Radio Haiti, vibrant champion of the Kreyòl-speaking ‘outside people’

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Patrick Cox: This is the story of three people bound together by one language, Haitian Kreyòl. in April 2000, one of those three people died

News clip: Amy Goodman / Democracy Now: Haiti’s democratic movement remained in shock today, just 24 hours after pioneering radio broadcaster and leading pro-democracy activist Jean Dominique was gunned down in the courtyard of his radio station. Gunmen ambushed the 69-year-old (fades)…

Patrick Cox: If you’ve seen the Jonathan Demme documentary, The Agronomist, you’ll know something about Jean Dominique. If not, no worries. All will become clear. One language, three people. Here are the other two.

Laura Wagner: Do you remember the first time we met?

Michèle Montas: We met in a parking lot.

Patrick Cox: That’s Michèle Montas, Jean Dominique’s widow, And the woman who spoke first is Laura Wagner, who was a doctoral candidate at the time. This parking lot meeting, it was a restaurant lot in North Carolina, on the eve of the 14th anniversary of Dominique’s death. People were gathering for a commemorative meal. Laura approached Michèle and introduced herself.

Laura Wagner: Do you remember what I said?

Michèle Montas: No, I don’t.

Laura Wagner: What I said was something along the lines of: “Ou se yon gwo ewo pou mwen, eskize m paske m gen yon ti mal makak.”

Patrick Cox: Which translates as, “You’re a huge hero of mine. Excuse me because I’m a little hungover.”

Laura Wagner: That’s what I said. And then you started laughing and said, “Oh, your Kreyòl is so good. But I had defended my dissertation the day before.

Patrick Cox: Hence, the hangover.

Michèle Montas: And you spoke Kreyòl to me. And I was absolutely — my eyes were like this. I just couldn’t figure out how this young lady could speak Kreyòl.

Patrick Cox: Michèle was enchanted. The dinner that night: It was a commemoration of her husband and his radio station. Michèle had donated the archives of Radio Haiti to Duke University, and Duke was looking for someone to be the archivist. It would be tricky. Radio Haiti-Inter, to give it its full name, used to broadcast in a mix of Haiti’s two main languages: French, traditionally the language of the rich and powerful, and Kreyòl, the universal language, spoken by rich and poor. That was what set the station apart, and whoever oversaw the archives would need to reflect that, in ways that no one had figured out yet. But In that parking lot, Michèle decided she had found her archivist.

Michèle Montas: Yes, I said immediately that you were the person — you should be taking care of the archives. Not only because you said I was a hero for you. That part didn’t count that much for me. What counted for me was how frank and open you were about having mal makak, which means having drunk too much the night before because you were defending your dissertation. So to me you were the type of person who could understand what our journey had been about.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, it’s Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. The people in this case are, well, the entire nation of Haiti. And the language they all speak is embedded with words and ideas that frighten the nation’s rulers. Put that language on the radio and hold your breath.

Patrick Cox: Laura, what is Kreyòl? How did it come into being?

Laura Wagner: I’m not linguist but Kreyòl came into existence because of the Atlantic slave trade. So in the 17th and 18th centuries there were hundreds of thousands of African people who were enslaved in Saint-Domingue, the French colony that later became Haiti, and they were mostly working in really brutal conditions in sugar plantations. And these enslaved people came from different ethnic and linguistic groups in Africa, so they weren’t able to communicate in a common language. And they developed Kreyòl in order to communicate which allowed them to eventually organize among themselves against their enslavers.

Patrick Cox: How come it’s so similar to French?

Laura Wagner: I think it’s not that similar to French. A lot of the vocabulary comes from French that people might have spoken 300 years ago. But it’s written really differently from French, it doesn’t look like French if you see it written. And the grammar is totally different. Most of the grammar, I think, is from West African languages. And they aren’t mutually intelligible.

Patrick Cox: Tell me about Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas.

Laura Wagner: So I only know Jean through his voice and his writing, although there’s a lot of that. But I never knew him in life, and he never knew me. But he was this brilliant, fearless journalist and activist. He came from a relatively privileged background, mixed race, very educated family in Haiti, but they were definitely not among the wealthiest people in Haiti. He was an agronomist by training, and then lost his job because of the dictatorship and was imprisoned. And then as he put it, “I’m an agronomist, I became a journalist.” When I am trying to explain to Americans who he was, I say he was, I say that he was a sort of combination of Edward R. Murrow, in that he was the most recognized voice in Haitian media. He was part Sy Hersh, in terms of doing hard-hitting investigations and revealing scandals. And he was part Ida B. Wells, doing investigations while also speaking truth to power. And part Studs Terkel, sort of a storyteller focused on the lives of ordinary people.

