Colonialism Challenges Thanksgiving in Haiti?


I had planned to post the following yesterday, had not the old sit-down-Thanksgiving-dinner-for-23 gotten the best of me, eating up any time I might have dedicated to posting what had, for the most part, already been written:

Let’s face it.  Planning Thanksgiving from here in Port-au-Prince has had its fair share of near disasters and we haven’t even had the dinner yet.  That’s not till tonight.  But it’s in this spirit of near calamity I’ve been writing all week about my misadventures trying to make this holiday happen here, ruminating in posts over the past several days specifically about the shopping and oven-related challenges that have nearly derailed my efforts.  Today, however, in honor of the day itself—a holy day, of sorts—I’m pondering the moral implications of hosting a feast for folks with plenty to eat in a country where children will go hungry today, will have gone to bed last night with not a drop of dinner and woken of this morning with no real breakfast to speak of.

This dilemma has its roots in a system that got started centuries ago.  In fact, some have argued, that Haiti’s economic challenges originated in the kind of colonialism our American Thanksgiving actually celebrates.  Now I like my Macy’s parade and other Thanksgiving traditions as much as the next guy.  But frankly, I find it uncomfortable to be highlighting this event from a place where colonialism couldn’t have gone more wrong.

Let me clarify—by offering the following facts.  You ponder them and tell me your thoughts.

–Christopher Columbus landed here on the island of Hispaniola in December of 1492, setting up Europe’s first settlement in the New World.

–When the Spanish arrived an indigenous population of as many as 8 million welcomed them, but in fewer than 20 years only 50,000 remained, most of the Indians having been killed by diseases first brought to the island by Europeans, namely yellow fever.  Thirty years later only hundreds had survived.

–With the loss of an indigenous labor force to mine for gold, the Spanish and later the French, needing manpower to work their sugar plantations, began importing slaves from West Africa, until by the beginning of the 19 century, as many as 500,000 may have occupied the island.

–Because the population of slaves was so high, compared to the few Europeans actually in residence, and because the French were so brutal in their abuse of slaves, soon-to-be ex-slaves revolted and won their independence from France in January of 1804, becoming the first independent ex-colony in all of Latin America.

–Because Haitian political leaders wanted to trade with France and wanted their country’s legitimacy to be recognized by the US, they agreed in 1824 to pay France 150 million francs to compensate the former French plantation owners for lost income, effectively paying an indemnity, effectively buying their freedom, the freedom of an entire nation of former slaves.

–The Haitian government was not able to pay off that debt until the middle of the 20th century and was forced to hand over to the French tax revenue the government might otherwise have invested in infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals, an electrical grid—none of it established in Haiti as it was in the US by the 1950s.

–Some have argued (see Paul Farmer’s Uses of Haiti), that it is this fallout from former colonial rule that has left Haiti destitute economically and vulnerable politically to the kind of pre-election violence we’ve seen in Haiti this week (elections scheduled for Sunday, November 28th).  Some have said this continued servitude has left Haiti without the basic services a government can establish with tax revenue—left it without a building code, for example, and therefore structurally vulnerable to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake—left it medically vulnerable without enough hospitals to manage the cholera epidemic we see raging in the streets of Port-au-Prince today.

The bottom line is this—

I feel uncomfortable celebrating a holiday that essentially celebrates friendship and feasting between colonizers and an indigenous population.  It feels wrong, in a lot of ways, border-line hypocritical, especially with hunger, malnutrition, and a lack of clean water killing thousands just down the street in Port-au-Prince proper.

I don’t mean to imply it’s wrong to celebrate, as we would have back home.  Rather, I’m suggesting that this awareness has troubled me for most of the day—a sore spot on the conscience of someone of European descent, celebrating the holiday of the (sometimes brutal) colonizer in a place so ruined by the colonial system.

What are your thoughts about this?

Note: the Thanksgiving dinner was fabulous, thermostatically-challenged oven and shopping snafus not-with-standing. I promise to share details in upcoming days.

Watering Change


No water has flowed from the faucets at my house here in Haiti for 2 days, and I’ve decided not having water is way worse than not having electricity.

Bottom line:  I’m not a happy camper—or at least—not happy camping, as the case may be.

At the same rate, I must confess, to living a ridiculously comfortable life here in Port-au-Prince, certainly by Haitian standards.  So, I have no real reason to complain, especially when one considers the more pressing crisis of cholera contaminating the water supply, an epidemic that has killed nearly 1000 in the past few weeks, sickened nearly 20 times as many, and incited violence against UN peacekeepers in a number of towns across the country.

It’s mostly a matter of not having what I’ve come to expect after more than four decades of running water’s near perpetual availability.  To say I’m spoiled would be both true and minimizing of just how comfortable, on some level, I think I’m entitled to be—an ugly truth, I don’t totally know how to change about myself.  Perhaps, doing without is the only way to train myself otherwise.  And it seems it may indeed be a matter of training, relearning how to think about the resources in America we so casually take for granted, waste, complain about, and even don’t know how to survive without when shortages arise.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed, after living in Haiti for a number of months, to come from a country that plays survivor games on television (to the appeal of mass audiences), calling that “reality” TV.   But the sense of entitlement I’m uncovering in myself is exponentially more shameful.

After a chronic illness left me unable to work for a number of years, I’d come to consider myself fairly self-aware, someone who thought about poverty and hunger and wanted to do something to alleviate suffering.  But, too much thinking coupled with not-enough acting, can clearly translate into an hypocrisy I and too many Americans, both liberal and conservative alike, unknowingly live by.

Certainly, I don’t have the answers, not even for myself.  I only know that by the time this piece posts, it’s likely water will again be flowing in my house and complacency will become even easier, once more.  I can only pray that my attitude improves, that I learn to do with less, that I complain less about the little things and do as Ghandi said we should, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

If only I knew how!