Something to Laugh About: A Few Thoughts on Humor in Post-Earthquake Haiti

[This is a guest post by Laura Wagner, and is part of our series Reflections on Haiti. Laura is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.]

“Humor is one of the fugitive forms of insubordination.”
– Donna Goldstein, Laughter Out of Place

It is January 12 again. This week is making everything feel raw again. What’s an anniversary, really? Why should the 365-day cycle back to a calendar date, an orbit around the sun, have anything to do with anything? But then, January 12 — douz janvye — like 9/11 for Americans, has become a symbol in its own right. The date is more than just the anniversary of the quake. Douz janvye 2011 means that the international community’s eyes are on Haiti again. Journalists and camera crews are back and asking “How is Haiti doing, a year after the quake?” And the strange thing is, it might be the one week when no one wants to answer that question, when people just want to have the space to remember or to avoid their ghosts.

Today there will be stories about the ongoing failure of international aid, the undisbursed promised donor funds, the decay and absence of the Haitian state. There will be stories about dreadful conditions in the camps. There will be the predictable half-hearted attempts at writing something with a positive spin – a few tired human interest stories premised on “hope” and “resilience.” I want to write something different. I’m supposed to write about the anniversary, but I want to write about jokes.

Haitians are very funny. (How’s that for anthropological nuance?) They like to tease. They like jokes—silly, raunchy, or political. The observation that hardship and humor go hand-in-hand is hardly novel or original; it borders on cliché. Yet humor is something that doesn’t come through in most mainstream media and humanitarian depictions of Haiti, which largely focus on those details of life that are deemed most immediate and newsworthy: the earthquake; the spread of cholera; the ongoing plight of people living in the camps, coping with loss and deprivation and faced with eviction; unfolding political upheaval. All those things are important to know and to act upon, to be sad and enraged about. At the same time, collectively these kinds of news have a flattening effect, rendering individual Haitians exemplary victims who can represent the majority of victimized Haitians, but erasing the kinds of details that make them recognizable, relatable and…human.

So this douz janvye – to remind myself and anyone who reads this that people who died were once simply people, and people who survived are still simply people – I am going about it sideways, writing not about the earthquake or any of the other calamities directly, but rather about the jokes people tell.

                        • The first earthquake joke I heard goes like this:

Jesus and Satan run into each other on the street. Satan says to Jesus, “Look at that country there, Haiti. That’s mine. All the evil, the violence, the suffering – Haiti is my country.” Jesus looks at Satan and says, “Oh, really? Let’s see about that.” Then he picks up Haiti and begins to shake it and shake it, and everyone cries out, “Oh, Jezi, Jezi, sove m Jezi! Save me, Jesus!” Jesus puts Haiti down, turns to Satan and says, “You see? Haiti is mine.”

While Haitians find this joke hilarious (doubled-over laughing, gasping for breath), foreigners never do. I tried telling it to my mother, who found it, in her words, “creepy.” This joke shows the country wedged in a game of one-upmanship between cosmic “good” and “evil,” although the role of the “good” seems awfully tenuous. This humor is dark, absurd, and context-specific – but everyone gets it.
Another earthquake-related joke features traditional Haitian folk characters, dimwitted Bouki and clever, tricky Ti Malis:

Bouki and Ti Malis are looking up at the stars. Bouki says, “Look at all those stars, Malis. Look how many they are, how far away, how they glitter. What do you think it all means?” Malis responds, “Monchè, it means someone has stolen our tarp!”

These familiar characters, whose stories people have heard since childhood, are transposed, like everyone else, to the transformed post-earthquake landscape of tents, camps, and tarps. Yet their predictable personalities – Bouki’s dreamy naïveté and Malis’s cruel pragmatism, key elements of the humor – remain intact and familiar.

People’s personal earthquake narratives – stories of fear, survival and loss – are laced with a surprising quantity of humor. Many people, even those who were injured or lost their homes and loved ones, start laughing when they describe seeing their neighbors who happened to be bathing at 4:53 on January 12 and who fled their homes toutouni, stark naked. And they laugh when I describe how, the first time I pulled my pants down to pee after being pulled from the rubble, chunks of concrete fell out of my underwear, making me hysterical as I tried to conceive where it was all coming from. My teenaged friend Judeline, whose leg was amputated below the knee because of her injuries, says wonderingly, laughing, “Frijolito killed so many people!” Frijolito is the name of the lisping little boy in the Mexican telenovela that everyone was following this time last year. It came on at 5 pm, which is why, according to Judeline, so many people were – unluckily — indoors when the earthquake hit.

Some jokes make their rounds through text messages. As news of cholera broke and the messages about handwashing and water treatment began to spread and enter the popular lexicon, this joke began to circulate via SMS, relying equally on the listener’s familiarity with ubiquitous public health warnings and on the absurdity of that familiar advice when twisted and applied to a piece of equipment:

You can get cholera from your cell phone! To prevent this, scrub your phone well with soap and rinse it with water. If possible, let it soak in a bucket of treated water for at least one hour. If you can’t hear anything after that, give it oral rehydration until it recovers. If it won’t turn on, bury it so that it doesn’t contaminate other phones.

Still another joke plays upon the fact that recent events in Haitian history, when condensed to a list, seem to take on biblical proportions.  The particular calamities and the order in which they are listed depend on the speaker (I heard it first from a friend who lost her mother on January 12) but they are always a combination of political events, diseases, and so-called “natural” disasters (which are never entirely natural), and the punch line always remains the same:

Haiti has had nine plagues. The first was AIDS. The second was a coup d’état. The third was Préval. The fourth was another coup d’état. The fifth and sixth were hurricanes Jeanne and Gustav. The seventh was the goudougoudou. The eighth was hurricane Tomas. The ninth was cholera. If you don’t want the tenth plague, don’t vote for Célestin.

