“Poor Haiti.” This is what we Jamaicans say with a little sigh. ”At least we are not as bad as Haiti,” is another common refrain (“bad” meaning impoverished, destitute, virtually leaderless). Our “Christian” friends say earnestly, “It’s God punishing them because they practice voodoo.” They only have a vague inkling of what voodoo is, but it must of course have a lot to do with the devil, the Christians (with an upper case C) believe…
Jamaica is one of Haiti’s closest neighbors. They are our “Haitian brothers and sisters,” as politicians and church ministers like to say, when they are trying to prove their solidarity.
But if truth be told, Haiti makes some of us quite uncomfortable. It really is a troublesome neighbor – one whose kids cry too loud, who fills up his back yard with junk, with an annoying dog that starts barking when you are trying to get your last little bit of sleep in the morning. A neighbor you may even suspect is involved in criminal activities, mysterious comings and goings late at night. So our sincerely felt sympathy is often tempered with just a little touch of exasperation.
Now this evening, Jamaica is sitting on the edge of a meandering tropical storm, Tomas. So far it has brushed us very lightly with its feathery, pale orange outer clouds, bringing gentle rain. Pale orange on the satellite map, that is. The dark orange is reserved for – oh, poor Haiti again.
“Oh, how much more can Haiti take?” we cry, wringing our hands. This year, first the earthquake (which shook us in Kingston, as a warning), then cholera, and now storms which will surely wash them all away. And even before this year, for many years there has been some kind of “Haiti crisis.” Fleeing dictators; a populist ex-priest in exile; and battered wooden boats arriving on Jamaicans shores, helped onto the beach by kind fishermen, the occupants hollow-eyed and hungry. The refugees sat forlornly on the porch of a run-down old people’s home in rural Jamaica, and some ended up in a kind of modified correctional center, before being sent home. The priest and his family were also housed in Jamaica for a while, rather more luxuriously, at a pretty country home with satin sofas and nice rugs on the floor, giving the occasional staged interview with his wife and their two daughters in their best Sunday dresses.
Poor Mr. Jean Bertrand Aristide. He loved the poor, and he wanted to help them. He might also have said, “Poor Haiti!” But the Petchary is always wary of politicians who say they “love the poor.” What makes them especially lovable? Now they say they want him back, but the chances of him returning are remote. He now lives in a government villa in Pretoria, South Africa, he can speak Zulu really well and is now Dr. Aristide (he has obtained a doctorate in African Languages). He has a new life, but the poor don’t.
But let’s get back to Haiti now. Why do Jamaicans find Haiti, and Haitians, so disturbing? Well, they are so… African, aren’t they. And there is the voodoo thing, and (one major stumbling block to comprehending their culture) they speak not just French, but a particularly opaque Creole, a language all their own. Very few Jamaicans seem to speak or understand French, but a few more are now managing to learn Spanish. The language barrier is not to be discounted.
What else about Haiti? Well, so much else. The culture is a powerful concoction of European (French with a dash of Spanish), African and Caribbean (Taino). Stir it up and you get something delicious, incredibly rich, and you can sip it in small sips and enjoy. Haitian art is so explosive and colorful it almost hurts your eyes, like staring at a huge fireworks display. There have been different schools, like the Jacmel School and the Saint-Soleil School. The Petchary has a painting by Prospere Pierre-Louis, a former member of the Saint-Soleil School, whose thickly painted expressions of the voodoo religion just jump out from the wall at you. Mr. Pierre-Louis was the son of a voodoo priest, and he died in 1996. Happy to have him on our wall.
Then there are the glittering sequin flags, the humorous, spiky metal sculptures. But sad to note, the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince was destroyed in January’s earthquake and its director, Francine Murat, died a few weeks later.
And the music! There is compas, a kind of lilting calypso, and hard-driving bands like Boukman Eksperyans, who danced up a storm at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC this past summer. Oh, and there are great writers like Lyonel Trouillot (in Haiti) and Edwige Danticat (in New York) and the poet Jean Metellus (in France). And Haitians go to the movies – yes, they do – and the Motion Picture Association of Haiti was founded in 2007.
“Poor Haiti.” It is so much more.
(The Petchary salutes inspirational and ground-breaking artistic entrepreneur Melinda Brown of Roktowa, who returned to Jamaica from Haiti just a few days before the earthquake. A couple of months after, Melinda organized a three-month residency for Haitian artists at her studio/gallery in downtown Kingston. This was a way to nurture the artists and give them the mental and physical creative space to continue their work. Jamaica, and Haiti, are lucky to have met Melinda).
- Confusion, fear as Haiti camps evacuate for storm (thegrio.com)