Jean Dominique: There is something going on in a small piece of land called Haiti. Six million people. Poor, illiterate, Black, dirty, at the bottom of human life. But this country has something to tell you.

Laura Wagner: He was incredibly charismatic. Jonathan Demme wanted to make him a theater star with a one-man show, which is not what Jean wanted. He could be incredibly funny. And as I understand it, despite his on-air persona as being who talked a lot, he could actually be quite laconic and shy in his private life. And as a journalist, even though he spoke a lot, he also put a lot of emphasis on listening, especially to marginalized people. He used to use this expression, “I need to sit on my school bench and learn from the people.”

Patrick Cox: Wow

Laura Wagner: So that’s Jean.

Patrick Cox: And how about Michèle?

Laura Wagner: So Michèle is the one who is actually trained as a journalist. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia and she really ran the newsroom at Radio Haiti. She trained several generations of Haitian journalists. She did a lot of the work that made the station run. And like Jean, she is really passionate and driven by her convictions. And after he was killed, after he was assassinated, she took on even more of a public-facing role at the station. And like him she came from a relatively privileged background.

Michèle Montas: I would speak French to my parents. I would speak Kreyòl to my Nounou, who was taking care of me, was in charge of me and who was a mother to me. My Nounou, she was called Ti Ta. She’s the one who taught me more about my own Haitian culture than anybody else. At school, we spoke French to the teachers. When we were out playing in the yard, we would speak Creole to each other. Of course, we were punished for it because we were not supposed to speak Creole, but we did anyway. And I’m sure any Haitian who is drowning, whether he’s French speaking or not, we’ll just yell in Kreyòl, “Anmwèy!”

Patrick Cox: So in desperate times, Michèle is saying all Haitians would default to Kreyòl, no matter what their social background? Is that the case with Jean too?

Laura Wagner: Yeah I think so. I think what she’s saying there is that all Haitians speak Kreyòl regardless of their class or education level. Haitians are at heart, when push comes to shove, people who think and feel in Kreyòl. And so that’s what was so important to Jean Dominique that Radio Haiti be a medium that spoke to people in their language.

Jean Dominique: One day I tried to work at Radio Haiti. Two years as a freelance. Then the owner said, “Are you interested in buying the station?” That was it. I had my chance.

Laura Wagner: So this was in the late Sixties under the dictatorship of François Duvalier.

Patrick: Papa Doc?

Laura Wagner: Yes.

Newsreel: “Few people, it can be safely said, have been so downtrodden, so badly used, as the Haitians under Duvalier. HIs power was the power of the gun. His politics was the politics of the firing squad.”

Laura Wagner: And then in 1971 after Duvalier died, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier took over.

Patrick: Baby Doc, right?

Laura Wagner: And that was around then that Jean Dominique inaugurated Radio Haiti-Inter. And Baby Doc was trying to ensure that his government continued to get aid from the United States, so they had to at least be on the surface less repressive than his father’s dictatorship. So in spite of that it was a really difficult time to be reporting the news in Haiti.

Jean Dominique: It was a very very risky business. Radio then was not a news media. It was entertainment. And I started, step by step, inch by inch, to introduce two things. First: Kreyòl.

Michèle Montas: Kreyòl was used before in radio to advertise in radio to advertise for things like soap or cleaning products.

Michèle Montas: The new station opened with jingles, using traditional Haitian folk songs.

Radio Haiti Jingle

Laura Wagner: At Radio Haiti under Jean Dominique, they started making Kreyòl much more dominant and using it for serious news.

Jean Dominique: Radio, in this Kreyòl-speaking country, was a French-speaking media. And I tried to introduce information. Risky business, because every information, even about the garbage in the street, was seen by the power as opposition.

Michèle Montas: Everything was political. Covering garbage in the streets was political. And when Jean said we had to eat the pudding on the side because it was too hot, it is very true.

Patrick: Wait, what does that mean?

Laura Wagner: So Jean used to say that getting into reporting the news was like eating labouyi cho or hot porridge. So you start around the sides where it’s cooler and you slowly make your way in but very cautiously. Part of what he would do there is what they called pawòl andaki, which is talking about things indirectly so that the listeners would understand but they could also have plausible deniability if the regime accused them of sedition or something like that. At Radio Haiti, Michèle had to learn to do all that kind of stuff too.

Michèle Montas: For instance, one labor organizer would come to me — I was the head of the newsroom then — would come to me and say, “We have organized the seven factories, so we have seven unions to declare today.” I said, “Slowly. You are going to declare two today. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about two more.” Because we knew that our own existence depended on being careful.

