By Sokari Ekine @blacklooks
Last year I was alerted to the website Turning World @Turning_world by some friends here in Haiti. The site is run by photojournalist Brad Workman who has an ongoing photo documentary project in Haiti. We took issue with the language, his profitmaking approach, and the fact that there is no acknowledgement let alone giving back to those whose lives he invades under the guise of social documentary. I wrote a post on this that asked the question: Photo Journalism or Poverty Porn?
In a similar vein, many of us are now questioning the website content of the Foundation for International Development Assistance – Productive Cooperatives Haiti (FIDA-PCH), a Canadian NGO operating in Haiti which purports to have set up a number of agricultural cooperatives and literacy projects in rural areas. Below are a set of photographs and text defining what they, the colonial missionaries, imagine it means to be Haitian.
There are different ways to tell a story without invading peoples’ lives and assaulting their dignity. The photos chosen by Haiti’s Camp Acra residents on their blog should be a lesson on how Haitians see themselves – see here and here. In the 1805 Constitution written by the first President of the Black Republic, victorious revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines (also called JanJak Desalin), declared that to be Haitian is to be Black (Article 14). In other words, being Haitian and being African are one and the same –inseparable. The Constitutions also states freedom of worship and no religion shall dominate.
With this in mind, consider the Western colonial narrative that writes Haiti as “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” composed of suffering, dysfunctional victims, both pathetic and resilient at the same time, lacking autonomy, waiting desperately for “white saviors” to arrive. And so they arrive, with the bible in one hand and stale bread in the other, to live like masters on the plantation in charge of childlike natives whose savage proclivities must be held in check. In their heads, like all previous colonizers, they need justification that goes beyond the practical. In the case of FIDA-PCH, this justification can be found in their photos and text.
This is important as in order for colonialism to function—and let’s be clear, FIDA-PCH and others like them are colonizers—its targets have to be written as passive, incapable, simple and in need of salvation. This pathologizing is necessary to recruit funds and gain acceptance in the home countries of the NGOs and missions. It is also necessary to create this narrative within Haiti to enable domination and recruitment into these fundamentalists groups.
FIDA-PCH and those like them come to Haiti and view the Haitian culture as inferior, and the Haitians as uncivilized. They assume Haitians need to be taught farming and the Western way of life, which of course is not supposed to include Vodou or any African religion that survived the Middle Passage. The country which is the most African of all the Diaspora is, in one slash of the white supremacist machete, disconnected from her ancestral roots. Haiti is presented in the most insidious racist terms, as inherently barbaric, and Haitians as inherently hateful of each other.
Like most NGOs and missionaries, FIDA-PCH’s presentation has no understanding that KREYÒL along with Vodou are the Poto Mitan* (Center Post) of Haitian culture – the latter a permanent historical presence whether practiced or not. The devaluation of Vodou throughout Haiti’s history is the one constant that can be found amongst the vast majority of foreign NGOs, missions and western media that shapes the views of the many who come to “help” Haiti.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that despite all the foreign interventions, the Poto Mitan has never been colonized! Instead of Haiti written as victims who hate sections of the population such as LGBTIQ people, Vodou writes Haiti as a continuing revolution and one where the core principle is an assumption that I am a living being and it is here that my merit lies.
There is so much violence and destructiveness in the FIDA-PCH text, photos and the actions that must stem from this mindset, and contrary to what they state, it is this which leads to the breakdown of traditions and causes much friction between groups. FIDA-PCH believes that Haitians, and therefore Black people, Africans, have no sense of community or agency.
Colonialism, imperialism, the ongoing exploitation and genocidal legacy of AmerEuropeans is dismissed. The enslaved and exploited are the ones judged and blamed. But the truth lies elsewhere. At the beginning of the revolution in 1791, the enslaved peoples of Haiti were united in purpose, language and belief systems; overthrowing plantation slavery could not have happened otherwise.
The text accompanying the photo below is particularly vile.
FIDA-PCH: “She was born into a culture yet to wash its self-esteem of the stains of slavery.”
NO: Haiti “washed” itself clean of the “stains of slavery” when Dessalines led an army of formerly enslaved Africans and beat back the British, French and Spanish to form the first Black Republic – a communal act of courage and bravery referred to as “the first great social revolution in the hemisphere.”
FIDA-PCH: “She remembers that her own tribal chief sold her family into slavery.”
NO: She remember that YOUR ANCESTORS sold her into slavery, transported her chained hand and foot in the bowels of hell, and then proceeded to torture, rape and use her as a beast of burden and dog bait!
In the above photo, the text claims “he [the Haitian] is acted upon. He turns passive. He resigns. Responsibility seems to him to belong to everybody else.” This is the exact scenario of power and control being created by NGOs, particularly those with Christian agendas and evangelical missions that seek to erase Haitian culture and demonize Vodou. These attacks have been on the increase since 2003 when President Aristide decreed Vodou as a national religion and “an essential part of national identity.”
