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Bèbè Gòlgota: in search of citizenship with dignity

by Michel-Ange Hyppolite

 (Translation from Haitian Creole to English: Emmanuel W. VEDRINE)


After Eritye Vilokan (2008), Bèbè Gòlgota (2009) is a second novel by Pierre-Michel Chèry. As of now, P. M. Chéry is collaborating with REKA kreyol.org (Rezon Entènèt Kreyolis Ayisyen /Internet Network of Haitian Creolists) and with IOCP (International Organization Of Creole People).

These two organizations, in their own way, are working for the advancement of the Creole language. When someone is reading Bèbè Gòlgota, he can see himself before the story with a bunch of people that boarding a kanntè* heading directly to Miami, but who found themselves in Bahamas’ jails. The story starts with a first attempt trying to flee Haiti but one that failed; he starts over with a second try to leave the country but the passengers of the kanntè [who are going to tell his tribulation, found [himself (her) self lying on the back in a hospital in Miami with a broken leg. In a third tryout, this passengers did not get beyond the Bahamas. When we say Bahamas, that’s not a normal Bahamas; it’s a Bahamian prison for all passengers who escaped from the paws of second officer who are assassins, were obliged camped for some years til they sent them back to Haiti. First of all, it’s inside this concentration camp the main protagonist, Bèbè, has learn auto mechanic.

The story that P. M. Chéry is telling us is that of Janèt and Bèbè. The relationship between these two people was developed in the middle of the sea, beginning with the passengers’s tribulation who were on the they type of small (flat) boat that we, Haitians, call kanntè. But it’s in Haiti the story is going to take off for real because it is in his country that Bèbè decides to get out in order to find out who he really was.

In order for the author to tell us in what condition Janèt and Bèbè met each other, he writes: [In the middle of the sea ] the captain’s eyes opened very wide, he couldn’t do anything. He’s crying --- too many people in the boat… Lackeys and (small) lizards put on their executioner suit….the only chance a passenger has is his paws, his arms … Passengers who are not well secured, passengers who were by themselves, “kòmòkòy passengers” are all preys, easy preys for criminal paws who became wild animals…They are looking for human meat for sharks, in the name of Agwe*…. The lackey (who has thrown Janèt’s mother and father to the sea) grabbed Janèt’s arm… Let’s go!... I grasped both of the lackey’s arms and shook them to make him know that I am stronger I made him know that I am stronger… I frown in discontent; I made him see his stevedore’s arms… The lackey releases Janèt’s arms, and the executioner stopped throwing people to the sea.” (pp. 14-15)

It is since that day also that Janèt was going to grow up in Bèbè’s hands, til they became woman and men.  As for the name Bèbè, here is what the main character of the story tells us: “Bèbè… is the name of my hope, that’s the name Agwe gave me, it’s my daredevil’s name, it’s my hell’s name, it’s my tribulation’s name, and it’s my brave name, the name of my big biceps before criminals.” (pp. 23 )

The name Bèbè is an extra name among the many names the main character has in Port-au-Prince, starting from his different action or work.

Thus, in Bèbè’s reflection of himself, he declares: “Luckily, all the names that the society made for me are well chosen, proper names having no trace of wickedness : (they call me) Levwayan because I am a seer, Papèchay because I serve people well, Bèbè, because I am not intelligent.” (pp. 33)

He says they call him Bèbè, because he is not intelligent. Truly, this intelligence game is the result of the kanntè that could not start off because the person in charge of the trip could not fins Agwe’s blessing and and that of the remaining lwa (or spirits).

“Agwe doesn’t want the trip … The trip master asks if there are people on the boat who have account with the devil? Nobody answers….The trip master asks the lackey to find out who is restraining his work. … … When the lackey arrives at me (the main character)  I don’t know what to tell him, I stare at him as if I don’t understand. I press my toe on the ground; I didn’t answer the lackey. … … Finally, a passenger told the lackey: “Don’t you notice that the young man doesn’t say a word, he is mute and he can’t talk”. … … Since that day, I accept that I am mute for real; everyone may call me Bèbè”. (pp. 10-11)

Inside the book, Bèbè Golgota, P. M. Chéry touches various branches in the evolution of life inside the country without leaving his main objective which is Bèbè’s investigation to find out his real name with dignity because it’s life’s condition on the kanntè that breaks it apart, making him forget who he was. Truly, Bèbè realizes that without his real name, he is nobody. Therefore Bèbè is looking for his name because he must find it in order to be able to find dignity and to acknowledge himself as human.

