Haiti: Jamaica's embarrassment

Published: Sunday | February 24, 2013 Comments 0
Wilmas Sentime holds the body of her two-year-old son, Cebien St Louis, who died inside Au Secours Hospital in Gonaives, Haiti, on November 8, 2010 after contracting cholera. Columnist Orville Taylor believes Jamaicans must honour Haiti's history of courage and its modern-day need for assistance. - AP
Wilmas Sentime holds the body of her two-year-old son, Cebien St Louis, who died inside Au Secours Hospital in Gonaives, Haiti, on November 8, 2010 after contracting cholera. Columnist Orville Taylor believes Jamaicans must honour Haiti's history of courage and its modern-day need for assistance. - AP

Orville Taylor, Contributor

It might sound like the Jamaicanised pronunciation of the number which comes after 79, but Haiti is a historical enigma and its people are a worthy of respect, dignity and even our admiration.

This is the last week in Black History Month, and it is ironic that in the 28 days given to us to come to an understanding of ourselves, we have figuratively and literally missed the boat regarding the first nation in modern history to have a black government.

The Haitians are not as far from us as one thinks. It is a different experience when one sits or stands aloof and looks at them as boat people stereotyped by pestilence, poverty and a range of other maladies.

However, in fact, contrary to the negative typification, they are far more like Jamaicans than some Jamaicans I know. Haitians speak two language an official French for national and international discourse, and the Kreyol spoken by the majority, if not all the population.

Like us, the gap between the official is as wide as "Of course!" "and wah fi enda?"

A former colonial possession, it still has this dalliance with things European and ethnically African.

Notwithstanding that, the Haitians have resolved the issues such as the validity of their native language, the centrality of their native religion. Thus, unlike Deacon Brown or Missionary Samuels who guh to the reader man or surreptitiously procures a bath, the average Haitian has come to terms with these practices in an honest way.

Jamaicans, on the other hand, pretend not to believe in the power of obeah, dismissing it as superstitious but fully accept that good prayers can make a difference. They even suppress the Bible-supported notion that evil spirits and forces are as real as celestial ones.

But back to the similarities. The majority of Africans, captured and enslaved in Haiti, came from the same general regions of West Africa as we did.

Furthermore, the British slave masters also carried on a robust inter-island trade in human capital.

Thus, many Haitians would have also been seasoned, Jamaicanised or Jamaica-born Africans as well. It should not be ignored that Haiti is a mere 150 miles east of no lesser place than St Thomas, a parish with many of the fabled sterotypes.

Haiti's Creole language is, coincidentally, 90 per cent structurally similar to ours.

In fact, its rhythm is virtually the same as deep-rural Jamaican Patois and Twi spoken by Ghanaians.

Bearing responsibility

Though not generally acknowledged, Jamaica has some responsibility for the historical direction that Haiti has taken.

This little piece of Jamrock has influenced, in modern times, American popular culture, the other Anglophone territories, and has redefined African music.

However, in the 1700s, Jamaica, full of African leaders, had the most slave rebellions per capita in the Americas.

The escaped Africans fought the British, who were far less successful than their police imports were in the 2000s, and ground them to a standstill in 1739. Colonel Guthrie offered a peace treaty to Cudjoe and others, and the rest is sociology.

The success of Cudjoe and his Maroon kinfolk did not only inspire Tacky, the Myal warriors and Sam Sharpe but, very importantly, the oppressed Africans in St Domingue (Haiti).

It was Dutty Boukman, an exportee from Jamaica, whose spark ignited the revolution, and it was only after he was murdered that Toussaint became the leader.

Thus, Boukman should really be Boukman L'Ouverture ('Boukman the opening'). And by the way, he was called Boukman because of his predilection for reading, and the Dutty has the same meaning it does today.

After ousting the white French and declaring itself a republic, the Africans in Haiti even took the white out of the flag, leaving only the red and blue. Yet, instead of celebrating, the Western world, including England and America - both countries still with millions of enslaved Africans of their own - put immense pressure on the emergent nation.

Imperial exploitation

Blockaded, isolated and threatened with hostilities, Haiti was forced to compensate its former masters and oppressors. More than 150 million francs was paid to the French in compensation in 1825 after a militant and armed France demanded it under threat of violence. Imagine what this money could have done.

At a time when Jamaica and other nations believe that Britain owes us compensation in the form of reparation for enslavement, the French debt to Haiti is at least as great.

Apart from the internal mismanagement and oppression issues related to the corruption of black leaders over the centuries, the international community has not helped. It is not well known, for example, that the USA took control of Haiti from 1915-1934 and ran its government. Despite the intervention, the take-off which supposedly comes with foreign leadership never came.

True, at present, Haiti is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. With a poverty rate of 80 per cent, illiteracy of 60 per cent and unemployment of 41 per cent, and a GDP per capita of US$1,300 per annum, it has a life expectancy of 62 years. However, it has a lower homicide rate than us. Imagine, with so many challenges, Haitians place a higher value on life.

For all it's worth, Haiti is not a true foreign country. In 2002, it was admitted to full membership in CARICOM. Given the prospective commitment to a CARICOM Single Market, the day may very well come when Haitians have the same status as Guyanese, St Lucians, Trinidadians and Barbadians. The latter two have been often accused of denying entry to Jamaicans, treating us with little dignity and repatriating us with scant attention to the specifics of our motives for travelling.

Unfortunate stereotypes

Many Jamaicans have complained of preconceived notions and stereotypes at ports of entry. In many cases, they were never given an opportunity to present a case.

In Portland, two weeks ago, 25 Haitians arrived by boat, among them a Jamaica-born child. Only two Jamaicans who speak their language spoke to them directly. Yet, official reports were that nine other boats had left Haiti. However, none of the 24 adults knew of any other boats, except that single one leaving their village.

Apparently, the other vessels either got lost at sea or, more likely, lost in the (unavailable) translation. It is an indictment on us that we do not have in place persons who have the capacity to communicate with these persons in an effective manner.

No attempt was made to interview them for the purposes of asylum or to check their antecedents in Haiti to determine whether they would be in grave danger if deported.

The dispatching of a few pesky Haitians, without due process, is not a small matter. It sets the tone for how we ought to be treated ourselves by other nations which think we are going to invade and blacken their shores. We should be our brother's keeper.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.

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