The Dew Breaker

Ka, the daughter of a Haiti migrant is an artist; sculptor-or in her words an obsessive Wood-carver-whose only single subject so far is her father Pa. She immortalised in a Sculpture which Gabrielle a Haiti born TV star desires to purchase. Ka and her Pa, set out to deliver her work to the Gabrielle, an Avid art collector but Pa, alters the plan midway by running off with the Sculpture to an unknown place. The panic created by his disappearance welcomes a reader into this novel.

Missing Pa reappears with a request that the sculptor be not sold as he has offered it to use thisthe water. Ka’s cherished sculpture now lay plunged at the bottom of the Lake as Pa explains that he is undeserving of being immortalised with a past which he is not proud of, but will eternally be reminded of by long pitted scar on his right cheek. That scar only disappears with a smile but Pa’s past in which he was not a Prey but a Hunter, continues to haunt any smile that even Ka his good angel can bring to his face.

But Ka forgives him, indulging him for her fear that he might be eradicated from her life. She reminisces on her father’s love for art. His obsessions with the Brooklyn Museum as he is mesmerised by the golden masks, the shawabtis, schist tablets, Nefertiti and Osiris in the ancient Egyptian’s rooms which are his favourite is shared; Pa particularly liked how the Egyptians grieved by mummification and in like manner had thought of being buried with his sculpture.

Ka’s story gives way to that of other characters like Nadine and the nameless couple who makes the novel a projection of the fragmented lives of migrants from Haiti who settled in New York. In Nadine, a reader gains insight into the carnival of thoughts burning in a migrant’s head, the barters with their gods and the interminable distance they have to deal with as they are caught between two worlds; home and the green land. To get a green card, they make the hard choice of living in a space with conflict of language and culture, taking jobs that are unrelated to their home profession; sometimes, two, three or more jobs just to meet the expectations of the people at home and manage the noose of love around their neck, while enduring the fear of deportation.  But as I read on, I learnt not just how migrants survive, but also the backstories of why they migrated.

Pa’s comparison of Haiti to Egyptians who fought amongst themselves and where ruled by Pharaohs who were like the dictators he had fled from, would have hinted me of the politics ahead, but it was indeed the mention of Emmanuel Constant, the leader of Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti that made the book shift from the personal to the political.

edwidge Dandicat

Edwidge Dandicat: copyright Cindy Karp for the Newyork Times

The writer Edwidge Dandicat did not bother to fictionalise Constant’s name or character from the notorious real life leader of a Haiti militia FRAPH, who was then wanted for crimes against the Haitian people. Pa’s reaction to Constant’s name reveals Pa as being an important political migrant. He was not just the quiet distant man who only came alive while standing with Ka at the Museums in the mornings of her childhood viewing the ancient Egyptian status, he was not the old barber who ran a barber’s shop and lived a rather isolated life with his wife Ann and daughter Ka. Early in the book, a sober Pa had tried to share this with his daughter in monologues and proverbs, but it didn’t sink.

‘You see Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey…I was never in prison…I was working in prison… It was one of the prisoners inside the prison who cut my face in this way…this man who cut my face, I shot and killed him, like I killed many people.’ Pa said

Pa, was the dew breaker, a child prey who became a hunter; a revered member of the Tonton Macoutes a special paramilitary unit notorious for serving the totalitarian regime of Francois Duvalier a.k.a. Papa Doc. They committed systemic violence and human right abuse. Pa was responsible for killing and abuse, the last of which was a beloved preacher, the dapper looking step-brother of his wife Ann, who left a scar on Pa’s face just before Pa killed him. This incidence caused Pa to flee with Ann to America where he buried his old identity and took on a new one.

Unlike Emmanuel Constant-a younger leader of the Haitian death squad FRAPH in a later regime-whose name and picture was placed on flyers as a Wanted Person for crimes committed such as the Raboteau Massacre, Pa seemed safe.

