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Walking on Fire

Kerry Sylvia
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

Walking on Fire: Haitian women’s stories of survival and resistance
Beverly Bell
Cornell University Press 2001

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Free-market policies forced upon the country by the U.S., the World Bank, the IMF, and the Inter-American Development Bank have further impoverished and disempowered the poor.

The conditions of women in Haiti are even worse. The women of Haiti carry the burden of Haiti’s poverty on their backs—female life expectancy is 56.4 years of age; the literacy rate for Haitian women is 45.6 percent; only 24 percent of all females are enrolled in school; and in 60 percent of families, women are the sole financial support for their children.

Despite the poverty and lack of control over the macro economy, Haitian women are fighting back. History is never written by the oppressed and therefore, they are often excluded. This is especially true for Haitian women, who, when they are included, are portrayed as vulnerable victims. Walking on Fire aims to rectify the misperception by telling the words of the women themselves.

It is a collection of istwa (Creole meaning both story and history) from Haitian women of all types—indigent peasant women, organizers, and even former government leaders. The one thing they all have in common is a goal of gaining control of their social, political and economic conditions. The author briefly introduces the stories—puts them in context and sets stage for the istwa—but lets the women speak for themselves. Throughout the istwa, Haitian women emphasize the importance of improving the lives of all Haitians, not just the women.


The book is divided into five sections. The first deals with survival during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. The next section looks at the form of expression that resistance has taken, looking especially at work of the poet Alina “Tibebe” Cajuste. Resistance for Political and Economic Change discusses the plight of the Haitian economy that has been forced to grow cash crops for export while relying on imports for basic foods.

The next two sections, Resistance for Gender Equality and Resistance Transforming Power, concentrate on how women are both victims of society’s brutality (whether it is from the government or from husbands) and also have the vision of what a better society could be like. The final section, Resistance as Solidarity, traces the history of Haitian women’s’ resistance and survival.

Throughout the book, the writers and the author emphasize the internationalism of the Haitian women’s struggle. Kesta Occident summed it up best, “The same machine that produces more poor in Haiti is producing more poor in Detroit, in Rwanda, in the Philippines, all over this world.”

This internationalism is also seen in the author’s purpose of producing the book—building bi-directional solidarity between Haitian women and readers in the United States. It eloquently and boldly informs its readers of the struggles that Haitian women have gone through and continue to go through.

While it speaks of many atrocities, the words of women like activist Yannick Etienne reveal the hope and reality for change in Haiti, “Our history allows us to assert what we are and what we’re worth, and to challenge the New World Order through revolution. I have a profound belief in the Haitian people.”

After reading Walking on Fire it is easy for the reader to share this belief.