Laura Wagner: Shortly after he launched Radio Haiti-Inter, Jean Dominique and his sister Madeleine translated the dialogue of a famous Haitian novel called Gouverneurs de la Rosée. And Jean turned it into a radio play.

Radio Haiti announcer: “Radio Haiti présente Gouverneurs de la Rosée”

Laura Wagner: So Gouverneurs de la Rosée, which is known as Masters of the Dew in English, was a novel in French by a Haitian writer named Jacques Roumain. And he wrote this novel about a young man from rural Haiti named Manuel who goes to Cuba to cut sugarcane and learns about communism. Then he comes back home and he finds his community suffering from drought and famine. And he uses the principles that he learned in Cuba and also the Haitian tradition of konbit which is a kind of collective labor. And he uses that to organize his community so that they find water. And Manuel ends up dying in the process but in spite of that his spirit and his lessons live on. So what Jean and Madeleine did was they translated the dialogue into Kreyòl, they kept the narration in French, so Jean does the narration.

Gouverneurs de la Rosée excerpt: Jean Dominique narrates.

Laura Wagner: But then all the characters are played by different journalists and actors and they’re speaking Kreyol which is the language that the characters in the novel would’ve spoken anyway.

Gouverneurs de la Rosée excerpt: Dialogue

Michèle Montas: And I don’t think anybody cared that it was translated into Kreyòl because it was just a novel. Talking about actual events happening, things that were happening that would have worried them. But I think it was part of Jean’s effort to bring Haitian culture –it means everything. It meant everything from literature to music. It was a great thing producing it, because we didn’t have any special sound effects, you know? At one point in the novel, there is a dog whining. We couldn’t find a dog whining in Port-au-Prince because they are well fed. But in the countryside, one of my people just actually got a very skinny dog to start whining in the countryside. So we could insert that into the novel, which is about the countryside.

Gouverneurs de la Rosée excerpt: Dialogue with dog whining in the background

Patrick Cox: Wow, listening to that I’m thinking of Haitians themselves listening to it at the time: You turn on the radio for a cultural program and you expect to hear French. And suddenly you’re hearing this language that many people think doesn’t belong in the high arts.

Laura Wagner: Yeah, I think that was part of it. And I also think part of it was they were turning it into a radio play, so that people who may not have been traditionally literate — or people who did not have had access to a novel — still had the chance to hear and experience this story.

Patrick Cox: How did Radio Haiti with its commitment to Kreyòl and democracy and the rights of poor people all over the country, how did it survive the dictatorship?

Laura Wagner: It didn’t. But it also outlasted the dictatorship. Radio Haiti was shut down, violently, in 1980. Most of the journalists were arrested. Some were imprisoned. Some were exiled including Jean and Michèle who ended up going into exile in the United States. But after Baby Doc fell in 1986, they returned.

Michèle Montas: What I remember of the fall of Duvalier is the use of one of my favorite words. It’s called baboukèt and that people said, “Baboukèt la tonbe,” which means the muzzle has fallen. Which means that people equated freedom to freedom of speech and freedom to speak Kreyòl! Their own language. When people said “Baboukèt la tonbe,” they really meant, “We can speak out. And we can speak out in our own language and see what we want about what we are going through.” Being able to speak out.

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Patrick Cox: Laura, what made you want to learn Kreyòl?

Laura Wagner: After I graduated from college I moved to Miami for a couple years. And I was doing community organizing and I worked for the health department there. And I had a lot of colleagues and friends from Haiti, and they were talking about politics all the time. And I was really drawn to how passionate they were about their homeland and how they pushed back against the standard, demeaning US narratives about Haiti, which were the only kinds of Haiti stories that I heard of to that point. And so I started learning Kreyòl from them, and I really fell in love with the language. And one day I went to Blockbuster Video and I saw this DVD on the shelf and checked it out on a whim. And that was The Agronomist. I watched it in my apartment in Miami and I had no idea who Jean Dominique or Michèle Montas were. And I was just captivated and then heartbroken by this story. And so it’s still totally wild to me that I’m the person that ended up being the archivist for it.

Patrick Cox: Wow. And at the time, did you speak French?

Laura Wagner: Not really. I had studied Spanish, and I knew a little bit of French. But I really learned Kreyòl as Kreyòl. People in Haiti have told me before that Americans tend to learn better Kreyòl than French people do, because French people think they can kind of get by in French, but Americans tend to have to learn Kreyòl as a language.

Patrick Cox: What are your favorite Kreyòl words or phrases?

