“N amaste ,” says Giovany Senecal, shyly, his tongue stumbling over the unfamiliar syllables.
We automatically place our palms together and he awkwardly does the same.
“How do you know to greet me with ‘ namaste ’?” I ask curiously. We are standing in the biggest tyre shop in the Haitian capital and Senecal, the manager, is as Haitian as they come. All around us, workers are shouting instructions to one another in Creole; most of the posters on the walls are in French, as one might expect in a former colony of France. Outside, palm trees wave above the rooftops; Haiti’s ubiquitous small traders sell small amounts of everything (six rolls of bread; a dozen mangoes; a handful of cans of tomato paste) from metal wheelbarrows, the street stall in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. With just 250 businessmen, professionals and Missionaries of Charity based in Haiti, India seems literally and figuratively to be at the other end of the earth.
“We get Indian films on satellite TV,” Senecal replies in sketchy but adequate English, involuntarily moving his arms from side to side in an edited but eloquent mime of a Bollywood dance routine. “They have a lot of song and dance. Indian culture seems very good, very traditional.”
“Do you really watch Hindi films?”
“No, not really. I don’t know your language. But I learnt ‘ namaste ’.”
Despite offering a live demonstration of Bollywood’s reach and soft power, Senecal is not the typical Haitian when it comes to knowledge about India. Here’s another story that illustrates just how distant and unknowable India is for Haiti even as New Delhi tries to help it recover from a massive earthquake that practically flattened Port-au-Prince three years ago.
“Haiti’s relations with India are very strong,” declares the president of the Caribbean island’s Senate, Desras Simon Dieuseul, right after the non-resident Indian ambassador C. Rajasekhar presented his credentials to Haiti’s President, Michel Martelly, in Port-au-Prince. “We have always had Indians in Haiti.”
Though gracious, the Senate president’s remarks were not entirely accurate and are at best seen as humorous. Haiti once had Indians aplenty but they were not from India. The Taino Indians were an indigenous people found in Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and along some of the islands of the Caribbean Basin. Spanish colonists and smallpox laid waste to them, and 500 years ago the Tainos disappeared. So the Indians mentioned by Haiti’s senator-of-senators had been extinct for centuries.
Every Haitian cannot be a Giovany Senecal, but how does India bridge the obvious gulf in understanding?
In the Haitian capital, the tricolour has probably never been so visible. For three years, it has been painted on two boards that announce the presence of two Indian peacekeeping units of roughly 150 men each, serving in Port-au-Prince under the aegis of the United Nations. (A third is based at Hinche, another outpost, two hours away from the capital.)
Rajasekhar, the ambassador, who lives in Cuba and is also accredited to the Dominican Republic, is diplomatic and upbeat. “As a responsible member of the international community, India seeks to share its own developmental experience, as Least Developed Countries like Haiti endeavour to grow,” he says. Much of this “sharing” comes with monetised caring. Last September, Rajasekhar handed over an outsize cheque for $5 million to help Haiti in its struggle to house the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes in the quake. But President Martelly reportedly told Rajasekhar “Don’t give me money, give me the houses.” It was a plea for help. Haiti needs at least 500,000 permanent homes over the next decade.
Recently, an Indian company began work on 300 houses in an area that will henceforth be known as Mahatma Gandhi Village. The project, roughly 10 km northeast of Port-au-Prince, is patterned along the well-worn lines of New Delhi’s $270-million commitment to re-house 50,000 displaced Sri Lankan Tamils by October 2015. The Indian company working in Haiti is the one that successfully completed a project in northern Sri Lanka, says an informed source.
“This is money well spent,” says Eddy Handal, a prominent, well-regarded Haitian businessman who has long served as India’s honorary consul here. “It really helps build India’s image,” he adds, pointing out that right after the quake, India sent the same amount of money for disaster relief.
Indian official assistance now includes a new scheme to provide non-reciprocal, preferential, duty-free access to Haitian imports into its vast market and training for 12 Haitians every year in India in disparate courses including human resources development, diplomacy and information technology. The latest batch included four Haitian women, who were trained in solar electrification and rooftop rainwater harvesting at Rajasthan’s Barefoot College.
But the unofficial picture is more interesting by far with an Indian reigning as Haiti’s “plastics king” and Indians providing crucial assistance in the cooking fuel sector.
A Puducherry company has just shipped 500 efficient charcoal stoves from Chennai to Port-au-Prince in an attempt to secure a new market in search of cheaper, more eco-friendly ways to cook, thereby reducing the need to cut down more trees in one of the world’s most deforested countries.
Meanwhile, Maulik Radia, an IIT engineer who has lived here 25 years, dreams of introducing kerosene stoves manufactured by a company in Rajkot. “It would change the country forever,” he explains, “because big Haitian businesses would no longer have a monopoly on propane gas and peasants everywhere could sell kerosene”. It is a revolutionary idea for Haiti, where the big business elite constitutes barely two per cent of the population and has almost all the wealth.
The Indian dream for Haiti seems closer to fruition than ever before.