Most city dwellers who work do so on an ad hoc basis. A doubled-over, shirtless man strains under a donkey cart laden with the burnt-out carcass of a car. An elderly woman balances a hundred eggs in five tiers on her head and nimbly navigates a pulverized side road. A young man pushes up the bustling sidewalk with two queen-sized mattresses on his head. The tinkling of shoeshine bells is constant. An old man -- probably no more than fifty-seven, the average life span for a Haitian -- pushes a wheelbarrow filled with empty bottles. He catches you smiling at his threadbare, oversized T-shirt bearing an image of Snoopy, Woodstock, and the words WORLD'S MOST HUGGABLE GRANDMA. Bubbling with good humor, he shoots back a toothless grin. Many peddle trinkets, bouillon cubes, single-shot plastic bags of water, plantain chips, "Megawatt" energy soda, or vegetables in various states of decay.
A man hawks cell phone chargers with which he swats stray dogs as they slink by. Another man on Delmas sells cowhide rigwaz whips and leather martinets. Those are for beating a different kind of creature. "Timoun se ti bet," a Haitian saying relates: "Children are little animals." "Ti neg se baton ki fe I mache," goes another: "It is the whip which makes the little guy walk."
You are now about halfway up Delmas, and slaves are everywhere. Assuming that this is your first trip to Haiti, you won't be able to identify them. But to a lower-middle-class Haitian, their status is "written in blood." Some are as young as three or four years old. But they'll always be the small ones, even if they're older. The average fifteen-year-old child slave is 1.5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than the average free fifteen-year-old. They may have burns from cooking for their overseer's family over an open fire; or scars from beatings, sometimes in public, with the martinet, electrical cables, or wood switches. They wear faded, outsized castoffs, and walk barefoot, in sandals or, if they are lucky, oversized shoes.
If you arrive in the afternoon, you may see their tiny necks and delicate skulls straining as they tote five-gallon buckets of water on their heads while navigating broken glass and shattered roads. Or you might see them picking up their overseer's smartly dressed children from school.
These are the restavèks, the "stay-withs," as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work from before dawn until deep night. The violence in their lives is unyielding.
These are the children who won't look you in the eyes.
At Delmas 69, yell "merci," hop out, pay the driver, and turn left onto the relatively well-kept side street with overhanging but not overgrown trees. Any time of day, you will find here a group of four or five men, standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop.
As you approach, one man steps forward. "Are you looking to get a person?" he asks.
Meet Benavil Lebhom. Hail-fellow, he smiles easily, and is an easy man to do business with, if not an easy man to trust. Benavil, thirty-eight, has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored striped polo shirt, a gold rope suspending a coin and a cross, and Doc Martens knockoffs. His colleagues approach. One extends his hand, offers his card, and introduces himself as a "businessman."
Benavil is what is known in Haiti as a courtier, a broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. But most employees he places are atypical job seekers. Two thirds of his sales are child slaves.
Like most Haitians, Benavil is from the countryside, but he moved to Port-au-Prince twenty-five years ago. He started in construction, but in 1989 he switched to real estate sales and founded a company called SOPNIBEL. Soon he discovered a more lucrative commodity: human beings. The biggest year for child selling was 1995, shortly after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power, and UN sanctions were lifted. In the cities, people had a bit more money, and could afford small luxuries again. Benavil sold twenty to thirty kids in a good week then, and made upward of $200 per month. Nationwide the number of restavèks ballooned from 109,000 in 1992 to 300,000, or one in ten Haitian children, in 1998, to 400,000 in 2002.
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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