‘He’d discovered that since he’d lost eighty pounds, changed his name, and given as his place of birth a village deep in the mountains of Leogane, no one asked about him anymore, thinking he was just a peasant who’d made good in New York.’

But his hopes that his victims such as the Preacher will never be able to speak of him is threatened by the fact that preys often don’t forget the face of their hunter. Unbeknownst to him, Beatrice the bridal seamstress whom he abused could still recognise him, Michel the night talker who lives in the basement flat beneath him was the young child whose parents he killed and blinded his Aunt Estina, he could never forget the murderer who destroyed his family.  Ka’s Pa was the Dew Breaker, one of those Haitian torturers that broke the golden dew of sleep; just when the day is pure with its power of refreshing, he and his likes came to shatter the serenity of the dew on the Haiti grass.

With her cycle of short stories woven into a whole, Edwidge uses her beautiful prose to give insight into Haiti’s bitter history using characters like the real life Haitians who are haunted by a bloody past that wouldn’t let them go.  It would not be wrong to imagine from this story that most Haitian immigrants working on the streets of New York are wounded spirits.  When compared to a history book, it is in fact difficult to tell that you are reading a fiction story as it has been classified. Edwidge presents to readers the painful legacy of Haiti’s violent history, establishing through different intersections exactly why the personal and the political are inseparable for us all.

This Jig-Saw puzzle piece of stories which can stand on their own and yet make a whole tgosa-front-cover-h-W-200x300is similar to the style of novelised anthologies used in One More Tale for the Road, and reminds me strongly of the book Ghost of Sani Abacha by Chuma Nwokolo which like the Dew Breaker has captured fiction love and life stories of Nigerians as they emerge from the despotic regime of Sani Abacha whom like Francois Duvalier (his son and successor Jean Claude Duvalier amongst other dictators )had systemically killed and destroyed the people in their aspiration to become Presidents for life. From Francois Duvalier, Sani Abacha, Hissene Habre to all other tyrants, I never understand how a single person is made sovereign, given the power to destroy lives after lives after lives…

To Haitians, as you continue to raise your glasses both broken and unbroken alike, I offer to your future threads of red cloud as omen of good luck. And to the writer Edwidge Dandicat, I think it will be right to say you are one of the most splendid flowers of Haiti, Thanks for giving us another way of looking at things.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

So Long a Letter

I walked out of the airport in Dakar with a feeling of gratitude; it was my fastest immigration clearance in my travel history. Into her warm embrace, Mother Senegal was set to welcome myself and many other youths arriving for the World Youth Movement’s conference on “Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa”.

Pleasant were the people of this clime, their hospitality overwhelmed my struggle to adjust with the language barriers. In Senegal, I reunited with old friends, expanded my network of new friends and most importantly I learnt a lot of things that provoked my questioning some dominant narratives about governance in Africa.mariama ba

Earphones went off and on according to the language of the speakers; a proof that though we were a people of one continent, we spoke in different tongues. Clearly, the conference discussions had begun with some high and low moments.  For the dreary moments, I flipped through Mariama Ba’s celebrated Novella ‘So Long a Letter’ which came in handy for this trip; it remains my best Senegalese Novella.

From the inter-generational conversations, the conference topic shifted to the role of African youths in democratic transitions. While exploring the stakes for youths and the struggle for democracy, a discussant asked an important ‘Where are the Young Women?’ The perception was that the young women were participating in the engineering of Africa’s democracy at an insignificant level. I received this question and the discussions to follow as a projection of the thought that young African women were like their mothers-before-them being strategically marginalized and not being given the opportunity to participate in political exercises.

