Haitians are reduced to eating dirt.
October 10, 2008 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Many poor Haitians, driven over the edge by world rising food prices, are now eating cakes of mud, salt and shortening in order to survive. This article in the September issue of National Geographic describes how, thanks to history and other factors such as hurricanes, Haiti has lost its ability to feed itself; more than 90% of the country is deforested. The picture caption in the print version, not seen online, uses the word "clay" instead of "dirt". Bill Quigley wrote about the U.S. role in Haiti's food riots, which claimed six lives last spring.
posted by Melismata (33 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
God damn. This was the saddest thing I have ever read.
posted by tkchrist at 8:10 PM on October 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

My wife studied a cultural practice similar to this in nursing school.

Ditto, tkchrist.
posted by resurrexit at 8:12 PM on October 10, 2008

This is utterly heartbreaking.

At least 70 journalists and media workers in the northern city of Gonaïves are living in dire circumstances, Delva said in his e-mail. They need food, clothes, and shelter, as well as equipment, he specified. In short, "they have lost everything in the recent floods."

Red Cross, Haiti.
posted by nickyskye at 8:14 PM on October 10, 2008

It is heartbreaking. It's also not uncommon; the fat + dirt cake photos show up every year or two in US stories about the hardship of Haiti.
posted by Nelson at 8:28 PM on October 10, 2008

I can't imagine they get any nutrients at all from the cakes. How long can they survive on them?
posted by typewriter at 8:41 PM on October 10, 2008

A few years ago a close acquaintance (distant friend? somewhere in between) of mine was posted to Haiti with his unit. He's a medical assistant with the Canadian Armed Forces, and his Ambulance unit was sent there to give inoculations or whatever to the locals. He had previously served in some other trouble spots, including the nastier ones, always on the front lines so he had seen a lot of ugliness up close. His trip to Haiti finished him though. He told a bunch of us about the little kids he saw, and what they had to do to survive, and their constant suffering and this was four or five years ago. Six-foot tall, 210 lb. combat medic with nine or ten years of service, but he cried like a baby for hours, over days. As far as I know he's still in the service, but he's now a much grimmer person. I couldn't even begin to imagine what he saw.
posted by illiad at 8:59 PM on October 10, 2008

I don't know why my links are not coming up. It's here.
posted by Dragonness at 9:17 PM on October 10, 2008

I can't imagine they get any nutrients at all from the cakes. How long can they survive on them?

You don't really. It stops the hunger pangs for a bit and makes you feel like you've eaten but you've only really eaten a spoonful of shortening, which is high in calories but puts you at risk of malnutrition if you dont get some fruits or meat sometime soon.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:33 PM on October 10, 2008

this is totally heartbreaking ... does anyone know of a food relief effort one could donate to for Hait?
posted by madamjujujive at 9:35 PM on October 10, 2008

... this certainly puts some perspective on worrying about my 401k.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:36 PM on October 10, 2008

I am with Madamejujujive, is there anything that can be done?
posted by jadepearl at 9:58 PM on October 10, 2008

Haiti’s burst of agricultural wealth came at the expense of its environmental capital of forests and soils. -- Jared Diamond on the differing fates of two countries on the same island (from Collapse). [rebuttal, from Reason]

I also recently stumbled upon the forgotten, tarnished gem The Comedians, a film of Graham Greene's novel about Haiti during the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier. It has an absolutely stunning cast -- Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, James Earl Jones, even Cicely Tyson. It's not perfect and its politics are dated (and it ignores the significance of the Creole population), but it lingers in the mind.

The island has been buffeted by many hurricanes.
posted by dhartung at 10:12 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

anything that can be done?

That's why I posed the Red Cross link above.
posted by nickyskye at 10:13 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Give to the Haiti chapter of the Red Cross. [nickyskye's comment]

Look to see which of your government representatives are involved in decisions that can impact Haiti for good or ill and let them know you care about those decisions and want to see the right thing done.

Tell other people about it and encourage them to do the same.
posted by batmonkey at 10:17 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Food relief efforts are actually legion. Wyclef Jean's Together for Haiti seems to be doing good work.

Partners in Health
is a group that has been supported by The Arcade Fire; singer Régine Chassagne is a Haitian-Canadian whose family fled the Duvalier regime.
posted by dhartung at 10:20 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also here. And general info on how to give, etc.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:24 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

What's wrong with eating dirt?

I can't get resurrexit's link to open but it looks like it might be talking about the same thing.

The first and only time I heard about dirt eaters was in a documentary... and they were all healthi-ish looking citizens of the USA. IIRC, they were mostly African Americans, but the occasional Whitey.

The theme generally went "my mamma ate dirt, my grandmamma ate dirt, and so did her mamma. Mmmmm mmm, can't get me enough of that dirt!"

