Our national identity in limbo

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainTwo hundred and eight years ago, brave Haitians declared an end to slavery, giving birth to a new nation where each person was a human being. Tout moun se moun. This move advanced the notion of human rights for the first time in modern history, and was a vast departure from the values that were held in high regard during French colonial rule.

While at its inception, the revolutionary ideals of the newly formed nation called Haiti held great promise, the reality as understood today detracts from this plesant image. Still, our rituals and their symbolic associations mirror these revolutionary ideals. For example, soup joummou, the New Year’s and Independence Day celebratory pumpkin soup, signifies the communion of equals through the consumption of the once forbidden delicacy reserved for the colonial masters. Today, as family and friends gather around the dinner table, we are clearly proud of our freedom and accomplishments, yet know that there are countless Haitians who are hungry, sleeping under tents. Two hundred and eight years after independence, many Haitians live in abject poverty and have no rights as humans.

This January 1, I chose to contemplate the ironies that plague my beloved Haiti. Here, the once brave nation of the New World, the champion of the downtrodden, finds itself languished and atrophied, all but consumed by self-hatred and in-fighting that is a legacy of our colonial past. As I watched the happy spoons around my dinner table, I imagined the millions of dry mouths that hum prayers for their next meal. I contemplated the undocumented Haitians, who remain uncounted solely because of the ineptitude of the Haitian government. I lamented the thousands of bodies washed away by floods, or buried in mass graves, or dead at sea.

Their citizenship can never be memorialized. I envisioned those who would be born this year without even a birth certificate.

I remember as a child, bringing small bowls of soup to those who were less fortunate; my grandfather, my mom and to some extent, my dad before he left for the States, always uttered the word charit (charity) around the holidays. For many poor families, it was the charit of others that gave them the chance to taste soup joummou on Independence Day. In the days since, I’ve been puzzled by the absence of a national kombit (coming together) that was so prevalent within peasant circles and even among small pockets of the middle and upper class in urban areas like in Port-au-Prince.

In those days, it was unlikely to encounter an individual – impoverished or not – without formal documentation. I grew up with family and friends who had birth certificates, passports and licenses – those who knew their birthdays. In recent years, however, I have met countless Haitians who live under the radar of the government, have never had their picture taken, and are simply ecstatic to see themselves on a video camera’s viewfinder. How absurd and even criminal it is for a nation not to be able to account for all of its citizens in the twenty-first century! How can we secure our territory when some convicted criminals and known gang members do not have official IDs? The future of the nation cannot rely on haphazard mechanisms or God’s will.

We will never be a collective force for national improvement until we recognize and document the existence of each of our members. A commune seeks communion with his and her fellow human beings. At my home, and perhaps in the home of many other Haitian families, we form these communes around the table on Independence Day – a bond of friendship where each is treated as an equal. The soup and other dishes symbolically bond family and friends who recognize each other’s dignity and worth as fellow human beings. It is unfortunate that this spirit fails to extend beyond our respective homes and dinner tables. Dignity and basic human rights have evaded the consciousness of the nation to the point that Haitians are born without having access to a birth certificate.

Where did we lose the idea that the common good of the nation was an obligation for our survival as a democratic nation? The communal ethos that was briefly born of the revolution has become an elusive quest, empty rhetoric. As a result, the security and future of the nation is directly on the line because a fairly large portion of the citizenry does not have an official identity. They cannot be counted as humans, and, as rights are only conferred to existing humans, they are exempted from these as well. Human rights and dignities have become the exclusive soup joummow of the twenty-first century.

Without an official identity, many Haitians cross borders unnoticed searching for a more prosperous existence. Ultimately, they are condemned to a similar fate as invisibles in foreign lands. They are the stateless beings who labor the sugarcane plantations of the Dominican Republic or are strewn like discarded fish across the Bahamas.

Each member of the collective union of the republic must be counted and certified from the moment of birth as a citizen of the nation so that rights can be conferred and records properly kept. Most importantly, each Haitian needs to be able to reference his or her individual birth history as well as his or her parents’.

Not wanting to dampen the happy mood around the table, I kept my thoughts to myself. The realities of Haiti are inescapable and they can beat you like a wet towel, or lift you up like a summer breeze. Even in front of a warm bowl of soup joummou however, it is difficult to avoid intrusive thoughts about the negative realities of Haiti. Unfortunately, it seems that many of those with the power to change those realities don’t have as difficult a time.

Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University.