Post contributed by Laura Wagner, Ph.D., Radio Haiti Project Archivist
Processing the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter can be difficult work. The collection is filled with human rights violations, suffering, injustice, and death — including both the repression that the station’s journalists covered and the repression they personally endured. Yet despite the heaviness of the subject matter, listening to Radio Haiti is often joyful. Jean Dominique is the single most expressive person I have ever had the privilege of spending time with. (He was, in the words of his friend Jonathan Demme, “an absolute theater superstar waiting to happen.”) In French, he’d quote Henri de Montherlant and La Rochefoucauld. In Haitian Creole, he’d draw on the language’s evocative proverbs and expressions. Creole is a language of poetry and double meanings, of metaphor and dissembling, of mawonaj.
As I head into my last week on the Radio Haiti project, I wanted to emphasize a lighter side of the project and share some wonderful Haitian Creole phrases. I’ve also learned some fantastic French terms over the course of this project (like scélérat – a villain! often paired with mediocre, because to Jean Dominique, mediocre was one of the worst things a person could be. Or histrion, a buffoon; scribouillard, a penpusher; or crêpage de chignons, a catfight!). But, as I said, in this list I’m going to concentrate on the Creole expressions that I’ve picked up along the way, not only from Jean Dominique, but also from Michèle Montas, J.J. Dominique, Konpè Filo, and other members of the Radio Haiti team, as well as some of the people they interviewed.
- Sòt pa touye w, men li fè w swè – Literally, stupidity won’t kill you, but it’ll make you sweat. My personal mantra every time I made a mistake while processing the Radio Haiti collection. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: stupidity isn’t fatal, but it creates a lot more work for you.
- Sezi kou berejèn – Very surprised; literally, surprised as an eggplant. I have no idea why.
- Depi djab te kaporal – Literally, “ever since the Devil was a corporal.” Figuratively, since the beginning of time. I’m told that’s because the Devil has been a general for a long time, so if he was a low-ranking officer, that must have been a very long time ago.
- Mare sòsis – Literally, to tie your sausage together with someone else’s. Figuratively, to be in cahoots with someone.
- M a di w sa Kasayòl te di bèf la – Literally, “I’m going to tell you what Cassagnol told the cow.” When you want to curse someone out without doing it directly. No one knows who Cassagnol was, or what he told the cow, but we can only imagine that it was very bad indeed.
- Pitit trannde dan – Literally, “a child with thirty-two teeth.” In a report from 1979 by Konpè Filo, sex workers from Port-au-Prince explained that they referred to their pimps as “children with thirty-two teeth” because they were all grown up but still depended on women for everything.
- Benyen san kache lonbrit – Literally, bathing without hiding your belly button. Letting it all hang out, not having any secrets.
- Panzou – Traditionally, a children’s game in which you slap someone’s hand, often to make them drop something. Panzou came to mean coup d’état, referring to the way the army seized power from Haiti’s democratically-elected government in 1991. The perpetrators of the coup, accordingly, were panzouyis (panzouists).
- Mete absè sou klou – Literally, putting an abcess on top of a boil. Figuratively, making a bad situation worse.
- Nou se lanmè, nou pa kenbe kras – A proverb, and of Radio Haiti’s slogans. Literally “We are like the sea, we wash away the dirt.” It means “we reveal the truth, we don’t keep secrets.”
- Nou pa manje lajan Chango, nou pa manje manje bliye – Literally, “we don’t consume Chango’s money, we don’t eat the food of forgetfulness.” Figuratively, “we’re not taking part in corruption and we never forget.” Chango is a Vodou lwa known for his anger. If you take Chango’s money, you have to be prepared to do something in exchange. The original expression is Lè w manje lajan Chango, fò w peye Chango (“When you use Chango’s money, you better pay Chango back.”)
- Degi – A small bonus, like a baker’s dozen. (This twelfth entry on a list of eleven is your degi!) I knew this word before, from every time I’ve bought rice or beans in a Haitian market, but I did not know that degi comes from the Fon language of West Africa, as Jean Dominique learned when he interviewed the ambassador from Benin, Patrice Houngavou, in 1978.
A Note from Rubenstein Staff: Laura, we will miss you! Thank you for your incredible and invaluable work on this massive and complicated project. We are so lucky to have pote kole with you these past few years. Because of your hard work, expertise, and passion, the Radio Haiti Archive is accessible to people all over the world. How amazing is that?! We wish you all the best and look forward to hearing about your future endeavors.