The people of Haiti commonly refer to their place of origin as Ginen (Guinea), often saying “nou soti lwen, nou se Nèg Lafrik Ginen: We come from afar, we arefromthe Guinea region of Africa.” Indeed the vast majority of Haitian ancestors, over 90%, were imported to Haiti from the West Coast of Africa. That coast was called Ginen as indicated on maps of the 14th through the 18th century. The expression Lafrik Ginen is descriptive of the part of Africa once called Ginen. It is to the native people of that region that the Haitian people are most genetically and culturally related.
The Haitian expression “nousotilwen- we come from afar” is also true. Ginen was indeed far, about 8,800 kilometers from the Caribbean. At the height of the Trans-Atlantic Trade of People as Slaves, it took 3 months for ships to travel from Ginen to Haiti. This long voyage gives credence to such Vodou songs as “si Ginen pa te lwen konsa, lontan mwen mache chimen mwen: If Guinea were not so far away, I would have long since found my way back.” When Haitian Ancestors were taken out of Africa to Haiti, it was for a one way trip, never to return home. That stark reality is captured in a Haitian proverb: “dèyè do se lan Ginen - meaning Guinea is in the past, behind us.
In Haiti, descendants of the people who came from Ginen commonly refer to themselves as the heirs of Ginen- Eritye Ginen. Collectively, regardless of ethnic group of membership, all the people of West Africa are called Ginen in Haiti. In common usage, Ginen can either refer to the territory or to its inhabitants. The traditional religions that arose from the West Coast of Africa are known in Haiti as Sèvis Ginen- meaning Service to Ginen Ancestors. This name emphasizes the religion as one in which the Haitian people revere their own Ancestors, the Ginen people. In service to those Ancestors, words from African languages are used and are referred to as Langay or Pale Ginen, meaning Ginen Tongues or Ginen Speech.
Ginen has an additional meaning. It means heaven. This belief is similar to the Dahomean belief in Koutomè (Koutoma), the land of the Ancestors. In the case of Haiti, the land of the vast majority of our Ancestors is Ginen. Indeed, during the 15-18th century when Haitian culture developed, Ginen was heavenly in comparison to enslavement under the Code Noir (The Black Code) of the French government. Commonly, Ginen is presented as a mysterious place because it is at once a concrete place on earth and the place of the afterlife, inhabited by the spirits of our Ancestors.
In Traditional Haitian Religion, there is no pedestal high enough to capture the great value that we bestow upon our Ancestors, the Ginen people. They are so dignified, so virtuous that to be without inspiration from them, is to be morally debased. People of vile character are referred to as those without Ginen inspiration. They are called San Ginen meaning Devoid of Ginen.
Like the scientific community, the Haitian people have preserved the name Ginen to classify plants that originate from the West Coast of Africa. Such plants include yanm Ginen (Guinea yam) and zèb Ginen (Guinea grass). Today, the name Ginen is also found in the name of several countries on the West coast of Africa. There is Guinea Bisseau, Republic of Guinea and the Central Republic of Guinea. There are countries even outside of Africa whose names are derived from Ginen. The Portuguese thought that the culture of the people of the Pacific island Papua was similar to the culture of the people of the West Coast of Africa and called that island New Guinea. In South America, Guyana and French Guyana are thought by some to be names derived from Ginen.
Ginen appears to be a word given by the Mede ethnic group (NanchonMede) to describe people living on the West Coast of Africa and south of the Sahara Desert. The earliest recording of the word Ginen that has survived, is on a map printed in Italy in 1320. However, the word may be even older. A southern entrance to the Berber city of Marrakech in Moroco, has a gate, built in the 12th century, called the gate to the Ginen people “BabAginaou”. The name suggests that the Berber people considered the land south of them to be Ginen. One of the earliest known Kingdoms of Ginen is Gana which traded gold for salt with the Berber people of Northern Africa. Literature about Gana dates back to the writings of Al-Fazari in the 8th century CE ( J.D Fage, 1957). The Gana Kingdom later collapsed under invasion by the Sousou nation (Nanchon Sousou). From the destroyed Gana Kingdom arose the Mali Kingdom which became known to the Arabs as the most powerful government in Ginen. The word Mali is a Foula (Fulani) word for the Mede people. Mali’s economy also involved the trading of gold for commodities like salt (E W. Bovill, 1995). In the absence of refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative for meat and fish. In Europe, payment to soldiers for the purchasing of salt gave rise to the word salary meaning salt money.
