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Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance
Beverly Bell

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001
259 pp., $18.95, paperback
ISBN 0-8014-8748-X
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"I have to speak. The word has to get out. If I didn't have a microphone to speak with or people to listen to me, I'd stand in front of a chicken and talk. I'll die with the words on my lips."
--Lelenne Giles

You might say to yourself, Haitian women's lives and stories are so specific, why would I read this book? And what can I learn from their lives? The answers to these questions may surprise you. The thirty-eight women who tell their stories to author Beverly Bell speak eloquently about everything from religion and social activism to their personal understanding of globalization.

For example, Yolette Etienne says about globalization that it...

"...is one of the latest fashionable words. Globalization could be something interesting: all people together benefiting from each other's experiences, sharing the riches of the blessed earth. Knowledge circulating from one group to another. That would be a beautiful thing if that were the meaning of globalization. But the way the big countries define it and apply it, globalization is more in the interests of those producing than all the people who are forced to buy."

Etienne then goes on to give a detailed analysis of how it affects women "on the ground" in her country. Having read boring and incomprehensive academic work on the meaning of globalization, I found her words to be understandable yet complex, giving me insight into how this phenomena affects people in their daily lives. Many of the stories in this book offer a similar grounded wisdom on a diversity of issues.

Beverly Bell, who is the Director of Albuquerque's Center for Economic Justice, collected the women's stories in the 1990s and connects them with her own research on Haiti's political and social history. Therefore, the reader gets both the macro and micro histories of this country. Bell is not solely a writer or historian, but has been involved in Haitian democracy and women's movements for two decades. After President Aristide was restored to Haiti in the early 1990s, she acted as Co-Director of the International Liaison Office. The book has a satisfying blend of both scholarship and activism, as it centers Haitian women's life histories and offers their strategies and solutions to a range of issues.

Bell writes that normally, we would call the women's stories, oral histories or testimonies, but the best description of their words is the Creole word istwa, meaning story and history. The istwas are structured in the book into five categories of resistance to oppressive forces: resistance through survival, expression, political and economic change, gender justice, and through transforming power structures. What forces are Haitian women resisting? Military dictatorships, state violence and corruption, domestic violence, lack of economic and educational opportunities, and staggering poverty to name just a few of the oppressive forces in many of the women's lives. But even within this oppressive context, the women find hope through community, religion, family, organizing, art, and political activism.

This book fits generally into current feminist scholarship that both centers the knowledge of women, traditionally left out of the historical record, and argues that their knowledge can offer alternative models for living and social change. After reading Walking on Fire, you have not only a deeper understanding of Haiti's place in the global community, but you have gathered the insights and wisdom of a typically silenced group of women in the world.

Dana Van Tilborg

Cornell University Press
Sage House
512 East State Street
Ithaca, NY 14850

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Table of Contents

"Look at the land. Our grandfather lived here. So do we. It is our land here, her we used to live. Stranger, touring around you will not come, you will not come. We lived over these hills, we still do, because the forest is our life."
--Huaorani chant,
translated by Laura Rival

"I want to stamp on the ground hard enough to make that oil come out. I want to skip the legalities, permits, red tape, and other obstacles. I want to go immediately and straight to what matters: getting that oil."
--Rick Bass,
Petroleum Geologist

1989, taken from Amazon Crude, Judith Kimerling

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