My gender sensitive self was reactive to this question but between my threads of thought, my humanist self-prevailed with some inciting questions. While it was clear that the ratio of educated boys versus girls in Africa will suffer imbalance, it’s acceptable that the fate of young women in education was no longer as bad as it used to be – thanks to the massive awareness on girl child education. Finding young women who are equipped with the education, critical thinking, leadership skills, compassion and wit necessary to drive a political career in Africa isn’t difficult. But are the young women ready for politics? I further wondered if the young women could first identify themselves with common experiences that qualify them as a politically marginalized group. Do they have interest in governance and the political exercises therein? If yes, should they wait to be given power or do they have to take power using their agency? Is it right to apply a gender lens here? Is it fair to blame their insignificant participation in governance on others (perhaps men) thereby making a gender case?

I left the conference hall personalizing the questions. I am that humanist who doesn’t believe that the gender lens always serves, or that affirmative action or quota system must apply to all things. My sincere response as a young African whole-woman was that I wasn’t ready for politics. I guess I must be constructing politics with my moral lens; applying stringent standards that didn’t fit it, hence participation in politics meant the soiling of hands with corrupt politicians.

It was sunset when I returned to the pages of Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’. It was a pleasant coincidence to find the dialogue between the major character Ramatoulaye and Daouda Dieng discuss women’s place in African politics. My Senegalese choice of best novella held within some validation.

‘Four women Daouda.  Four out of a hundred deputies. What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province’. Ramoutoulaye said.

‘But you women are like mortar shells. You demolish. You destroy. Imagine a large number of women in the Assembly. Why, everything would explode, go up in flames.’  Daouda responded.

‘Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of women, their disinterested commitment have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power…when will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?’ Ramoutoulaye continued.

‘Whom are you addressing Ramatoulaye? You are echoing my speeches at the National Assembly, where I have been called a “Feminist”. I am not in fact, the only one to insist on changing the rules of the game and injecting new life into it. Women should no longer be decorative accessories, objects to be moved about, companions to be flattered or calmed with promises. Women are the nation’s primary, fundamental root, from which all else grows and blossoms. Women must be encouraged to take a keener interest in the destiny of the country. Even you who are protesting; you preferred your husband, your class, your children to public life. If men alone are active in parties, why should they think of the women? It is only human to give yourself the larger portion of the cake when you are sharing it out.’ Daouda said.

As though the above dialogue highlighting salient points on the place of women in politics was not apt enough, Ramoutoulaye will later harness it, sharing her young daughter Daba’s views on politics in some form of monologue:

‘She reasons everything out, that child… she often tells me: I don’t want to go into politics; it’s not that I am not interested in the fate of my country and, most especially, that of woman. But when I look at the fruitless wrangling even within the ranks of the same party, when I see men’s greed for power, I prefer not to participate. No, I am not afraid of ideological struggle, but in political party it is rare for a woman to make break-through. For a long time, men will continue to have the power of decision, whereas everyone knows that polity should be the affair of women. No: I prefer my own meditation, where there is neither rivalry no schism, neither malice nor jostling for position; there are no post to be shared, nor position to be secured.’

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

Young Women participants at the World Youth Movement Conference, Dakar, Senegal.

As I muse over this 1981 Noma Award winning epistolary novella by Senegal’s daughter Mariama Ba, it becomes interesting to note that even with a more enabled space in governance, the reason for young women’s lingering absence in politics may not be far from Daba’s as captured above. If my suppositions are right, then the need therefore arises to reorient young women, support them to critically question their narratives and unlearn their assumptions about activities associated with governance.

With more reflections days after the Youth leadership and democratic transition in Africa conference ended, I am grateful for the discussions it offered. I am also grateful for the insight given by this Senegalese Novel.

Hereafter it’s my opinion that beyond the preparation of young women towards a significant level of participation in politics, what the African governance space needs dearly is not affirmative action, quota system or our focusing on the gender of the political office holders. While inclusive governance is ideal, I think that we need feminist leaders like Daouda Dieng who understands the need for creating enabling spaces and equal opportunities for all. Africa requires leaders who are sensitive to the fact that women are a nation’s primary, more so, Women, Disabled Persons, Children and all other vulnerable and marginalized groups of persons in our society must be encouraged to take a keener interest in their country’s governance.

~Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye.