First published in
THE HUDSON REVIEW
Vol XLVIII #4
Copyright Madison Smartt Bell, 1996
All Print Rights Reserved
Madison Smartt Bell
According to the vaudou beliefs in which the country has been saturated since the time of slavery, the ocean surrounding Haiti is a mirror, whose surface divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. The division is not absolute, however, for in vaudou as in the African religions from which it springs the dead do not depart, but remain present and available for communion with the living. It's fortunate that no one really dies in Haiti, since it has always been a bloody place.
All black people who have ever died in Haiti (and over the three hundred years since slavery was first introduced there this must make a very large number) inhabit a place called the Island Below Sea, which is also Guinée, or Africa. During the slave trade many captives jumped from the ships to drown themselves, believing that by this route they would return to Africa. Today the vaudou conception of Guinée has evolved into a spiritual location; the Island Below Sea is a parallel universe reflecting our own, but still believers must enter it. So at the beginning of vaudou rituals, they sing o creole, sondé miroir, an exhortation to pierce the mirror, so that the spirits of the living can once more reach Guinée, so that the souls of the dead can also reach the living world as loa-- the pantheon of gods who take possession of their worshippers. For the same reason the members of the increasingly popular Haitian musical group Boukman Eksperyans sing, in their wistfully lyrical ballad Eve, of falling through the surface of a sacred pool which is another version of this mirror. In this way the singers and their believing listeners can reach the world of the dead and the world of the loa. Haitian vaudou may be the last living religion on earth; the gods are present and one speaks to them face to face.
If you are white and a foreigner, chances are that you know little of these matters. The ocean is merely a place for a pleasant frolic, Boukman Eksperyans no more than good dance music, with (if you translate the lyrics from Haitian creole) a little politics mixed in. On June 4, the Club Med location a few miles north of Port Au Prince was reopened to host the annual General Assembly of the Organization of American States, so again there are foreign swimmers in that beautiful blue water, though it's unlikely that they know they are also drifting in a sea of vaudou metaphysics. From Club Med to the Port-au-Prince airport the road has been perfectly repaired (although the reflectors placed on either side have already been stolen), and the roadside has been purged of the beggars and vendors who usually swarm around the airport gates. But if you drive beyond the gates of Club Med and the beach hotels, you enter a completely different world, where the road to Cap Haïtien, in the northern province, has not been adequately repaired since the U.S. Marines left Haiti in the 1920s. The damaged pavement from Saint Marc to Gonaives is almost impassible; it would be better if there were none. And on the way from Cap Haïtien to Fort Liberté on the Dominican border, the road does disappear entirely, along with all other evidence of First World technology, U.N. presence, or the very existence of white people of any kind.
Parallel universes, miroir sondé. The Hotel Oloffson is another kind of mirror, an interface between the foreign presence and the mindboggling anarchy of Port-au-Prince street life. The younger, hipper journalists and U.N. fellow travelers stay here, conducting their business in the excellent restaurant or beside the pleasant pool. The Oloffson is Graham Greene's hotel, the scene of his Haitian novel The Comedians, but now I am more reminded of The Quiet American-- perhaps Greene's most powerful statement of the damage to be done by good intentions.
We are waiting for our own connection: Theodore Beaubrun, a.k.a. Lôlô, a member of the group Boukman Eksperyans-- waiting, at first, with a considerable degree of First World impatience and frustration. We have several phone numbers and our French is good but the people who answer only speak creole-- a French-based patois which has been the common language of the Haitian people since slavery time and which is also the language of the Boukman lyrics... the most powerful political songs to appear in world music since Bob Marley. Also, the telephones only work occasionally; yesterday the minister of telephones was deposed. We have an address but without knowing the back streets it takes two hours to reach it through the screaming insanity of Port-au-Prince traffic. When we arrive at the Boukman headquarters a pleasant young man lets us know (through the bars of the iron cage that secures the porch) that none of the Boukman people are presently there. They will be back later... indefinitely later. Plus tard. It's only later, back at the Oloffson, that I glance at a photo and realize that I have in fact been talking to Hans Dominique, a.k.a. Bois Gris, Lôlô's x-year-old son and one of the Boukman drummers. But it's like that in Haiti: when you look into the mirror, the mirror's also watching you.
