In Dispatches from Bongobongoland the other day, I spoke about the narratives that were being created around the Haiti earthquake event.
Most are familiar to all of us. For example, the camera in the aid truck, watching a sea of dark brown faces waiting for a handout, then the inevitable scrabbling around when it's thrown down. We, the viewers, literally look down on these people - do we see them as unfortunates or subordinates? There's a kind of 'feeding time' thing going on which doesn't sit entirely comfortably with me. You could well argue that these events are, of course, happening, so why not describe them? But the camera is always on the aid truck. We are always looking down. We are never in that sea of humanity, looking up.
I'd say that sort of thing, though, is a cliche, a bit hackneyed rather than being deliberately harmful in the impression it gives, other than a them-and-us narrative - which, after all, is how a lot of people do feel towards people in other lands, with vastly different lives and cultures. It can be an instinctive reaction.
The one that is a little different, though, is the one about machetes. Throughout the coverage of the Haiti disaster, the word machete has popped up again and again. Now that's not necessarily untrue, given that many people there will own machetes. But there's something else to it, I think, something less tangible. As soon as the word 'machete' is mentioned, it lights a little fire somewhere in the brain. There's something plantation-y about it, I think, there's that kind of idea going on. When we think of machetes, do we think of individuals having them as tools, or weapons to defend themselves? Or do we think of a mob of men - of a particular appearance - using them aggressively?
Scan through a few nationalist and ultra-nationalist blogs, for example, and you'll find almost visible salivation at the idea that Haitians are essentially a teeming mass of machete-wielding mobs, hacking each other to bits. One writer I found, for example, focussed on the fact that a 'looter' wore an Obama t-shirt, in a post tagged 'Negroes', and compared the scenes in Haiti to those in New Orleans. I wonder if that's not an unusual narrative - perhaps this is just the way we are trained to see disasters (if they happen to people who look a certain way): the lawless savages; the dumb black people too foolish to allow themselves to be helped by the benevolent whites and hampering the relief effort; above all, the machete.
But then, read this, from someone who's there:
John O'Shea, who runs the well-known Irish aid agency Goal, has joined this chorus, telling the Guardian he couldn't get his trucks from the Dominican Republic to Haiti because he had no guarantees his drivers wouldn't be "macheted to death on the way down". He added that Goal has no plans to deploy its much-needed doctors and nurses on the streets of Port-au-Prince.
From what I've observed, such chilling claims do not match the reality on the ground; and by trumpeting a distorted and sensational picture about the violence, some senior aid officials may be culpable of undermining the very aid effort they are supposed to be promoting. When I traveled into Haiti's disaster zone last week from the Dominican Republic, I did so alone and on a bus, whose passengers were mostly Haitians, including some living in the US. Since then, whether on the road to Port-au-Prince or within the city, I have not witnessed anyone wielding a gun, a machete or a club of any kind. Nor have I witnessed an act of violence. (I have seen one badly wounded man who had been shot in circumstances which were unclear and who was eventually rescued by US soldiers after an American reporter sought help.)
Is that, I wonder, the story that isn't being told? We're told that the lawlessness, the machetes, the gangs are what are stopping the help from getting through - essentially, that the suffering are responsible for their suffering, because they won't help themselves, because they have gone feral without the firm rule of law. The machete is the symbol of that. Are machetes used mainly as tools, or as weapons? If you were in Haiti, would you have one?
Inigo Gilmore concludes:
So John O'Shea, if you are reading this, I put down this challenge to you: if you are prepared, in the next few days, to bring an aid van or truck to the Dominican/Haitian border, I will travel with it into Port-au-Prince. I will even help you to distribute the aid.
People fear, because people are told to fear. But there's something else going on with the machete narrative, something a bit darker.
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