This past week I've been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia attending the Callaloo Conference on literature and culture entitled “Black Movements: Poetics and Praxis.” Like every time I travel to the African continent, I have been consciously and deliberately in search of Haiti. This being my first trip to East Africa, I have been particularly intrigued to uncover similarities and differences with Haiti as compared to in West Africa, where the links are far more historically and culturally rooted as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Although both Haiti and Ethiopia inhabit important roles in the African and African diasporic imaginary in terms of their relationships to liberation and freedom from colonialism and imperialism (Ethiopia as the only country in Africa to have never been colonized and Haiti as the first country to successfully overthrow slavery) the connections between the two countries are far more tenuous.
Would I find in Addis Ababa as I had in Accra enthusiastic recognition and celebration of the Haitian Revolution and its ubiquitous leaders? Would I be able to locate, as I had in Dakar, a few Haitian writer left remaining from what had once been a vibrant community of Haitian writers living in exile that included Jean Brierre, Roger Dorsinville, and the recently deceased Lucien Lemoine? Would the Ethiopians want to claim me as their sister or cousin like the Beninois I had encountered in Paris and other places? Would they, like my friends and colleagues from Benin, remind me that Benin is ancient Dahomey where many of our Haitian ancestors had come from? Might I happen upon, in this African city known for its international presence that has designated it as the seat of the African Union, any Haitians?
Thus far the answer to all of these questions has been a resounding no. It has been interesting to watch some of my Trinidadian and Jamaican colleagues find links and affirmation of their own cultural identities. One professor from Trinidad travelled to Shashemane a few hours south of Addis Ababa in order to visit the community of Rastafarians to whom Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie had dedicated lands that have been settled by Rastas for many years now. Listening to her stories about drinking sorrel in East Africa surrounded by people who so reminded her of home, I wondered what the Haitian equivalent of that experience would look like for me. Another colleague was constantly mistaken for Ethiopian, and we discussed how for her this recognition made the entire city feel familiar and welcoming.
For me, that familiarity was for the most part visual. The roads, the signs, the landscape, the pace of urban life... At times, the tastes were also faintly familiar, the savory and spicy sauces and well cooked meats. On my first day in Ethiopia, I was reminded that I preferred to taste these sauces with rice when I looked down at my plate and noticed that two huge pieces of njera remained although all the other food was gone. Of course, there were the animals as well-- I saw goats walking down the streets, dogs that looked unclaimed as they roamed about, and a panoply of colorful birds. But it ended there. Since July is winter in Ethiopia, it was actually quite cold during my entire stay, making it difficult for me to associate the climate with Haiti. I remember descending the plane in Dakar and smelling the air for the first time, inhaling the familiar smell of the tropical air that is known only to those who have smelled it. In Ethiopia I shivered as soon as I walked out of the airport…and every day I kicked myself for not having dressed more warmly.
But none of this surprised me, mostly because of how aware I am that Ethiopia and Haiti have virtually no ties. Since one of the heavily discussed topics at the conference was Pan-Africanism, Haiti did come up in the panels as well as in discussions that I had with various colleagues. As someone whose work involves comparative literatures and cultures, I often look for the continuities in literatures, cultures, languages and texts across Africa and its diaspora. This trip has made me realize that despite my own admonishments to always account for the heterogeneity of African and African diaspora studies, I may not have fully considered just how facile our desires to link these countries may sometimes be. My underlying desire to find Haiti in Ethiopia despite my awareness that there was perhaps no reason (such as shared language, historic origin, religion, etc) for this to be so, has made me think more concretely about what we talk about when we talk about Africa in relation to Haiti. Haiti is, in many ways one of the "most African" islands of the Caribbean especially when we consider the literary legacy of Jean Price Mars' Ainsi parla l'oncle and those who followed him. The literary, cultural, religious and even linguistic links to Africa are of course undeniable, but they are also very specific.
Speaking to people I met during my short stay, I learned that Haile Selassie may have traveled to Haiti during his reign, but there was no additional information about this trip such as the year or the occasion, etc. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to look into this further and wonder if there might be archival data for me to locate in Port-au-Prince or in Addis Ababa on the topic. If anything the possibility made the point that, from a comparative perspective there is more research to be done about Haiti's connection to different countries both on the African continent and around the world, in many different fields.