On the Haitian Revolution

This is from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History:

The Haitian revolution therefore entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times, including the long list of pamphlets on Saint-Domingue published in France from 1790 to 1804, reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution [p. 73]

The discursive context within which news from San-Domingue was discussed as it happened has important consequences for the historiography of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later? In other words, can historical narratives convey plots that are unthinkable in the world within which these narratives take place? How does one write a history of the impossible?

As the power of Louverture grew, every other party struggled to convince itself and its counterparts that the achievements of black leadership would ultimately benefit someone else. The new black elite had to be, willingly or not, the pawn of a “major” international power. Or else, the colony would fall apart and a legitimate international state would pick up the pieces. Theories assuming chaos under black leadership continued even after Louverture and his closest lieutenants fully secured the military, political, and civil apparatus of the colony….. [p. 94]

I read Silencing the Past right after reading C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and strongly recommend reading both together.

As I read both books I couldn’t help but wonder why my high school history had nothing on the Haitian revolution (which proves Trouillot’s point). It seems like the Haitian revolution, even if in sanitized form, would have been a good fit with the sanitized versions of the Mau Mau insurgency and the Algerian and Malaya wars that I was exposed to as a teenager.

More broadly, it seems like the teaching of decolonization in Kenya could benefit from more Haiti and Fanon, side by side with Mandela, Gandhi, and MLK. It is not a stretch to imagine that the threat of violence made the successes of the Mandelas of history more likely. To talk about the ANC without mentioning Umhonto we Sizwe is to stick one’s head in the sand.

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Cash and Markets in Development

This is from a story in Kenya’s Standard Newspaper:

Martin Wepukhulu is a small-holder farmer in Trans Nzoia County, popularly described as Kenya’s breadbasket. To produce a two-kilogramme tin of maize known as gorogoro here, he spends about Sh25 on land preparation, seeds and fertilisers on his one-acre farm.

Some 270 kilometre away in Turkana County, one of Kenya’s poorest counties, is Loseny Nguono, a goat keeper, with two wives and 13 children. Turkana is one of the 23 counties affected by drought which has left close to 4 million people in danger of starvation.

Loseny receives Sh8,000 after every two months from the national government through the national safety net programme. He is willing to pay Martin a decent Sh70 for his gorogoro of maize. Unfortunately, neither Martin nor Loseny will get his wish. A reclusive government, ruthless cartels, dilapidated roads and marauding bandits conspire to ensure that while Martin sells his cereals at a low of Sh40, Loseny buys it at a high of Sh150.

Read the whole thing here.

It is great that Loseny has cash; and that unconditional cash transfers for social protection are increasingly becoming a mainstream policy option (notice that the story doesn’t even acknowledge the awesomeness of this reality). But the other lesson that we can learn from the story is that in order to get Loseny out of poverty we need good roads, properly functioning markets, and security. All these are public goods that must be provided through collective action, above and beyond the improvements in Loseny’s private consumption.