Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Haitians are not going to go to Senegal

This news item certainly raised some eyebrows.

Senegal is offering free land to Haitians wishing to "return to their origins" following this week's devastating earthquake, which has destroyed the capital and buried thousands of people beneath rubble.

Senegal's octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade told a meeting of his advisers that Haitians are the sons and daughters of Africa, because the country was founded by slaves, including some believed to have come from Senegal.

"The president is offering voluntary repatriation to any Haitian that wants to return to their origin," said Wade's spokesman Mamadou Bemba Ndiaye late Saturday following the president's announcement.

"Senegal is ready to offer them parcels of land - even an entire region. It all depends on how many Haitians come. If it's just a few individuals, then we will likely offer them housing or small pieces of land. If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region," he said.

He stressed that Wade had insisted that if a region is handed over it should be in a fertile area - not in the country's parched deserts.

Waye even went so far as to proposed the creation Haitian homeland in the African continent, on the grounds that these members of the African diaspora deserved an African home.

Waye's remarkable proposals were motivated by pan-Africanism and by a belief in the real existence of an African diaspora, created by the forced migration of millions of slaves from the African continent mainly to the Americas but also to the Arab world, eventually forming small minorities in some countries (United States, Mexico, Argentina), pluralities or even majorities in others (Brazil and Cuba in particular), or overwhelming majorities in others, as in Haiti and most of the other island societies of the Caribbean. This sentiment played a non-trivial role in Africa, with resettled slaves creating Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 18th and 19th centuries, Marcus Garvey and many other black intellectuals and politicians in North America and the Caribbean advocating pan-African sentiments, and several of the independent states produced by decolonization actively trying to encourage the return of members of the diaspora, as in Ghana.

The Castle of St. George d'Elmina and other infamous abodes of the "doors of no return" mark the paths of slaves destined for the Americas. The current Ghanaian government has swung these "doors" back open, hoping to persuade American and Caribbean descendents of the slave trade to live in Ghana.

Meanwhile, Ghanaian citizens continue to emigrate to North America, Europe, and other parts of Africa. The economic, political, and social woes of the past three decades have created a new diaspora of Ghanaians searching for opportunities elsewhere. As a result, Ghana is often highlighted as a nation struggling with the effects of brain drain.

This sentiment continues, with the African Union trying to actively involve members of the African diaspora in its affairs and the growth of lobbies in the diaspora (TransAfrica's opposition to South African apartheid being a case in point). Ghanaian journalist Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr. applauded Senegal's proposals, contrasting it unfavourably to Ghana's position.

In any case, whether the most expedient thing to do is for many an emotionally devastated and psychologically traumatized Haitian to simply jump aboard the next flight from Port-au-Prince or mount the deck of the next ship to weigh anchor at Port-au-Prince, no pun is intended here, of course, and literally abandon the virtual shipwreck that is present-day Haiti, after some three- to four-hundred years of staking up domestic existence in the erstwhile Hispaniola, is really beside the point. What matters more than all else is the prompt and timely demonstration of great and enviable leadership such as admirably exhibited by Mr. Wade at Haiti’s most vulnerable and desperate moment.

In making his landmark offer, President Abdoulaye Wade made it pointedly clear that his was not simply a humanitarian gesture for which Haitians needed to be eternally grateful but, rather, one that was logically and immutably dictated by historical reality: “Haitians are sons and daughters of Africa[,] since Haiti was founded by slaves, including some [who are] thought to [have hailed] from Senegal.”

Needless to say, Mr. Wade clearly appears to have been fully aware of the fact of the bulk of the ancestors of modern Haitians having originated largely from between Eastern Volta and Western Niger. Still, for the erudite Senegalese premier, an African identity is decidedly more of a corporate, or collective, feature than being merely a topical or geographically parochial phenomenon. Such inclusive stance is no happenstance at all, coming from a bona fide native of the land and nation that produced such intellectual and cultural giants as Messrs. Cheikh Anta Diop, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Alioune Diop and Sembene Ousman.

The major problem with all this in terms of migration to the African continent, apart from the very salient fact that "black" identity is an exceptionally amorphous thing with potentially very little or no relevance to the people whose allegiances it claims and the reality that "African diaspora" as a catch-all term actually effaces the very real fact of multiple stronger diasporic identities under its aegi, is that there's no economic incentive for Haitians to go there. According to 2007 data, Haiti ranks 149th in the world on the Human Development Index with a rating of 0.532. Senegal, one of West Africa's most developed countries, ranks 166th with a HDI of 0.484. Notwithstanding Senegal's somewhat greater income, this will not create a significant Haitian movement to Africa, especially with much closer and richer potential destinations like the United States and Canada. Besides, this kind of sentiment tends to not amount to anything serious--pan-African sentiments certainly haven't improved the reception given to migrants from the Sahel to coastal West Africa. Waye's proposals have been generally criticized by Senegalese and so, partially retracted.


Hans Connor said...

Interesting. I have suggested on my own blog that all Haitian citizens should now be given the opportunity to emigrate to Canada, France or USA as expedited refugees and that Haiti should essentially pack it in as it is little more than a failed state with now a huge and tragic physical-geological catastrophe to recover from to boot. If things are as bad in Haiti as they seem, Senegal might not look like a bad option either. At least the offer seems sincere.

Anonymous said...

What are the latest statistics on Haiti's TFR? Do you happen to know?

Randy McDonald said...

@ Hans:

The problem is that things in Senegal aren't going very well either, as evidenced by the large and growing diaspora to Europe. If Senegal's economy was growing such that the country had labour shortages, that'd be one thing. As things stand, if a lot more Haitians get the chance to emigrate, access to North American labour markets would be more prized (less so European on account of their regulation, IMHO).

@ Anonymous: I can't tell you much about that, although this 1990-era source and this more recent page document that fertility has been falling over time, with the death rate falling only a bit less quickly than the birth rate, to reach a TFR that's among the highest in the Americas (though less, I'd bet, than for other countries with a similar HDI).

Unknown said...

How about instead of sending masses of Haitians to Senegal, we ask Senegal to convert the offer into scholarships for as many young Haitians as they can take? We have thousands of young people not able to pursue education, and having them trained will certainly prepare them to help rebuild their country.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Max. There are so many Haitians who are eager to learn new things. Other Countries such a Senegal or the Ivory Coast should offer Full Scholarships to them. In return these students would help the country and their families. What Haiti Needs now is more countries to open their doors for student to finish their education and to go back and help.

Unknown said...

We need to find out how much fund Senegal has available for Haiti.Do they have enough to give? Will Haitians be better when they go there? Beside a place to stay, do they have jobs for them?