My colleague who has travelled throughout Africa and inspired many significant projects with partners in Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda made the striking comment as we experienced Haiti for the first time. “It’s as if a chunk of Africa has been lifted and dropped in the Caribbean” he said. In people terms, this is exactly what has happened. In the history of the colonialist’s insatiable lust for the third world’s resources, the pillaging and raping of the land, nothing compares to the evil of the slave trade. It remains the deepest stain on our history. That individuals, people who have been made in the image of God, and who, solely because of their race and where they came from, could be dragged from their homes and land, bought and sold and disposed of, as property, as things, is both hideous and despicable. That governments could collude and benefit from the trade and the Christian church provide the necessary theology to back it up, makes it all the more damning.
The true depth of that stain can be felt here in Haiti. Brought from west Africa by the French to work the land they rose up and defied their masters to become the first independent nation in Central America with a government made up of former slaves. At first first few countries recognised them and they could only begin trade with their former colonial masters by paying a crippling fine as compensation for their loss of earnings – the loss of their slaves. The cruel irony and absurdity of what was happening is hard to swallow. They were obliged to pay their previous owners for the freedom to live in a land which had already been raped. (The deforestation that took place during the colonial period contributes enormously to Haiti’ current problems). At times in their history the Haitians were treated cruelty by their neighbours in the Dominica Republic. The darkest episode took place in 1937 when, under Trujillo’s orders, 10-20 thousand Haitians were slaughtered in a heinous act of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Rio Massacre, which serves as a border between the two countries, at points, was literally flowing with blood. The recent earthquake and the series of coups and despots only serves to pour salt on the sore of this wounded nation.
Today the colonialists have been replaced with multinationals who have the Haitians by the throat. The innocent sounding “free trade zone” at Ouanaminthe where goods are produced for well known clothing brands, blatantly uses cheap labour in sweat shop conditions.
It is and remains a great stain and an inescapable burden. If you cared at all what could you do ? How could you respond?
For many, catharthis is found in political action when the anger and indignation at injustice propels them into raising the issue, getting people to listen. pillaring governments, writing letters, signing petitions and every legal method of forcing those in power to change corrupt and unjust business. For me it has to be another way. And what I observed my colleagues doing, on the ground at an individual human level, working and helping local people, partners in the communities, epitomised that.
The great stain won’t be removed with money or with years or with good intentions or with penance. The victims will only lose their victimhood when they find their true worth their true value their self respect and their unshakable dignity. That was what my colleagues were working towards and that was what inspired them.