While reading the story, we understand that if you don’t have a name, you don’t exist. If you don’t exist, you can’t vote. If you don’t have a name, you can’t have a passport. If you don’t have a name, immigration officers in your own country will always say to you:
“Bèbè? How are you? Where are you from?” (pp. 21).

It is this tough condition, Bèbè refuses to leave as heritage for his own daughter with Janèt, causing him to become a wonderer in Port-au-Prince to find his roots.

The absence of this identity penetrates so deep in the story that the author never shows us Janèt addressing her husband by his name. However, when Bèbè discovers the name that his parents gave him he decides to call himself Bèna Levwayan so that he can hold on to the first two letters in the word bèbè, because he became accustomed with this type of name. Janèt protested. She said she never knew anyone by the name of Levwayan. This information is found from the words of main character of the story reports. Nonetheless, Bèbè himself finds that to be arrogant: “I decide that I am going to change my name, I am going to adopt a name that works with Bèbè. I am going to have them call me Bèna.  Bèna Levwayan. That’s the first Haitian whose last name will be Levwayan… I will be the father of the ‘Levwayan nation’.” (pp. 83)

Truly, it’s the condition of life in his own country that forces Bèbè to flee Haiti by boat. It’s also these same disastrous conditions that cause him to put his life in danger on a kanntè to a point where he forgets his own name. Many of us are trying to leave our country. Many of us have already left our country. But each person who left behind the town where his umbilical cord was buried, each person who turned his back on the corner, yard, street, dead-end, road, corridor where he can connect with his past and present time is a iota that he lost in his human essence. It’s a piece of him, as human, that’s gone and that will never come back to him. Even if he would succeed in creating again this missing part, it will never come back to him the same.

In Bèbè Golgota, tribulation aboard the kanntè is a true Golgotha, together with isolation in the Bahamas’ concentration camp causing the main character to forget who he was. This type of tribulation is one among many sorrows that people, who leave their native country, are living in various ways. There are people who are obliged to abandon their own name in order to find work on foreign soil because they think their name can cause them to be victims of discriminations. There are also some who forget their age in forging documents in order to find visas to travel. There are other people who can engage themselves into marriage business where they mortgage their sentimental life. All of this has to do with traveling in search of a better life and to change their life condition. Thus, when we travel with the intention to never go back to our country, it’s us and our entire native country that go into the tomb of misfortune. When we travel to become immigrants on foreign soil, it’s one of the punishments that we go after in order to whip our own selves, because after a certain time we lose the hope of the land that gave up roots, and we don’t really take roots far away from our homeland. We become human beings who are floating at the will of time, the condition of life and the global situation of our environments.

When we almost get at the end of Bèbè Gòlgota, we read this letter: “My dear  …, I’ve never learned that you were Ducasse’s nephew, until a long time after you’ve departed from the house … I left with regret of not having your forgiveness. My children cried when they knew who you were. They’ve decided to leave the country because of this society which cultivates so much scorn for its children“. (pp.111).

It’s like abroad is the solution space for the problem of our country. We find the same traveling approach as agent of social change in Sogo Nan kwazman gran chemen (1979), a novel by Pauris Jean-Baptiste.

While we are conscious that there is a country to be built. While we are conscious that the ancestors’ heritage should not be lost, nor lie around disoriented, we can’t take action of leaving the country as a way to change life. Leaving the country behind can change the life of one person, the life of a family but it can’t change our own life because first of all those who left the country never came back, and when they come back, they don’t do it with the vision that Jacques Roumain leaves us in (his novel) Masters of the Dew, where Manuel came back to change the life of peasants in the village where he was born.
When we choose exile as a way to find solutions to our problems, it’s like we are running for our problems and when arrive abroad, it doesn’t mean that our problems are over. On foreign soil, the problems only change position.

Also, we should remember that a time will come in the development of the society with Haitians who are abroad; all bridges are at risk of being cut off between people with Haitian blood in their veins and the country where our ancestors came from. We should also notice that, with the type of national situation that exists today - destroying the pride’s flame of the new Haitian generations, distance between these new Haitians and their mother and father’s country has to expand more.

In Bèbè Gòlgota, we find a main character with multiple characters, but he is asking for help; he wants to maintain his independence.

I thank God because it’s Bòs Nènè who offers me work, nobody can say that they see me asking for work. You don’t have the right to ask for even work in Port-au-Prince; it makes no difference what’s you’re asking for (you’re still asking for something).  Once you’re asking for something, they can tarnish your reputation the way the want. (pp. 82)

We still believe that we, Haitians, could try to apply the words we’ve just heard from the main character of the book in order to cope with the country’s reality. Our leaders could decide to ask for help, but they should have not put themselves in a situation of dependence so that the country can lose its sovereign character.

