Dr Kate Hodgson (French) recently travelled to Haiti in order to attend an international conference on Ethnology and the construction of the political nation, the people and the citizen at the State University of Haiti, in the capital, Port au Prince (15-18 February 2012). The conference brought together researchers working on a range of topics relating to Haitian politics and society, from the writings of theorists like Jean Price Mars to the travels of Vodou folklore dance troops under the dictatorship of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. It was also an opportunity to set the strong Haitian national tradition of ethnology within a wider global context, with papers covering Africa, Brazil, Central America and the other Caribbean islands.
The conference was widely publicised with banners around the city, and reported in the national newspaper, Le Nouvelliste.
Dr Hodgson spoke about the strong historical connections between the development of ethnology as a discipline and abolitionism in the nineteenth century. Her paper looked at a number of published travel narratives from anti-slavery activists who visited Haiti in the 1830s and 40s, including a Baptist minister from Wavertree, Liverpool.
Dr Hodgson said:
The future of ethnology and the future of the university within the nation state continue to be highly politicised in Haiti today. This was demonstrated by the growing political unrest that erupted into the conference. On day three, there was conflict between the armed presidential security forces and the students of the Faculty of Ethnology, resulting in the ransacking of the building and several injured students. Yet despite this set back, the conference managed to continue to a very successful conclusion, due in no small part to the dedication of the organisers. The presence of the students in the Ethnology department at the conference was an immensely positive one – their participation and engagement was fantastic to see.
The Ethnology Faculty is situated in downtown Port au Prince, right opposite the camp on the Champ de Mars which continues to be home to 17,000 survivors of the January 2010 earthquake and acts as a daily reminder of the difficulties of national reconstruction after such devastation. The conference was therefore an opportunity for participants to reflect with colleagues from the State University on how the discipline of ethnology can contribute to the reconstruction of the nation. The significance of Haiti’s unique national heritage was stressed, equally the importance of acknowledging the centrality of the Haitian people in leading the ongoing process of recovery.