In the afternoons it is very hot, heat building to a late afternoon crisis, a sudden drenching thunderstorm that comes around four each afternoon, though not quite regularly enough to set your watch by. We have stopped looking at our watches quite so often. The threads of time are attenuating. We are at the end of the rainy season, and after each evening rain the easing of tension is palpable. When Lôlô does appear at last we have stopped waiting for him so energetically and are simply there.
Lôlô is not exactly the leader of Boukman Eksperyans because the group does not exactly have a leader, but it would be fair to say that he is Boukman's foreign ambassador, facing the mirror which connects the group with and divides it from the whole world outside Haiti. Today we see him in his aspect as Theodore Beaubrun, whose elegant French might have come from the Sorbonne, and whose style of address makes it easy to imagine him as a Caribbean intellectual emerging into the First World. Theodore Beaubrun has an anthropological perspective on vaudou (and his wife, Mimerose, has written a scholarly dissertation on the subject), but his data comes directly from his own experiences. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they are Lôlô's experiences, since in Haiti it is possible and sometimes necessary to have more than one identity, as one may have more than one of the Great Loa in one's head.
Boukman Eksperyans takes its name from Boukman, a vaudou priest or houngan who presided over the meeting at the forest called Bois Caiman, where the slave insurrection of 1791 was planned. That first rising, astonishingly bloody and destructive, began in August, 1791; Boukman himself was dead by that October, his head displayed on a stake in the Place d'Armes at Cap Haïtien. Boukman had been a slave in Jamaica before being sold to French-colonized Haiti; some accounts say that he had fought in the American Revolutionary War under Lafayette, as a small but significant number of Haitian slaves had done. Almost nothing else is known of him. Certainly Boukman had the ability to inflame the rebel slaves to a jihad-like fury which allowed them to flood into battle (often possessed by their gods) without fear of rifles or cannon, to overcome better-trained and armed European troops with the sheer force of their numbers and their loa-inspired ferocity-- but also with horrific loss of life. Boukman's style of leadership got a lot of his own men killed, as it led to his own death in fairly short order. By First World standards he was not the most effective leader, and so I had always been puzzled by the group's choice of name.
Theodore, however, has an elegant explanation for this peculiarity. In vaudou observance, the ceremony at Bois Caiman is fully as important as the birth of Christ. That it invoked the loa to aid in the extermination of all the white people in Haiti does not entirely imply peace on earth and good will toward men... but for Theodore the bloodthirstiness of the ritual is secondary and what is most important is the unification movement over which Boukman, however briefly, presided, a movement which brought together the slaves from all over the island, most of which had been born in Africa and spoke the different languages of their tribes. Boukman united all these different slaves with each other and with the communities of runaway slaves called maroons, who lived in mountain villages known as lakou. Before Bois Caiman the maroons had disliked and distrusted the plantation slaves; some maroon lakou had existed for decades by 1791 and many maroons had been born free in Haiti. Boukman's tools for the unification were the fusion of different African religions into a vaudou which all Haitian blacks could serve together, and also of course the creole language, which made it possible for so many blacks of different origin to commune with each other across the whole of a territory which was just on its way to becoming, in some sense, a nation. All this is the essence of the Boukman experience.
But in speaking to Theodore Beaubrun I am reminded less of the historical Boukman and more of Toussaint Louverture. It was Toussaint, after Boukman's death, who took the reins of the slave rebellion and turned it into a proper revolution-- the only successful slave revolution in history. In 1791 Toussaint was in late middle age and had been for a number of years a trusted overseer on a plantation near Cap Haïtien. Although he had spent all of his life in slavery he was literate and had read both L'Abbé Raynal and the ancient slave philosopher Epictetus. Born in Haiti, he was more Europeanized than most Haitian slaves; he was a devout Catholic and at the height of his career considered himself to be a citizen of the French Republic. He studied European military methods and adapted them to the natural talents of the rebel slaves, forging an army which successfully repelled several European invasions, including the expedition Napoleon sent from France to restore slavery in Haiti. By the time of this final victory, Toussaint had been betrayed and deported to France, where he soon died. As he embarked on the ship that took him away from Haiti, he turned to his French captors and said, "In overthrowing me, you think you have cut down the tree of liberty, but it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep."
