Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Haitians are Coming! The Haitians are Coming!

Clovis, Sunday Observer, January 31, 2010

Ever since January 12 when the 7.0 earthquake hit Port-au-Prince Jamaicans have been bracing for an influx of Haitians seeking refuge from their inhospitable island. Finally on January 28, TVJamaica’s 7 pm newscast announced that the first ‘refugees’ had arrived on the North Coast--in Stewart Town, St. Mary, to be precise.

The camera switched to an impoverished looking individual with no front teeth who described how he and some other Stewart Townians had encountered a famished looking stranger riding a bike through their community. His clothes were wet and when questioned by the stalwarts of Stewart Town, he couldn’t provide an answer. In fact he looked at them mutely, dumbstruck as it were.

By this time the residents of Stewart Town were beginning to suspect that what they had in front of them was none other than a real live Haitian who had come to Jamaica looking for help. After days of wall-to-wall coverage of the quake on CNN and the BBC, the dire straits of those who survived the natural disaster was well known and the St. Mary residents were determined to be kind and hospitable to the putative refugee.

In mounting excitement they started gesticulating at the man asking if there had been an earthquake where he came from. According to a newspaper report:

Pearl Cameron, a resident who offered Anderson a bath, food, clothing and money said although he was hungry and weak he appeared to be in good health.

‘He wrote on a piece of paper and told us that it was five of them on the boat and that his family survived the earthquake,’ she told the Observer, adding that she had used sign language to communicate with Anderson.”

The newspaper account continued, saying “The residents, believing Anderson’s story, called the police who took him to the Port Maria Hospital where, with the help of a translator, they tried to question him.”

Meanwhile the nation was shown images of the unfortunate Haitian being tenderly ministered to by the Police; in Portland one Mavis Anderson gasped and jumped to her feet.

“Him a nuh Haitian, him a Jamaican. Mi nuh know weh him a do a Stewart Town. Him usually ride him bicycle to Port Maria, but mi nuh know weh him a do down there.” Mavis Anderson is reported to have told the Observer after retrieving her son from the hospital.

It transpired that the starving Haitian refugee was a famished Jamaican fisherman or as the Observer put it, “a Jamaican mute from Windsor Castle, Portland.”

At this point i find it necessary to issue the disclaimer that any similarity or resemblance to the plot of an Anthony Winkler story is purely incidental. The truth in Jamaica, is truly stranger than fiction...

While we’re on the subject of refugees it might interest you to know that no less than 13 heads of state from Haiti have taken refuge here with four actually passing away on this island. And all of this was between the years of 1843-1871! The first Haitian President to arrive was Jean-Pierre Boyer in 1843. In 1844 his properties in Haiti were confiscated by the new government in Haiti, headed by one Charles Riviere-Herard. And it wasn’t only Haitian Presidents who whiled away their exile in Kingston. As Matthew Smith, UWI historian and author of the book Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 noted:

“Boyer...was one among a handful of once powerful ex-Presidents who were lying low in Kingston. Among the others were: the colourful Mexican caudillo, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna who, after the crushing defeat at Chapultepec in the final decisive battle of the Mexican-American War in 1848, fled to Guatemala and then to Kingston, where he would remain for two years; Jose Antonio Paez, the heroic leader of the llaneros who fought the royalists in 1819 in the South American revolution against Spain, and who was the first President of Venezuela; and General Juan Jorge Flores, former President of Ecuador who had been forced out of 1843. How exciting it must have been walking around Kingston in 1848! To complicate things even further, Boyer’s successor and archrival, Riviere-Herard, the same man who had confiscated Boyer’s property, was overthrown in May 1844 and found himself living in Kingston at the same time...Later Guerrier, Riviere-Herard’s successor would also set sail for Kingston, though we don’t know much of what became of him.”*

*from "Emperors, Exiles and Intrigues: The Case of Nineteenth-century Haitian Heads of State in Jamaica” by Matthew Smith in Regional Footprints: The Travels and Travails of Early Caribbean Migrants

See? In Jamaica the truth rivals fiction anyday.

PS: This post was originally called "The Haitian Fugee" but after reading Gelede's comment i had to rename it. The Haitians are Coming captures it all...nuff thanks Gelede.

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Annie - Truth is indeed stranger than fiction in our likkle jamdung, I tell you.

I read that story in the newspaper and had to laugh. I mean really! First it was the scare tactics - The Haitians are coming! The Haitians are Coming!

Then the Earnest Doctor's comments that Ja should get ready for an "ïnflux" of Haitians who are full of diseases and are about to be loose on unsuspecting jamaicans (I believe the U.S. gov't had the same attitude when they pinned the HIV epidemic on Haitians and barred them from entering the U.S. in the 1980s). Then, the - I don't know how to characterize it - reportage by Our Gleaner Guy who seemed to relish telling us how Haitians displaced by the earthquake didn't seem to mind cooking on the side of street in close proximity to dead bodies. I could tell he was waiting for us to exclaim "eeh eeeh - dem naasy sah!" I was seriously expecting him to say that he thought, or heard, or the wind whispered something that some of the bodies were being carted off to be used in vodou ceremonies.

And now this story of the "mute" who was mistaken to be a Haitian man complete with props - a boat that nobody actually saw - who had successfully avoided being injected with god-knows-what and being quarantined in some two-bit place behind god's back.

Sure, Matt Smith can exclaim "how exciting it must have been (for who?)walking around Kingston in 1848." But, compared to the media's ongoing rendition of the "Haitian situation", 19th C. Haitian politicos fleeing to Jamaica seems positively tame and even boring!

Write on!