Haiti's got talent.
Tamarre Joseph paces the stage, her sleek, short blue dress hugging her pencil thin frame. She works the hometown crowd, rapping "Nap rive peyi san restavek."
The thousands in the packed stadium jump and sing along. An entire section of men take off their shirts and wave them overhead.
A rain cloud hangs ominously over the national soccer stadium in downtown Port au Prince, blocking the view of the mountains beyond. At one end of the stadium sits a stage with the words "Chante Pou Libete" above their English translation: "Songs for Freedom."
"Nap rive peyi san restavek."
We will be a country without restaveks.
This concert, free to the public, was billed as a way to speak about the unspoken: Haiti's deplorably large population of restaveks — child slaves.
It's certainly unusual to have an American Idol-style competition for songs about slavery. And it's definitely ironic that this event is taking place in the home of the world's only successful slave revolt.
The 2013 Global Slavery Index ranks Haiti second in the world for modern slavery, with an estimated 200,000 to 220,000 slaves. Only Mauritania is worse. While that number includes adults, the vast majority are minors. Restavek roughly translates to "stay with" in Creole ("avec" is French for with). Often, families from the countryside send young children to live with wealthier families in Port au Prince, Haiti's capital. In exchange for a promised better life and education, the child will contribute to household chores like cooking, washing clothes, and fetching water.
In thousands of cases, children are forced into servitude: They take on most, if not all, of the household work, they're beaten and sexually assaulted, they never get the education they hoped to earn.
In June, Haiti's parliament passed a bill outlawing human trafficking, but the country remains on a U.S. government's trafficking watch list because of concerns over whether Haiti will implement the new rules. Advocates worry about enforcement, in part, because of the magnitude of the problem.
"This problem affects millions of people throughout Haiti, and it touches on several issues: gender inequality, illiteracy, overpopulation," says Joan Conn, executive director of the nonprofit Restavek Freedom Foundation.
Conn's organization seeks to bring a better life to these children. Her organization pays for tuition, uniforms and books for 800 children now living as restaveks and assigns a caseworker to each child. Many of the children were reported to the organization by concerned neighbors.
The foundation also sponsored Saturday's music contest.
Haiti has ten departments — the equivalent of states. Each held its own semifinal and sent a winner to compete in Port-au-Prince, with one exception. The more populous West Department had two entrants.
Underneath the stadium, in a makeshift dressing room, the eleven contestants and their backup bands take turns snapping photos and sitting in front of the lone industrial fan. Musicians dab sweat from their foreheads, pull stray threads from their suits and munch on Pringles, all the while sizing up the competition.
"They see me and they know I'll win," asserts Nadine Moncher, who won the preliminary contest in the Nippes Department with a song called "Stand Up for the Restavek."
Some contestants wrote from the perspective of a restavek, others incorporated dance into their performance, with young children playing the part of restaveks.
"Some of the contestants focused too much on the show," says event judge and music critic Myria Charles. "Most important were the words."
Borrowing from beauty pageants, the two emcees asked questions of the performers: What is the role of parents in ending restavek? What is the role of education in ending restavek? Can the Catholic and Protestant churches do more to end restavek?
Marthe Yoldie Saimphort, donning tattered clothes that a child slave might wear, belted cries for freedom in her forceful song "Mande Pou Libete." The rapt crowd grew even more excited with her answer to her question from the emcees.
"People have too many children in Haiti. That's the number one problem," she says, then turns to the audience and its thunderous cheering. "Parents can't afford all the children."
None of the contestants was a restavek. They'd seen them in their hometowns, but few had ever spoken with them.
"I see them in my neighborhood and at church, and I know if I didn't have a mother and father I could be one, too," Saimphort says.
"I saw them growing up, but I didn't know them too well," concedes Abdias Noncent.
"My mother was a restavek, so I'm singing for her," says Edriss Neptune, a tall singer with a cropped beard. His song demands families take the bucket out of a restavek's hands and replace it with a pencil.
In Port au Prince, Tamarre Joseph says, "you know who they are because they stay up later and wake up earlier" than other children.
All 11 contestants perform and answer questions. Then the judges retreat to a dimly lit room underneath the stadium. One light barely illuminates the coffee table they sit at. Curtains block the only window. Four armed members of the Haitian National Police protect the room. No one explains why protection is necessary.
After 45 minutes, the judges emerge from their cavern and hand the envelope to the emcee. As a drizzle begins, the excitable but dwindling crowd starts to chant "Rain! Rain! Rain!"
The top three contestants win cash prizes, provided by the Restavek Freedom Foundation. Third place is about $1,000, second place double that, and the grand prize winner about $4,000. In a country where 80 percent of people live on $2 a day, these are serious stakes.
