Boojum Hunting in the Caribbean

When Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean nearly 40 years ago, he was shocked by — of all things — a garbage dump in the middle of the ocean.

In the area known as the Doldrums (wonderful word), Heyerdahl’s papyrus raft Ra II was surrounded for days by a wilderness of plastic rubbish from all over the world. The Age of Plastic has bequeathed countless conveniences to humanity as well as new forms of cancer and enormous collections of litter on land, at sea and even in space.

Since Heyerdahl’s observations, we now know that every ocean in the world has its own garbage dump. The largest by far is the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch, an area covering most of the North Pacific from Alaska to Japan — twice the size of the continental United States and discovered only in 1997. The gyres are not easily discerned, because most of the plastic rubbish has been macerated by marine forces and is composed of small particles that float just below the surface, killing fish that mistake it for food.

The Atlantic gyre, like all others, has formed at the confluence of various ocean currents, an area of slackwater circulating majestically, slowly and almost imperceptibly until you pick up — on a Jamaican or Haitian beach — soft drink containers thrown into the Congo or the Niger.

There is another less well-known gyre in the North Caribbean which has quite different effects from the other garbage patches.

This area of existential discombobulation is much more dangerous than its kin. It is, first of all, not composed of material fragments but of abstractions, strange apparitions that do not poison fish or litter beaches, but poison minds and litter brave new policies with the toxic detritus of ancient ignorance, hysteria and unreasonable beliefs.

It is a place where ancient racist libels still hang around, driving US politicians to distraction and the Bible. It is the place where apparitions like Pat Robertson, Roger Noriega, Otto Reich and Luigi Einaudi flourish and have their being, sustained by vicious fables invented 500 years ago to justify human slavery, revised and updated periodically to deal with black rebellion against slavery, colonialism and used today to frighten and confuse US soldiers and journalists.

Baron Samedi walks again

When I was about 12 years old, I borrowed a book from the Institute of Jamaica’s Junior Centre library. It was part of a donation by the Carnegie Foundation and was almost brand new.

I cannot remember the name or author, but the book was obviously written to sell millions by frightening the wits out of its American readers.

I had, up to that time, heard nothing about Haiti or their religious system, Vodun. The novel was populated by zombies — the living dead — as well as other evil spirits presided over by the sulphurous presence of Baron Samedi who seemed to be in charge of everything in Haiti, from cooking to current affairs. If my memory is reliable there were incredible scenes of ‘demoniac possession’ mostly among the epically bloodthirsty natives but not sparing the fairest flowers of Nordic pulchritude and chastity.

Since the book was written in the first half of the twentieth century, indecencies were suggested rather than made plain, and even bloodshed was a lot less indiscriminate than, say, the latest dancehall invocation against homosexuals. What was clear was that the narrative was intended to make your skin creep; in my case it certainly succeeded.

The novel was not unusual for American colonial narratives of the time. Non-Europeans could be trusted as far as the front gate, being consumed by lust and crazed by the need to spill blood.

And the ‘black magic’ was integral to cultures that were brutish, repellent and totally merciless.

The Devil in the Flesh

A few years ago TIME magazine, quite seriously, printed what it said was a recipe for creating zombies. The process was not difficult, if one was not squeamish. It involved, among other things, the flowers of the Datura bush.

So, I was not surprised by the most recent eructations of Pat (Napoleon III) Robertson, a semi-literate quack who seems to have a hotline to Satan himself and is always willing to explain the latest demonic manifestations. Nor was I really surprised to learn that the US Army was so terrified of unarmed, starving and wounded Haitians that it needed about 10 soldiers to protect one aid person.

Others were not so intimidated by the Haitians.

Partners in Health, a Boston-based NGO led by Paul Farmer, was running several field hospitals from its headquarters in Cange, in Haiti’s Central Plateau. Tiny Iceland (facing bankruptcy) had search-and-rescue teams on the ground in Port-au-Prince within 48 hours of the earthquake. Andri Magnason, a friend in Iceland, sent me the following:

“There is an Icelandic team of 20 rescue workers in Port-au-Prince and Leogane. They have saved a few lives with their special equipment. They have not seen the violence that has been in the news; on the contrary, they see only gratitude and goodwill and cooperation — no hostility — and they have even seen some hope. Strange how the world media wants to paint things black, while they could pick up many stories of human dignity from the ruins.”

And, of course, the Cubans (“We Never Closed”) had more than 400 medical professionals on the ground before the earthquake and doubled that number with their graduating class of 400 Haitian doctors. Doctors Without Borders complained that the US military was preventing medical assistance reaching those who needed it most.

The real problem, as I see it, is that the US has scared itself silly with the policy garbage bequeathed by Thomas Jefferson and refined by the like of William Jennings Bryan, Reich, Noriega, Einaudi and their sainted mentors, Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.

If the US Army had thought to drop water, nothing more, they could have saved many lives. Some people drank their own urine. Others, less knowledgeable, may have died of thirst.

The late Hedi Annabi — the UN’s man in Haiti — died in the earthquake. He was clearly another who thought Haitians were all terrorists and his way of preparing for democracy involved the UN mission — MINUSTAH — making periodic forays into the slums to slaughter members of Fanmi Lavalas.

The UN secretary general is even more clueless, tolerating René Préval’s de-legitimising Fanmi Lavalas and appointing Bill Clinton as his representative in Haiti. Clinton was the man who restored Aristide in 1994 to stem the flood of refugees into Miami Beach and then broke every promise he made and pressured and blackmailed the Haitians by shutting down essential foreign aid.

So, I must confess that my blood ran cold when Barack Obama proved even more clueless than Ban Ki-Moon by appointing Haiti’s worst enemy, George Bush, to join Clinton to raise funds for Haitian relief. If there is anyone who believes in Haitian zombies and bogeymen, it is Bush. As far as Ban Ki-Moon, Clinton and Bush are concerned, the Haitians are only good for mindless ‘jobs’ in foreign-owned sweatshops.

What is so tragic about the loss of life since the earthquake is that, were it not for the boojums, zombies and Baron Samedi, so much more could have been done.

If you don’t believe me, read the following:

“However, away from the glare of the international media, a team of Cuban doctors has been working among the quake-affected. The Cuban government offered its medical expertise to the governments of Pakistan and India immediately after the magnitude of the destruction caused by the quake was known. The Indian government did not even acknowledge the offer. Pakistan, where the scale of disaster was humongous, was quick to accept the offer. The first Cuban medical team was in Pakistan on October 14, six days after the earthquake.” (Frontline Vol:22 Iss:26 URL: htm)

In short order, the Cubans had established 19 field hospitals staffed by more than 700 doctors — half of them women — working 12-hour shifts.

This was in Pakistan in 2005.

Pakistan is 14,000 miles from Cuba and the Cubans were working in foreign conditions, in fierce cold, in a country with whom Cuba had no diplomatic relations.

There are now more than 25,000 Cuban doctors working outside their country and an almost equal number of teachers.

If you think that boojums are a figment of my imagination, consider this: Three weeks ago the US government identified Cuba as one of the countries exporting terrorism.

JOHN MAXWELL writes for the Jamaica Observer, where this article originally appeared.

Copyright © 2010 JOHN MAXWELL