Found in Translation? The power of listening & speaking out from the camps of Haiti

author: Biz Ghormley
date: 2010-12-13 17:54:59+00:00
slug: lost-in-translation-the-power-of-listening-speaking-out-from-the-camps-of-haiti
title: Found in Translation? The power of listening & speaking out from the camps
of Haiti
wordpress_id: 2526

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    image: /assets/(2010/12/5244371618_6f23751a89-300×225.jpg)

    imageHaiti caught fire last week, following the results of the recent Haitian election. They were announced and quickly protested by people in the country and the international community. Citizens took peacefully to the streets. Soon, fires blazed and innocent people were lost to shots fired. We followed the stories through Dd’s Emilie Reiser on Twitter and our Haitian women partners in Port-Au-Prince’s blog, Fanm Pale — voices from the ground, speaking out in their own words.

Fanm Pale, which means "Women Speak" in Kreyol, is one result of months of digital trainings and collaboration with grassroots women activists in Port-Au-Prince. The blog connects them to the world, reporting with their own words on topics ranging from the election to horrifying accounts of rape and suffering in the camps.

As a communication specialist, I am inspired by the work Dd does in Haiti. It is based in what I call “true communication” where ideas are articulated, listened to, processed, and lead to action. It incorporates the complexity of language, silence, and empowers by listening across cultural and linguistic barriers. Learning digital tools and gaining access to the internet offers previously silenced voices to speak up and out.

In a place like Haiti, where Kreyol is the cultural language, French the colonizing language, and where English inserts itself as a force of globalization, linguistic layers are complicated. Words and language — alone — can carry messages of power or subordination.  The complexity, though, also gives way to the clear power of non-verbal communication, the power of words, and the chance for a larger understanding by engaging all these elements.

Earlier this fall, Eramithe Delva — co-founder of KOFAVIV, one Dd’s partners in Haiti — visited the United States. A grassroots activist for years, Eramithe fights gender-based violence in poor communities every day. She has successfully organized against violence and was amongst those who advocated for rape to be made illegal in 2005 and to empower thousands of victims to find strength in a society that has worked to silence them.

Dd brought Eramithe to the United States for this first trip to help bridge the communication voids only someone with her expertise and experience can help fill. During her two-week stay, Eramithe presented alongside Dd staff and other activists, lawyers, and organizers working in Haiti. Not only her words, but the full experience of hearing her voice, watching her expressions and listening to her words translated was a lesson in fighting oppression.

Eramithe spoke about the history of words like “camp” in Haiti. She explained, before the earthquake “camp” had connotations of happiness, education, sharing with family, celebration, and positivity. Now, the word describes the over 1,000 plots of land holding displaced families and people in the Port-au-Prince area, sleeping under plastic and living in fear for their safety everyday. There, the rain falls on them, the mud engulfs them, women and girls are raped at astronomically high rates.

In the name of those families, billions of dollars in international aid has been pledged – the most humanitarian aid ever pledged. Yet, the money hasn’t reached them, and Eramithe’s stories and the trick of translation shine light on one of the reasons why.

During her US trip, she spoke to Congress and discussed the situation in Haiti with international aid organizations that have claimed to be her partners. They had taken money in the name of real people living the camps, but never shared that funding with them. Eramithe discussed how Big organizations and Big women receive prioritized funding.

How? In part, protected by translation, the cycles of racism and classism continue.


What does Big mean in this context? Large organizations and heavy women? No. Lighter-skinned, richer women, French-speaking women, who are those with access to land: these are Big women. Women living in the camps, the women of KOFAVIV, poorer women, darker-skinned women, they are the Small women in Haitian society. Big women have more access to land, more of a voice in politics, more connections in the diaspora, more recognition from the international aid organizations.

Eramithe and KOFAVIV’s hard work on the ground has been acknowledged by these organizations, but by not really listening to them —the leaders on this issue — the organizations reinforce the idea that Big women know more than Small ones.

Conversation amongst these groups will mean more than words. These are complex issues that will take time to unravel, but just a few days of truly listening to Eramithe helped me understand how much these long-standing prejudices are fortified by language, and can be broken with deeper and more complex understanding. The women and Dd are working together to keep these conversations alive, through Dd-organized live-Skype conversations between Haiti and groups in the United States.

I wonder: could the earthquake shake this structure of discrimination so hard it falls? Could listening, engaging, and acknowledging the rights of the poor women and those who have been similarly ignored for centuries create a stronger society? That conversation has the potential to “rebuild” Haiti.

Sometimes communication happens amongst words – as with Eramithe and Fanm Pale. Sometimes it happens without them, like in the powerful photos that emerged from Dd’s photo training with Haitian women earlier this year.


The process has started. Every day brings new realities on the ground in Haiti. If all parties communicate, listen effectively, build partnerships with the most affected women and voices and inform their actions with the testimony of those living on the ground, there is hope.
Please read Fanm Pale and comment on the women’s reports. Give testament to their words and the translations they approve. Join the true communication here.