Ben Terrall

Margaret Trost was a well-to-do American, successful in business, happily married, with a healthy son. Then, in the late 1990s, her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. In her grief she decided on impulse to go to Haiti with a group of faith-based social justice activists: “I was invited to go to Haiti in the spring of 1999, and my response took less than a second. It was one of those times when my heart spoke before my mind had time to catch up.” On That Day, Everybody Ate is Ms. Trost’s account of how she was changed by her experiences in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country and what she was able to accomplish with the help of connections she made in Haiti and friends and family in the United States.

Scrambling for insights into the country she was visiting, Trost read The Uses of Haiti, the essential primer by Paul Farmer, M.D., which helped her understand the country’s long legacy of colonial subjugation. It also placed the island nation in the context of U.S. imperial foreign power, given the well-documented manipulation and suppression of Haitian sovereignty by Washington, D.C. As Farmer’s book forcefully shows, ever since Haitians won the world’s only successful slave revolution in 1804, they have been subjected to unceasing hostility from the United States. Haiti’s status as the first nation to ban slavery and to declare itself a haven for runaway slaves did nothing to endear it to Washington. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have repeatedly sided with a small number of wealthy right-wing Haitian elites at the expense of the extremely poor majority. France, the former colonial power, further added to Haiti’s misery by extracting payment of blood money (calculated to be a staggering $21 billion in today’s dollars) for the “loss” of its former slaves.

Trost returned from her first visit to Haiti as disturbed by the misery she saw as many others who make the trip. But instead of putting aside her memories of wide-scale suffering upon returning to her relatively privileged life in the United States, she committed herself to helping the Haitian poor. Soon she was working to realize a feeding program proposed to her by the Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, a charismatic social justice priest in the liberation theology tradition. (Jean-Juste remains a close ally of popularly-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was forced from office in a 2004 coup backed by the Bush administration.)

Unlike many U.S. citizens who visit Haiti intending to do good works, Margaret Trost was introspective and humble enough to realize that she could learn as much from her allies on the ground in Port-au-Prince as they learned from her. Over time, those Haitian partners became a second family.

Trost describes learning to shift from her multitasking, ultra-driven stateside approach to a more natural rhythm that incorporates time for family, friends and laughter (frequently while working on community projects that benefit everyone). In the course of helping develop the feeding project, she came to appreciate deeply how Haitians savor what moments of pleasure they can extract from their hard-scrabble days, and their communal approach to daunting day-to-day struggles.

Trost’s book is well written, concise and powerful. The narrative is filled with evocative, tactile descriptions, details that define her experiences in Haiti. About getting her fundraising off the ground back in the United States, she writes, “Each time I received a check, I multiplied the amount by two and wrote the donor letting them know how many meals they had just made possible. Ten dollars fed twenty children. One hundred dollars fed 200 children. At 50 cents a meal, every check made a difference.”

During a trip to Haiti in late August of 2008 I met numerous people who told me that the price of rice had doubled since the April 2008 food riots. One activist with whom I spoke said bitterly that it had gotten to the point where food was a “luxury.” I had earlier interviewed Mark Schuller, a specialist on Haiti who teaches at Vassar, who explained:

Haiti’s ability to feed itself with domestic rice production was wiped out by Washington-subsidized imports that U.S. agribusiness has profited from. At Ronald Reagan’s behest, Haiti initiated a series of neo-liberal measures in the 1980s, including trade liberalization, privatization and decreasing investment in agriculture, that led to the disappearance of Haiti’s cotton and sugar export industries. During the 1990s, the U.S. conditioned its food aid—sent to alleviate a hunger crisis—with demands that Haiti lower its tariffs and open its markets to U.S. imports. This subsidized U.S. rice was much cheaper than Haitian rice, forcing local farmers out of business.

Meanwhile, in response to the U.S. financial crisis, billions are being thrown at greedy bankers on Wall Street. And in the coming year the Pentagon will spend $607 billion on “normal” military costs, as well as an additional $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is stunning to think what a small chunk of that money could do for millions of impoverished Haitians.

Ben Terrall, a San Francisco-based freelance writer, has contributed to the National Catholic Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.