A lush tropical background frames the shot as the young Haitian woman engages the camera lens completely, confidently, and boldly. Wearing a bright orange tunic and holding a microphone in one hand, she uses the other to open a primitive faucet jerry-rigged to a PVC pipe. As the woman begins the standup introduction for the Ayiti Kale Je video investigation of the cholera epidemic that has claimed over 4,000 lives since October 2010, she pauses. She has something else she wants to say, and it is not scripted.
"Hello, I am Samia Salomon, a feminist journalist."
Who is this young woman who boldly calls herself a feminist journalist? What is her background? This 16 minute video presentation is perhaps the best and most complete account of Haiti's cholera epidemic available on the Internet. Samia Salomon's story becomes even more relevant in the context of recent international debate over the role of female foreign correspondents after the brutal assault on CBS's Lara Logan in Cairo.
Do we need foreign correspondents when there are trained journalists in-country? Who understands Haiti better than a Haitian journalist? Who can tell the story of women in Congo, Iraq, or China and Tibet better than Chouchou Namegabe, Atwar Bahjet, and Tsering Woeser. Odds are you have never heard of any of them, but these women have consistently risked their lives to report from their homelands. Bahjat was killed in 2006 while covering the bombing of the Golden Mosque.
It is now a late February afternoon, two months after the Haiti Grassroots Watch Cholera Investigation video went public. The anniversary of the January earthquake has come and gone and so have the hordes of foreign journalists who descended upon Port-au-Prince, seeking interviews, stories and commentary to take home to the United States and elsewhere. Samia Salomon and her mentor and teacher, Jane Regan, walk into the lounge at the Plaza Hotel. Anderson Cooper and much of the CNN crew did not show up here in January, even though the rooms were booked. There was a breaking news story in Arizona that trumped the anniversary.
Less than 200 feet away and across the street, up to 60,000 homeless victims of the earthquake languish in a makeshift shantytown of plastic and tin. Rapists, robbers, thieves, and the occasional tear gas canister lobbed by UN and local security forces have their way with them. Predators recognize easy prey in the faces of the women and children of the camp Champ de Mars.
Salomon and Regan know this territory well. They live and work here. They know the people, the language, the customs, and the aftermath of the earthquake intimately. Regan is an American, Harvard and Radcliffe educated, fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole, and possesses enough awards, grants and fellowships to fill a web page resume in 9 point Arial type. Among other things, Regan is the coordinator of the Ayiti Kale Je/Haiti Grassroots Watch multimedia "reconstruction watch." But this is Salomon's story and Regan is along to provide introductions and assist in translation.
Regan might not have known that we always travel with an interpreter, and we got an earful about foreign journalists who have no respect for the national language of Creole, not to mention French, the language of the privileged. Regan said that during the quake anniversary, foreigners were not interested in interviewing Haitians who could not speak English. She is not happy about it.
That ethnocentric fact is one of the many hurdles facing journalists in Haiti and the main reason it was important to talk with Salomon about her work with Haiti Grassroots Watch-- a collaboration between the Haitian media organizations, Groupe Medialternatif/Alterpresse and the Society for the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS). SAKS and Alterpresse coordinate with a network of women community radio broadcasters (REFRAKA) and the Association of Haitian Community Media (AMEKA). Salomon has worked with all of them, and was one of the founders of REFRAKA.
As we settled in at the table, Regan moved a bottle of local beer out of camera range. Were they embarrassed to be seen drinking with us? Not at all. "As a feminist, I don't want to do advertising for (the local popular beer) because they do their advertising with women's bodies," Salomon said.
There was the word again. Feminism. It is almost an antiquated term in the United States, but to Salomon, it is her passion and her identity. She wraps her work in its tenets and infuses her actions with its meaning.
We commented about a billboard we saw looming over a nearby market. The male and female models are white, the women barely clothed, and they are selling whiskey to the upper class residents of Peitionville. A few blocks away, thousands of Haitians are living under plastic tarps.
What does it mean, exactly, to be a feminist journalist in Haiti?
Salomon delivered a rapid-fire response through Regan. She did not have to think about it.