This song is about African people arriving to Haiti and finding themselves living under horrific conditions.Africans were separated from their families, sold like property, raped at will, tortured without legal recourse.The conditions were so horrendous that few survived on the island.By 1791, nearly 80% of the people living in Haiti had arrived to the territory within the preceding 15 years. So new was the population in Haiti, that of the 500,000 Africans and people of African descent living there in 1791, nearly 50,000(10%) had arrived in 1790 alone.
In the song, the statement we have come to the courtyard captures the fact that at the onset of the Haitian Revolution, the vast majority of people in the territory were born in Africa. The word courtyard is used synonymously with territory to emphasize the desire to live again in a setting similar to the extended family courtyards back in Africa.Each courtyard or Lakouwas a place where members of an extended family lived and followed social rules that permitted the people to share a space.
In African courtyards, it was the elders who were in charge of arbitrating disputes and maintaining order. By contrast, the song presents Haiti as a courtyard without elders - a place without a moral compass.Under French, English and Spanish colonial slave rule, Haiti was such a place. The French called it Saint Domingue and made it a place of unspeakable horror where the majority of the population yearned for moral order. The song captures the desire for moral order by asking where are the elders of this land.
While yearning for moral order, the song points to the injustice done to the people of Haiti that resulted in their being separated from their family.The song states that there are no mothers, fathers, nor children in the territory. Families were constantly dismantled. African people and their descendants could not reliably live together to assume the role of father, mother, son or daughter. Living under such conditions was so counter to normal life that the absence of normal family life became a call to battle. This revolutionary battle cry was we have no reason to live here, so whether we die or not, so be it. It was stated as Nanpwen manman nanpwen papa, sa ki mouri zafè a yo.
Following the Revolution a new reality came about. People could once again live with their family. Perhaps it is to reflect this new reality that some people sing the song with a different twist. Rather than saying we have no family here, they say: bonjou manman, bonjou papa, bonjou pitit; meaning, good morning mom, good morning dad, good morning children. To better understand the different versions of the song one would need written accounts of the various versions going back to the 17th or 18th century. Such records could enable us to know which version came first.
While awaiting such documents, one must still recognize that under French control, Africans and their decendants could not readily take the role of parents or of children. Life was devoid of its most basic values. This was in part what propelled the Haitian people to demand that moral order be established in the land. The Haitian people yearned for the territory to be ruled by elders, people with moral authority, Granmoun.
Fortunately there were Granmouns in the courtyard. In Makandal, Boukmann, Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Sanite Belair, Toya, Marijàn, and in 150,000 people who died so that our lives could be better, the courtyard had elders: Lakou a te gen granmoun.
Today, our Lakou is threathened by groups of bandits and gangsters bent on enriching themselves at the expense of the nation. But we are confident that there are still "Granmoun lan Lakou a" to confront them and prevent the unraveling of the country: from Sarah Poisson's courageous actions, to the actions of countless other women who continue to serve as the "Poto Mitan" of the society, to the actions of a dedicated diaspora of men and women who will never turn their backs on Haiti.
This Song of the Month essay was updated on September 5, 2019.