Jokes allow people to talk about topics that may be dangerous (politically or psychically or sometimes literally) to discuss directly.  Imagining the earthquake as a competition between Jesus and Satan is a way for people, many of whom would never question God directly, to do so obliquely.  Leavening stories of earthquake survival with these recognizable moments of humor (the sight of naked neighbors with their hands clasped strategically while the known world collapses, the idea that the cute kid from the telenovela is responsible for the mortality rate) brings the strangeness of the catastrophe back to earth and to reality.  Talking about the perils of living under a tarp using Bouki and Ti Malis illustrates vulnerability without naming it aloud; it recognizes and shines a light on the precariousness of the lives of people who not only have to live in tents, but run the risk of losing even that minimal shelter (to thieves or, more likely, to poorly-planned state-sponsored relocation).  The joke equating a Célestin presidency to a tenth and final plague is the most dangerous – at once an indictment and warning that Préval’s chosen candidate, Jude Célestin, could be the final straw that breaks this country that has already endured so many unthinkable things.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Not all jokes are political or laden with subtext or half-articulated truths. Sometimes the joke is a form of release from a world that threatens to become unbearable.
The youth writing group I work with meets every Saturday in Pont Rouge, not far from Cité Soleil, where many of the participants live. This past Saturday an American journalist (who, I will add, was kind and patient and seemed to have great integrity) joined us. Marlène , who coordinates the group with me, told this journalist, “If there’s one thing wrong with this group, it’s that they laugh too much, they tell too many jokes.” I can’t disagree — our meetings always start with jokes and teasing, and, if we’re not disciplined, remain irreverent throughout. Normally the writing group is lively and talkative, with plenty of teasing and good-natured argument. We’ve had visitors before, and our group has always welcomed the chance to share their voices with others. In fact, that’s the objective of the group – to share the creativity, potential, and energy of these young people from some of Port-au-Prince’s most stigmatized communities with the larger world. But this Saturday, the participants were withdrawn and reticent. As they say in Creole, they were “lwenn” – far away and thinking of other things.

Then four of the participants performed a text they had written. It began with Assephie out in the hall, narrating in voice-over how full of promise and beauty everything felt at the beginning of January 2010 – a new year in a troubled country that was more stable and calm than it had been in years. Then Andy, on a drum, pounded out the sound of the goudougoudou, and the other performers collapsed to the ground. Marlène began to sing in low, despairing tones, while Assephie emerged, clad in the Haitian flag, her hair in a blue and red kerchief, and then fell to the floor, rocking and wailing.

“Haiti, why are you crying like that? Why are you so sad?” asked Elie, representing the international community.

“How can you tell me not to cry?” demanded Assephie, representing a furious and wounded Haiti. “How can you tell me not to scream, when I think of all my children dead, when I think of everyone taken before they should have gone?”

As the drumbeats rose and fell, some people began wiping away their tears. A couple of the workshop participants, who had lost family in the earthquake, were so shaken that they went into the next room to sob and be consoled. The performance concluded with the other actors lifting up Haiti, saying that they will survive, “put their shoulders together” to sustain themselves, as one says in Creole.

People clapped, and said the piece was beautiful. Then we had to pause because so many people were upset. When things at last calmed down and the group, somewhat dispirited, reconvened, the jokes began. Dénold, who prefers to go by his “artist name” G.Love, got up and addressed the two young women who had been particularly affected by the presentation. “This is especially for you,” he said, and, to cheer them up, as the journalist’s tape continued to record, led the group in a lighthearted call-and-answer poem extolling the virtues of women. Then Elie stood and confidently prefaced, “once you hear this, you won’t be able to stop laughing.” Expecting people’s spirit to be low, he had been saving his piece until after the presentation, and offered it as a kind of a conciliatory gesture. He began to recite a poem of his own devising, which seemed to be a sopping, syrupy love poem, only to reveal in its final line that it was not about his love for a girl but about his love for lam bouyi – boiled breadfruit. And then (why not? It’s not every day you find yourself on Public Radio International) I told a joke that concerns a young man, eager to make a good impression on his new girlfriend’s family, wrongly thinking he’s gotten away with blaming his farts on the dog. By now people were laughing out loud, wiping away tears again.

It felt awkward but true. The journalist had wanted to hear the voices of underrepresented young Haitians, and, this week, a few days before douz janvye, those were their voices: muted, trembling, sad, and joking. It wasn’t exactly a redemptive story. The fact that they were laughing is not necessarily inspirational, hopeful, or soothing. It does not allow us to say, “You see, they’ve still got laughter. Everything is going to be all right in Haiti.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Everything is obviously not all right in Haiti. It is very far from all right. It is facile to assume that laughter is necessarily an expression of happiness. In the words of Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis, in General Sun, My Brother: “We blacks joke all the time. When we are suffering, we laugh and make jokes. When we are dying, that is, when we have finished suffering, we laugh, sing, and make jokes.”
Joking can be a way to cope. Joking can be the telling of uncomfortable or hard-to-articulate truths. Joking allows one to assert one’s humanity in what would seem to be impossibly dehumanizing conditions – of saying that despite everything, the speaker is still here, still a person, and still telling a story rather than being dissolved and absorbed into the story. Joking can be an act of defiance and fury, a way of shaking your fist in the face of injustice, of momentarily wresting control from a world that threatens to bend and vanquish you. It is speaking truth to power – a way to laugh at earthquakes, to laugh at politics, to laugh at cholera, to laugh at God, to laugh at death.

4 thoughts on “Something to Laugh About: A Few Thoughts on Humor in Post-Earthquake Haiti

  1. So refreshing and so true! It’s nice to see something that really shows the true nature of this incredible people. Bravo!

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