Haitian language offers insight
Haiti has become a country known only for the devastation that was wrought by the January 12th earthquake, a date now infamous in the media. In the wake of the destruction, there was an outpouring of concern and grief followed by condemnation of the country for its third world ways and the inability of government to deal with the chaos and devastation.
But there is more to this country than an earthquake and poverty, there is an entire society trying to rebuild itself and a rich culture coming to terms with calamity, news reports to often relate a violent attack on a food convoy here, or a woman raped there, an orphanage without power somewhere else in the country.
The developed world, most notably the United States, Haiti’s most powerful neighbor, becomes desensitized to the desperation wrought by a catastrophe of proportions the people of Haiti have never known.
Everything changed for this country after the earthquake. We saw the Presidential Palace collapsed, entire residential blocks flattened, over 200,000 dead and not enough emergency personnel to clear away the dead bodies, so many Haitians were forced to do it themselves, carrying the dead bodies of their own family members.
We saw US soldiers jumping from helicopters onto the lawns of our Presidential Palace, they came in peace, to help the country, along with aid workers, soldiers and humanitarian volunteers from across the world, but it was a powerful and profound thing to witness nonetheless – the total collapse of our country’s governance.
Everything changed. And we are judged for changing with it.
This judgment is not leveled in malice, but in ignorance, a lack of knowledge of the Haitian people and the rich cultures that have influenced this country’s history and society.
Haiti has been flooded with aid workers, very few of them speak the local language, Creole, fewer of them have a basic understanding of Haitian’s or the culture.
This is why it is immensely significant that Max Adrien, a teacher who was born in Haiti and moved to the US when he was 20, has started teaching Haitian-bound Americans Creole in an effort to help them and Haiti as they carry out their vital role in providing essential services to the victims of the earthquake.
Adrien is a French Professor at Hamline University in Minnesota and it is here that he has set up a Creole language class that is held every Tuesday for an hour, there are over thirty students in his class, all of them are nurses, doctors, engineers, social workers, ministers, lawyers or physiotherapists. They bound for Haiti, or have returned from Haiti and have plans to go again and want to learn the language in order to better communicate with the people.
They are not going to learn to speak fluent Creole, but they will know basic phrases and words which will do a great deal to making Haitians feel not just like helpless victims, but people who are valued on a human level as well.
Max Adrien acknowledges that they cannot be expected to learn the language fluently as the time this would take is prohibitive, but he points out that even being able to say “How are you feeling, what hurts” etc in Creole will make a big difference.
“The appreciation they would get, to see an American not only care enough to be there, but care enough to learn the language, to speak to me in my own tongue and make me understand that I matter…I know the joy that would bring to a Haitian’s heart,” he told CNN in an interview.
"They appreciate when you try," Donna Richtsmeier concurs, she is retired from the nursing profession and volunteers in Haiti.
The problem is not so much a lack of willingness on the part of volunteers in Haiti to learn the language, but a lack of availability.
Ruth Anne Olson, a retired teacher, told CNN that she was delighted when she found out about Adrien’s free classes, as she had not been able to find any Creole language classes in Minnesota and especially not for free.
Adrien, who started the classes in February, says he just wants to help his country, a country in which his heart has long remained.
“Haitians, in a way, capture the essence of the human spirit,” Adrien told CNN, like many Haitians, he uses the words “my people” in reference to the country.
There is a reason Haitians feel this way, there is a culture and history behind the face of the earthquake, and hopefully if more Haitians abroad offered their services as Adrien does, more people abroad would understand more about the people, as communication, no matter how rudimentary, is the first step to understanding.
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