“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a positive news story about Haiti.”
said the comedian Romesh Ranganathan before his recent trip to the country. Apparently, he finds Haiti discomforting, concerning and freaky. Yet as the late and brilliant Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot would most likely say in response:
“Haiti is not that weird. It is the fiction of Haitian exceptionalism that is weird.”
Romesh went to Haiti based on this fiction. It was the premise of his dreadful BBC2 “The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan” show that aired tonight. It was also the focus of his spectacularly poorly titled article “Dogs, dives, voodoo and guns” that somehow made it past the editors and appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday. He claims he was searching for strangeness in the Caribbean. And duly, he found it.
That’s because he brought strangeness with him. In both his head and in his intentions. When you go into a place already expecting what to find then often it is difficult to see the reality standing before you. When you travel with your head filled with so many fear-mongering words uttered by people with little to no connection with the island, then perhaps it is difficult to separate the truth from the lies.
Images of Haitian weirdness are so commonplace that many assume they already know the country. It is a fictional, exceptional Haiti. One beset with misery, poverty and desperation. This feeds into racially-charged warnings to avoid places with poor black people, earthquakes and hurricanes.
I might have been sympathetic to you, Romesh, had you been a lowly, lonely traveller visiting Haiti on a whim. But this was a planned visit, probably months in the making. A visit exposed on national television and in the press.
Was it just laziness that led the team behind the show to rely on crude, played-out stereotypes? Or, worse, did they deliberately avoid all the examples, the music, the art, the literature, the creativity, the inspiration and the history of Haiti because it did not suit their purposes?
Romesh views Port-au-Prince with contempt. It can be a difficult place to get to grips with, with its dust and rubble and the traffic (won’t somebody please think of the tourists?). Yet he does not give himself the chance to see the wonders that the capital also offers. It is but a spectacle of misery for him and, with little empathy and no effort to consider the context, he keeps Haiti at arms length, a place he will be relieved to leave in his past as he dreams of laying on a nearby Dominican beach.
His attitude reminded me of the words of a much earlier British travel writer, James Froude, who in 1887 described Port-au-Prince as the “central ulcer” of Haiti. This tourist kicked up images of dirt and disease to deride Haitians as a people and dismiss it as a nation. A “failed state,” if you will. Froude’s purpose was to dismiss the idea that black people could rule themselves.
Romesh’s words are blan – aloof, they patronise, they colonise, and they contradict what Haiti really is. What is it about Haiti that allows him to get away with this lazy, racist and damaging depiction? When you add in the history and the context, it’s not really very funny now Romesh, is it?