When I received a reminder from Pastor Lunias Mondelus, with whom I took lectures at the university, to remember to come and address the Haitians of Miami as they celebrated the independence of their country, I knew that that invitation was one that I had to honor.
I arrived at the venue by 7:30 pm on the 21st of May 21, 2016. I think that they had to adjust dates, to get many of their people to attend.
One thing that struck me, and was pleasing to me, was that they were meeting in a Haitian church: the Haitian Evangelical Baptist Church. To me this was proof that they had grown to have a strong sense of community, and that they also had an identity that they were proud of. When I entered the church and saw the U.S. flag at one end, and the Haitian flag at the other end I was very happy that I came to among other things, say thank you to these people that my people owe a major debt!
I was the first speaker. I thanked the people of Haiti for standing up against injustice and genocide in 1967, when the Nigerian government was carrying out an annihilation of the Igbo people that many naively, or cynically call civil war. Only four countries chose to stand officially with the weaker side. Haiti was one of those four! With my voice breaking because I remembered the millions that died of hunger, I thanked the Haitians, and told them that if we were negligent in the past by not establishing special ties of brotherhood between our two peoples, that we should begin to do so now. As they listened to me, a few eyes were misty too.
With the long delayed thanks over I began my speech by narrating the history of the Slave Trade which in large part brought most of the Haitians to this part of the world. I mentioned that many have observed that more than a few Haitians have Igbo origins. Because my accent is not exactly what most Americans are accustomed to, and as English is a second or third language to most of them, I spoke very slowly and always paused so that they would digest what I said. When I paused, they said that they know that some of them have Igbo origins. ‘Do you know who and who are Igbos?’ I asked. Of course they have no way of knowing. From this point we began to converse. As we talked about the earthquake that leveled their capital and killed over 300,000 I noted that the Igbos felt their pain then, and that to my recollection, an Igbo, Peter Obi, led the Nigerian delegation that visited Haiti to commiserate with them. Because very important things often times fail to enter history books they were unaware of this. They were not aware that Haiti would become a member of the African Union soon, so they were surprised, pleasantly, when I mentioned that. And they were very happy when I told them that though they would be made very welcome in Africa, that they would be made doubly welcome in Igbo-land.
As we talked along as family, the very warm and friendly people kept on springing surprises. They wanted to know as much as possible about the Igbo; beginning from my origins. I quickly ran through my descent from ancient Ibri (Hebrews). Interestingly when they pronounce Hebrew in their Creole what I heard was ‘Igbo’, smile. They surprised me again. Almost all the adults present wanted literature that discusses the Igbo connections with the ancient Israelites. I had some copies of some of my books with me. They did not return to my lodgings with me, and fortunately my most up to date book is available online at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
Maybe prompted by the talk that shifted to the origins of the Igbo, they informed me that Haiti was one of the countries that recognized the modern state Israel, when the world body organized a vote for its recognition; and that they were aware that Israel must have had that in mind when it responded robustly when the earthquake devastated Haiti.
We would have kept on talking till even now, if I did not have to stop so that the other speakers will have their turn. This is one of my best outings since I arrived the U.S. The Haitians are very warm and friendly, and very cultured. I will work to strengthen the bonds of friendship and brotherhood!
Remy Ilona is a lawyer, and is at the Florida International University, Miami. He is a Jonathan Symon’s Fellow, and the author of ‘The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora.’