Thursday, January 14, 2010

M pa pi mal

Haitians, especially rural, traditional Haitians, tend to answer the question "how are you" (ki jan ou ye?) with one of several one might say guardedly pessimistic responses. One is m la, literally 'I am present.' Another is m ap kenbe, "I'm hanging on." Still another is m pa pi mal, 'I'm no worse.' Answering too positively by saying, for example, m byen (I'm well) might be tempting fate; better to stay below the radar.

Haitians have good reason to prefer guarded pessimism. Their society was founded as a French exploitation colony dedicated to producing wealth for France with the use of involuntary migrant labor from Africa- slaves. And produce they did. In 1789, just before the Revolution, Haiti accounted for one-third of France's overseas trade and two-thirds of France's tropical produce. And then, inspired, ironically enough, by the American and French revolutions, and led by military geniuses like Tousent Louvèti, the African slaves overthrew their masters, defeated Napoleon's army, and took over their country. They returned to it the name its Amerindian inhabitants had called it: Ayiti. They ripped the white stripe from the French tricolor to create a new flag, and set about building a new nation.

But then, things pretty much started going south. The US declined to recognize the new republic, fearing that their own slaves might get ideas (the US did finally recognize Haiti during Lincoln's administration). The French demanded reparations for their losses in exchange for recognition and the Haitians, backs against the wall, agreed: a bizarre case of the defeated side dictating the terms of disengagement. Haiti took almost a century to comply with this extortion, handing over to France a total of over 20 billion dollars in today's money, 20 billion dollars that France has been asked to return, but, well, you know...

The list goes depressingly on and on: 19 years (1915-1934) of occupation by virulently racist US military personnel; years of abuse under the kleptocratic regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and later his son, "Baby Doc"; the US-supported removal, not once but twice, of elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the second removal actually carried out by US Marines; more kleptocrats; the US-ordered slaughter of all Haitian pigs; the ongoing dysfunction of an educational system reluctant to allow Kreyòl, the language of everybody, as a medium for teaching; and so, and on.

And these are the human-caused disasters. Let's not forget the malaria, the hurricanes (a word that comes to us from Haiti's original inhabitants), and now, the Earthquake.

And on top of all of this, Haitians have to endure commentary by abysmally ignorant, racist loons like Pat Robertson:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil...But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.
And from Rush Limbaugh, this:
Yes, I think in the Haiti earthquake, ladies and gentlemen -- in the words of Rahm Emanuel -- we have another crisis simply too good to waste. This will play right into Obama's hands. He's humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, 'credibility' with the black community -- in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made-to-order for them. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there.
Limbaugh, of course, is just an idiot. Robertson is worse, perhaps: a mendacious kleptomaniac fraud who extracts money from easily-manipulated people who think they're buying their way into heaven. His remark reflects the racist, ethnocentric attitudes those occupying US forces brought back from Haiti in the 1920s and 30s. If he were a functioning human being, he would be ashamed of himself.

M pa pi mal, indeed.


  1. Agreed, great post. Thanks for the creole version of Toussaint L'Ouverture's name - it was the first time I've come across it. A language influenced by pessimism could find no more likely home than Haiti.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.