Laura Wagner: I like the word wòwòt, which means underripe but it also means kind of inexperienced. I like the expression depi dyab te kaporal, which literally means “since the Devil was a corporal,” but just means “since time immemorial.” I like the phrase mawonaj, which is something that we’ve been talking about: When Jean talked about eating the porridge around the side, or speaking andaki speaking in kind of veiled or coded ways, that’s a form of mawonaj The word mawonaj comes from mawon, and those were the enslaved people who escaped and went to the mountains to form autonomous communities. But what it means today are these forms of dissembling or hiding in plain sight — speaking indirectly — and I think that’s really beautiful.

Patrick Cox: So Jean Dominique acquired the radio station during a dictatorship, introduced Kreyòl on the airways, in news stories as well as in jingles and advertising. And the station somehow survived the dictatorships. Then after that, attempts to usher in democracy began but it was pretty unstable. What about Kreyòl in the newsroom at that time? Could it thrive then?

Laura Wagner: Yeah, I think as time went on and Haiti was no longer under the same kind of dictatorship that it had been under the Duvaliers, they were able to put more Kreyòl on the air. But of course, it was never a purely Kreyòl station. They reported in both languages. They would have a report and have a French version and a Kreyòl version. I always think it’s a mistake to assume that people who speak Kreyòl don’t understand French at all. Michèle tells this story about how they would stop at the gas station after Jean had done his morning editorial– and he tended to do his editorials in French — and the gas station attendant would be complimenting him or giving him feedback or ideas about the editorial. When he spoke people understood, even if he was speaking in French. So at Radio Haiti the journalists’ goal was to put the two languages at the same level and to show that anything that could also be done in French could also be done in Kreyòl.

Michèle Montas: They liked expressing themselves in Kreyòl, and a lot of them actually were using Kreyòl in a very imaginative way — and transforming the language in the process. And a lot of terms like zenglendo, which means bandits. The term zenglendo was invented in our newsroom.

Patrick Cox: So a word for bandits that’s particular to Kreyòl?

Laura Wagner: Yeah, this blew my mind when Michèle told me that the word zenglendo came from Radio Haiti’s newsroom because that is such a common word now. And it comes from this word, zenglen, which has a really interesting history.

Michèle Montas: The zenglen are a secret society group that actually can terrorize the countryside. A religious group, but from the dark side of Vodou. And that during 200 years of independence had been used to actually instill fear in the peasantry. It refers to realities that you know, that are part of Haitian culture, which was really what we wanted. That Haitian culture from the outside country, from the country that was not Port-au-Prince. The word zenglendo just came from zenglen.

Patrick Cox: So this newly coined word didn’t conjure up an image of bandits, but of a slice of history involving a religious sect that had co-opted vodou to strike fear in the hearts of Haitian peasants. That’s a powerful image.

Laura Wagner: Yeah, for me it’s a really great example of how when Radio Haiti used Kreyòl on the air, they weren’t doing a word-for-word translation of the French. They were using what people call Kreyòl rèk which means real, authentic Kreyòl.

Patrick Cox: Right, they were drawing on all these cultural references.

Laura Wagner: Jean Dominique was really driven by the idea of ending exclusion because Haitian society for a very long time had been built on exclusion of the people that are called the moun andeyò who come from the peyi andeyò which means the countryside — everything beyond the city and especially beyond Port-au-Prince. So that was really central to Radio Haiti’s mission was to end the exclusion of the majority of Haitian people.

There’s this clip where he explains it in English. It’s actually some of the raw footage that didn’t make it into The Agronomist. And he says that Haiti has been two countries for two centuries. This small minority of sophisticated people who attend church and speak French and go to fancy schools and travel abroad to Paris or the United States and are involved in business. And everybody else — the majority of the country — is this pays andeyo, this outside country. He says not only do the elite call people ”outside people” but people saw themselves as outside people. And they are people who come from the countryside that practice Vodou, who worship African gods rather than a white god, who speak Kreyòl rather than French. And what the end of the dictatorship and the end of military rule in Haiti represented was an opportunity for those people to say, “We aren’t outside people any more.”

Jean Dominique: Now the outside country says, “Hey! I exist! I am not outside anymore! This country is ours and I am this country as much as you.”

Patrick Cox: I’m starting to understand why this whole project was so threatening to the authorities in Haiti, even long after the Duvalier dictatorships.

Laura Wagner: Yeah, Radio Haiti and especially Jean Dominique were always about holding powerful people accountable. And what ended up happening on April 3, 2000 was that Jean Dominique was assassinated as he arrived at Radio Haiti. He was killed alongside a station employee named Jean Claude Louissaint. And to this day, the individuals who were responsible have never been officially identified or brought to justice. What Michèle always says is that everybody knew that they could come to Radio Haiti at any time. So probably nobody batted an eye when the gunmen came to the station that day.