In Bèbè Gòlgota, the main character of the book did not wait and see (what will happen).  He decided to act. It is this model, maybe, the author would like to see leaders of the country apply in order for us to respect the Bwa Kayiman’s principles. He (the author) has already prepared twelve principles, creating from the condition of life that we Haitians constructed during the slavery period. He called them: Bwa Kayiman.We can consult these 12 principles through www.kreyol.org with “REKA” (Rezo kreyolis Ayisyen | Internet Network of Haitian Creolists). Everyone who reads these 12 Bwa Kayiman principles can understand that it’s the slaves’ dignity together with the motivation for them to live as humans, who forced them to create their society’s model they developed for themselves. A society that was unpaired with the white slave-driven one that was imposed to them where slaves were considered to be property like houses, furniture, land or cars.

Bèbè’s investigation of citizenship started out ever since he began a new undertaking to find his birth certificate and his real name. But, isn’t it what the leaders of our country should have done in the area of education? That is, organizing a system of education where children of the country find tools to recognize their own self, to find out who they are from our customs, traditions, and respect for our mother tongue - Haitian Creole which some Haitian intellectuals want to call the Haitian language.

Bèbè is a boatpeople who is telling his own story of his life from the moment he took the kanntè ‘til he returned to Haiti where he started fighting for his dignity. But, it’s from time to time a guide appears in the story to clarify the reader, to denounce what need to be denounced and put the reader face to face with the country’s reality. This guide is a particular narrator. He is not only there to follow the unfolding of the story, but he is also there to help the reader understand the social turmoil within the country. We have the impression that the author puts this guide in the story in order to avoid confusion because there are words the guide says, if the main character would have to say them, the reader could get tricked. 

When the author has to explain corruptions that are going on inside the police in the matter of making fingerprints, he let the guide speak because in the way Bèbè is benefiting from this messy system to create his own identity, he can’t denounce it at all. If he does that, it’s like he would like to bite the hand that’s feeding him - but another situation again where the author uses the narrator to take position. The passengers in the kanntè, the owner of the trip, they are all glorifying Agwe, singing hymns to God, but when the guide inside the story starts talking, he puts the issue of religion at a level of doubt.  Let’s read:

At the end, it’s neither God nor Agwe who came to our rescue; when the Bahamian coastguards raided the kanntè. [ …] Since the day the Bahamian guards put these travelers in the camp, time no longer exist, there’s no date, no day, no month, no year. … Agwe doesn’t exist, God doesn’t exist, and the people who went to Agwe don’t exist either.   (pp.15)

If we were to talk about symbolism in Bèbè Gòlgota, we can say that the title of the book translates the symbolic reality inside it. In fact, It’s not simply people who have the name of Bèbè in the story that are mute or who don’t have the right to speak; it’s everyone on the boat who is mute and who is going through hard times. A true Golgotha, as it appears in the biblical story. People aboard the kanntè are mute because they don’t have any right. It’s the trip owner and the captain who are leading the boat and who know who should live and who deserve to be thrown to the sharks of deep sea.
When we transport the situation of Bèbè’s life to the firm soil where he was born, the Golgotha symbol remains firmly. Misery for him to find work and to live with dignity. Misery for him to live like a citizen who has the same right as all other citizens like him in his country because without legal papers to recognize him as citizen on the soil where he was born, he is going to live like a mute. That way, it’s a candidate people choose, who they’re going to have as leaders. The reason is that without a piece of identity you can’t register on an electoral list.  Thus, you’ll be obliged to be content with the choice that other people make from their own interest. That’s the reason why Bèbè says:

The fingerprint has arrived, I feel relief, I am taking steps toward reaching the rank of my citizenship within my country, Haiti. […] I don’t have papers yet, but I feel I have the right like everyone in the country. (pp.87)
If Bèbè faces all these types of problems to find his birth certificate, it is because of the mess that exists in the way they make preserve the government’s records in the country.