Third place goes to one of the two Port-au-Prince contestants: Gitanie Guerrier. Sporting a bright pink princess dress, she smiles as a volunteer accidentally slips the second place medal around her neck.
Runner-up Hedson Lamour does not hide his disappointment. In his white tuxedo and tails, he looks dejectedly at the ground, ignoring his oversize check. Hours before, was prancing around the stage, singing about a caring onlooker who stopped the beating of a restavek.
To most in the audience, the top prize was a foregone conclusion.
Marthe Yoldie Saimphort sealed the win early in the evening with her confident answers and thoughtful performance. When she exited the stage after her song, police in fatigues rushed to snap photos. Overwhelmed, she cried.
For the second time of the evening: She cries — this time, wearing a green gown and holding a check for $4,000.
"Restaveks live in fear. They want to run away, but they know they can't," Saimphort says. "People need to know they can help."
Later this year, she'll have the chance to spread the word further, when the Restavek Freedom Foundation flies her to the United States to record an album.
Beijing has rejected U.S. claims that one of its fighter jets acted recklessly in intercepting a U.S. Navy maritime patrol plane in the South China Sea last week, warning Washington to curtail or discontinue "close surveillance" flights near Chinese territory.
"According to different situations we will adopt different measures to make sure we safeguard our air and sea security of the country," Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said at a news briefing.
"If the United States really hopes to avoid impacting bilateral relations, the best course of action is to reduce or halt close surveillance of China," Yang said.
As we reported last week, the Pentagon says a Chinese Su-27 made "aggressive and unprofessional" approaches of the U.S. P-8 Poseidon in international waters about 135 miles east of Hainan island. The Pentagon said the Chinese warplane made several passes under and alongside the P-8, coming within 30 feet or so.
The Associated Press says:
"China has long complained about U.S. surveillance flights that just skim the edge of China's territorial airspace. However, Yang said such flights this year have become more frequent, are covering a wider area and are coming even closer to the Chinese coast.
"U.S. sea and air surveillance missions occur most frequently during Chinese military exercises or weapons tests, raising the risk of accidents and misunderstandings, Yang said.
"That was a likely reference to an incident last December in which China accused a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, of having veered too close to China's sole aircraft carrier in the South China Sea during sea drills. That nearly led to a collision with a Chinese navy ship in the most serious sea confrontation between the two nations in years."
We take a quick break from the heaviness this week for a bit of celebrity news: "Brangelina" has officially tied the knot.
A spokesperson for Brad Pitt, 50, and Angelina Jolie, 39, confirmed that the couple were married in a private ceremony Saturday in Correns, France.
The Associated Press reports that a California judge presided over the ceremony at Chateau Miraval, which was attended by family and close friends. The couple's six children participated in the nondenominational civil ceremony. Jolie was escorted down the aisle by her sons Maddox, 13, and Pax, 10, according to the news service. Daughters Zahara, 9, and Vivienne, 6, served as flower girls, while daughter Shiloh, 8, and son Knox, 6, were ring bearers.
The nuptials came as a surprise to many fans. The relationship between Pitt and Jolie has been a topic of celebrity news since they became a couple after starring in the 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They got engaged in 2012 but made it clear they were in no rush to walk down the aisle because of their support for same-sex marriage. Pitt once told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that he and Jolie "would not be getting married until everyone in this country has the right to get married."
Pitt later told The Hollywood Reporter that:
"We made this declaration some time ago that we weren't going to do it till everyone can. But I don't think we'll be able to hold out. It means so much to my kids, and they ask a lot. And it means something to me, too, to make that kind of commitment."
This is the second marriage for Pitt, who divorced actress Jennifer Aniston in 2005, and the third for Jolie, who was previously married to actors Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton.
The Times of Malta reports that the couple were on their way to Malta to shoot their second film together, By the Sea.
So far, no photos of the ceremony have surfaced.
When Megan Thoemmes first found a tiny critter living in the pores of her nose, she was disgusted.
"The first time I found one on my face I didn't sleep for four nights," says Thoemmes, a graduate student at North Carolina State University.
But she's made peace with her Demodex mites, not only accepting that the microscopic arthropods are hers for life, but conducting a study that finds that everybody else has them, too.
"They're actually pretty cute," Thoemmes tells Shots. "With their eight little legs, they look like they're almost swimming through the oil."
That's the oil from the sebaceous glands on your face.
Scientists have known for more than a century that Demodex mites like to hang out on human skin. More recently, the creatures have been investigated as a potential cause of the skin disorder rosacea. But the thought was that just a small minority of people played host to the translucent critters.
Boy were they wrong about that.
Thoemmes and her colleagues had gotten good at using little laboratory spatulas to scrape the sides of people's noses, collecting a bit of the goop inside pores that the mites like to live in. They tested hundreds of people and found mites 14 percent of the time.
