BBC TwoCooking in the Danger Zone


Last Updated: Friday, 21 March 2008, 09:21 GMT
Haiti's foreign aid hangover
Farmers in Haiti have become the accidental victims of US imports and international aid as food writer Stefan Gates explains.

I was travelling by pick-up truck to a village deep in the Haitian Artibonite Valley to learn how people survive in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Villagers watching a cock fight
Sunday, 23 March, 2008
1900 GMT, BBC Two

In the back of the truck was an 80 litre tank of moonshine from a friend who had arranged my stay in the village. He had warned me not to drink it, as it could cause blindness or psychotic behaviour.

The sun beats down relentlessly in the low-lying valley, and after a week with the UN in the violent slums of Cite Soleil, what little energy I have left evaporates.

We arrive at the village in the middle of a cockfight, and no-one notices us. They are too busy betting and yelling.

The birds are thrown into a dust circle and they immediately start attacking each other. Eventually one bird wins.

The losing bird is snatched away. I ask its owner what he is going to do with it. "I'm going to put him in a pot and eat him," he tells me.

Maye, the village leader, is delighted when I give him the moonshine present. "Oh man, are we going to have a party tonight," he tells me.

Unfair competition

Maye's mood turns sombre though as he takes me around the village rice fields.

Stefan (R) and Maye (L) cutting rice in Artibonite Valley

This valley used to produce nearly enough rice to feed the entire country, but back in the 1980s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank demanded that Haiti drop import tariffs in return for loans.

Haiti was soon flooded with cheap and heavily subsidised US food.

"We can't compete with imported rice," Maye says.

It is estimated that the US rice crop costs $1.8bn (900m) to grow, but its farmers get subsidies of $1.3bn (650m), and there was no way that Haiti could cope with competition like that.

Agriculture - one of the few sources of employment in this desperately poor country - effectively collapsed. Rice production halved and imports increased 50-fold, making Haiti the USA's fourth-largest market for rice.

Maye says that the only help he used to get from the government was a subsidy on fertiliser, but it was removed in 2004, and because he cannot afford any more, his rice harvest is going to plummet.

Spoon feeding

Back in the village, Maye invites me to eat with his family.

Map showing Haiti, the capital Port-au-Prince and the Artibonite Valley
Not only does his wife, Sylvie, cook the meal, she also feeds it to him, forking it into his mouth.

I ask Sylvie why her husband does not feed himself, but she does not really understand the question. "He's my husband, that's why I feed him."

Maye explains: "I work hard all day long. It's only fair that she is working too, by putting the food in my mouth."

"Who is going to feed me?" I ask - more to make her laugh than anything, and quick as a flash, Sylvie's sister starts spooning food into my mouth.

It is a very unusual sensation, but I rather enjoy it.

Moonshine and voodoo

That evening, the heat drops very slightly, and the village throws a voodoo party.

Stefan Gates (L) dancing with a Haitian woman (R)
Voodoo has been practised in Haiti for nearly 300 years
There is no singing of incantations and no goat sacrifice - we did that a couple of days ago, and I have not really recovered - but there is lots of raucous singing, wild out-of-control dancing and inevitably, a sea of moonshine.

Maye hands a large bottle of it to me and, through a combination of goading, childish teasing and heartfelt hospitality, communicates to me that I should drink it or he will question my bravery.

"Pretty soon you may become possessed," he urges, as though this is a good thing.

The moonshine tastes of angry demons burning in a soupy hellfirey lava.

It screams as it slides down your throat, taking with it a fair proportion of flesh. On the plus side, it loosens you up a bit.

I throw my hands in the air and party, thoroughly out of control.

I get a turn dancing with some of the ladies of the village, all sporting red sashes and headscarves, and I join in with the insulting songs about the inhabitants of the neighbouring village.

By the end of the evening I am an exhausted, sopping sponge of sweat and moonshine.

Swine fever

I wake up a short while later in a baking hot mud hut, the sun shining straight through my eyelids.

I walk out of the hut and stumble across Maye who, to my delight, looks as hung-over as me.

Once again, the farmers and the poor suffered at the hands of a US foreign policy that was supposedly designed to help
He points out the pigs scuttling around the village, and tells me that, back in 1982, the USA convinced the government to slaughter all Haitian pigs, afraid of the spread of swine fever.

They shipped in a new variety, but these American animals were ill-suited to the dirty water and grim foraging that the indigenous Creole pigs used to survive on, and once again, the farmers and the poor suffered at the hands of a US foreign policy that was supposedly designed to help.

As we say goodbye, I wish Maye and his equally hung-over wife Sylvie the best of luck.

"Stay off the moonshine," says Maye.

"Okay," I whimper.

Cooking in the Danger Zone: Eating with America's neighbours will be broadcast on Sunday, 23 March, 2008 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.

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