Mon | Jul 23, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Tongue-tied Jamaican exposes self in Haiti

Published:Sunday | July 10, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Last month, I went to Haiti for the annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association. The grand theme was 'Caribbean Global Movements: People, Ideas, Culture, Arts and Economic Sustainability'. I was invited to speak on the opening panel. Regretfully, I had to decline. The Calabash Literary Festival ended on Sunday afternoon and the panel was the very next morning. I couldn't get to Haiti on time.

The global movement of Caribbean people, ideas, etc. is one thing. Travelling within the Caribbean is a whole other kettle of rotten fish. I had two options from Kingston to Port-au-Prince. I could take American Airlines all the way up to Miami and then back down to Haiti; or Inter-Caribbean Airways from Kingston across to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands and then back to Haiti. Even worse, to get from Haiti to Kingston, I would have to return to Providenciales and come back down. Flying around in circles!

There was a time when BWIA flew directly from Kingston to Port-au-Prince. Those good old days are long gone. BWIA has become Caribbean Airlines in name only. It is actually the national airline of Trinidad and Tobago and it behaves exactly that way. If you want to go from Kingston to Bridgetown, Caribbean Airlines takes you down to Port-of-Spain first. And you sit on the plane for more than an hour as it is cleaned around you.

Coming home from Bridgetown is the same thing. Caribbean Airlines goes down to Port-of-Spain and then back up to Kingston. I suppose it's cheaper for the airline to operate this way. But the cheapest often proves to be the dearest. Caribbean Airlines is alienating passengers who get very angry because we feel victimised. We have no choice if we don't want to go up to Miami in order to go down to the Eastern Caribbean. I keep wondering if we will ever manage to conceive a truly Caribbean airline that takes the region seriously.




Inter-Caribbean Airways doesn't go to Haiti every day. So I chose American Airlines. At the departure gate in Miami, I noticed a large group of youngish people all dressed in T-shirts stamped with a Bible verse, Matthew 25:40. It was a modern translation of the good old King James Version: "And the King shall answer and say unto them, 'Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.'"

I couldn't resist asking where they were from. The American Midwest! They were missionaries going to do good deeds in Haiti. But how strange that they would advertise their apparent superiority to the least of the brethren! True, that's what the Bible actually says. All the same, there must be a more diplomatic way to minister to the needy.

It's just as well that the least of the brethren in Haiti were not likely to be able to read the message on the T-shirt. Kreyol, not English or even French, is the dominant language in the country. And if you don't speak Kreyol, you're at a definite disadvantage.

I was pleased to see that American Airlines speaks Kreyol. Both the written and oral safety instructions were given in English and Kreyol. The airline knows its clients and takes their language seriously. Perhaps, one of these days, American Airlines will start speaking Jamaican.




As I travelled around Haiti, I regretted that I hadn't seriously tried to learn Kreyol after so many visits to the island. I was tongue-tied and ended up resorting to primitive sign language. A group of us from Jamaica went to the iron market in Port-au-Prince to buy souvenirs. On the way, we wanted to see the famous statue of the unknown maroon.

I tried to say this in French to our driver, Mr Joslin Oltin. The French word 'monument' is 'moniman' in Kreyol. It sounds close enough, but it's the grammar that makes the difference. Mr Oltin didn't understand. I had the bright idea to strike the pose of the 'moniman'. He immediately got it.

One of my wicked colleagues said in reference to my body language, "Carolyn, you couldn't do dat wid our Emancipation Park people. Yu would have to lift up yu frock!" I gleefully added, "An draw down mi baggy." The 'vulgarity' of my imagined self-exposure and the Jamaican words to describe it are far surpassed by the actual indecency of the Emancipation Park monument.

How can we accept those dunce-looking naked people as an appropriate representation of the grand enterprise of Emancipation? I don't blame the artist, Laura Facey-Cooper, for the design. Presumably, she did the best she could. The real scoundrels are the distinguished judges who selected that demeaning image.

The statues of larger-than-life figures in Kingston - Norman Manley, Alexander Bustamante, Simon Bolivar, Bob Marley, Noel Nethersole, and Queen Victoria - are clothed in dignity. Even our skimpily clad athletes Merlene Ottey, Herbert McKenley, and Donald Quarrie! Why are our emancipated role models dressed only in their birthday suit? Those dumbstruck figures make an eloquent mockery of emancipation. And that's the naked truth.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and