A dumpy office was the least of Costumé's problems. In theory, BPM was the first-response agency, fielding restavèk abuse reports, and galloping to the rescue. But the agency's landline was out of order, and its cell phone was out of scratch card minutes. Even if, theoretically, a message got through, BPM had one car, and anywhere beyond the capital was beyond its reach.
Were an officer to investigate, unless he found the most egregiously abusive bondage, he couldn't do much. Like the United States, Haiti pursued drug traffickers with much more zeal than slave traders. Human trafficking was still legal, as was forced, unpaid labor for children between the ages of twelve and fifteen. A law requiring the registration of unpaid domestic servants was never enforced. Under Aristide, when the BPM had a bit more money and actually could conduct investigations, its officers still had no authority to arrest masters, and could only scold them for mistreating their slaves. On occasion, a child ran away and a good soul would take her to the BPM. Brigade offices then would put her into an adult detention facility.
When I told him about Benavil Lebhom and his child-selling business, Costumé was phlegmatic. "If it's a pact between two families, we don't have to intervene," he said. "Look, we know the domesticity phenomenon is illegal," using the euphemism preferred by the Haitian government and the UN, "but it's not in our capacity to end it by ourselves." Stunningly, he even acknowledged that he had restavèk children living with him.
"But I don't rape them."
The morning after meeting Benavil, I set out for the mountains of La Selle, from where he would acquire the girl to sell to me. I went on my own, with the goal not of buying a girl but of exploring why parents would give theirs away to a stranger.
Now, in the life cycle of every bad idea, there comes a point where it reveals itself as such. Unfortunately, this is rarely at the birth of the idea. If I believed in omens, the enormous tarantula that leisurely crept across my path as I set out at five in the morning might have provided that epiphany. But for me, the revelation never occurred until nine and a half hours later, at the peak of the arc as I flew between my motorcycle and the jagged mountain rocks below.
That morning, my translator, Serge, and I boarded a tap-tap before sunrise. Downtown Port-au-Prince was already humming. A woman in a dress and an updo strode past, preaching apocalyptic gospel to no one in particular. Pressed against the tap-tap windows, vendors hawked all manner of goods balanced in huge baskets on their heads -- tiers of plantain chips, crates of eggs, baskets of apples. One enterprising boy peddled medicines with a bullhorn. Hands reached through an open window behind me to tug at my arm, with pleas of "Blanc! Blanc!"
Children scurried past. Some wore uniforms and backpacks, heading for school. Others, the restavèks, escorted them or carried water. The tap-tap was larger than normal, but that didn't make us any more comfortable. The plastic school bus seats were crammed together, allowing no leg room, and less than a foot to pass down the center aisle. People squeezed six to a seat, along with screaming babies, terrified chickens in plastic bags, and unwieldy sacks of grain. The collector packed in more passengers so he could make more money. Then everyone began to yell.
Gargantuan speakers broadcast a chill gospel song by Losharimi, a Haitian pastor, which calmed passengers, until the collector demanded in voice stentorian to see one old woman's ticket. Her chin quivered. "The monkey handed me a ticket," she said, "and now the monkey wants to see it." As soon as the collector filled the last square inch, two corpulent women at the back of the tap-tap squeezed their way between the seats, descended, and urinated by the tire well.
Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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