And Theodore Beaubrun sounds very much like Toussaint when explaining la musique des racines, or roots music, the movement of which Boukman Eksperyans is part. La musique des racines evolved as a sort of antidote to compas, a smiley-faced tourist-pleasing music popular with the Duvalier regime. La musique des racines is based on vaudou drumming and also on rara, a festival music performed in street parades, whose lyrics often seek to make political points. In Haiti, politics and religion are inextricably intertwined, and the power of the political statements in the Boukman lyrics comes from their profound, archetypal religious base (as was also the case with Bob Marley). Since the turn of the nineteenth century, the ruling factions of Haiti have always feared vaudou even while practicing it themselves, for vaudou (temple to temple and hounfor to hounfor) is a nationwide network with a marked structural similarity to the cellular architecture of left wing revolutionary groups, and for two hundred years it has been impossible to eradicate.
Boukman Ekspyrans, along with other racines musical groups, has the power to bring vaudou openly into politics again-- to reactivate the energies Boukman tapped in 1791. For that reason the group is feared and hated by the powers behind the coup against Aristide. The whole Boukman entourage came very close to being assassinated en masse at a concert in 1993; they were surrounded by hostile army personnel but protected by other soldiers who took their part. Unfortunately, although the Haitian army no longer exists, both of these factions are still alive and armed, so that the officer who did the most to protect Boukman Eksperyans in 1993 was murdered on the streets of Port-au-Prince four days before our conversation with Theodore Beaubrun. To assassinate someone in Port-au-Prince you shoot from a lightweight motorcycle which can vanish quickly through the stalled bus and car traffic everywhere on the streets... but there are a lot of people to kill, and there are many groups who play la musique des racines, and the music is heard everywhere. The state of mind of the oligarchs deposed by Aristide's return must resemble that of the French General Leclerc, who reported to Napoleon in 1802 that it was not enough to have deported Toussaint from Haiti because there were at least two thousand chiefs still to be removed, who later wrote that for the French to regain control of the island it would be necessary to kill all black males above the age of twelve. If to us that seems a long time ago, in the hall of mirrors of the Haitian sense of time, two hundred years can be next to no distance at all.
Now it is once again (though perhaps temporarily) the time of Aristide, of Lavalas, of black power in Haiti-- albeit propped up by the U.N. occupation, the helicopters floundering above the Hotel Oloffson, the rat-patrol jeeps carrying blue-helmeted troops around the streets of Cap Haïtien. But apart from the U.N., everyone on the streets of Port-au-Prince and on the northern roads as far as Fort Liberté looks pure African. The substantial population of mixed-blood people is still here but in hiding, behind the wall of the impressively fortified villas of Pétionville or other similar sanctuaries. Les gens de couleur, as they were once known, have always been a significant force in Haitian politics. Before the revolution of 1791 they had much wealth and sometime owned slaves themselves-- if the white colonists had not been so determined to deny them (their own children!) all political rights, the African slave rebellion might have been suppressed. But the white colonial intention toward the mulattos tended instead toward genocide; in prerevolutionary pogroms the whites would, for instance, eviscerate pregnant colored women and display their foetuses on spears. This practice was later adopted by both the blacks and the mulattos for retaliations against the whites. The black/mulatto civil war of 1799 was bitterest of all-- known as the War of Knives because the combatants were inspired by their reciprocal hatred to throw down their guns and attack each other with nails and teeth instead. As for today, one has only to remember the face of General Cedras to understand that what Aristide likes to call the struggle of the eggplant and the ginger still plays its part in Haitian politics.
But Boukman Eksperyans is a unity movement. On Saturday nights the group plays at a chic Pétionville club called the Garage, fancifully decorated with old auto parts. The audience here is both multi-racial and multi-national. Les gens de couleur of Pétionville are well-represented, as are U.N. military and civilian personnel, as are the pure black vaudouists, or serviteurs as they call themselves, those who serve the loa. There are even a couple of reasonably discreet CIA operatives to round out the picture.
