Posted by: posthaiti | January 14, 2011

Just another day?

It’s been a while since I last posted. Life — more like a really time-consuming full-time job — got in the way, I guess. Moreover, I think I needed to leave Haiti be for a while.

However, yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, and I wanted to point to a few newscasts that I think have done this day justice. First, there’s Democracy Now, which interviews among others Haitian activist Patrick Elie and Haitian-Canadian writer Jean Saint-Vil. The broadcast starts here, but it’s broken up into segments, so make sure you listen to the whole piece.

The gist of the report is that recovery and reconstruction haven’t really begun yet, and in order for the process to impart lasting change, Haitians need to rebuild Haiti, not foreigners and the “international community.” I totally agree. From what I saw of All Hands’ efforts in Leogane, they can’t move fast enough to transferring a lot of the actual dirty work (literally) over to Haitians. Haitians can and will lead their country into the future, they just need to stop being treated as dangerous and start being treated as assets (another awesome quote from the DN report). Amy Goodman is my hero.

The NYT and PBS’s Frontline had walloping doomsday pieces, but unfortunately, a lot of the grief, violence, and status quo they cover is fact.

I also commemorated Flo’s passing yesterday. And after turning the events of last January 12 over and over in my mind for the past 365 days, feeling what I needed to feel, confronting (as much as possible) what I felt I needed to confront, I have to believe that while the quake took, it also gave. I think the most important thing we can do for ourselves, the living, is seek to find what we have gained from this disaster.

Posted by: posthaiti | October 21, 2010

Waka Waka…

I don’t know why I never posted this, but here you go. A HODR volunteer by the name of Lenka dreamt up the dance moves to Shakira’s World Cup theme song, “Waka Waka.” A gift to the torn and tattered city of Leogane. Much love, Ayiti cherie!

Waka waka through the streets of Leogane, Haiti

Posted by: posthaiti | August 1, 2010

haitians want to work; they really, really do

disclaimer: this post may have me talking out of my ass, but i’m still going to talk.

let’s revisit that NYT article i mentioned in my last post, about the difficulties of moving rubble:

Further, rubble removal, a $500 million problem facing the recovery effort, has proved especially difficult in Fort National. International experts say it would take three to five years to remove all the debris from Haiti if 1,000 or more trucks worked daily; fewer than 300 trucks are hauling rubble now. But those trucks cannot penetrate much of Fort National, which has only one main road and lots of steep alleys. In some places, even wheelbarrows cannot be used. Rubble has to be carried out pail by pail, which at least provides jobs.

unemployment is, basically, a way of life for haitians. it’s hard to imagine, but rates range from 60 to 80 percent, according to various sources from a quick google search. (actually, from my three trips down and some of the reading i’ve done, i think it’s definitely closer to 80 than 60.) to us, that sounds horrifying. i mean, most people that i know have never contemplated what they’d do with their time if they didn’t have to work. a lot of people use work as a way to avoid figuring out who they are, what their true callings are. others would rather just stay busy. some, like me, are workaholics and addicted to achievement. whatever. in haiti, there is no work, so i imagine there are a lot of people who have had much time to ponder life, their place in the universe, and what passing time actually means.

that said, most haitians would pounce on the chance to work. in leogane, haitians watched us as we worked. they watched and watched, used to seeing blans (blan in creole, from the french word for white, blanc, which is a semi-affectionate term for “white person”) riding in fat SUVs with the windows rolled up, their eyes wary and fingers knucklewhite gripping the steering wheel for dear life. they would pass and laugh, smirk, or shake their heads. sometimes they’d stop and ask if we had work. “do you have a job for me?” no, but you can go to HODR’s office and put your name on the waitlist. “we’re volunteers,” we’d say, with a mix of self-indulgant pride and subconscious arrogance (or maybe it was just me). “you mean, you don’t get paid?” the question fell like a dead cat tumbling from a three-story building. half the time they’d say, ok, i’ll work for free, i just want to work. the other quarter, hellz to the no, i’m not working for free. the final quarter would start in on the questions:

random haitian person: why are you working in my country?
me: i’m a volunteer, working with a nonprofit (zoinks! the dreaded word that most haitians associate with the stealing of their jobs).
RHP: can you get me a job?
me: like i said, we’re not paid. so, no, i can’t. but, you can volunteer with us!
RHP: so, who pays you?
me: well, like i said, we’re not paid. we’re a privately funded org. like, americans with money dump said money into a bank account in the US and buy us things so we can work, eat, and sleep down here, in your country.
RHP: so, why are you working here, in our country, and we’re not?

