New Internationalist

Haiti’s colonial hangover

During my time here in Haiti, I am doing some teaching, and also working with the Committee from Camp Acra and Adoquin. I am now two weeks into teaching English to members of Sopudep School. There are 14 pupils from school grades 11 and 12 in the class and they have varying levels of English. There are also some adults taking time out from work to learn. The first day was taken up with introductions and everyone – including me! – was a little nervous. I hadn’t been in a classroom for some 15 years, and I have never taught English before. Two weeks on, the class is relaxed. We focus on conversation (so that my lessons do not interfere with the school curriculum) and I am pleased with both my own teaching and with the progress of the students. Then, after the hour-long class, it’s my turn to learn: Madam Rea spends 20 minutes teaching me Kreyol.

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More than two hundred years after independence from France, the legacy of the French hegemony remains in the stigmatization of the huge sections of the population who speak Kreyol – denying them access to information which is supplied only in French – and in the way that Haitian history is taught in schools. Kreyol is a language created out of a revolution. It is easy to forget that the majority of slaves who fought in the Haitian revolution were born in Africa; it is through them that Kreyol and Voudou were created from their own languages and religious traditions, mixed with French and Spanish.

Despite decolonization, the language and religion of the people have yet to revive and reassert themselves. French continues to stifle the Kreyol-speaking majority. Children are forced to learn maths in French, making the subject doubly difficult. During last year’s 12 January remembrance of the 2010 earthquake, white evangelicals attempted to break up a Voudou remembrance ceremony by drowning it out with their music. Eventually the police had to be called to drag the evangelicals away before someone got killed.

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In Haiti-Haitii: Philosophical Reflections for Mental Decolonization, the island’s first democratically elected president and former Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who returned to Haiti from exile in 2011, writes scathingly of religion. He argues that the Catholic Church played a significant role in the colonization of his country, and that religion can be used as a dangerous weapon:

In the eyes of those who do not see well, religion looks like gold. Thankfully those with sound and analytical minds know that ‘not everything that sparkles is gold’.

Since time immemorial, many of the powerful élites have used religion as a potent weapon: a weapon to deconstruct, destroy, dismember the ideas of others while forcing their own ideas onto those with stunted brains to subjugate and break those persons, and utilize them for their own purposes.

When this mighty power [Catholicism] roared, it was like a wild beast, devouring any and all foreign religions in its path…. The interests of the colonialists and the interests of Jesus are two mountains that will never meet. Slavery and liberty are exactly like hell and paradise. Because illiterate does not mean stupid, the slaves did not have to pore over the words of a Catechism tailored to serve one set of interest, in order to understand the religion of the colonialists.

The stench of rot cannot be camouflaged by incense.

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Photo of St Anne's Church in Haiti by rapidtravelchai under a CC Licence

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