The performance does a lot to show why Boukman Eksperyans is winning a broad international popularity, why the band's three CDs sell briskly in markets that have no knowledge of the creole language and little interest in Haitian politics. At the surface level, la musique des racines is simply great dance music, based on a fusion of vaudou drumming with rock guitar. The drummers, Bois Gris among them, play the rada batterie, a set of three skin-headed drums which are extremely sacred and which may themselves sometimes be possessed by spirits. The three drummers create the roots of the band's intricate and rapidly shifting rhythms-- far more sensitive and complex than anything found in blues or rock or reggae. The guitar style owes a lot to rock heroes like Hendrix and Santana, although, oddly, it is mostly based on major scales instead of the minor pentatonics of the blues. The guitarists can certainly tear off classic rock solos whenever the spirits suggest it, and this good guitar sound helps account for the group's pop success in the First World. But Boukman Eksperyans is by no means a guitar-driven band. The rhythm function of the guitars is negligible, and the core of the sound, as in traditional vaudou, is drums and voice (the women singers, especially, achieve some sweet a capella effects)-- but mostly drums.
I have also had the honor of hearing the drums without guitars, in Cap Haïtien the night before. Cap Haïtien is a very different sort of town than Port-au-Prince; smaller and less hectic; its architecture and its mood retain the aura of the first post-colonial times. Also there is no electricity in Cap Haïtien, or next to none: the two international hotels have generators, as do a few small businesses which don't run them late. The result of this situation is a sort of unofficial curfew. By the time we left the hotel where we had eaten to walk back to the hotel where we were staying, it was darker than the inside of a grave.
Picking our way most delicately through the ink-black streets, we could already hear the drumming, and at the driveway of our hotel we could also hear the voices of les possedés. It was the first time I had heard the loa speak through a human body, but there was no mistaking the sound. Also the hypnotic power of the drums compelled me, despite the obvious danger; Cap Haïtien neighborhoods are tiny and closely packed and the corner where the drums came from was one we'd thought unsafe to explore even by daylight.
My companion, reluctant to run toward the drums, returned to the hotel while I squatted down to listen. Gradually I crept up the street, feeling out the invisible surfaces with my feet in case I had to retreat rapidly. There were other people not far from me, but I could not see them. The night was clear, the stars were perfect, and as my eyes began to adjust I realized the white shirt I was wearing stood out like a beacon.
When I passed through the hotel bar, having changed into a black shirt, I saw a young Haitian painter we'd befriended the night before. That he was willing to escort me turned out to be a very good thing, because the ceremony was not at street level. We entered a small twisting alley which rose almost straight up; because it was also apparently a sort of trash chute I had to cling to the walls and sometimes drop to my hands and knees, although my guide walked easily erect, with the grace of the resilient little goats that scatter half-wild all through the Haitian countryside. The drum sound coiled through the dark passage and drew me up into itself. Interesting to hear it now without the overlays of guitar and pop production Boukman uses. The sophisticated tonal shading gave the drums the character of human voices, so it was easy enough to forget the players and believe we heard, directly, the voice of the loa.
Because of the intractable problem of my skin color, we stayed in the shadows outside the perimeter of the hounfor. The arrangement was utterly simple: an area of packed earth with a six foot high stake driven into the center; this stake, in vaudou, is called the poteau mitan-- a device for piercing the surface of the mirror that divides the living world from the subaqueous habitat of Les Morts et Les Mystères. The intersection of the vertical stake with the horizontal surface of the mirror creates a crossroads-- it's the same crossroads that Robert Johnson sang about, and in creole it is called kalfou. The Great Loa, who form their individual characters from the aggregate spiritual force of all Les Morts et Les Mysteres, use the poteau mitan to pass this kalfou and so arrive to take possession of the bodies of the living. But the crossroads is a flexible concept in vaudou metaphysics, and can be rotated horizontally to apply to the world of strictly human affairs; thus Boukman Ekspyrans' most politically volatile song and album is called Kalfou Danjere.
Dangerous Crossroads. What I saw at Cap Haïtien was enough to let me see that the Garage, or part of it, was a hounfor too. The club is L-shaped, with the intersection at the stage, and the stage roof incorporates a living tree which serves as the poteau mitan. The area directly stage-front became, as the night went on, increasingly the territory of les serviteurs, while the multi-racial, multinational fraction of the audience tended to cluster on the other leg of the L, close to the bar. Because of the crowding, the easiest passage from one area to the other went through Boukman's dressing room, diagonally, and this became, for me at least, another kind of crossroads.
