I recently sat besides a Haitian travelling from Niagara Falls to Toronto. It was another eye-opener regarding Haiti: its uniqueness in its people and history. For better and for worse.
For the worse, and unfortunately, to most commentators, Haiti’s uniqueness is limited to its disasters. For example, two hurricanes recently struck within weeks of each other, prompting one American theologian to blame the loss of life on voodoo.
The country, furthermore ripped with civil war, anarchy and repeated American invasions, carries too many global indices for poverty.
In fact, Haiti is ranked the poorest nation in this hemisphere. Among the factors which contribute in a vicious cycle to these conditions is the depletion of what were once Haiti’s great forests. Used by peasants for charcoal, the deforestation – Haiti’s forests are depleted by 98 per cent – causes even modest rainfalls to sweep the topsoil into rivers, washing away whole villages.
Haiti’s aquifers, that once served some 200,000 people in the capital, Port-au-Prince, now provide water for more than three million. Dropping drastically lower, it is expected to be infiltrated by sea water. There is much more that is troubling. For example, residents from Lebanon, France, Germany, America and Canada control more than 50 per cent of Haiti’s wealth.
Writer Lyonel Trouillot famously labelled this local bourgeoisie the “most repugnant elite”. Trouillot said the bourgeoisie have reduced Haiti, once the “Pearl of the Antilles”, to a state of abject distress.
However, there is also much that speaks for better to the historical and current uniqueness of this country and people. For example, Haitians are among the most inventive souls in this hemisphere. They possess more linguists than any country. Among these are speakers fluent as translators in Cantonese, Mandarin and Hakka, three of China’s significant languages, and as well in all of the regions’ languages: French, Creole, Spanish, English…and Gullah!
If you met a Caribbean person of African descent in New York or most North American cities who owned a bevy of taxicabs, apartment buildings or malls, that individual is more than likely Haitian.
Remittances home from Haitian émigrés in the U.S. alone annually equals more than US$1 billion, more than 25 per cent of Haiti’s gross domestic product, according to Haiti’s Central Bank. These total remittances surpass the total annual foreign direct investment and annual revenues from exports. The World Bank indicates that 55 per cent of remittance-receiving households – approximately one in five Haitian households – rely on these remittances as an only source of income.
Haitians have needed to be resilient. Almost as much as African-Americans – who among enslaved Africans in this hemisphere suffered more lynchings, rapine and distress than others – Haitians have been a people of epic sorrows and are well-acquainted with grief.
Accounting in the 18th and 19th centuries for more than one third the national wealth of France, Haitians were taxed billions in francs for their temerity in fighting to successfully to overthrow slavery.
In the 19th century, Haitians fought alongside former slaves in the American Civil War; granted asylum to Spanish freedom-fighters like Simon Bolivar and received requests for military assistance from Greek nationalists in revolt against the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire. Haiti, under European and American embargo, could only send them bales of coffee.
It was a Haitian, Jean-Baptist-Point Du Sable, who established what later became the City of Chicago, home today of U.S. President Barack Obama. In fact, it is another Haitian, Senator Kwame Raoul, who now holds the vacated Senate seat of President Obama.
And, in Canada, Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean became the first Black Governor-General of Canada in 2005.
There is more, much more. The Haitian I met is a refugee living on $600 CDN monthly. From this he pays $400 in rent, and from what’s left, he dutifully sends his mother in Haiti $50.00 monthly!
On parting, as he told me in Creole, “Creole la ce on langue courage Haitien.”