We also notice in the entire story that Janèt never speaks. It’s always the main character who is speaking to explain what Janèt thinks. Is it an indirect way for the author to demonstrate that the women Golgotha cross is not yet over in the country? In a deep reflection to find the reason why the author never let Janèt speak directly, when Janèt is the wife of Bèbè, the person who is sharing all of his tribulation, one could have the impression that Janèt’s was deprived of her right. However, when we remember Janèt’s intervention to prevent Bèbè from giving the family the last name Lavwayan, we can see that Janèt did not act like a mute in this dossier. She  vetoed it. She said no.
When I explain to Janèt that I decide to adopt the last name Levwayan, she did not agree.  […]  We spent the night discussing whether I should take the name Bèn Levwayan, Janèt  refused, she told me to adopt any last name but don’t give her Levwayan. (pp. 83 – 84)

Further down, Janèt says to Bèbè:

If he keeps the name Bèna Levwayan, he’s not going over attorney Mase with it. (pp. 84). Even when it’s Bèbè who is reporting these words, we can see that Janèt was not really a mute who let people decide for her. That way, we can’t say that Janèt was a mute 100% in the story.  It may be this technique the author chooses to tell the story that could make someone understand that Janèt didn’t have the right to speak. This technique of narrating has its roots from different ways people in the country are accustomed to tell stories. In fact, the secondary character in the story did not have a direct communication channel either with the main character. We want to take into consideration the case of attorney Mase, the case of his friend he met after many years, Wolan, the case of inspector Obe, etc. They are all key people in the story, but none of them had direct communication with the main character. First of all, there’s was a time in the story where the source of life of the family was Janèt. She was the one who went to sell grapes to sustain the family in order not to die of hunger. In this case, Janèt takes the place of our traditional mothers who are the sould of the family in Haiti as the saying clearly puts it: “Mother is always a mother”.

Thus, if Janèt would like to appear to be another mute in the story, this situation would have to do more with the techniques that the author uses to tell the story where it’s a person who is telling a story, in the way we are accustomed to live it in the oral literature. The difference is that it’s not a person telling the story in the place of the story teller. That way, it’s the story master who occupies the entire space. In fact, it’s also the same technique Jozafa Large uses in his book: Rete! Kote Lamèsi! (2008).

In Bèbè Gòlgota,  it’s not only the boat people’s life that P. M. Chéry is telling us. The life that the author is telling us came from a kanntè that’s going to run aground on the sidewalks of Port-au-Prince with all types of intrigues and injustice that are, at the same time, intertwined with the sharing spirit that exists among (street) vendors in Port-au-Prince. It’s like a third principle of the Bwa Kayiman ‘s ideology that says : If there is for one there is for two.

Let’s read:

Janèt told me how she finds herself selling dried grapes in the market. They were unloading a grape container for a great merchant; she made her way (with Katrin tied on her back) between the women who were buying the grapes. One of the women, without knowing her, bought  half a bag of grape on credit for herself and then they walked together to sell their grapes. She paid the owner of the store; in the change left, she bought cooked food for me.” (pp. 63 – 64)

Bèbè Gòlgota is a simple story and one that is complexed at the same time. The level of complexity appears in the way the author touches upon different details of life inside the country without using a bunch of words and without creating a complex situation. In fact, each idea that one has in the book allows one to discover the depth of other messages. It causes the story to unwind very slowly, but each round in the labyrinth is a station in the country’s condition. The other essential aspect of the story and one that deserves to  be mentioned is the level of surprise the author creates in the novel, whereas it’s only one person who is speaking and who is reporting what other people are saying, together with the person collaborating with him to better the condition of his life. The further we get in the book, the more we feel the necessity to hold it in our hands, and discover how Bèbè is going to manage to find a result in the investigation he is doing to find his real name. The road of this investigation is not an easy one; it’s also what makes the story to keep us in suspense.
In Bèbè Gòlgota, we find the life of people’s children in the country side in a fight in search of better life. The difficult situation that P. M. Chéry is denouncing in Bèbè Gòlgota (whether at the level of respect a person should have for other, or the responsibly of all citizen) is for people not to lose their dignity and live with dignity where they all remain intact in our society. It’s the responsibility of all of us to watch and correct all situations where dignity and respect of one another became steps for the type of people controlling them in order to raise glory and personal fortune while they forget about the principle of sharing that should exist between human beings because the saying goes “all people are humans”.


Michel-Ange Hyppolite (Kaptenn Koukourouj)
Science teacher at Gloucester High School, Ottawa
Head of  “Sosyete Koukouy” in Canada

Note: *Agwe: (Agwe-Tawoyo) prop n.  important Voodoo spirit of the sea. *kanntè: n. unseaworthy boat for transporting illegal immigrants.(Ref. Haitian Creole-English Bilingual Dictionary. Indiana University Creole Institute. 2007. -- Courtesy: E. W. Védrine Creole Project and Védrine Online Creole Publishers. Note: Creole lexicon, Creole linguistics, Creole literature, Haitian Creole book review, Haitian literature in Creole, Haitian novel in Creole, Kreyòl, Translations from Creole to English.

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