Originally from a hamlet called La Vallée in the underdeveloped and forbidding southern highlands of La Selle, Benavil sired two children there although he never married. It is from those fertile mountains that he and his fellow courtiers harvest their best-selling crops.
Benavil's business works like this: A client approaches him about acquiring a restavèk. Normally, this client is lower middle class -- a UNICEF study found the average income for a slaveowning household in Haiti was under $30 per month. After per capita GDPs were torpedoed by the economic chaos that followed two coups, sanctions, and colossal government mismanagement even in peacetime, the monthly incomes sank further. Lower-class urbanites also acquire restavèks, but, unable to afford a middleman like Benavil, a friend or relative performs his service free of charge.
A child's price is negotiable, but Benavil is bound by agreements -- which he won't detail for you -- with the capital's other courtiers, whom he estimates number at least 3,000. "We do have a formula," he says.
Clients then place their order. Some want boys; most want girls. Some want specific skills. "They'll ask for someone who knows how to bake," says Benavil; "sometimes they'll ask for a boy who knows how to work an oven." Most want children from the countryside. No one wants children from urban blights like Cité Soleil. Although their parents would give them away, clients know street-smart kids would escape at the earliest opportunity. Older kids, too, are out of favor as even rural ones will be willful, independent. Most children Benavil sells are around age twelve. The youngest slaves he brokers, he claims, are seven.
After a client has ordered, Benavil's colleague in La Vallée begins working to convince an impoverished rural family to give up its child. Normally, all it takes is the promise that the child will be well nourished and educated. Urban Haitians are poor; rural families are dirt-poor. Out of every 1,000 urban children, 112 will die before age five; in the countryside, the figure is 149. By comparison, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, it's 35; in war-torn Congo, 108.
Rarely are the parents paid. They yield their children because courtiers dangle the promise of school like a diamond necklace. More than 80 percent of Haiti's schools are private, and urban high schools cost $385 per year; this sum is beyond the annual income of the typical Haitian, and particularly out of reach for rural parents, most of whose income goes toward food. The average Haitian boy receives 2 years of schooling; the average girl, 1.3. In the countryside, where only a handful of schools exist, most children never attend school at all.
But the dangled diamond necklace is a fake, as 80 percent of restavèks do not go to school. Those who do must fight to go, are only allowed to attend when they finish their labor, and have to find the tuition money on their own. The slave's role in the master's house is to work, not to learn.
Occasionally, when parents agree to give up their child, Benavil treks to the countryside to ensure that he is providing a quality product to his clients. "Sometimes I go out to make sure it's a healthy child I'm giving them," he says. Then he makes his delivery. Sometimes the customer isn't satisfied. "They say, 'Oh, that's not the person I want,'" he sniffs. Benavil tells them: "You can't say, 'I don't want this one,' because you didn't have any to begin with, so how do you know you don't want this one?" Some refuse to pay. Some of his clients take their slaves with them to the north. "Some to the States, some to Canada. They continue to work for the person. And sometimes, once the person brings them over there, they'll let them figure out how to live. They'll give them their freedom. Sometimes."
But not always. Restavèks live as slaves to this day in Haitian communities across the United States. Most don't make headlines. One little girl in Miami was an exception. On September 28, 1999, police rescued a twelve-year-old from the suburban Miami home of Willy and Marie Pompee. The Pompees acquired the girl in their native Haiti, and took her to the United States, where they forced her to keep their $351,000 home spotless, eat garbage, and sleep on the floor. Like many female restavèks, she was also considered a "la-pou-sa-a" or a "there-for-that." In other words, she was a sex toy. When police, acting on a tip, rescued her that day in September, she was suffering from acute abdominal pain and a venereal disease: since age nine, the couple's twenty-year-old son, Willy Junior, had regularly raped her.
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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