By Jean H Charles
For the past six years, the city of Aquin, the second largest town of the southern county of Haiti has been staging an international festival of dance, music, film, food and culture which is dubbed “Destination Aquin”.
Jean Hervé Charles LLB, MSW, JD, former Vice-Dean of Students at City College of the City University of New York, is now responsible for policy and public relations for the political platform in power in Haiti, Répons Peyisan. He can be reached at: jeanhcharles@aol
The city, called Yaquimo before the discovery of the island by Christopher Columbus, was once a major commercial port for export of coffee and cocoa to Europe. It has been decaying for the last seventy years. Indeed on December 6, 1941, President Elie Lescot, in a bravado style which was not commensurate with the force de frappe of the Republic of Haiti, declared war on the Reich of Germany.
The German expatriate population that represented the core of the business sector and was part of the fabric of the society left the country and pillage followed. Haiti was the precursor of what happened years later in Uganda under Idi Amin, when he chased the Indian merchants from the country. Haiti, like Uganda, has suffered this discriminatory adventure for generations. The city of Aquin has been in ruins since… until a daughter of the city, Magali Comeau Denis, decided to give back to the motherland what she has received from her birthplace.
Former minister of culture, Mrs Comeau Denis
A former minister of culture, Mrs Comeau Denis is using the Spring Festival of Aquin to bring back renaissance to the city. In fact, she is planning to run as mayor of the city in the next local election. Aquin is a microcosm of the decay or disintegration of many towns and cities in the Caribbean region. The immigration to New York, London and Toronto of the professionals, as well as regular workers of the Caribbean, has depleted the towns and the cities of the intelligent work force to explode the creative experience that would make life attractive for all.
In Haiti, successive dictators -- some ferocious ones like Duvalier, others as vicious but using a velvet glove like Aristide -- have sent waves of intellectuals and elite families from their roots in Aquin and other cities of the nation to the United States, Canada or France. Others have moved to Port au Prince, like the Anglades, who build a renowned secondary school in the capital.
The Castors, Aldy in transit in Florida, his sister Paula, the principal of the school of the same name in Port au Prince, while serving as the wife of the renowned civil rights lawyer Gerard Gourgue, both son and daughter of Dupin Castor, one of the most celebrated lawyers of old Aquin. The Hyppolites, whose son Gilbert, a captain in industry and in construction, has singlehandedly renovated the Toussaint Louverture International Airport.
We can add the Lalannes who excel in music hors les murs; Franck Louissaint, a famous artist painter now living in Port-au-Prince, the Neptunes and the Jean Claudes, they have all left Aquin to return maybe once a year at Festival time or during the Fiesta of the patron Saint, Thomas d’Aquin.
Magali under the umbrella of the Aquin Solidarity Foundation has assembled a chorus of national and international artists to cast an eye towards Africa, the theme of this year festival. They came from Congo, Ivory Coast, Niger, Togo, Canada, and the United States and of course Haiti to play tribute to Aime Cesaire to whom the festival is dedicated on the commemoration of his 100th anniversary.
While Catholic Haiti was busy preparing and celebrating Maundy Thursday, we hit the road in the southern direction leading to Aquin. It is a two-hour drive from Port au Prince on a perfect highway, newly renovated -- a byproduct from Les Cayes’ Carnival. The old family home is well kept by one of the sisters, Dr Danielle Comeau, who never left town. I was the host of Hervé Comeau (Magali’s older brother), my namesake vagabond companion to the festivals and to the fiesta of saints all over Haiti.
The hospitality was as good as being at home.
The festival that started in the afternoon of Holy Thursday debuted with music bands and students marching all over town. In a program that lasted until 11pm the large audience was regaled free (albeit there was a VIP section with a fee of $25) with performance by the Folklore dance group of Aquin, the dance company of Viviane Gauthier and an African troupe dance Kanson Rou. In the end, Boukman Eksperyans, a root Racine music band and Magnum band, electrified the revelers, in large part young and not used to such panoply of artists of international standing.
The next day on Good Friday, the venue was at the Lyceum Pierre Sully, where the former prime minister, Mrs Michel D. Pierre Louis, whom I called the perfect candidate for Rector of the State University of Haiti, delivered a magisterial conference on Aime Cesaire. In the evening, Ram, the music band with the voodoo ambiance, as well as Mizik Mizik provided the groove for those who wanted to dance. How to forget Excellencia, a Latino band from New York that was so happy to have their grande premiere in Haiti for that festival?
I miss the projection of the film Fatal Assistance by Raoul Peck on Saturday as I took time to visit the Morisseau beach at Aquin, one of the most magnificent beaches not only of Haiti (albeit undeveloped) but of the whole Caribbean region. With sand as soft as a the hands of a delicate and sexy woman and with fruits of the sea in profusion, fish, lobsters and shrimps and oysters, well prepared on the beach by a local chef, the only harm that may happen is not to bring enough red wine to lower one’s cholesterol level as it is so easy to be a glutton with so much fresh and delicious delicatessen.
Whether Aquin will rise from its ashes is not only the story of Haiti. It is also the story of the region, indeed of this world. The good Pope Francis has defined this universe as immersed into material misery in the underdeveloped countries and fallen into spiritual misery in the developed nations. Seventy-five years ago, the citizens of Aquin were getting richer and richer through the export sale of coffee, sisal and banana. National as well as international governmental policies have displaced this trend, contributing to the disintegration of the community.
On the international or the national stage, whether we are focusing on Iran after the Shah, Iraq after Saddam Hussein, Egypt after Mubarak or Haiti after Duvalier, the promised land of milk and honey of the material and spiritual renaissance, a by-product of the advent of democracy has not been forthcoming. Indeed Haiti is not only plagued by material misery it is also plagued by spiritual misery exported from the United States or Canada. The young males at the festival were exhibiting their pants way back on their derriere showing their underwear as a badge of honor acquired from Facebook or international TV programs.
Haiti will need a legion of returning homegrown legends like Magali Comeau Denis to restore in each town the dignity of each human being in his own hamlet with the institutions and the infrastructure that will render its diligence and its creativity truly effective.
To accomplish that seedling of true renaissance, Magali was not alone; she has received the support of the Haitian Ministry of Culture, of Digicel, the FOKAL, the Canadian government, Air France and the Alliance for Francophone and the National Bank of Credit, as well as that of the other members of FAS. The budget covering expenses of the festival amounted to some $350,000 that must be raised every year.
But as certain as Easter will be forthcoming next year on April 20, the Destination Aquin (www.destinationaquin.org
) will take place on schedule in Holy Week 2014, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Good Saturday, 17th, 18th and 19th of April 2014. Pencil your calendar to be there to enjoy this buffet of culture, well spiced with a large offering of fresh fruits of the sea. The experience of Aquin Destination as prepared by Magali and her associates will indeed be more rejuvenating, more appealing and more exciting!
Note: Aquin can be reached easily through scheduled airlines to Port au Prince from all airports in Europe, the United States and Canada. There is a commuter plane from Port au Prince to les Cayes; from there it is only half an hour bus or taxi drive to Aquin. The city can be reached also through all day scheduled air-conditioned buses from Port au Prince.