Book Review – The right to life

The right to life
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Titles: The Dew Breaker ISBN: 0 349 11789 6
The Farming of Bones ISBN: 0 349 11163 4
Publisher: Abacus
These two books should be every Zimbabwean's required

reading. I first came across ‘The Dew Breakers’ when it was reviewed in the American Journal of Nursing. There is a growing awareness that the needs of survivors of torture, war and violence have health needs that are poorly recognised and poorly met. Edwidge was born in Haiti and went to the USA when she was 12. The story narrated in the two books will be immediately relevant to anyone who has experienced the recent history of Zimbabwe. ‘Dew Breaker’ refers to the state agents who ‘dawn raid’ to arrest or kidnap people who oppose or who are targeted by the government. In this case the ‘dew breaker’ himself has run away to the USA. While living in the Haitian community in the USA he has to constantly cover his tracks because people, former victims, think they recognise him.
The ‘Farming of Bones’ is about the Haitian community in Dominican Republic. The two countries share the same island, Hispaniola. Haitians speak French and Dominicans speak Spanish. Historically, Dominican Republic stayed in the embrace of the colonial empire while Haiti rebelled, defeating the French armies of Napoleon, keeping up the rebellion against the Spanish and the USA. Haitians have remained poor and are constantly migrating to Dominican Republic for work as domestics or on the sugar plantations. The plantation work is what is referred to as ‘farming of bones’. The Dominican government decides to expel all Haitians. Since there are no racial differences between Haitians and Dominicans the government of Trujillo decides to use the different ways that the French and Spanish speakers pronounce the word for ‘parsley’ [‘perejil’]. There follows a rounding up of Haitians and a slaughter. This is based on actual events in 1936, ordinary Dominicans mobilised into vigilante groups with machetes scouring the countryside hunting down Haitians. Over 20,000 Haitians were slaughtered. This was long before Rwanda. Ring any bells? Mwana wetsuro anonzi chii? Haa! Mwana wakaruru ndi karuru basi. There are many haunting scenes that recall images of Malawian and Mozambican workers being deported from the mines and farms in Zimbabwe. They also make one fear of what could happen to Zimbabweans in neighbouring countries.
‘The Dew Breaker’ is a broken narrative, with different people telling their stories of unfreedom in Haiti and their dispersion away from it. The Dew Breaker himself had been a teenager when the ‘sovereign one’ had become head of state and his officials had seized the land where his family farmed, to build holiday homes. Displaced and his family scattered, he is scooped into the Volunteers for National Security, young men and women who ginger up the local communities for the presidents speeches and rallies. Thus began a life of abducting people, torturing, assassinating and living the high life….until he put his foot wrong. He became the hunted. Another character, Michael, now living in the USA is recording his past, recalling his past for his child about to be born. Living in the middle of the ferment of revolt when ‘Baby Doc’ handed power to the military, he realises that the local shopkeeper who seemed ‘kind’ to his mother was the father who would not acknowledge him. For his mother, in exchange for sex, she had access to the water tap he ownes and she bought water from, the bread and other resources. The father of his best friend has abandoned his family and is a ‘macoute’. When the mob sees him during the rioting and seize their chance to have their revenge, he shoots himself.
Both books are accounts of how power is used against people, and people are powerless. All they have is their bitter memories and the hope that one day it will get better or they will get their revenge. There is no sense of despair, that it is human nature and that it has always been so. True that there has been cruelty with impunity, but in the modern era there is a chance for justice. The truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa, Sierra Leone and other places, the human rights courts in Cambodia [over the Khmer Rouge], Tanzania [over Rwanda], the Hague [over former Yugoslavia and Liberia] all suggest that a different world is possible. People have a right to ordinary lives, their lives.

Post published in: Arts

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