~~That was a rhetorical question up top. Me thinking out aloud. I don't think the USA dirt eaters were doing it to stay alive, but I do remember researcher's concluding there might be a mineral in the dirt that is lacking in their diets. Some of them seemed genuinely unashamedly addicted to the stuff.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:29 PM on October 10, 2008

I wonder what your average Haitian slum dweller would think of cats weightlifting fish.
posted by mattoxic at 10:49 PM on October 10, 2008

Thanks for the links to relief efforts. Sorry I did not see that nickyskye, I was so troubled by the article I commented before reading comments. Thanks also to batmonkey, dhartung, and Smedleyman for concrete suggestions. Sad topic, Melismata, but I appreciate your making this post.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:47 AM on October 11, 2008

good grief - this is heart-wrending, as has been most of the news to come out of Haiti for the past dozen decades or so - even more tragic to consider that the one truly successful slave revolt in the Western hemisphere has been followed by such unceasing sorrow & suffering

thanks for that Quigley article - it's important to understand this all within a historical & political context - Paul Farmer's work is an excellent resource on this (he's one of the founders of Partners in Health, that dhartung cited above)
posted by jammy at 6:42 AM on October 11, 2008

from the National Geographic article:

That's as it should be, officials say. "Food self-sufficiency is not necessarily the goal," says Beth Cypser, deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Haiti. "Right now there is food in Haiti. It's just the price is out of reach. If it makes sense economically for them to sell mangoes and import rice, then that's what they should do."

statements like this make me want to punch my computer screen - how the hell does it make "economic sense" if they can't afford to buy food? this is the problem of USAID programs - they have no interest in helping people actually eat, or in developing their agriculture so that they might feed themselves, just in making sure they remain subordinate & deeply exploited subjects of the US market
posted by jammy at 6:57 AM on October 11, 2008

I wanted to post a link or two to groups dedicated to Haiti relief efforts, but there were too many to choose from--there were at least a dozen dedicated to tree planting efforts alone. Thanks for posting the one from the Red Cross. What's really sad is that all these groups have been around for decades, but the situation isn't getting any better!!
posted by Melismata at 7:05 AM on October 11, 2008

Long victims of their own government before any storm arrived. Even Cuba can stand up after a storm, and neighboring Dominican Republic survives also. Others in the area actually manage to prosper; Pueto Rico, Virgin Islands, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands promote and receive tourism economy for the island tropic enviroment that they embrace. Change for Haiti is a change of officials that are pretty much letting the populace die without concern.
posted by buzzman at 8:16 AM on October 11, 2008

it is right of you to point out that the consequences of "natural disasters" often have political roots, buzzman, but let us not forget that they have long been victims of the US government as well

(not to mention the Spanish & French)
posted by jammy at 8:36 AM on October 11, 2008

Thanks for the further readings jammy, they did leave me shaking my head after but a cursory read. Policy goal is always so different than real world outcome.
I have a relation that does volunteer mission work in the Dominican Republic. I knew my relation did volunteer work in Mexico (she got the border shakedown for $300 U.S. to bring her high end U.S. purchased camera back across after last trip), but my reaction to even going to the Dominican Republic was a WTF and 'do you know who that country even shares a border with?' Ugh, shaking head again must move on.
posted by buzzman at 9:50 AM on October 11, 2008

That the people doing the mud cookie street industry also have to eat the mud cookies is a huge flashing sign that these folks need way more help than they're currently getting. There are many organisations trying to help, but it seems like little of their aid is having an effect. Is it that they can't get the aid to the people or that there are just so many people needing food that it can't make a dent?
For those who are saying there's nothing wrong with eating dirt, the issue is that this is the bulk of what they're eating. Your links and such to the non-survival geophagy are coming off kind of glib and heartless to me. These are not aliens who prefer dirt to food. They are human beings trying to survive when there is nothing for them to survive on.

We all know by now that no one is going to be healthy on a diet of any one thing, and a mix of clay, salt, and shortening is absolutely not going to be giving the nutritional values that a human needs to thrive. "Supplementing" with soil-eating is not the same as desperately trying to use clay for sustenance.

I'm not sure how many of you have been empty-stomach hungry for a few weeks at a time, but it's a really compelling feeling that makes you want anything to make it stop. No matter how nutritionally bereft, inappropriate for digestion, or societally taboo.
posted by batmonkey at 10:11 AM on October 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

some more readings, for those interested:

another good book on the effects of US policies/interests on Haiti is Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, & the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward

a critical article on USAID & Haiti (2005) from Sasha Kramer

two pieces from Haiti Action:
- Haiti: The Benefits of a Weak State
- Mud Cookie Economics in Haiti
posted by jammy at 12:14 PM on October 11, 2008

Just out of curiosity, why do they need to truck in clay from a certain region of Haiti to make the mud cookies? The article said dirt to make 100 cookies costs $5; surely it would cost less just to use local dirt?
posted by pravit at 1:29 PM on October 11, 2008

[rebuttal, from Reason]

I'd like to see a "rebuttal" of Collapse, just for contrast. That wasn't it.
posted by sneebler at 1:30 PM on October 11, 2008

Yes, life is unjust to the majority of people alive.
posted by tarvuz at 5:18 PM on October 11, 2008

Yes, life is unjust to the majority of people alive.

it's not "life" that is unjust - it's people in power who are unjust to the majority of people alive - this isn't "the way of the world" - it's the way the world has been made to be, through greed, the lust for power & a calculated indifference to suffering

it doesn't have to be this way
posted by jammy at 8:54 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

spectre has some good collected coverage about haiti and geophagy posted to its research archive here
posted by jojo-dancer at 11:53 PM on October 19, 2008

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