All around the world, cooks come in many shapes, ages, and dispositions.
Many of these cooks are children, mostly girls, working in the kitchens of wealthy people. In some cases, the arrangement veers on the edge of slavery, not employment.
And in Haiti, an outright form of slavery still exists.
A recent Huffington Post article, “Report Says 225,000 Haiti Children Work as Slaves,” contains no real new information, although such publicity brings exposure and therefore possibly an end to this long-term practice. Poor families — and in Haiti there are many — give up their children for small sums of money or just to have one less mouth to feed. The report by the Pan American Development Foundation details the difficult lives that these children lead. Relationships between the children and the wealthier families they live with tend to be based on kinship in some cases, as well as simple boarding arrangements. But in the final analysis, the bottom line determines the way the “host” families treat these children, called “restaveks.”
Several years ago when we lived in Haiti because of work on a USAID* project, one of the activities of the project was a national agricultural survey, as well as a food consumption study. Here’s what I wrote in a letter at the time:
M___ was hiking around out in the countryside one day, trying to determine the boundaries of some survey segments. Accompanied by several Haitian co-workers, he ended up on the crest of a mountain. [Haiti is VERY mountainous!]. The Haitians never bring water to drink while they hike. They believe the cold water will harm them, I guess, though M___ always drinks water out of his thermos. This particular day, there happened to be a farmer and some little girls up on the ridge. The farmer offered them all water. The Haitians accepted and drank nearly half of the 5-gallon bucket of one little girl. She began to cry because she now had to go back and refill the bucket. It could be miles that she had to walk to get that water. M___ thought she probably was the farmer’s daughter, but I wondered if she wasn’t rather what in Creole is called a “restavek” or “one who stays with.” It is essentially an ingrained system of slavery, where parents will sell excess children to families who are supposedly better off financially (the price running as low as 2 gourdes or 40 cents). These new families are ideally supposed to provide schooling and so on, but the actuality for most of these children is a life of servitude. They eat scraps from the table and sleep in a corner on rags. Many of the children carrying water here are “restaveks,” and they wear rags, taunted continuously by the real children of the family. Many never really learn to speak because they are often only spoken to in anger and with grunts.
Sometimes, when I’m absent-mindedly filling a pot with water for boiling pasta, I think of that little girl. And I am thankful that I don’t have to walk for miles with five gallons of water on my head, sloshing down my neck and wearing me out.
Like so many women do around the world, not just in Haiti.
Many organizations now exist, working toward bringing this modern version of the “peculiar institution” to an end.
*United States Agency for International Development
© 2009 C. Bertelsen