Paula Clermont Péan
“I want to create a place to dream, to open up the windows to the future, to nourish hope and spread the wings of regeneration.”
Paula Clermont Péan has done things that anyone would consider personal successes. She was co-author and director of the film ”Cantata for two generals”, produced in 1990 by Jean Rouch and by the ‘Museo del Hombre’ (Museum of Man) in Paris. She was also co-author of the Haitian/Dominican performance called “Insular Memories”, presented at the World Fair in Seville, in 1992. As a performer, she has played the main character in key works of Haitian theatre, such as “Bobomassouri” (1984) and Frank Etienne´s “Kaselezo” (1985). Nevertheless, when talking about her own life, she starts by reflecting on her permanent concern for the collective, asking herself: “What have we achieved together for our country? What do we know about each other as a community? How do we want to and how can we, as a collective, debate about the solutions to our problems?”
This permanent concern for the collective was also the initial motivation for the creation of the Cultural Center founded by Paula, in 1989. But before that, she went to university in France and in the United States, preparing to return and to serve her country, equipped with new knowledge and skills. Back in Haiti in 1985, she faced the reality of what was happening in her country and questioned this reality from which she had been absent for 16 years. “I had planned everything, but the problem was that I had not sufficiently taken into account the social and economic situation of the country. When I started visiting the cities in the province, which were generally difficult to access because of the lack of roads, and extremely poor, I felt that the school I was considering in the beginning was inappropriate”.
That was the beginning of the ‘Pyepoudre’ (Dusty feet) Cultural Center. It was geared towards the rural areas and the provinces; it focused on two groups in Haitian society: women and young people. They are the most vulnerable but, at the same time, they are the ones who embody the future of the country and represent the hope of a better life. Young people are half of the Haitian population and the women are the ones responsible for their education. The name of the Centre, ‘Pyepoudre’, is an expression in native Haitian given to people who spend a long time out of their homes, walking on the streets and on the dusty provincial roads.
And after 16 years of getting dust on her feet, Paula has obtained much satisfaction: “More than a thousand boys and girls have joined socio-cultural animation groups and more than a hundred theatre, song and dance groups. The library has welcomed more than three thousand young people of both sexes. We have also put on artistic presentations for different audiences”.
Danièle Magloire, a member of the Haitian feminist organization Enfofanm, thinks that “The value of Paula’s effort is appreciable in a society where all things are precarious and everything is reversible. The initiative of offering a space to young people is very praiseworthy. The real value of her work is that it is intended for the long run, for the future”.
In fact, the obstacles Paula faces in her daily work are innumerable, varied and closely related to the situation of the country. When Paula came back to her land, Haiti was under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-1986). In the last two decades, the Haitian situation has continued to worsen, leaving the most vulnerable sectors of society in a position comparable to the one of a country that has faced ten years of armed-conflict, according to the UN.
In the middle of this situation, Paula listens to people, reads their expressions, understands their suffering and discovers their hopes. “Using my training in Theatre and Literature, I have tried to explore the facets of our own reality, in order to create a language with which to express our sensibilities, worries, and the concerns that all human society has. In this way, we can also open ourselves up to the rest of the world.”
With this purpose, she transforms the reality of her country into art, even if she sometimes has to deal with very difficult cases. “During the military coup of 1991, sexual violence was used as a weapon of repression. A group of women, who were close to the regime that was brought down, were violated and raped in the presence of their children. Some of them were put in jail. One of them had to carry to term a pregnancy that resulted from a rape.
Through some of the women’s organizations, those women were later on able to receive medical and psychological treatment. Some years afterwards, those women came to the Cultural Center asking me to create something based on their stories. They wanted to share their experiences and break the silence. They also wanted to increase public awareness on the subject. It was the first time I had to confront such a great challenge: to make theatre out of experiences that were difficult to verbalize, to transform a dramatic and harrowing reality, that affected me as a citizen and, above all, as a woman, into theatrical fiction.”
Haiti’s political instability and the prevailing generalized violence have had an impact on the daily functioning of ‘Pyepoudre’. It has made it difficult to organize some of the activities and it compromised others. The mobility of the personnel and the public has been limited and most of all, the safety and integrity of the people who run it has been put at risk.
Without a doubt, for Paula, the biggest danger is something else: ”It is true that I live with a certain feeling of insecurity, due to the political situation in the country, but, deep down, my greatest fear is that I will become dejected. The greatest fear is that I will fail to continue with the enormous task that is now in progress: educating Haiti. I consider that I have no right to give up on a country where the thirst for knowledge is so great. It is precisely this unsatisfied thirst of the youth that gives me the strength and the desire to move ahead, in spite of the numerous difficulties. Then, I find courage in the hopeful looks of others, in their desire for knowledge, in their curiosity about the world, in their wish to share”.
For Paula, peace comes through communication and through the confidence that people must recover. Peace is something you have to build every day, step by step, in all areas and situations, from the most trivial to the most tragic. “From my point of view, one of the crucial threats to peace is the inability to think and to react against disagreements and failures, because that can make us fall into the temptation of despair and anger. In order to build a world in peace, and above all, to maintain this peace, we have to measure the nature of this state. I believe that each person, each one of us in our own field of action, can contribute to peace by promoting the necessary spiritual state, especially by promoting the principles of empathy, of active solidarity, of justice and equality “.
With ‘dusty feet’ from so much walking on the roads of the dry countryside of Haiti, fighting against natural catastrophes and human disasters, Paula continues to think of herself as the gardener of a fragile flower, that she cares for with continuous love and patience. “I would like to take peace by its roots, bury it with my bare hands, water it with rain water, see its stem shooting up and its grains passing through thousands of other hands, see its leaves growing, and its white flowers singing and smiling to the world”.
Paula Clermont Péan, Le Chant de Miraya, Puerto Príncipe, Ediciones Mémoire, 2001, 112 pages.
Paula Clermont Péan, Rodney Saint-Eloi, Dits des fous d’amour, poetry, Mémoires d’encrier, 2004
Political information that connects her work/context/situation
PNUD Haití (Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo – UN Program for Development):
Nominee’s information available on the Net
«Africultures», synthetic biography:
«Haiti Press Network», interviews Paula Clermont Péan about “Express Partout”:
Helvetas, swiss NGO, dossier regarding “Express Partout”:
Information on the organization in which she works
Pyepoudre Cultural Centre:
Some people think that culture is a luxury, especially if it is in one of the poorest countries in the world. However, Paula Clermont Péan, a Haitian, persists each day in her continuous effort to bring culture into people's lives. “This work makes people look at themselves, question themselves and see themselves as social actors in their society. It cultivates their curiosity. These dynamics create awareness, people realize their need to share their visions of the world, a world in which it is worth building peace.”
In 1985, back in her home country after 16 years of absence, she changed her idea of creating an Art School and decided to wait until people came to her with their ideas of what they wanted. In its place, in 1989, she founded the Pyepoudre Cultural Center (the Dusty Feet Cultural Center): “With this center, I wanted to go to young people instead of asking them to come to me. I wanted to go to meet the young people wherever they were, in rural or urban spaces, in the suburbs or in the city.”
In Haiti, the state has no political policies for young people and culture. Most of the population cannot pay for cultural activities. In the prevailing political climate, participation in those activities sometimes involves putting one's freedom and personal security at risk.
Pyepoudre Cultural Center
Latin America and the Carribeans | Haiti