Michèle continued to run Radio Haiti for almost three years after Jean was killed. And on Christmas Day, 2002, there was an attempt on her life. She survived but her bodyguard, a young man named Maxime Seïde died. He was 26 years old. And after that happened, more and more of Radio Haiti’s journalists began to come forward and reveal the kinds of threats that they were getting. And so in February 2003, they decided to close the station in order to protect the lives of the journalists. And at first they said that it was a temporary pause but the station never reopened again.

Patrick Cox: Which brings us to the day a decade later when Laura, you met Michèle in the parking lot in North Carolina, when she and those folks at Duke University were scoping around for someone to manage the archives of Radio Haiti. What were those archives? I mean, what were you confronted with?

Laura Wagner: Yeah, so the first thing that we received were many, many, many huge blue plastic bins of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. Over 1,600 open reels and over 2,000 cassettes in the end, as well as a lot of papers and a few other things. But the majority are those tapes. So it was my job to listen to all of those and provide descriptions so that anybody with an internet connection could listen to Radio Haiti again.

Michèle Montas: It was extremely important to me when I donated Radio Haiti’s archives to Duke University that the audio archives be made available to Haitians in Haiti. And the initiative taken by you, by Laura Wagner, who was and remains the soul of these archives to introduce each recording in English, French and Kreyòl was really more than I expected but it was exactly what I wanted.

Patrick Cox: What does Michèle mean there?

Laura Wagner: For me, there was never any question that if we at Duke University were going to be the custodians of this collection that is a precious piece of Haitian national heritage that it has to be as accessible as possible to audiences in Haiti, and not just academic researchers. That meant that every single one of those over 5,000 audio files has to have detailed descriptions in English, Haitian Kreyòl and French that tells you what it’s about, what they are talking about, who is speaking, where it happened, when it happened — all of that. I need to give as much information as possible so that people can find these things again.

Michèle Montas: The Kreyòl description meant access, it also meant respect for the language that had had no respect before. And I’m glad of that initiative and to me that would have been what Jean would have wanted.

Patrick Cox: When I — as a non-expert observer of Haitian elites — when I see headlines about drug deals, massive corruption, assassination of a president, it doesn’t seem like much has changed since the bad old days of dictatorship, and Kreyòl being considered a low-class language of the uneducated rural pepole. So have things really changed for Kreyòl do you think?

Laura Wagner: I think there’s a lot more Kreyòl being spoken. There’s still stigma. At my goddaughter’s school there’s still signs up, telling people to only speak French at school, but there’s a lot more Kreyòl being spoken in the government, in the universities.

Michèle Montas: You hear Creole everywhere in the public discourse. So it’s — I would say that Creole has gained a tremendous status.

Laura Wagner: But I think that changing the language doesn’t change the structures of power. I think that due to decades of international interference in Haiti’s political affairs, there has never actually been true sustained democracy in Haiti. You talked about violence and corruption. Those things have never gone away. There have always been corrupt elites, some of whom are Haitian, many of whom are foreign, exploiting the Haitian people. If things are happening in Kreyòl but it’s still the same powerful people who remain powerful and who are monopolizing the conversation whatever language they are speaking, then that doesn’t translate to an end to exclusion, and the thing that Jean Dominique and Radio Haiti were fighting for.

Michèle Montas: To me, what has been lost is the focus that we had on having the majority of Haitians express themselves. And when I say the majority of Haitians, I talk about people living in the countryside. And those people right now, I don’t feel that their voices are being heard. And when I say that it has gone backwards, I mean that not in the language itself, but in the way the language gives access to people from the countryside to the national stage.

Patrick Cox: Michèle Montas is currently living in New York where she works as a freelance journalist and writer. Laura Wagner is writing a book that brings together the story of Radio Haiti and its archive with the story of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and its aftermath.

Patrick Cox: Thanks to the Human Rights Archive at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University, which houses the Radio Haiti Archive.The Radio Haiti collection was digitized and processed with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Council on Library and Information Resources. Thanks also to Craig Breadenm, Maggie Dickson, Tanya Thomas, Krystelle Rocourt, Catherine Farmer, Eline Roillet and everyone else who worked on the Radio Haiti project. And to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America. Special thanks to Jeb Sharp and Krystal Knapp.

Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media. Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who’re all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you’re not going to come across in many other places. Here’s one of the oerther Hub and Spoke podcasts: Ministry of Ideas. In the latest episode of Ministry of Ideas, host Zachary Davis explores the complex nature of national borders and discovers they are not really the fixed lines on a map some of us imagine them to be.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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