But that number seemed suspiciously low, so the scientists hit on the idea of looking for mite DNA on human faces, rather than the mites themselves.
In tests of 29 people at citizen science events in Raleigh, N.C., 100 percent of the people over age 18 carried DNA from Demodex mites. The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. Tests on more people have also come up with the same 100 percent number, Thoemmes says.
Makes you feel kind of itchy, doesn't it?
Scientists don't know how the mites spread among humans; one theory is that they're passed on from mother to child while breast-feeding. Young people are much less likely to have them, while they've been found on almost all cadavers. The mites probably crawl on our faces at night, when it's dark.
In a way, that 100 percent number is strangely comforting. Not only do I have face mites, but so does Benedict Cumberbatch. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And Beyonce.
"It's like having friends with you all the time," Thoemmes says. "Realizing that everyone has them and they're likely not causing any problems, it's pretty reassuring."
Thoemmes and her colleagues are pretty excited about using human mites and their DNA to figure out how people have migrated historically and how we've interacted with animals. One of the two species of human mites, Demodex brevis, is related to the dog mite that can cause mange.
Indeed, Thoemmes just got back from mite-hunting in Mexico and Peru. "We want to get a lot of samples from humans around the world, to see how that genetic diversity is falling out and have a fuller picture of what is happening,"
In Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant novel The Signature of All Things, Alma Whittaker, the central character who was born in Philadelphia in 1800, is destined for a highly unconventional life as a woman in science.
Consumed by a love of botany, specifically of mosses, Whittaker grapples with questions that preoccupied many real-world minds of the 19th century, including Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace as they developed their theories of evolution. How can we understand the astounding variety of life in the natural world? If animals and plants are not after all created and fixed once and for all by God, by what mechanism did so many species arise?
These questions came to life for Alma when she discovered mosses. As a young unmarried woman confined to her father's estate in Philadelphia, her formidable sense of curiosity was dulled by familiarity. On those acres, she knew inside and out every tree, plant, insect and bird, and yearned for something new to explore. By accident, she found it one day — mosses, gloriously alive on a boulder:
"Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seem from the back of harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and miniscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder, where all the water pooled."
Nearby, on that same boulder, Anna soon saw:
"...another continent of moss altogether. On this new continent, everything was different. This corner of the boulder must receive more sunlight than the other, she surmised. Or slightly less rain? In any case, this was a new climate entirely."
As a result of that slight variation in climate, Alma realized, the mosses in that patch varied from those in the first patch. Years later, and before the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (an event noted in the novel), Alma comes to grasp something like the process of natural selection.
I was captivated by the way Gilbert painted the clamors of the intellect — and of the heart, too — through Alma's character. Another striking passage came in a conversation between Alma and the evolutionary scientist Wallace, whom Alma meets late in her life. Wallace asks Alma if she believes in an afterworld. At first, she demurs, telling him, "I do so try not to say things that make people feel upset." When Wallace presses her, Alma tells him:"
"You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others — why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion ... but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose."
Why did this passage strike me so powerfully? I think it's because I have encountered, as have other atheists I know, the persistent view expressed by some people of faith that the world is necessarily meaningless without belief in God or gods or an afterlife. "How can you stand to live in a world without meaning?" is a question many atheists hear in their lifetime.
Fictional scientist Alma feels real to me because she finds meaning in the natural world in a way that I fundamentally understand (although it's not mosses that do it for me, but bison and bonobos and bees and almost any other animal).
Alastair Reynolds's science fiction novel Blue Remembered Earth contains a similarly striking passage. The ideas here are expressed by a young artist named Sunday — born on Earth and now a resident on the Moon — who is making her first visit to Mars. Sunday found the Martian landscape "literally awesome," with mesas, pyramids and other geological formations shaped by "rain and wind, insane aeons of it," forces that have sculpted "deliberate-looking right-angled steps and contours [that] began to assume grand and imperial solidity, rising from the depths like the stairways of the gods."
Sunday invokes the gods only metaphorically, however. Here is what she really thinks:
"Awe-inspiring, yes. Sometimes it was entirely right and proper to be awed. And recognizing the physics in these formations, the hand of time and matter and the nuclear forces underpinning all things, did not lessen that feeling. What was she, ultimately, but the end product of physics and matter? And what was her art but the product of physics and matter working on itself?"
For both Reynolds's Sunday and Gilbert's Alma, recognizing that they are products of biological and physical forces isn't cause for anxiety about meaningless or despair. On the contrary, that recognition brings them a satisfying sense of connection to the whole universe.
Atheist awe is mind- and heart-expanding. I love seeing this real-world feeling mirrored in works of contemporary fiction.