal grandmother who felt responsible for her playboy son’s damages, and a maternal grandmother who lived in the same city, kept an eye on the girl, and furnished her books and uniforms for school. Such an agreement between women for the care of a child is typical of a restavek situation. No money is ever exchanged. The child is usually a teenage girl who knows well who her mother is and has family members in the same city.
For my future mother, this arrangement was not without its emotional scars. Her paternal grandmother and her own father were cold to her. The grandmother strictly held the young girl to her obligations to do light work around the house and even recalled her from school sometimes to clean the dishes or make the family’s beds. By contrast, the girl’s young cousins treated her as a sister. Her paternal grandfather, a well-known poet and educator, on pretext of going blind, instructed his granddaughter in a complete classical education by guiding her through a daily regime of reading and music. The girl became a phenomenon at school, ever first in her class. Though an aunt adopted her when her mother died four years later, her relationship with her grandfather and cousins continued to be a loving one. At 17, she graduated at the top of her high school class and was immediately assigned to a job as a teacher in a neighboring city. She took along her aging maternal grandmother and cared for her from then on. As my future mother’s fortunes waxed and waned, she either helped her aunt to support her younger siblings or came to find refuge with her. Yes, “Dèyè mòn, genyen mòn” (Beyond the mountains, more mountains). In Haiti, things are never so simple as they appear. All that I know of Oswald Durand, CLR James, Joseph-Antenor Firmin, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Bach, or Beethoven, among many, comes from my mother by way of her shrewd and loving grandfather.
Such an education was nothing much compared to what I learned from Angelia, one of Auntie’s (my great aunt) god-daughters, who came to live with us as a restavek when she was 16 and I was seven.
For one, Angelia was extraordinarily beautiful. In all my life, I have only seen one other woman who looked like her, and I nearly ran into that stranger’s arms thinking her to be Angelia. Angelia’s hair was red as corn silk though kinkier than mine, and her full lips and bold nose were unmistakably those of a black woman.
Another fascinating aspect of Angelia is that she could make things. She often acted on a whim: like the day she decided to reduce a mixture of milk, sugar, and an assortment of spices into my idea of heaven, or the spring she planted a vegetable garden, gave me my own pigeon peas, and awakened in me the idea that I could grow things. To my young mind, it seemed that everything Angelia needed, she made. She was a seamstress and master embroiderer who, in a few days, could turn a plain square of linen into a summer dress hemmed with a flower garden. When she needed oil for her hair, she simply collected some seeds and pressed them.
By far the most marvelous aspect of Angelia was her storytelling. I never understood what impelled to tell her tales, but on some nights, if the stars were right and the spirits moved her, she would make me cry about the tragic friendship between a fish who lived in a spring and a girl who collected her water there, or she would make me cheer a girl’s power to sing an orange tree to life and make it grow up toward the sky, to protect the oranges from her stepmother’s greed. There were so many stories, riddles, and jokes: all about rural life. Then there were the rare times when she would turn into a god or goddess for an evening. I did not realize, until more than a decade later, that this was Vodou practice. I fell in love with Haiti because of Angelia.
In exchange for her room and board, Angelia’s job in our household was to cook a daily lunch and launder the family’s clothes. This was hard work, for sure, but it left her plenty of time for her creative outlets. Her job also involved keeping the house clean: relatively light work 40 years ago, when the contents of a house were spare, and garbage collection was not yet a concept known to Haitians. Food was sold by passing vendors, and everything uneaten was fed to the neighborhood goats and creole pigs.
Though Angelia was a displaced teenager, her relationship with Auntie was surprisingly warm, at least at the start. Its first serious test came when an army man requested Angelia’s hand in marriage. Auntie categorically refused and declared the man to be of bad character. Angelia in turn accused Auntie of holding her back for her labor. Yet she did not elope. I think she loved the family too much to make a permanent break.
The most trying time for Auntie and Angelia came two years later when Angelia became pregnant, and no inducement, insult, or threat would extract from her the identity of her baby’s father. Not even Auntie’s network of female friends could produce a shred of intelligence on the matter. I, of course, was delighted with the idea of a baby and extracted one concession from Angelia: I would be godmother. She kept her promise.
Within a year of the girl’s birth, she grew to resemble a married neighbor. Auntie promptly drove him out of town. Many years later, when we could discuss such things woman to woman, I asked Angelia how the affair began.
“I wanted mine,” she responded softly.
“I went to find my pleasure with the man only once,” she explained. “I’m sorry I didn’t go again, because I’ve never had a lover since.”
It occurred to me then that even a sexual life is a matter of economics.
Angelia’s daughter grew up with Auntie, went to school, and moved to her own apartment when she became able to support her mother. For many years, I advised and guided my goddaughter, who grew into a resourceful independent woman. She married, gave birth to a son, and then moved to the United States. I never imagined that she would live with me. But when she called me about her abusive husband, I ordered her to get onto the next plane with her boy and then sheltered them for two years. She is happily remarried now and working as a teacher.
Much has changed in Haiti. The little creole pigs of my childhood are gone: all 1.3 million of them eradicated by the US in 1982 because of a supposed swine flu, despite a demonstrated resistance of these animals to the disease. This genocide, and a calculated dumping of cheap US-subsidized rice on the country’s market, to bankrupt the local rice farmers, destroyed Haiti’s agricultural base. Even so, the country hobbled along on the remittances of citizens abroad.
What to do? To make way for neoliberalism, the Haitian family itself would have to be destroyed. The opportunity for an onslaught came in 1998, when a book by Jean-Robert Cadet recounted a harrowing life as a restavek. Mr. Cadet’s experience is entirely atypical of the restavek system. He describes being transferred as a very young child to an abusive family, although very young children, especially males, are traditionally kept within their own families, and children who are placed in different families are never set so adrift. What he describes is, at best, a perversion of this system of partial adoption, and at worst, rings untrue. His story, echoed by many, led to great outrage from liberals and predators alike and a declaration of the restavek system as being a form of child slavery and therefore illegal.
The theft of Haiti’s children is underway. Loving Haitian families who fit every qualification for the adoption of children are regarded as slavers and not permitted to adopt Haitian children. An adoption black market, with all the attendant corruption in Haitian high places, has grown to serve the needs of wealthy and middle-class whites who fail the criteria for adoption by normal routes in their home countries. Sexual predators come to Haiti to establish schools and orphanages. Some have been exposed, most have not. Grifters obtain young children by persuading the biological parents that their offspring will maintain contact with them. As for the poor teenage girls, there are always the garment factories with a going wage of about 40 cents per hour, or there is worse, much worse.
I write this to celebrate my mothers. I write to stop this horror. If you grew up in a partial adoption or loved an adopted ti moun (little person/restavek) as your own child, speak up and tell the truth. There will have to be an apology to Haitians, as there was to the Stolen Children: the mixed-race Australians who were snatched from their homes and placed with white families to erase the aboriginal from them. It is only fair to give the well meaning a chance to remove themselves from this great crime, but the criminals must not be permitted to claim they did not know they were causing harm.