and that begs the question, why is *anyone* who is not haitian working in haiti — paid or not — when haitians are not? i thought about that a lot after the first few weeks, especially after one particularly heated man confronted me outside HODR’s base one morning. we were helping to build the first of many (we’ll see) compost toilets, the brainchild of a vol named ben. i fielded the entire convo, being the only one that spoke french, while the other vols happily — and rather innocently, i might add, since they didn’t understand what we were saying — mixed concrete and rendered cement blocks that would serve as the foundation of this strange newfangled shitter. (yeah, i just felt like using that word; it was my grandpa’s, and i always thought it was a hilarious way of referring to the toilet.)

he asked me the usual litany of questions. why are you working and we’re not? why are we, as vols, coming on our own dime to work *for free* in a country with an unemployment rate of 8 out of 10 people? why shouldn’t all the orgs like HODR be replaced by orgs like CHF, which pays locals to do the same work we’re doing? to be fair, this is an unusual situation in that these so-called jobs are “disaster relief,” so it’s not as if we’re planting ourselves as a vendor on the side of a dirt road or taking one of their factory jobs. it seemed almost ludicrous to me that many haitians would say fuck it, and walk away if someone didn’t offer them pay for clearing away the rubble of their neighbors’ collapsed home, but that’s haiti. in their mind, it seems, foreigners can afford to come — and can leave whenever they want — and end up taking potentially paying jobs from haitians and doing them for free. as slaves, they were screwed over. as a burgeoning country, they were screwed over (by the french). under the docs, they were more than screwed over. and now, under the NGO “scheme of things,” they’re tired of not having work and of seeing foreigners come down and take the only jobs there seem to be. and, to get damn well paid for them, too. they’re not stupid, they’re not blind, and they’re living in extremely miserable conditions. who wouldn’t want to get theirs?

of course, there’s the whole issue of the fact that haiti has no real economy to provide locals with even volunteer employment, let alone paid. unfortunately, in a sense, it’s outsiders who have stepped up and brought in basic services. why is this? and when is it going to change? these are questions that a lot of people have.

we did have quite a few local volunteers. HODR ran a local volunteer program that, albeit with a few major problems (again, a new blog post), ran quite smoothly. most of the locals were young boys in their teens or early 20s. many had a deep commitment to helping dig out — they had lost family members or had been struck by the devastation on a personal level. most just wanted to help their country, and HODR, not their local government, was providing them with the chance to do so.

back home, several people asked me why haiti needed foreigners to dig them out. can’t they do it themselves? well, yes, if they had shovels, picks, sledges, and wheelbarrows. most do not and can’t afford to buy these things. wouldn’t they want to do it themselves? well, yes, if they had the tools — and the moral support of their community. i can imagine that living your entire life in a place where expectations, self-worth, and morale are challenged on a daily basis can make you feel like saying, why bother? so when orgs like HODR, with no agenda except for the purpose of digging haiti out, come down and offer volunteer jobs, there are quite a few people who,if they don’t jump at the chance, will consider it, even if unpaid.

haiti. it’s complicated.

Posted by: posthaiti | July 30, 2010

rubble strong, rubble fresh

“i feel rubble fresh this morning!”

it was my morning mantra, and i usually had to repeat it about 14 times before i peeled my aching — and already sweating, i might add — body off my sleeping mat. by 6 am the sun had already come up, fellow vols were stirring in the bunks around me, and i was hopelessly committed, even in a half-awake daze, to the prospect of rubbling that day. my friend nina said i was addicted. not really. there weren’t that many other jobs to do and anyway, signing up for the next day’s work at the all-hands meeting the night before usually required either a blowtorch, a knife, or the tendency to be an asshole — pushing and shoving were common among the 100-plus vols among us. plus, i just didn’t care that much. “fuck it, i’ll rubble.” rubbling was satisfying, too. there was some level of fist-pumping that one could reach after a hard day of playing with rocks. measurable output, as my dad likes to say.

