Typical Haitian chairs, made with palm frond and wood.
Tomorrow, my second book about Haiti, Farewell, Fred Voodoo, is being published, and I wanted to think about the ways in which old Haiti — the Haiti I first knew years ago — is changing, and what that means.
The first thing I ever bought in Haiti was a little Haitian chair. These were ubiquitous there in the 1980s. I sent my chair home because I had to have one in the States: they were so adorable, especially when new. They had such charm. You could see that they were quickly made, but by experts. They were rough and stubby and endearing.
The national chair wasn’t just for country people. You sat on them at the best restaurants; I wrote much of my first book sitting in one — first in a little apartment near downtown Port-au-Prince, and then in a much grander house where I was housesitting, farther up the hill.
Let me point out: these chairs were not comfortable. The legs rose up an inch or so in front of the seat to which they were snugly tied, and somehow you felt trapped, goosed, and antsy, sitting in one. There was usually something of a back to the chair, but it was high up, unsupportive, ungiving. Well, they kept you alert — although I occasionally would see Haitians dozing in the noonday sun in the market, sitting half in one, half out in order to avoid getting stuck in the rear by a chair-leg. I would wonder at their ability to get some rest in a Haitian chair; their lives were very very hard, I figured, harder than the chairs. And I was right.
(click here to read the first review of Farewell, Fred Voodoo.)
While I sat in my Haitian chair at my little desk, I wrote about — among other things — Miami rice. Miami rice was the nickname for the U.S. surplus US-taxpayer-subsidized rice that was dumped into the Haitian market, under a general rubric of humanitarian aid, in the 1980s. Since the earthquake, again as an ostensible humanitarian gesture, such imports have increased. This rice, much cheaper than rice grown in Haiti by non-subsidized farmers, continues to erode and basically to destroy Haitian cultivation. Earlier dumpings of Miami rice caused large migrations of former cultivators from the farming countryside to Port-au-Prince, and created and expanded the crowded shantytowns where thousands would die in the January 12, 2010 earthquake (third anniversary this coming Saturday). Miami rice has been Haiti’s most brutal encounter with the cruelties and perils of the global market.
Little did I know at the time that the chair I sat in, too, was in danger from global competition. See below:
Hello, new little chair: interloper!
Chinese, not Haitian. And cheaper to buy in Haiti than a Haitian chair.
To begin with: FAR more comfortable, too. Stacks, also, unlike the irregular, chubby Haitian chair. When you see a Haitian walking through the market carrying five of these plastic-mould chairs made in China, it’s all very formal and efficient. A person carrying five little Haitian chairs looks like a crazy Tinkertoy windmill, and can hardly get anywhere.
And so the cheap Chinese chair — with all its advantages — is slowly replacing the little Haitian chair. (Most plastic mould chairs are made in Huangyan, China, which “is famoused as ‘Plastic Mould Town,’” according to the homepage of the Taizhou Huangyan Jingyuan Plastic Moulds Factory.)
To me, the slow but steady replacement of the traditional Haitian chair with the globally familiar plastic one represents an erosion of Haitian national identity — as well as an erosion of Haitian jobs and know-how.
I wonder if the little wooden chair is destined for the heap of tourist souvenirs. Below, some tourist-trade miniatures:
Here are a few other staples of everyday Haitian life that are being lost to the global market: homemade woven baskets and totes, and hollowed-out calabashes and gourds. These used to be carrying equipment for market women, who balanced them carefully on their heads, and for people fetching water, likewise. Now, the plastic container (or bidon) — also carried on the head — is used for water, and very often big black plastic bags (imported) are used to carry other items.
Haitian homemade clothes are also disappearing: the blue dress, the sharp trousers, the white apron with red zigzag detail, are all slowly becoming things of the past, and the Haitian seamstress with them. They’ve been replaced by second-hand American clothes, commonly known as pepe, that comes in by the bushel. Some analysts of the Haitian scene have gone so far as to qualify Haiti’s current economy as “a pepe economy.”
One day, if irony defines history as it so often does, the very WalMart shirts that eventually come back into the country as secondhand clothing may turn out to have been sewn by Haitian garment workers employed by Korean companies in Haiti — and the same garment workers may end up buying the pepe shirts, as well.
The typical old tourist picture of a Haitian was of a woman in a homemade dress (with, often, an apron) carrying a basket or tote of vegetables on her head to market.
Photo credit: Musée du Quai Branly
I wonder if tourists will take the same kind of atmospheric pictures of Haitian women in second hand American clothes carrying overstuffed plastic bags on their heads. Here’s one with both the plastic container and a bag:
Photo credit: Poto Mitan
PS The produce carried by bags atop Haitian heads these days may well have been grown in the neighboring Dominican Republic and imported from there.
Still, sometimes you see a Haitian in a true Haitian throne:
Photo credit: C. Stramba-Badiali