In Haiti, time is not measured as in the First World; everything is going to happen indefinitely plus tard. You adapt to that or go mad with frustration, I suppose. It is no country for impatience of any kind. We had hired a guide to go with us to Cap Haïtien; he could not drive and knew little of geography, but he could ask directions in creole, and his language skill proved invaluable during our various breakdowns. On the northern road there are more potholes than pavement. We changed our first flat with the usual First World sweaty impatience, exacerbated by the discovery, some miles down the road, that our guide had abandoned the lug nuts that held the spare tire somewhere behind us on the ground. By the second day, stranded in a village on the northern plain with two tires gone flat simultaneously, our sense of urgency had materially decreased. We had learned from our guide that the road past Gonaives would be both better and worse than the road before, that in creole "icit-la" means both here and there, and that the "quelques minutes" required for the repairs could easily evolve into several hours.
For "quelques minutes" we provided entertainment for idlers on the town square. A sort of village idiot appeared to incorporate us into his afternoon perfomance. Around the corner, beside a sacred basin (green with algae and looking prosperous for malaria and typhoid), vaudou drumming beat through the heat of the afternoon. As the daily thunderstorm approached, people began tactfully filtering out of the square. The clouds appeared to converge from three directions. Catholic schoolgirls passed us giggling, book satchels gracefully balanced on their heads. Beside the sacred basin, the drumming went on. A boy cantered through the square on a small scrawny pony, his heels not quite dragging the ground. The rain began in a swirl of dust, and we sheltered under the back hatch of the crippled jeep, without any special impatience or expectation. This was a feeling I recognized from hypnosis, when one sees oneself from both within and without, recognizing one's state, perhaps, but feeling no motive to change it. Let the drums get a little louder, one thought, and perhaps the loa will come.
So on Saturday night when Boukman took a break and I slipped into their dressing room, I had in some measure ceased to be an I full of anxious personal intention and become merely one who was sitting crosslegged on the floor. It didn't matter so much to this one what happened next or how long it would take to transpire. Presently the other Europeans began to leave the room, but when one rose to follow them, one was instead invited to enter a circle of joined hands with all the members of the group.
There was a small mirror in the room, which the women in the group had used to prepare for their act; it must have been a coincidence that my place in the circle faced this mirror, but the sight of a white face was a palpable shock. I closed my eyes to get away from it. I was hideously tense and my grip was too tight. Perhaps there were other problems in the circle as well. The silence went on for a long time, for some time after I was able to let my hands go slack. Then the band began chanting. On the road north our guide had gradually slipped into creole with us, and by now I understood enough to recognize that they were saying the Lord's Prayer.
Vaudou, as Theodore Beaubrun will gladly explain to you, has been fused with Catholicism to an extent seldom mentioned by the scholars who write books about Haitian religion. Other slave societies also blended African religion with Christianity, but since Haiti has been a pariah state for almost two hundred years, the African strain in vaudou is much much stronger than it is, for example, in Puerto Rican santéria, and it's this near-purity that delights foreign ethnologists. But the daily life of Haiti is devoutly Catholic on one side of the mirror and fervently vaudouistic on the other. The visual pageantry of Catholicism has made it easy, since slavery time, for Haitians to look at a sword-bearing image of Saint Jacques and also see their own warrior god, Ogûn. Today, all the busses and tap-tap taxis are elaborately decorated Catholic icons, each crowned with a motto like "Christ Capable," but these icons have their vaudou significance too. For a Haitian there is no difficulty in entertaining such paradoxes. It is both here and there, both now and later. There is one who will abandon lug nuts on the ground as being of no further importance once the jeep can roll again and there is one who, happening upon these lug nuts later, will recognize their great value-- something to be sold to stranded blancs-- and that both these entities may be contained in the same body is not a contradiction.
Boukman Eksperyans is committed in the making of new fusions. Some of their songs invoke the loa and others sing to Jesus. "Sa'm Pedi," a moving, gospel-like lyric from Boukman's lastest album, Libète (Pran Pou Pran'l) is an ode to the most loving and peaceful of Christian virtues; it speaks of self-surrender to the Christian spirit, and even seems to suggest that the meek will inherit the earth. In Theodore Beaubrun's interpretation, Jesus is not exactly a member of the vaudou pantheon but something that surrounds and includes the personified Great Loa-- an analogue, perhaps, to the vaudou Oversoul called Les Morts et Les Mystères. This surprisingly Zen-like conception of Christ may be reinforced by the New Age meditation circle which Theodore joins on Sundays, together with some other band members and a select few whites who have been doing various good works in Haiti since the days of the Duvaliers. Vaudou is a religion constantly in process, capable of adapting itself to local circumstance and able to absorb other forms of observance as easily as China absorbs other races.