basically, we dug rubble. big rocks that consisted of a blend of cement, cinder blocks, and the occasional car trapped under the building before it went down. and no, no body parts. (morbid, but many people have asked me that.) so, yeah. digging. in the very hot sun. again, the words searing and blaring come to mind. it was hardass work, and after two months, i was glad to come home and recupe. not to mention, i fell ill four times, lost some weight, and was exhausted of the lackluster food, which was *not* haitian food but *HODR* food. there is a difference, and i’ll get to that in a later post. needless to say, i’ve been eating my way through New York City, San Francisco, and all the airports between there and here since i got back last month. but, i digress.

the rubble work was the primary concern for HODR, being that they are a disaster relief org (at least the last time i checked). HODR landed in leogane in late january, during which they conducted initial structural assessments of homes in and around the town of leogane. in effect, project coordinators went to various collapsed or damaged homes (if yoleine had left hers standing, she might have been on the list) and “assessed” them in terms of the feasibility of using (volunteer-staffed, of course) demolition teams to bring the damaged buildings down safely. after demo, the house would, fingers crossed, become a nice, big pile of pretty rocks; wubble, as the haitians with their accents would say. sometimes, this wasn’t the case. in the quake, some buildings simply gave out under the weight of shoddy construction and almost paper-thin rebar (reinforced bar, which gave the house shape and “structure”). at many of the sites i went to, entire ceilings sat on top of slabs, having gone from penthouse suite to ground floor in one fell swoop.

our job, as rubble teams, was to clear the rubble off the cement foundation slab and cart it to, well, another place not on the foundation slab. to do this, we used shovels, pickaxes, sledgehammers, and wheelbarrows — i guess that would put us in the iron age category, eh? anyway, that “another place” meant anywhere there was space, whether an alley alongside the house, a ditch, or the side of the road. being that this is haiti and FUBAR is the name of the game, there were piles of rocks everywhere, and as far as we, the vols at HODR, knew, there was no systematic process for taking the rubble away. every team leader kind of made it up as he or she went along. one vol, tim, came from sydney and spent over two months on project. as aussie tim liked to say, “guys, we’re gonna move this pile of shit over to that pile of shit.” at first, i thought that was a rather jaded view; it didn’t take me long to realize that nope, we were, in fact, moving the rocks from one pile to another. and we did this manually; since everything by way of resource has a hard time of finding its way into the country, there’s not much heavy machinery. (actually, there were quite a few mack trucks floating around, and they were taking the piles somewhere, as far as i could see.) some sites took days, others weeks.

for the most part i felt good. i mean, i’m in shape, but there were a few days when i think i actually overheated. during my first few weeks, the heat index was about 110 degrees F. most of the foundations that we cleared were utterly shadeless with no trees in sight and the ground, a screaming white reflecting pool of heat below. the whole point of this exercise in clearing rubble was so that the family who had been living there before the quake could either one, put their tent on the slab, or two, rebuild their house on the slab. imho, both scenarios are and will continue to be unlikely in the near future (we’re talking, couple years new future). it’s too damn hot to put a tent on most of the slabs, and there’s no infrastructure to bring in materials to rebuild homes. not to mention, who the hell has and will have money to pay people to do the work?

i would occasionally become discouraged. are we wasting our time? then, i’d take a look around and notice that the streets were improving: there were fewer tents in the road and the piles of rocks seemed to be disappearing. a surge of pride would rise up. i did that! for instance (and this is where a pic would come in handy, but the wine-on-mac situation has yet to be resolved considering the money-not-in-bank situation that persists), on the road that lead from our base at belval plaza to the grande rue (main street), i could see the difference in eight weeks time: a street that was literally cramped with tents was now almost free of them, there were fewer piles of rubble, and new businesses had opened. as we rode our morning taptap ride to the rubble site we were working on that day, glances left and right proved satisfying; wherever i turned my head, i could spot a bare foundation. holes, really, but safe holes. places where people could physically let go of the past and start over. leogane changed when i was there, and i helped change it. measurable output.

as to what to do with all that rubble? unfortunately, there wasn’t evidence that HODR was working with the locals to move it outside of town or use it for something productive. i heard whispers from vols who actually went to a town meeting and met some of the civic leaders, and they said that yes, they were discussing ways to move the rocks to a small coastal town west of leogane and start crushing it into gravel. it’ll be interesting to see if orgs like HODR or CHF open up to partnering not with supposed government officials, but with civic leaders. it is, after all, their town.

there’s a good article in the NYT by deborah sontag on the complexities involved in removing rubble. it also, to me, points to a problem: the media always tends to cast haiti as despairing, and haitians as people who “really need our help.” sigh. read on:

Further, rubble removal, a $500 million problem facing the recovery effort, has proved especially difficult in Fort National. International experts say it would take three to five years to remove all the debris from Haiti if 1,000 or more trucks worked daily; fewer than 300 trucks are hauling rubble now. But those trucks cannot penetrate much of Fort National, which has only one main road and lots of steep alleys. In some places, even wheelbarrows cannot be used. Rubble has to be carried out pail by pail, which at least provides jobs.