The first proverb misrepresented on the FIDA-PCH website states, Depi nan Ginen neg pa vle we neg, which they translate as “Back in Guinee and ever since, Africans have no use for Africans.”
The correct spelling is: Depi nan Ginen nèg pa vle wè. It is clear they simply do not understand that the essence of a proverb is in its coded meaning. But we cannot simply dismiss this as an error. We must look at the intent, which is so twisted with toxic consequences. What we see is the inability to imagine that Africans/Haitians use language to express satire, irony, double meanings and a philosophical worldview and existential condition.
The correct translation is: Since Ginen, people don’t want to see people: Since coming from Guinea, the spiritual and ancestral homeland, people don’t want to see people. “Nèg” definitely does NOT stand for Africans; the Kreyol word for African is “Afriken.” The translation of “having no use” is invalid, as wè is to see. “People” and its literal meaning is “Negro,” but in Haiti “Negro” is also used for people that don’t have African ancestry. There is also ti nèg: ti means little and refers to a common person, for example a laborer or peasant; and gwo nèg, which refers to a rich and influential member of society or a person from the elite class. Not connected to ancestry or ethnicity.
One has to understand that after Haiti’s revolution, Dessalines said that there were only two types of people: blacks, which included all people of non-African ancestry that sided with the freedom fighters against oppression and slavery, and whites, which were all those on the opposing end. This meant, for example, that Polish settlers in Haiti who defected from the colonial troops to side with Dessalines and stay in Haiti were considered as blacks. In so doing, Dessalines made all Haitians equal, and therefore of the three revolutions of the time—French, US and Haitian—Haiti was the only country to live up to the ideal of equality and of freedom. Black for Dessalines was less a racial identifier and more about consciousness and a conscious awareness of justice against the global white supremacist structure of oppression.
The second proverb FIDA-PCH misrepresents is Abitan pa janm konnen, which they translate as, “He pretends he knows nothing even when he knows.” They interpret this revisionist lie as, “a fitting statement of Haiti’s scarred history.” Again agency is removed, history is erased, identity is rendered invisible, and we are presented with a cowering Haitian hiding from their words, life, community.
The correct translation is: The peasants never know. The meaning of which is: the opinion of the poor, the common people, is never sought nor consulted. This is in stark contrast to the meaning given on the website. FIDA-PCH’s Haiti is one full of mistrust, slavish dependency and self-hate whilst they present themselves as the savior in bringing to Haiti a cooperative environment where Haitians are TAUGHT to share and work together.
FIDA-PCH completely undermines indigenous social systems such as the concept of community, helping and trusting others and family in the Lakou system of shared agricultural and living compounds, and the Konbit, a get-together in which everyone donates their labor to help accomplish a common goal for community improvement, or to help out an individual. There are many Haitian proverbs that stress community and mutual help. The often cited Men anpil chaj pa lou, Many hands lighten the load, means things are easier to accomplish when a group works together. So here again you have a proverb that is in stark contrast to the reframing of Haitian cultural identity given on the FIDA-PCH website.
NGOs, missions and assorted visitors have had free reign in Haiti for too long. There are no visa requirements and no questions asked, no accountability to the public. Their profits are hidden and they can make whatever spurious claims about projects they run, the people they work with or have met. Agricultural projects in particular have a habit of making claims that do not exist in reality. Often they operate using questionable labour practices, in addition to forcing workers and their families to abandon their indigenous belief systems for Christianity in return for food and shelter. This culture of entitlement and ownership of Haiti’s future became entrenched following the January 2010 earthquake when NGOs and so-called humanitarian organisations felt they were beyond accountability, and fundamentalist attacks on the Haitian identity by evangelicals from the United States escalated.
Haiti, Africa and other parts of the African Diaspora are under attack from self-appointed white saviors and religious fundamentalists. The miracle is that the Haitian people have been able to survive at all. The voices of Haitians are no more than what filmmaker Raoul Peck describes in his film “Fatal Assistance” as “collateral alibis.” The outcome of 500 years of the EuroAmerican cultural tradition is one of genocide of indigenous peoples and the genocide of our minds.
We reject this in all its entirety and demand it STOP NOW!
We demand that all the photos and text on the FIDA website are removed and the proverbs replaced with the correct translations.
We are watching!
Written in collaboration with the following organizations and individuals :
Alyssa Eisenberg @alyssa011968,
Dominique Esser @dominique_e_,
Stephanie Horton @ducorwriter,
* References for the Poto Mitan:
It is the centerpost around which rituals and ceremonies unfold in a Vodou temple. It represents a great tree which reaches into the heavens, and through it’s roots, it grows deep into Africa, “Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English” edited by Benjamin Hebblethwaite]
Resisting Freedom in “Invisible Powers: Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture” edited by Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith.