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Friday, January 8, 2010

Ghana & Haiti

When I was in Ghana last fall I kept thinking about how my observations and experiences in Africa compared to those I have had in Latin America. Now that I'm in Haiti, I keep thinking about how this country compares to Ghana.

I stepped off the plane in Port-au-Prince and immediately felt as if I was back in Ghana. The level of development is about the same, the people are the same (Haiti is largely inhabited by those of West African descent), the tropical climate is similar. Some people would even say that the language is related, as Haitian Creole is a linguistic mix of French, English, and a variety of West African languages. Haitians, particularly those who have little education, are as distant from their official colonial language (French) as those in Ghana are from theirs (English).

Some similarities I fail to notice right away. One of the delegation members says "look, that woman is carrying a basket on her head" and I wonder do they not do that everywhere, or have I become so accustomed to seeing that happen in Africa that I don't think twice about it. It seems that there must be an interesting story of how that tradition was passed from Africa to Haiti, but seemingly not to other African diaspora populations in the Americas.

Both Ghana and Haiti talk about their diasporas being their eleventh province.

Because I feel as if I'm back in Ghana, I have to stop myself from doing some cultural things like ending handshakes with a finger snap. After working so hard NOT to use my left hand in Ghana, one of my reverse cultural shocks is trying to use my left hand again to pass and receive objects.

Ghana was noisy, and Haiti can be noisy as well, but maybe all of Latin America, the third world, or even the world is noisy and I just never really thought about it until someone pointed it out to me as a significant cultural trait in Ghana.

Ghanaians ride tro-tros; Haitians take taptaps. Haitian taptaps are in better condition and much more prettily decorated than Ghanaian tro-tros. I think the tradition of painting up transportation vehicles came from the Philippines, and again there must be a story of how that trait was diffused to Haiti.

Both countries have problems with electoral outages, though those in Haiti are more extensive and problematic. Both countries have noisily annoying generators, although some places in Haiti have rigged up a system of lead car batteries that can carry a household load for awhile until the grid comes back on or the generator kicks on. While standing in the security line at the airport in Port-au-Prince the electricity went off which of course brings down the ex-ray machines which brings everything to a standstill until they can get the generators up and running. The entire country seems to hang by a thread.

Both countries have lots of fresh fruit, but not many people seem to eat it (which is probably true in the US as well). At least in Ghana I cooked for myself, which meant that I could eat as much fresh fruit as I wanted (rather than starch and dead animals).

Ghana was the most religious society I have ever seen. Religious signs are also prevalent in Haiti, particularly on public transportation vehicles, but probably no more so than the rest of Latin America. Religious themed vehicles is only logical given the Catholic roots of the society, and the crazy drivers who need all of the divine assistance that they can get.

Begging is similar in both countries, with kids saying to me "gimme money," which is perhaps to be expected since both countries exist as a similar socio-economic level (Haiti ranks 148 on the UNDP HDI list, and Ghana is 4 places lower at 152). I did not encounter the degree of hassle in Haiti as what eventually wore me down in Ghana, but perhaps that is because in Haiti our delegation leaders took care of many of the problems that I would otherwise encounter. But Haiti is not as much of a basket case as I had been led to believe. I found it to be a surprisingly functioning society.

Is Haiti part of Latin America, or are commonalities I might see with the rest of the Americas just because it is part of the third or developing world? In my classes on Latin America I include Haiti as part of that region and justify it on the basis of it being colonized by "Latin" Europe, the same rational that Napoleon gave for occupying Mexico in the 1860s (and, incidentally, how the term "Latin America" became popularized). But if we include the French parts of the Americas in our definition of Latin America, we should also include French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Quebec, which we do not commonly do. Some people say that Haiti should not be included in Latin America because it has a different language and culture, but the same is true for Brazil. If we exclude Brazil, we have just lost half of the traditional definition of Latin America. But when I am in Brazil, I do feel as if I am in a different world than when I am in Spanish America. For better or worse, I tell my students that my classes largely focus on Spanish America, and perhaps unintentionally I have come to treat Spanish America as synonymous with Latin America.

But these are all academic constructions removed from the lived realities of people in the Americas anyway.

Perhaps some of my impressions of both countries are similar because I entered both at similar socio-economic levels, and perhaps some of perceptions of differences are a result of working in Ghana as an academic at a conservative elite university, and coming to Haiti with a solidarity delegation in alliance with militant grassroots social movement. But Haiti, like the rest of Latin America, does seem to be much more politicized than Africa. This is visible, for example, in electoral propaganda and other graffiti spray painted on walls throughout Port-au-Prince.

Both countries have histories of heavy resource extraction, gold and cocoa in Ghana and sugar and coffee in Haiti. But one thing I can't help thinking is that a high degree of inequality and political activism must somehow be linked. Ghana has a relatively good Gini coefficient of .43, in the same range as the United States and Venezuela (but well below Denmark and Norway), whereas Haiti is the most unequal country in the Americas with a Gini coefficient of .60. I argue that the problem of Latin America is not poverty but inequality, and perhaps that inequality is a contributing factor to highly politicized societies in Latin America.

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