Tortue Larose, 27, who earns $5 a day cleaning up Fort National, stood at the partly cleared summit of the neighborhood recently, pointing at a speck of green plastic in the dirt: “See that green?” he said. “That’s where my house was. That’s where I was born. That’s where I intend to die.”

Where to dump the rubble that fills Mr. Larose’s buckets presents another problem. There is no debris plan for Fort National just as there is no master plan for rubble removal, said Eric Overvest, the United Nations Development Program’s country director. Normally, he said, a rubble plan is developed within a month of a major disaster. Port-au-Prince, the capital, did not have a pre-earthquake land use plan, complicating matters.

Still, in almost six months the government has identified only one rubble site, the municipal dump called Truitier. More sites are needed — as are decisions on whether rubble will be recycled and how.

Additionally, debris contains personal effects, and sometimes bodies; it also has a potential monetary value if it is to be reused. “It’s not just the rubble, it’s the question of rubble ownership,” Mr. Scales said. Most in Fort National are renters but the rubble technically belongs to the property owners. And sorting out who owns what land, and getting their permission to excavate has proved difficult, Mr. Scales said.

“It isn’t a case of going straight onto land with an excavator,” he said.

Posted by: posthaiti | July 24, 2010

back from haiti…

well, sort of. at the moment, i’m not 100 percent sure where i am: leogane, haiti; brooklyn, NYC; or san francisco. we can add santa clara, CA, to that list, since i’m there more than i am in SF, considering my massive commute from hell to the new job. (yes, i took a new job! i am, once again, a working woman.)

where to begin? first, an apology. hopefully, noone was waiting with bated breath to catch a glimpse of photos of post-quake leogane. i took a lot, and yes, should have posted sooner. the good news is that the town is improving, in terms of physical rubble in the streets and tents piled on top of each other outside homes that still stand. the bad news is that multiple tent cities pretty much cover the town — there’s one in the center; one near ‘mon petit village,’ which yoleine helped set up by donating her land; there are many lining the “suburbs” that surround the town — and that yoleine’s house, along with most of the buildings on her street, have been totally razed. gone. disappeared.

second, to let you know that pics are coming. long story short: in the two weeks i had to pack up my life of five years in NYC and put it into storage before flying out to SF to take a contract gig for a genomics outfit (which i may or may not tell y’all about later), i had some stressful moments. which, obviously, required red wine. unfortunately, love turned to hate in this affair when i tipsily tipped a full glass over onto the keyboard of my macbook, thoroughly frying the logic board = buh-bye mac. thank jesus my hard drive was intact and is now safely enclosed in an external drive. however, in order to read said drive, the thing must be plugged into a working mac. yours truly, in the process of storing, shipping, and downpaymenting for a new apartment in SF, has maxed out her credit, leaving her presently unable to afford to charge another macbook or macbook pro, the starting price for which is 1G.

sigh. it’s complicated.

anyway, one of the first things i did when i got to leogane was check out rue st. catherine, where i stayed in yoleine’s house during the last week of december and the first week of january this year, working for her small nonprofit called neges foundation. it was lunchtime, during which we got a two-hour break from digging rubble under the 110-degree sun (‘blaring’ or ‘searing’ come to mind), on a thursday or something during my first week. i was hot and tired and feeling nauseous, but i really needed to take the tour. a few steps down the road from HODR’s base i ran into a haitian man with a gold tooth, who would later turn out to be reginal, former “security detail” for president preval (i think; maybe it was a different president. reginal was my age or younger, so i’m *sure* it couldn’t have been aristide?) and soon-to-be HODR volunteer. “where are you going?” he asked in french. “for a walk.” “alone?” “uh, yeah.” he decided that he should come with me, and i’m glad he did, if only because when i was in leogane in january, i didn’t walk around that much on my own to know where i was. when i recognized rue st. catherine and saw the intersection with rue la croix, i knew we had arrived.

as i walked up the street, i noticed the holes — where homes used to be. there was a blue and yellow building, i remembered, that faced yoleine’s house on the opposite side of the street. it used to be the town’s electricity company’s building and yoleine purchased it years ago and installed a now-defunct coffeeshop below. in january, mackendy, my unofficial “tour guide,” nephew of yoleine, and all-around (faux) bling-wearing “badass,” showed me his bedroom on the second floor as well as the rooms next to his door, which served as a school.

i looked up at the blue and yellow building, and then behind me. i did this a few times, and reginal just stared at me, oddly amused, i’m sure. the blue and yellow building was only slightly damaged, but there was evidence of a crack severe enough to have shaken its structure loose; it was leaning to one side toward the top, certainly no longer safe to live in. it looked like the damage had occurred near mackendy’s bedroom.

i turned back, now sure of where yoleine’s house should have stood. there was nothing but a huge hole in the ground where the two-story wonder used to be. all that stone and cement, the wrought ironwork that encased the entire front porch — that place was such a quiet haven, guarded from the busy street — all of it was gone. i guessed that yoleine, instead of clearing the foundation slab, had her “people” (or maybe just CHF workers, who were being paid $5 a day to do the same work that HODR volunteers were doing) raze it. in any case, there was nothing left, and i was astounded. it wasn’t until that moment that the severity of the earthquake hit me.

finally, more pictures. you can go through them best if you look at each album separately, i guess. they include pix of pre-quake leogane, PAP — including a bunch from the grande rue, where flo took us before we headed down to jacmel for a few days — as well as jacmel’s carnivale ateliers. i was lucky: flo and barnaby were teaching a workshop and typically, i just went wandering around. tek tek found me in the street and i think he’s like, the salesperson/artisan, used to grabbing strangers, being really friendly, and then, at the end of his “grand tour,” asking for money. i didn’t mind; he gave me a great tour of all the workshops, and i got the chance to see the behind-the-scenes construction and painting of the masks as well as talk to some of the artisans about the ups and downs of their craft (one main down is a lack of government funding, but at this point, i don’t really think any of that matters anymore).

on an aside, i just ordered a new sleeping mat (i gave mine to a haitian friend before i left the first time i went down in 2008) and a tent for the upcoming HODR trip! woot! while i’m looking forward to the physical labor and meeting some cool peeps, i’m also hoping to do some follow-up research and pitch stories to anyone who will print them. for instance, what’s going on in leogane now? how are the grande rue artists faring? what about jacmel and the artisans? i’d like to package stuff in a then-and-now format, but we’ll see. i’ve never done any official general reporting on my own, as a freelancer, but there’s always the first time, right?

enjoy the pictures!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jnene2

just a quick post to let you know of an event to be held tomorrow, april 15th, at the brooklyn society for ethical culture in park slope. it’s from 6:30 pm – 9:30. here are the deets from their flyer:

FORUM ON HAITI

Let’s discuss how the progressive community can express solidarity with the
Haitian people.

Photos by Tequila Minsky. Talks by Dr. Luther Castillo, Honduran graduate of
the Latin America Medical School in Havana who is in the coordination of the
Cuban medical team in Haiti, David Wilson of NicaNet, Bazelais Jean Baptiste of Seeds for Haiti and Mouvman Peyisan Papay and Marie Yoleine Gateau of NEGES, a community project to rebuild Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake.

6:30 to 9:30 PM on Thursday, April 15th
Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, 53 Prospect Park West at 2nd Street in Park Slope
#2 or #3 train to Grand Army Plaza
Organized by the Latin America Committee of Brooklyn For Peace
Contributions appreciated

Posted by: posthaiti | March 30, 2010

vodou: part quatre

sorry i haven’t written. or called, texted, or FB’d. seems to be my modus operandi these days. i get scolded by a lot of people, all the time: you never [fill in the blank with your preferred method of communicating]! oh, but i do…in words, on digital paper, in my head! actually, i’ve always hated talking on the phone, and now, it’s much, much worse. is it just me, or is it that the older we get, the less trusting we become of others, and worse, the more likely we simply want to be alone? on one level, i’ve found it to be a rather productive turn of passion: i can learn about myself, minus the distraction and “obstacles” of another person and his or her baggage. on the other hand, i increasingly long for connection and companionship and worry that i’ll be alone forever. what up with that?

i’ll be 36 this year. is this the time one starts to consider one’s mortality as well, actually real? cuz if so, i am definitely on schedule. before, of course, i considered death — it’s possible, you know? — and like everyone else, wondered what happened when the lights went out. do they go back on? do we float away, like a gravity-defying marshmallow pinwheel (you know you love ’em, too)? does everything just go black, but we’re no longer aware so we couldn’t give a rat’s ass anyway? OR, my worst fear, are we relegated to stay in our beds, alone at night, but the night is endless and the walls of the room are slowly, surely shrinking in on us, and we’re thoughtful, or at least, conscious of our thoughts, or lack thereof; there is nothing to look forward to and no day will ever come again and with it, no breakfast, no walk, no book, no tree swaying with new buds in the wind, no person, no distraction? it’d be like, floating in the outermost exteriors of space, forever. scary scary. that feeling of being forced to keep thinking, breathing through an eternity of dark loneliness — that sounds more like hell than any version of a benign afterlife, so maybe i’m just prepping for the worst?

now that i’ve got your attention, haiti! ahh, the smell of burning garbage, the searing heat, the funny fluttering of haitian creole floating around the air, the dirt streets, the smiles and jokes. i fear being emotional (emotionally overcome?) when i get there, seeing the streets and buildings and people, all broken. i can’t imagine it, and i don’t want to. experiencing it, i know, is the only thing that’s going to make it sink in. (i plan to go for about 4-6 weeks, leaving somewhere between april 18 and may 3. i simply cannot wait.)

and what about flo? do we just let her go, as the vodou priestess told us to at the ceremony in boston almost a month ago? let the dead go so that they can move full-speed ahead into the afterlife/world of the ancestors/who knows maybe that big black nothingness that is worse than hanging out in the dark matter?

why do i have such a fearful, negative view of death, i thought to myself last night? i looked at my hand, cupped against my pillow, and saw the faint glow of the orange nail polish on its fingertips. hmm. i turned it left and right and for some reason my hand looked bright white and glowing, too. i remember once upon a time believing in the “energy” within all things, and that it is basically very, very good — you know it, and you don’t know why, but it reassures you even if you think that maybe it’s just your irrational mind overturning the rational, doubting half’s decision that won’t let you fall asleep. maybe it’s the after-effect of staring in a sleepless daze out my windows, which were slightly lit by the lamps outside, i thought. still, it glowed, and the glow was a line, a cord, going up through the thumb, then the center, then the whole hand. fluorescent white, and turning slowly, as if half-liquified in a blender.

huh, i thought. ahh, i felt. the ahh overtook the huh, for once, and i lay back and sighed, calm again.

suddently i was tired. this is good, i thought. my mind turned to those who have already gone there: flo, others. there has to be somewhere that flo is, my mind churned; she can’t just have dissolved! a few days after my grandpa died, i had a very vivid dream of him; my mom and uncle saw overhead lights move, doors blew open and closed in the sudden breeze that passed through their houses. years later, we don’t dream or see lights or doors move. so, is it simply that our energy is only potent, a tight swirl of electricity, for a short time after we die and then dissolves to the point of disappearing? is that the point that “memory fades” and we, the living, forget? i hope not. i have never forgotten my grandpa, and i think of him when i get, well, stuck in nights like this. what should i do, i murmur, half to myself, half to him? usually, i feel his presence. but, is it really him? how much of “him” is my memory of him and how much is it my own mind willing itself to believe that he’s here, that it’s him?

i did not let go at the vodou ceremony (which, i’m sorry, i’m only blogging about now and — very poorly i might add — almost a month later!). bad, bad jeanene. i couldn’t. i guess it’s cultural differences, or personal arrogance. but, she’s still here, flo. and so are all the men and women who collapsed under the rubble. i will bring you gifts when i come, and if my thinking of you is what keeps you alive in spirit or what deludes me into thinking that you’re still alive, i don’t care. it’s all the same to a mind that — and this is the only thing i am certain of these days — has a lot yet more to learn.

Posted by: posthaiti | March 5, 2010

vodou: part trois

on both nights, the moon was utterly full, exploding into absolute roundess in the night sky. i wondered if they vodou priest and/or “elders” had arranged this. watching this woman flail and fall to the ground amidst the sound of circling conga drums was only the beginning. next, we moved indoors.

i must say, being at one of these was like being at a bbq, but more like a crazy bbq. people were standing, sitting, chatting. the men, for the most part, had been downing rum straight-no-chaser for hours (i know, because i eventually was like, what up, fools, give me some), and for the most part, had no idea what was going on or disparaged it to the point of ignorance.

inside, if one dared to go, was no bbq. the woman who received spirits led the conga drummers and a handful of the family members in attendance to the heart of the room where most of the further trance would take place. i have to say, the most curious of all were the children; whether 3 or 5 or teenager, the kids hung around, peering down from the stoop above the tiny grotto, or on the dirt floor or benches behind the makeshift altar, watching, giggling in wonder.

there were people coming and going, dancing, drinking, splashing rum down their throats and on themselves, all throughout the first ceremony. during the second, there were less people actually attending the woman, but still, outside, about 5 or 6 or 7 drummers. they sat in the clearing, up against an open window, and pounded and prodded their congas incessantly. it was nice, that part. there was constant singing, and dancing, and at one point, the pig that had been tied up during the previous afternoon was brought in to wallow on the ground next to the possessed woman and her entourage of family. not sure what up with the pig; i thought that they (who? the entire family?) would stab it to death or gouge out its innards in sacrifice. when i whispered to someone about the pig and if “est-ce qu’on va le tuer?,” they looked at me as if to say, for real? what *are* you talking about? silly me, not getting this vodou business.

the woman, during all this time, was deep in trance. it was as if she was being possessed, one by one, by a different spirit — which is what i saw in maya deren’s movie, ‘divine horsemen: the living gods of haiti‘ — a different, archetypical spirit. *but,* i also thought that she was being possessed by specific ancestors, who may or may not have represented a typical vodou spirit. for instance, at one point, she appeared to be an old man; she sat with her legs crossed, her back leaning slouched against the wall of the grotto. she requested sips of rum and cigarette after cigarette after cigarette. in “real life,” this woman doesn’t smoke. while smoking, she got up, sauntered around the room, and started hugging all the family members who had gathered around her. it was as if she recognized each and every one, from time in this life or from knowing these people as descendants from generations in the future. this happened several times, where the woman assumed some form of spirit who seemed to know everyone in attendance, or at least to recognize them as distant (future) family, hugging and hugging and kissing and kissing.

the ceremony ended with two more possessions. during the second to the last, yves lit fire to a cross, under which had been placed “spirit food.” unbeknownest to moi, this weird haitian dude who spoke little anything let alone english or french, brought a handful and gave it to me. i thought it was real food, and so i took it, not wanting to be impolite. i tasted it. ugn! i spat it out immediately, almost gagging. it tasted like, i dunno, bad salt water and had this charcoal singe to it. basically, i told my friend who thought this entire affair was bullshit and who i clung to for that reason alone, it tasted like DOG. she laughed and laughed and laughed, and looking up at the full moon that night, on a dark and humid new year’s evening, i had to laugh, too.

finally, the ceremony ended with everyone lined up, sitting under a tree. yves, finally, got into the game. he, too, suddenly became possessed, and was cawing, squawking, shrieking with laughter, and saying odd things. it sounded like preaching, scolding, but i really had no idea since it was all in creole. finally, he spun into gear, ran forward, and flung himself onto the boy who had been protecting (making sure she didn’t fall into a thornbush, knock over a chair, or knock out a tooth, really) the woman. he caught yves like a windshield catches a bug: yves sucked onto him, both arms and legs wrapped around his body, stuck. i’ve read that this final flinging of priest — lifting all limbs off the ground — it’s meant to allow the spirit, whose termination is the top of the tree that we’re under, to successfully go up the tree; if yves legs are off the ground, it makes it easier for the spirit(s) to “disconnect” and leave this realm.

after the ceremony, the woman hugged me, thanking me for being there. i was speechless, considering all that had happened (a few unexpected rum booboos on my part, which i won’t go into here). i hugged her back. “thank you so much for letting me be here; i’m so grateful,” i stammered, not sure what to say to a woman who may have just been to the other side and back. we went home that night and had a few rum punches, me and my “it smells like dog” friend, and called it a night. it was new year’s day by then, and looking at the art on the walls of the house (which has since been demolished by the quake), which my friend had previously told me was “vodou” art and “i don’t really see it, it’s all just confusing to me,” i had a newfound appreciation for the things in this world (and the next) that i can not see.

some pics:










Posted by: posthaiti | March 5, 2010

vodou: part deux

sorry for the delay. promises, promises.

(i’ve actually been working pretty diligently on the “memoir” of my time (and characters i met) in SF. i’ve got almost 55 or 60,000 words so far. who knows? it might turn into something, but for the most part, it’s helping me process some things. as i wrote to my mom today, i’ve learned a little bit about how expansive our experiences actually are and how it’s really difficult — impossible, and therefore, not really necessary? — to record them *completely* with words, paintings, etc. i dunno. i think it’s helped me, on a personal level, to figure out what, exactly, one is supposed to do with the past. it’s strange living things over, though. who knows how much of what i remember is accurate, and i guess it doesn’t have to be, since it’s a memoir.)

so, the ceremony in boston, which i blogged about a while ago; it’s tomorrow on harvard’s campus, and i hope any and all can make it. it will honor all those who died in the quake, and it’s a vodou ceremony. i get into boston around 4 pm; the ceremony is from 6 – 9 pm. for details, go to the ‘Going With Flo’ blog.

i’m not only looking forward to giving myself the space to accept what’s happened, but also to finding some answers. one pressing question i’ve had since the quake is regarding the mass graves: what happens to all those spirits, if they’ve been improperly buried and their lives — and deaths, subsequently — improperly ritualized and acknowledged? will they wander, doing harm? it kind of freaks me out, thinking that *if,* in fact, this vodou stuff is real, who knows what kind of unrest could transpire? is going down, as i write this?

actually, i’m not that skeptical anymore. from what i saw in haiti over the course of two days, i came to believe, to be utterly sure actually, that something happened. i don’t know what it was, but something did happen. during both ceremonies, which began in the early afternoon and lasted until midnight, the women crowded around huge pots of boiling food, all of which was for the spirits; their fires lit up the night as darkness descended. at one point when the sun was still up, i was in charge with patting down the dirt that covered the “temple” area, so as to “discharge” the spirits. that’s the best way i could think of it, but in reverse: the woman who became the receiver of spirits those two nights and who was also somewhat of the family matriarch, she told me that the closer and more in touch the receiver was to the ground, the better, or easier it would be for him or her to keep the spirits within. i thought that sounded a lot like discharging a current, but the opposite. (i think. it got confusing after a while.)

there was plenty of rum, candles, cake, dancing, and drumming. on both nights, it started with a slight rumble of drums in the night; suddenly, what seemed to be a bbq or picnic/party turned into a vodou ceremony. some of us dragged ourselves away from the flow of rum and trudged further into the woods, and there were the drummers, who had been going all night on their congas, and the woman who was, for reasons unknown to me, the receiver of spirits that night. at first, she was sober, dancing along with several members of her family. then, after about 10 minutes, she began to dance wildly, uncontrollably, her legs pounding into the dirt along to the rhythm of the drums, her arms flailing left and right. soon, she was being held by the boy charged to guard her (also a friend, but don’t want to mention names); she was falling, cascading, actually, into his arms, and then, to the ground. her head moved back and forth, her eyes (i saw them) rolled back toward her forehead, her movements jagged, drunken, out of her conscious muscular control.

when she “woke up,” she was tired, and seemed to have no idea of what had just happened. the vodou priest had been there all the while, and he was there now, blessing her and drawing things at her feet, placing objects. at first, as she entered trance, he would take a sip of rum and spray it out through his teeth in and around her moving body, casting “rum fumes” into the air close to her skin. i didn’t know what this was for, or why he did it, but the priest (again, yves) was always present and spitting rum. when she finally came out of it, the woman tooks turns alternately trying to stand on her weakened feet and legs or resting her head on the stomach or shoulder of some family member standing nearby. she looked completely exhausted, as if she had traveled far in a bad dream and had just woken up, sweating, confused, and with little to no memory of what just happened (sounds a bit like a blackout to me, only she was one of the only sober people at the partee).

next up: channeling archetypical spirits past, spirits of specific family members, eating spirit food, and yves flinging himself onto the trunk of a tree…

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