Sunday 17 January 2010

Pandora's Box

There are some things beyond words, just some. The earthquake in Haiti is beyond words; the suffering is beyond words. What is there to say that would not sound unnecessary and fatuous? One can express grief, a general human empathy for so much tragedy in such a tragic place, but to what end? A mass Tweet; is there anything more repellent, anything more unnecessary, anything more cloyingly self-indulgent?

I wanted to go to Haiti, one of the places that I thought of visiting during my gap year before going up to university. At school I read Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians set in the Haiti of Papa Doc, horrible and fascinating at one and the same time. Add to that my discoveries about Vodou and my subsequent reading into Haiti’s past then the magnetism became compelling. But I was warned against going; it was too dangerous, the place was too unsettled, there were too many risks. I went to Cuba instead, a decision I have never really regretted.

I don’t suppose I will ever go to Haiti now. Still, my fascination with the place remains; my fascination with the history, the religion, the culture and the people. I was reminded of my past discoveries by a recent article in the Daily Telegraph by Ian Thomson (Haiti: enslaved by its dark history), an overview of the country since it seized independence from the French in 1804. But years after its existence had still not placated French slavers. In the end this impoverished country was forced to buy recognition, to pay France for the value of the lost colony and the lost slaves at a cost of some $21 billion in current values. In other words to achieve full independence the people of this land had literally to buy their own hides.

It’s easy to forget-indeed, if one ever remembered-that Haiti is the second oldest self-governing nation in the western hemisphere, only seventeen years younger than the United States. But the newly independent American States, already rich, had a huge potential, a manifest destiny to meet. What did Haiti, the slave republic, have ahead; what was its destiny? Why, little but internal divisions, corruption, misrule and tragedy. The first truly ‘anti-imperialist’ nation on earth, and the first black state, it could expect little help or understanding in a racist and colonial epoch. Indeed, its very existence wasn’t recognised by the United States until 1862, until that country itself was fighting a war partially inspired by the fact that some Americans owned other Americans.

In his article Thomson says of Haiti;

The truth is, Haiti is a country that was never meant to be…The country had become a dangerous symbol of redemption for African people, of racial equality and-most unforgivably-of anti-colonialism. So Haiti became a pariah, excluded from the family of nations and trapped in a time warp where there was little room for progress.

So, Haiti turned in on itself; its history and development became a struggle over such limited resources and wealth as there was; a struggle that ironically also took on a racial dimension, with mulattos against blacks, and blacks against mulattos. In the process poverty simply got deeper and deeper. Even God seemed to be against this nation, visiting it with natural disasters of biblical proportions. The earthquake is simply the latest in a line of ‘plagues.’

No matter; the people still took comfort in religion as a way out of misery, in Catholicism and in Vodou, the old animist religion that the slaves brought over from Dahomey, which merged in an altogether fascinating way with the European faith. Such was the influence of Vodou that Jean Claude Duvalier, the one-time dictator better known as Papa Doc, modelled himself on the figure of Baron Samedi, the spirit, or loa, of the dead, who comes costumed in top hat and tails. For him the Baron was a way of inducing both reverence and fear.

But the loas also offered freedom in desperation. Once possessed an individual is transformed, removed from the bleakest realities. Thomson says that at night Port-au-Prince now flickers with candles as swaying, homeless Haitians offer prayers to the loas in hope of deliverance. I imagine most believe that the loas may come more quickly than international aid. Perhaps they already have; for there is no bottleneck in spirituality.

Haiti was a ‘failed state’ before the world understood what a failed state was. It’s a cardboard house now pulled apart by devastating natural force. Time will pass, wounds will heal, people will forget. But this is a nation that may never rise again as a nation. The uncertain polity was always fragile in the way that the National Palace was fragile. There is hope, of course, the last to leave Pandora’s Box, following all the miseries of the earth.

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