By Afua Hirsch
From an African perspective, going to the Caribbean can be a disarming experience. On many of the islands, the people look distinctively west African, their national dishes are barely changed versions of African food (compare Nevis’s “cook-up” to Ghana’s “waakye” and I challenge you to spot the difference), and their Creole dialects are often almost direct translations of African languages into English or French.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that cultural ties, stretched and distorted by 5,000 miles, slavery and the passage of several hundred years, are still strong enough to produce some kind of political union between Africa and the Caribbean. And sure enough, in January the African Union is poised to admit Haiti as a member, which if it happens, will be the first time any nation with no geographic connection to the continent of Africa will have joined.
More than any other Caribbean nation, Haiti occupies a special place in the affection of many Africans and members of the African diaspora. The country endured decades of still prescient punishment for daring to overthrow its slave masters, becoming the world’s first independent black nation in 1804 – the slave rebellion’s leader Toussaint L’Ouverture hailed from Benin. Haiti used its independence and membership of the United Nations in the post-war period to back decolonisation during the fraught period of African independence.
And now it has a level of poverty gives it more in common with many African nations than its wealthier Caribbean neighbours, who have been known to regard Haitan refugees as a nuisance. After the 2010 earthquake, the Democratic Republic of Congo – which struggles to finance its own budget – pledged $2.5m in aid to the devastated country. Senegal offered land and places at its university to Haitan students. As the African Union chairman, Jean Ping, said: “We have attachment and links to that country. The first black republic … that carried high the flame of liberation and freedom for black people and has paid a heavy price for so doing.”
Despite all this, it’s unlikely the primary reasons for Haiti’s interest in AU membership are emotional. At the AU summit in July, the Haitan information minister compared the country’s interest in the union with its interest in the EU.
There is much for poor, aid-dependent Haiti to gain from battles African nations have already fought, not least debt cancellation. It is also telling that when Haiti was granted observer status at the AU back in February, one of the first things its ambassador Ady Jean Gardy did was to enter Haiti in the inter-ministerial conference on China-AU investment. Relative to the now-booming economies of many African nations, Haiti attracts very little foreign direct investment, and Africa’s example – imperfect as it is – is a natural one to follow. Meanwhile, intra-African trade is on the rise, and Haiti would do well to find itself included.
The rest of the Caribbean is wealthier and so lacks such practical incentives to join forces with Africa. But that doesn’t mean Haiti won’t set a precedent. After all, the AU was founded off the back of African legends such as Kwame Nkrumah and Leopold Senghor, pan-African and négritude principles were themselves directly inspired by leaders from the Caribbean – Jamaican Marcus Garvey, Martinican Aimé Césaire and Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams.
The Senegalese consultant Babacar M’Bow, who has been working behind the scenes for AU membership for Haiti, summarised his view of what Africans think about Haitians. “[Africans] think ‘well they shipped you over there, so come back to us.’” It looks like they just might.
Afua Hirsch is the Guardian’s west Africa correspondent based in Ghana.