Haiti’s Amazing Language

Michel Martelly
Michel Martelly

Today’s news shows us a new political crisis in Haiti, the country that least needs yet another. Guy Philippe, candidate for senator in a governmental body that went into deep freeze a year ago, calls for a popular uprising if current president Michel Martelly is kicked out of office at the end of his term, February 7.

Martelly was supposed to hold elections by the second Monday of 2015, to replace the not-sitting Senate. He finally did so months late, with a new Senate in place January 12, 2016, but some seats still undecided. He has been ruling by decree for the better part of the year in between.

This would be the same Guy Philippe who overthrew the Aristide regime February 28, 2004. Something fishy here: Philippe’s little brigade of 200 troops came in with neatly pressed uniforms and state-of-the-art weapons, after months of scrupulous training in neighboring Dominican Republic.

DR has no secrets, but somehow provided the real estate and freedom of movement for the only disciplined troops Haiti has had in over a century. Philippe’s band came over the border to cheering townspeople along the way, and up to the capital of Port-au-Prince. They would have killed Aristide if the United States had not rescued the latter in a small plane provided by U.S. military.

Philippe has now reversed his earlier function, rallying citizens behind a national leader instead of seeking to kill him. Things happen, people evolve.

If this seems confusing, understand that Haitians understand every iota of the illogical world they live in. Outsiders never will.

It is inherent in their language, so grammatically simple, so confounding to those not born into it.

For years, the only text for learning the Haitian Creole language (encouraged by Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc” Duvalier and enshrined in the 1987 Constitution after his departure) was Ann Pale Kreyòl. This playful text was published by the University of Indiana in 1988 for English speakers.

In it we learn that “Li li li pou li” can mean “She reads it to him,” or “She reads him to him,” or “He reads it to her,” and so forth – basically anything you want. This can seem ambiguous to the learner, but Haitian are never been misled, they always know the context.

Ann Pale Kreyòl gives us life the way it really is in catastrophic, gorgeous, seductive Haiti. Lesson eight gives us standard dialogues like “Ki sa l’ap fè?” (“What is he doing?”) Then the answser: “L’ap plante.” (“He’s planting.”)

As the text progresses, we get slightly more complex situations: “Tidjo gen yon liv nan men-li” (“Little Joe holds a book in his hands.”)

But in the advanced chapters, we get to the nitty-gritty: Lamèsi (“Thanks-to-God”) learns that her daughter has died in the capital, and is going to get the body to bury her back home near Jérémie. Her brother says

Adye o! M’fèk pren nouvèl-la, wi. Ki sa ou ap fè? Ou ap prand batiman po ou al Pòtoprens?

(“Oh my God, I just learned the news! What are you going to do? You’re going to take your boat to Port-au-Prince?”)

This quickly becomes a language lesson in modes of transport – “batiman” (boat), “kamyon” (truck), “chwal” (horse.) But the text masterfully gives the real-life situations one would run into in the ill-fated isle: premature death, family solidarity, and grieving. This is a text that does not mince words, and which goes into the real context of everyday life.

As we advance, things get worse, and murder comes into focus:

Veye-a koumanse; men bri kouri li pa mouri bon mò. Y’ap pale pou yo wè ki jan oungan-an ap range li pou moun ki touye l la ka peye konsekans zak-li.

(“The wake has started, but it is rumored that she didn’t die naturally. They’re talking to see how the oungan [Vodou priest] will prepare the corpse so that the person who killed her can pay for her action.”)

The final dialogue in the Indiana text goes like this:

Kote moun yo? Nou pare pour mwen?

(“Where is everybody? Are you ready for me?)

Wi papa! Tout bagay pare, wi. Mò-a nan ti chanm-nan.

(“Yes, Dad! Everything is ready! The dead person is in the little room.”)

And we even learn the motive for the murder, that “it’s a light skinned woman with long hair who killed her because Pierre married her.” (Se yon fil wouj gwo cheve ki touye l paske Pye marye ak li.)

Here is a text that soars above banality and depicts the harsh realities of Haitian everyday life.

Getting back to Guy Philippe and the current crisis of the day: When Aristide was taken away February 28, 2004, the airplane pilot turned to his passenger and said, “Where to?”

B’am Guy!” said Aristide, sputtering with rage: literally, “Give me Guy!” or more liberally translated, “Get me Guy Philippe’s head on a pike!”

The pilot heard only “B’am Guy” and set the navigational system on Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, where Aristide ended up three days later.

Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

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