“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?
This article was written by Haiti Support Group Chair Antony Stewart. It was edited by our Programmes Coordinator Eve Hayes de Kalaf.
This Post Has 4 Comments
Sickened by the missed opportunity to inform rather than gawp and patronise. Another example of nothing more than lazy and superficial “research” from a condescending nation still immersed in its colonial attitudes to pigeonholing and binning.
I WILL be complaining to the BBC for again standing on its supercilious pedestal, which should have been demolished long ago.
I was likewise disappointed by this programme. I was hoping for something that looked beyond the stereotypes, yet instead the programme makers chose to promulgate them. Predictably Voodoo was dismissed as ‘black magic’ and the presenting of the sacrifices to the four corners was derided as being like dancing the Macarena – the BBC would never allow Christianity to be mocked in this way during a documentary-style programme so I don’t know why other spiritualities and religions should be subject to such derision. I much preferred Simon Reeve’s more sympathetic coverage of Haiti during his series on the Caribbean.
This was a travesty! A missed opportunity indeed! Haiti is one of the most important black nations in the world. You made no mention of this country’s historical impact on the world. This was France’s most valuable colony, France depended on it and they fought hard to hold on to it. Life expectancy for slaves was 5-7years under a brutal slave regime. The slaves rose up and defeated the Spanish, Napoleon and the British. There was no mention at all of how the rebellion forced the Louisiana purchase making the USA what it is today. What about the support given to Simon Bolivar that sparked revolutions across Latin America? The Haitian revolutions is one of the world’s great revolutions. It sent shockwaves across the world. Because of the fear of slave rebellions spreading to Jamaica,Cuba and the plantations in America, fierce rivals Britain, France, America and Spain ganged up, blockaded and forced Haiti to pay reparations to France for loss of property. Yes, they had to pay for their ‘freedom’! This payment was equivalent up 80% of the GDP for over 100 years. On top of that they were occupied by the US for over 20 years and as the US had done in Cuba they brought along their customary racial black codes. This period of occupation also led to the popular misrepresentation of voodoo that you lampooned so well. Just to let you know this slave rebellion started with a voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman in 1791. The Haitian revolution is the only time in history that slaves have ever overthrown their masters and created a nation. What you have done is joined the chorus of ‘Westerners’ labelling Haiti as a ‘dive’, ‘dump’, ‘cesspit’ and ‘shithole’, with no understanding of their circumstances or any empathy. Very disappointing!
Thanks, Michael for such a great response!