A recent issue of Pambazuka featured an account of an event in Kenya where activist Kimani Waweru introduced a general audience to the history of Haiti. Waweru called on Kenyans to learn from and emulate Haiti’s long history of struggle against the French. Haiti had achieved independence in 1804, bringing an end to slavery and making it the first black republic, presumably in the past half a century.
One has to ask the question though, what good has being first done for the people of Haiti? Today Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world, whose people endure an oppressive superstitious culture. In order to improve their lot, Haitians find themselves risking life and limb to flee that island nation and reach the United States, Canada and safer parts of the Caribbean. Haitians are well known in the United States for being hard workers, but this is in the context of a Western economic and political system.
The island of Haiti is also beset by environmental problems, including the effects of the deforestation of its mountainous countryside. Without tree roots to hold the soil in place, or foliage to lessen the effects of sun and rain, large areas of the country can no longer support cultivation. Clearly subsistence agriculture cannot be sustained when environmental degradation takes place.
A social climate of violence and lawlessness combined with constant political upheaval make Haiti unfavourable not only for its own people but also for Western investment. Furthermore, past Haitian governments have pursued policies that discouraged foreign investment. In recent years, Haitian immigrants, upon returning to their home country, are often set upon by bandits as they leave the airport. The bandits hope to profit from whatever gifts and funds the immigrants are returning with.
The question is, does racial or ethnic chauvinism offer a better future to a country like Kenya? Note the use of the term ‘better’. One suspects that anti-Western political rhetoric often comes from those who believe that somewhere out there, there is a another path than the one we are currently on. No one ever seems to consider the possibility that change would make things worse and that possibly, Kenyans have one of the best deals out there. What if the problem is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, not in the West but rather in ourselves? Kenyans have benefited from education and development opportunities that countries like Haiti can only dream of. We are so used to hating ourselves and what we have that we don’t seem to realise that others would love to be in our shoes. As a Jamaican once put it, ‘This island is goat space. We are not goats, we are men’. I do not remember where I read this quote but the point is, there are a lot of people out there discontented with their situation. What if in fact what we have is one of the world’s best kept secrets?
Historically, the world’s civilisations have flourished by reaching out across national, ethnic and racial boundaries to benefit from trade and innovative ideas and practices. Does Kenya have a culture that supports and promotes innovation, invention, problem-solving, production, manufacturing, and risk taking? What are our thoughts on equality and fairness? Do we respect each other’s humanity?
Kenyans have been fortunate to receive excellent education and access to Western cultures and economies that allow those who have the chance the ability to be part of the multinational institutions and businesses that dominate the world economy. For a small nation on the edge of the Indian Ocean, Kenya has an impressive level of name recognition around the world. Kenyans have had the opportunity to travel all over the world and benefit from those experiences. Instead of remaining stuck in the colonial discourse of earlier decades, Kenyans should be fired up with ambition and vision of what we can make of the future given all the opportunities we have already had.
The Caribbean and South America are littered with decaying buildings, monuments and indeed entire cities that were once flourishing hives of commerce and civilisation but that have long since fallen to ruin and been swallowed up by the jungle. These were the benefits that Western colonialism brought to their countries. Do we not risk importing the germs of this loss into our country at precisely the time when we are set to benefit most from our encounter with the West? And to what end? So that we may become even more impoverished, oppressed, degraded and downtrodden?
The people of Haiti can trace their African origins to several different countries on the continent. They also count the native Amerindians, the Taino, among their ancestors. The Spanish encountered the Taino when they arrived on the island of Hispaniola (on which Haiti and the Dominican Republic are situated) at the end of the fifteenth century. For some reason, the Taino awakened in the Spaniards such a vicious hatred that they were almost entirely wiped out in the next two decades. The Spaniards then proceeded to import slaves from Northwest Africa and later West and Central Africa to repopulate the territories they had devastated. This would later become the Atlantic Slave trade.
The Haitian Vodun culture commemorates several of these African ‘roots’ in its Radas or branches. The Nago (formerly of Yoruba), the Dahome, the Rara/Allada, the Kongo and the Banda. The Rara/Allada for one were, before their being brought to the Americas as slaves, part of what by all accounts was a sadistic brutal society in Dahomey. Regardless, Africa is of such metaphysical importance to the Haitian vodunists that it is where Ginen their heaven is located, the home to which they believe they will ascend at death. Ginen refers to the Guinea confederacy that for a period brought together several of the nations along the West African coast. Also brought to Hispaniola were Moors, the African allies of the North African Muslims, who had occupied Spain between 800AD and 1492. Safe to say that between the Moors and the Spaniards, there was history.
We may never know exactly why it is that God saw fit to disperse these peoples to the winds with the agency of European intervention. It was Bartolomeo de las Casas, a Spanish priest of the Dominican Order, who recommended to the Spanish Queen Isabella that slaves from Africa be brought to the Americas. Suffice it to say that they were changed by this diaspora. Hadn’t one better be careful about entangling oneself in a history that by God’s grace, one’s predecessors were largely saved from? Given the destructive role that vodun has played in Haiti’s plight, shouldn’t one be even more careful? Don’t we have enough of our own problems?
I recall in African student communities in the US hearing arguments about whether Westernisation was keeping us away from another future. Some mythical unknown present that we could have had if only. One suspects that these discussions were more sentimental than anything, acts of nostalgia by those pining for the homes they had left to pursue a higher education. Do the youth trapped in villages engage in such flights of fancy, or what about the slum dwellers who themselves have only recently fled the countryside? These discussions among those of us who had benefited most from Western development of our countries, flourished in the ignorance many of us had about our own cultures and societies. There are in fact plenty of examples of what happens when black people are left to themselves. Whether it is in Africa, or the blighted inner cities of America, many of which were for a period of time presided over by black mayors, or the American South during the period of Reconstruction, or the banana republics of the Caribbean. Clearly without Western participation, things do not work.
Isn’t it time we owned up to this basic failure on our part, instead of constantly retreating to these mythical fantasies? So far it seems that Kenyatta was right. That the darkness was best left behind and that the future lay in friendship and alliances with those in the international community who were willing to help. Shouldn’t we be thankful we have those opportunities? Isn’t it up to us to make the best of the future with what we have already been given?