Drop A Beat, Turn Up My Symphony

This is a guest post by John Bevan

Nearly half the 8 million population of Haiti, (the size of Wales, Belize and El Salvador— seems that was one of the standard sizes for countries at the time) lived in the Capital Port-au-Prince.  So the elimination of the Capital approximates to the loss of half the country’s entire infrastructure, limited as it was.  The loss of many of its intellectuals and elected politicians, few enough in the first place, given the brain-drain northwards, with some third of Haitians living in the US, adds to the knock the country has taken.

In 2006, the main Port-au-Prince daily proudly lead with the story- “Haiti there at World Cup Final”- referring not to their football team but Wyclef  Jean who sang a duet with Shakira before the France-Italy final in Berlin.  Wyclef boosted the image and self-image of Haitians a few years earlier when he won a Grammy for the 1996 Fugees album, The Score, and accepted it while wearing a Haitian flag, Haitians still being at the bottom of the pile of all US immigrant groups.  He rarely appears on videos without the flag somewhere about his body.

While Haiti has never really recovered from its various foreign debts, the two-decade tone-setting US occupation of the early 20th century and the three-decade Duvalier dictatorship, Haitians remain a proud unbowed nation, whatever misery their own politicians and others from abroad have heaped on them.  Their consolation is their sense of history.  I would argue that Haiti is a country with as strong a sense of it s own history as anywhere in the world.  I once wrote to friends, soon after my first visit, that the history — slave-history  — is an ever-present in today’s Haiti.  The link is cultural, firstly its language, Creole — Kreyol — the name itself a kind of insult, the equivalent of the English pidgin, mongrel, bastard language.  Even pretty enlightened foreigners working in Haiti labour under the misunderstanding that it is just a broken-down form of French.  This is easy to see why as there is a lot of French vocabulary but despite this it is incomprehensible to French-speakers, or better said, it is only partially understandable, like an Italian trying to understand Spanish.  The deceptively recognizable lexicon hides the African-based structure, grammar of Kreyol, which is not a dialect but a fully-fledged language in its own right.

Now the Kreyol  used in 2010 was forged during slavery, a lingua franca created, an incredible feat of human intellect, when the Europeans adopted the tactic of splitting up the newly unloaded slaves, separating them from their own language group. So it is a synthesis of many African languages with an overlay of French.  Just to give one typical example.  “The moon’,  in Kreyol is Lalinla, lalin being how the slaves heard the French ‘la lune’ (all as one word) and the ‘la’ being the article of which there are a few in Creole and their use is by assonance not a gender distinction as in latin languages.  Thus, there is ‘leglizla’, the church, ‘tabla’, the table, but ‘machin-an’ for car, the ‘an’ being  an article like ‘la’ but it goes with car because of the sound of the last syllable of the word machin whose etymology you can guess.

Gramsci used to say that all humans are philosophers simply because we all use language.  If that is true then the slaves in 17th century Haiti were the ‘cwemdelacwem’, as you might say.

So every day, every conversation reminds Haitians of slavery, every word they utter, every single word, reminds them of the period before Toussaint Louverture’s slave revolt send Napoleon’s enormous expeditionary force packing.  Talking of which, the Creole word for thing is bagay, from the French word for luggage, baggage.  I can only imagine that the disembarking French would say to the slave, ‘pick up my baggage’ and the slaves got it all wrong and though they were saying ‘pick up my thing’.  As Pirandello pointed out in Six Characters in search of an Author , “How can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I say the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within yourself”.  But somehow the slaves understood each other well enough to kick out the French, but Napoleon’s chaps never really quite got it.  So, slavery is there everyday in the present.  So is the US occupation.  To reverse a car in Creole is ‘fe yon ti bak’-do a little back.  And, you have to believe this, is not uncommon to hear old ladies, and it is particularly the older generation, bemoaning some set back with the exclamation ‘se yon focup’.  Say out loud and you’ll get it.  Then there are oddities-’frekan’, from frequent, means cheeky.  I haven’t yet come up with a scenario for how that happened.

Creole was made an official language, in the 1987 post-dictatorship constitution, a document so concerned with preventing the return of dictatorship that it created an unfortunately complex election system which means that one way or the other Haitians are called to the urns pretty much every year for national or partial elections.  The constant election bit of the constitution should be high on the agenda of the reconstruction planning.

It is amazing to think that up until then French was the only language of Haiti where only around 10 per cent of the population speaks or even understand it.  It can get you around the better areas of Port-au- Prince but outside it is useless.  At least it kept the riff-raff a long way from the justice system, in French of course.

