When Haitian President René Préval visited the White House earlier this month, I had the pleasure of listening to him speak. I was not surprised but I was dismayed that he had chosen to speak in French. The night before his White House visit, I had spoken to some of his core constituency; that is, Haitians who still live there and to whom his words matter most. None of them knew about his speech.
One of his constituents, a Haitian woman who ran away from the ill-fated capital and is now on a tour of her various relatives' homes in the United States, said she is still waiting for "someone" to go examine her home in Delmas 31. Some walls cracked but the top floor looks fine, she said. She is waiting for authoritative advice about whether she can move back in and open the shop on the ground floor.
Some 1.2 million homeless Haitians are waiting too, sleeping in the insecure NGO camps or wherever they happen to be standing at night fall. Unfortunately, most of them would not understand Preval's speech either.
Mr. Preval gave brief remarks in which he copiously thanked the international community for their efforts but failed to represent the Haitian people in a way that most of them could understand.
When I was a child, I never questioned the bifurcate way of the Haitian tongue. At school, you are forbidden from speaking Creole. All procedures are carried out in French yet most people go home to a Creole-speaking mother, aunt or grandmother. These elders are supposed to make decisions both for themselves and for their children. How can they can if the parents' notes are sent in French? This situation is little different from that of some immigrant families in a foreign country.
Some NGOs estimate that only 10 percent of the population speaks fluent French, yet elected officials continue to use that language to represent the people at the United Nations and in the White House.
I remember seeing Mr. Preval back in his early days in the National Palace on TV. He had his arms around a woman whose vote he had wanted - consoling and promising to help fix her dilapidated house that flooded when heavy rains fell. He spoke plain Creole then.
If Haitian politicians mean to speak for all Haitians, why don't they speak in a tongue we all know and use? Why does Creole take a back seat to French when we are called to speak for Haiti?
It has taken tragedies of this magnitude to remind many of us Haitians of the importance of this language. In emergency situations, Haitian Creole is far more important than French. To use French in an emergency situation in Haiti is like shouting exit instructions in English during a fire in a Georgia plant where 90 percent of the workers speak Spanish.
As we would say in Haiti, Kreyol pale, kreyol comprann. Speak plainly and you will be understood clearly, Mr. President.