Haiti dances to the rhythm of a borrowed drum

In Haiti, the mother tongue is Kreyòl, yet children do most of their schooling in French. How’s that for linguistic colonialism?

Haitian Creole, more properly Kreyòl, is spoken in Haiti by about twelve million people, and by some two million others living outside the country. Kreyòl was recognized as an official language in 1961, its orthography standardized in 1979, and official status given to both Kreyòl and French in the country’s 1987 Constitution. Haitian Creole is also spoken by over 150,000 Haitians who reside in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. In addition, it is the second most spoken language in Cuba, where over 300,000 Haitian immigrants reside, and there is a Kreyòl radio station operating in Havana.

According to some estimates, only 5% of Haitians speak French fluently. Educating children in French creates a small elite who are bilingual, but does not work for the masses. Most linguists believe that education in the vernacular language is preferable and some would argue that education in an imposed foreign language is a recipe for failure. Yet most school books and school exams are still in French, a language that a great many Haitian teachers do not adequately speak and understand. Such a paradoxical and exclusionary practice is a neo-colonial legacy of Haiti’s past as a French slave-based plantation island.

After independence in 1804 French became the sole literary language, since when the use of Kreyòl in literature has been sporadic but growing. The poet and playwright Félix Morisseau-Leroy (1912-98) was one of the first and most influential authors to write in Haitian Creole, and since the 1980s, many educators, writers and activists have followed suit. Today, several newspapers, as well as radio and television programmes, appear in Kreyòl.

Morisseau-Leroy pioneered the Kreyòl revival, supporting a movement to establish its legitimacy in literature and culture. As this was the language of the majority of the people, who were mostly rural, Morisseau believed in using it as a means of uniting the country. He translated the classical Greek tragedy “Antigone” into Kreyòl, at the same time adapting the characters and context to Haitian culture, for instance, featuring a Vodun priest.

Another proponent of Haitian self-identity was the ethnologist, and writer Jacques Roumain (right), best known for his poems and the novel Masters of the Dew (1944). Roumain was born in 1907 to a Port-au-Prince family of comfortable means. Before reaching the age of 20, he travelled in Germany, a country whose culture he admired, and studied in Switzerland where he acquainted himself with the works of Carl Gustav Jung. Echoes of the Swiss philosopher’s theories of the collective unconscious can be found in Roumain’s writings. For example, this passage from Masters of the Dew (pp. 55-56):

“What are we? Since that’s your question, I’m going to answer you. We’re this country, and it wouldn’t be a thing without us, nothing at all. Who does the planting? Who does the watering? Who does the harvesting? Coffee, cotton, rice, sugar cane, cacao, corn, bananas, vegetables, and all the fruits, who’s going to grow them if we don’t? Yet with all that, we’re poor, that’s true. We’re out of luck, that’s true. We’re miserable, that’s true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. We don’t know yet what a force we are, what a single force – all the peasants, all the Negroes of plain and hill, all united. Some day, when we get wise to that, we’ll rise up from one end of the country to the other. Then we’ll call a General Assembly of the Masters of the Dew, a great big coumbite of farmers, and we’ll clear out poverty and plant a new life.”

In the original of Masters of the Dew, Roumain struck a compromise between using Kreyòl – which would have been authentic but difficult for his French-speaking readers – and putting pure French into the mouths of his peasant characters. Songs and proverbs are quoted in Kreyòl and the dialogue is sprinkled with Kreyòl words. The English translators, Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook, avoided having the characters speak some kind of rural American dialect as a substitute by using Kreyòl words and providing a short glossary of terms. But in doing so, they lost a certain element of local colour.

Roumain would have understood the problem of translating his novel. Equally, he would have been at the forefront of today’s efforts to return Haiti to its Kreyòl roots as a way of restoring dignity and self-respect to its people. As the Haitian proverb says, Tanbou prete pa janm fè bon dans – “A borrowed drum never makes good dancing.”


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