The anti-dictator constitution also added Voudou to the official religion, Catholicism.  The old saying is that Haitians are 80% Catholic and 100% Voudou.  The figure for Catholics is a bit high from my experience but there is no doubt that almost by definition, all Haitians believe in Voudou.  The western image of voudou has not been created by European anthropologists or even travel writers, but comes essentially from Hollywood b-movies, mostly appropriately enough, black and white.  Shame that Graham Greene’s  Comedians which is still a good introduction to Haitian idiosyncrasies, has not had the impact of that shock cinema with its zombies and Tontons Macoutes, which by the way just really means bogey man.  But in the cinema version, Haiti  has become in our western psyche our worst nightmare-unknown, poor, black, and full of superstition.  This is probably being fuelled by recent horrific reports from Africa about violent witchcraft and killings of children and albinos.  That evil violence, the sort of stuff that set off the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, gets folded into Voudou.  But although I am no expert, there are a few key things that the West should know about the Haitian belief system-see, use nice language and the fear immediately subsides, voudou-belief system, voudou-belief system.  One is rather more frightening than the other.  There is not one voudou but many variants.  Some are less benign than others but essentially it was a form of organization to resist slave owners and the slaves appropriated Catholic icons to represent their own deities.  Like many non-European religions, it is based on the existence of a spirit world, connected to ancestors and the priest and the ceremonies are about reconciling the two.  The ceremonies involve a lot of dancing, music, drumming, and rhum.  If the Salvation army were in Port-au-Prince now they would lament far more than the devil having all the good tunes. Voudou has all the fun.  And it is rarely about mischief.

It is illuminating that so many supposedly enlightened US-based commentators have fixed their gaze on voudou as some sort of ‘explanation’ for the quake and the troubled history of Haiti in general.  Interestingly I never heard a whisper about the Roman Catholics being to blame for the Aquila disaster last year.

The earthquake in Haiti killed so many in part because it was so strong and so close to the main population centre.  But many died because they were made vulnerable by poverty and the poverty of Haiti, once the most economically productive of all the Caribbean colonies, can only be explained by two hundred years of misrule and oppression.  Some was home-grown (sorry Wyclef, this is not a reference to Something about Mary)—hardly any President has completed a term, but its origins come from outside.  The obscene ‘compensation’ demanded by the French for the loss of ‘their’ slave plantations was a century-long burden.  Then the US occupation reintroduced slavery in the 20th century with its use of corvee labour, to build its military roads and then pointed to them as a contribution to Haitian development.  And then the disastrous three-decade Duvalier dictatorship, pandered to during the cold war as a ‘bulwark’, whatever that is, to neighbouring revolutionary Cuba which by the way has been very generous to Haiti in sending much needed doctors, even in periods when CNN had not one representative in Haiti, but for the long-term.

Haitians have to cling on to something other than the flimsy dinghies which the US navy is now fully deployed to prevent the arrival in Florida of those so desperate to get out that they will take any risk on the open seas.

On the bicentenary of the Haitian independence, or ‘impudence’ as the slave-owners would have it, Wyclef, the world’s most famous living Haitian and the first hip-hop artist to fill Carnegie Hall in New York, released an album, Welcome to Haiti, Creole 101.  It is mostly in Creole, not a smart marketing move outside Haiti, but he was making a point as he has done on all of his albums-they all include Kreyol elements, which has been an important cultural demystification of Haiti and a dignifying gesture for Haitians, particularly those in the US and Canada. On the cover, Wyclef appears dressed as Toussaint Louverture, proud and Haitian.  The first track is a remix of a speech by leading radio journalist and noted critic of authoritarians and dictators Jean Dominique, who was murdered in 2000 (his partner is now Ban Ki Moon’s spokesperson — and Jonathan Demee has made a film of his life, The Agronomist).  Wyclef has him speaking on the history of Haiti; “I was was four years old when the US marines left Haiti.  Every time a US battalion passed outside our house, my father said “don’t look at them and every May 18th, (Haiti’s national day) he would put out the Haitian flag defiantly.  He said “that means that you are Haitian, you from this land, you are not French, you are not British, you are not American, you are Haitian”.  A hip hop rapper, born in Haiti but brought up in New Jersey, Wyclef embodies that sense of history.  Oh, and the Haitian flag is blue and red, created on 18 May 1803 when the rebels ripped the white out of the French flag.

So, two hundred years later, the slave revolt is alive in Haiti in every Haitian self-image.  I wonder what the devastation of the whole of the capital will do to that self-image?  The history of Haiti has been tough, messy and in purely financial and development terms it has been a disaster.  But its culture is unique, the first black Republic and the second in the Western Hemisphere, it is now brought to its knees by recent events.  Who will decide what the new Haiti looks like?  In 2004, following the ousting of Aristide for a second time, the international community met in July in Washington and pledged 1.2 billion dollars in aid.  But the donors refused to set up a tracking measure so it is not easy to find out what happened to that money though when I last left Haiti in mid-2006, even a cursory glance would come up with the answer that not much impact, if any, was visible.  Part of the reason for that is that Haitians were almost entirely excluded from drawing up the Interim Cooperation strategy which led to vocal protests by European NGOs operating in Haiti like Oxfam and others.  If Haitians are allowed, with their elected President Preval, allowed to the table, maybe a new better Haiti will emerge from the rubble.

The alternative will be a nation-size sort of off-the-shelf off-shore assembly plant — Haiti is famous for its historical production of baseballs and t-shirts for the US market.  One Canadian t-shirt company’s reaction to the quake has been to move its operations to Central America.  The aid that will flow should be seen as the compensation owed to Haiti for the destruction of its agriculture by the dumping of subsidized rice and the forcible lifting of import tariffs.  This helped make Haitians vulnerable, not just to devastating earthquakes but even short rain storms.  The Haitians need to reconstruct and they need international support.  But the reconstruction will fail if democracy, participation and self-determination are not in the DNA of the effort.  If the Haitians lead, at least a genuinely New Haiti will be built.  The risk is that they will be excluded and that what emerges is a trailer park, an industrial estate, a duty-free assembly bonanza.  It might still be called Haiti but I for one won’t want to go back.

The Haitian reconstruction is a real challenge for Obama.  If he puts in the money and support he will be attacked by the resurgent racist groups who are a big vote bank, ass profligate with their tax dollars.  If he doesn’t those, who gave their dreams to him in a year ago will see him as a fraud. If Haiti does succeed in its recovery, he will still have racist bile poured on him but better that than the alternative.

Haitians never had much materially, now they have even less.  Many unconsciously racist liberal commentators now want to blame what they do have for their hardship; the successful slave revolt, their culture, their language, and their belief system.  Let’s hope that the redevelopers will bear this in mind.

The new Haiti could be the dawn of a new slightly less brutal new world order.  Or the next couple of years could make that aspiration look even more idealist than it is today.  The New Haiti must be built on its history, not on the ideas of experts.  Anything else will be a travesty, a final crushing of the hope of 1804 which lives on in Haitian culture and Kreyol.  As Wyclef would say… “drop a beat, turn up my symphony”.

(Bevan worked for five UN missions in Haiti, including humanitarian and political affairs, and human rights. This piece was first published in The Kathmandu Post)

4 thoughts on “Drop A Beat, Turn Up My Symphony”

  1. Brilliant read. Told me so much I had no idea about. I love the way it was written as well, please keep writing.


  2. This was lovely! Especially your comments on voudou, and its power to mystify and terrorise the white man…they remind me of the legendary black scholar Cedric Robinson’s work. Robinson repeatedly evokes Haiti to illustrate what he believes is the essential difference between “a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.” In a word, while the experience of slavery was white-dictated, the tools and images of resistance were often not. The source of terror for the colonial masters was this belief by slaves in voudou and other charismatic, metaphysical belief systems – producing in the captured Africans a terrifying other-worldliness, an impassivity in the face of death. In the many Haitian revolts, slaves shoved their hands into the mouths of canons, believing that “if they were killed, they would wake again in Africa.”

    As Robinson argues, this impassivity in the face of certain annihiliation explains the absence of mass violence by Blacks through the history of slavery and colonialism. NOT because the Africans were slavish, but because at their core they believed themselves to be free, faithful to the older belief systems, hopeful of a time when they would ‘awake in Africa’. It also explains why the literal-material minded white masters used disproportionate violence to suppress the revolts – the Africans, with their voodoo, their obeahmen and obeahwomen, their singing, their remained untranslatable to the white races, and hence, terrifying. Robinson says, there was violence of course, among the Blacks too, but it was more often than not turned inward – the result of their seeking to preserve “an ontological totality that had never allowed for property in either the physical, philosophical, temporal, legal, social or psychic senses.” Reading Robinson’s account of the Black radical tradition, it becomes quite clear who the savage and the civilised were in the long dark history of colonialism and slavery.

    Thanks for this incredibly inspiring article.


    1. Sunalini
      Prashant assures me that it is safe to reply to you! I am always a little bemused and worried when people like what I write!!
      Just to say that I was very touched by your comments and here are the links to the three pieces I did for the Kathmandu Post. They are a little rough but I needed to get it all off my chest and try in a small way to get the debate a bit back on track and start the fight to get the Haitians their right to determine what sort of country they want to make up. The people with the money want a large strip mall and lots and lots of t-shirt assembly
      Hope you like the other two
      Looks like I will end up going back to Haiti soon which is bit of a blow as I am really happy here in Kathmandu
      Best wishes and thanks again for your comments




  3. What can I say but thanks Prashant, for confirming that I don’t bite! Ha ha, most of the time, at least ;) I’ve in the meanwhile read your other posts too; the same combination of understated rage and fascinating mix of facts I loved in this one. Please keep writing and posting, John.


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