Both, the Gana Kingdom and the Mali Kingdom got their gold from a region code named Wangara. Later searches for this mysterious region led explorers to a region outlined by the Niger river. Some of the people along that river mined gold which they traded with such people as the Tuaregs, a light skinned group of people living on the edge of the Sahara. The people of Ginen referred to these lighter skinned people as red folks - moun wouj, a tradition that continues both in the US and in Haiti.
Kankan Mousa, the king of Mali is featured on a map published in 1375 as the Lord of Ginen. Kankan Mousa is believed to have been among the richest people to have ever lived. His gold distribution on a trip to Mecca attracted the attention of European governments, spurring the Portuguese to explore the West Coast of Africa for its riches. Later, the British benefited so much from the gold trade that one of their coins minted in Ginen Gold was called Ginen (Guinea). As Europeans set up trading posts along the southern coastline of Ginen, the trading routes to the northern regions where trade took place with the Arabs and the Berbers began to collapse, destroying the economy of the Mali Kingdom.
The Arabs referred to the people of Gana as Ganawa and the people of Ginen as Ginenwa. The awa suffix appears to have been acquired from the people of Sudan who used it to mean people. Leo Africanus reported in 1526 that Ginen was the name of the inhabitants of Djenne, a center of Mede commerce. This city gained importance with the decline of the city of Dia in the Mali Kingdom. Apparently Djenne means little Dia ( J.D Fage, 1957). Leo Africanus wrote that the Muslims of North Africa called the region Ginenwa while the natives called it Ginen and the Portuguese call it Guinea. The natives that he was referring to were the people of Djenne, which was mostly populated by the Mede people who were subdivided into groups like the Bambara, the Mande, and the Mandingo people.
The city of Djenne is situated on the nothern region of the semi-circular Niger River. This river appears to have gotten its name from Gher Ngheren, a Tuareg phrase for great river or for river of rivers. The course of the Niger River roughly defined the territory that was initially published on maps as Ginen. The river runs from Serria Leone to Nigeria. At the time, old map makers thought that the Senegal river was a tributary of the Niger river and they included Senegal (Senega) as part of Ginen. These map makers did well to include the Senegal Gambia area as part of Ginen because during the 15th century, when the Portuguese landed in the region, people in the area confirmed for the Portuguese that they were in Ginen and that the ruler of the area was the King of Mali. Maps of West Africa published in the 14th century defines the area from Senegal to Nigeria as Ginen. These maps excluded the Kongo as part of Ginen. Using those maps, when the Portuguese landed in West Africa for the first time, they would have already known that they were in Ginen.
Once in Ginen, the Portuguese exploited a commerce far more lucrative than the gold that spurred their interest. Under the direction of Prince Henry, the Portuguese explored the west coast of Africa and initiated the Trans-Atantic Trade of People as Slaves. In 1481, the Portuguese built Fort Elmina to secure for themselves the wealth of the local mines. Following the building of the fort, King Henry II of Portugal dubbed himself Lord of Ginen. As the region involved in the commerce of people as slaves expanded, the territory called Ginen enlarged to include the Kongo and Angola. By the 18th century, Ginen became known as the continuous territory extending from Senegal to Angola. This region is about 8000 kilometers long and extends into the African continent for about 1000 kilometers. It is bordered to the north by the Sahara dessert and to the south by the Kalahari dessert. In Haiti, Ginen became synonymous with all the territory from which people were taken from Africa. Mozanbique and Madagascar although far from the African West Coast, can also be considered as part of Ginen because they contributed 5% of the population imported to Haiti.
At the time of the Haitian Revolution, over 80% of the people were born in Africa and were familiar with the 18th century definition of Ginen. For that reason, in Vodou songs, the Kongo is presented as a part of Ginen: Si lan Ginen gen Lwa, se Lwa Kongo ki Lwa mwen... meaning, if in Ginen there are Spirits, it is those from the Kongo who are my Spirits...” It is indeed because Ginen includes the region of the Kongo, that today there are areas near Senegal called Ginen, like Guinea Bissau and there is also a state near the Kongo called Central Republic of Guinea. Clearly, the Haitian people are right to describe themselves as heirs of Ginen, Eritye Ginen. The vast majority of Haitian ancestors came from west Africa in a region called Ginen.