There is another fusion at work in tonight's performance; as always there are two sides to the mirror. On the one hand, we have great dance music and all-round quality entertainment for the multi-national U.N. audience, for the world music audience generally. On the other, it's becoming increasingly clear that the performance is itself a vaudou ceremony. You can feel this even in the States, listening to Boukman's most thoroughly structured album, Kalfou Danjere, which is patterned in the ascending waves of vaudou ritual, waves which may carry you into an altered state even if you know nothing about the religion. Tonight's concert begins, like Boukman's latest album and like most vaudou ceremonies, with an invocation of Legba. The vaudou counterpart of the Greek Hermes, Legba is the loa of changes, who controls the crossroads where the worlds of the living are joined; without his assent, no one may pass. With Legba's permission granted, one may invoke the other loa, and several of the songs on Libète (Pran Pou Pran'l) call different gods: Zaka (an agrarian god of planting and harvests), Simbi Ganga, Malouwe, and the war-god Ogûn. The most politically critical song of the new album, "Jou Malè," summons Ogûn in his most warlike aspect-- Ogûn Feraille. And the gods do come. In the more explicitly political songs, it is the loa speaking as often as the singers. Lôlô reports, in the classic manner of the serviteur, that when he regains his sense of self after a concert, he does not always know what the gods have used his mouth to say.
The ceremonial aspect is reflected in the style of the performance as much as in its content. It's circulatory, instead of in-your-face. Lôlô (definitely Lôlô now) is less rock star than houngan, an influence and mediator rather than the godhead itself. Lôlô is sometimes in front of the band and sometimes behind it and sometimes somewhere in between. The center of the performance is not the lead singer, but the poteau mitan. In any case, there is no one lead singer, since the women members of the group take lead vocals at least as much as Lôlô, and similarly there is no single lead guitarist. The intruments are passed from hand to hand, as the sacred rattle called the asson would pass from one houngan to another, during ritual. Audience members circulate on stage among the band as the spirits move them, and as the hour grows late and the drums' intensity builds, some listeners fall into the kicking, jerking, convulsive state that is a crossroads between personal identity and possession by the loa.
At this point I am standing somewhere on a chair, trying to keep track of things. There's one side of me that wants to obliterate my identity with a nice dive into the swirling vaudou mosh pit, but the side that wants to remember what happened later seems to be stronger. When Lôlô salutes me from the stage I answer him with tense raised fists-- a mistake, I realize, but only later, when I have lived in Haiti a few hours longer.... quelques minutes. I have never seen Lôlô make a fist, his hands are always open, moving gracefully as fish. In vaudou a serviteur will usually have a particular loa called the maît'tête, or master of the head, who possesses him more often than the others. Lôlô (so I've been told by Theodore Beaubrun) has the war-god Ogûn as his maît'tête, which is interesting in view of the band's comparatively pacific mode of presentation, and yet Ogûn, like the other loa, has many mirror images, some more violent and some less so. There is horrific latent violence in vaudou, and during the Haitian revolution it swept the island end to end, giving the revolted slaves under the original Boukman's leadership the will to return the atrocities visited on them by their white slavemasters a thousandfold. And Theodore Beaubrun is willing to explain that voodoo does have its savage side, a mood of hate and vengefulness: Bizango, the black magic cult of vaudou, ruled by sorcerors called bokor. Theodore will not discuss it, but it seems apparent to me that the interests of the Ton-Tons Macoutes and more lately the attachés --terrorism, control of the night, rape, murder, and zombification-- coincide very closely with the interests of Bizango. By this reasoning, when Boukman Eksperyans sings "Ginen pa' Bizango," (Ginen is not Bizango) the refrain to "Kalfou Danjere," the group is taking a very explicit political position as well as a religious one. The inner state of Ginen, which has replaced the old vaudou notion of a literal Africa under the sea, is a condition of deep tranquility opposed to the cruelty and violence of Bizango... yet Ginen too has force to draw on, and Lôlô's maît'tête is Ogûn.
At four o'clock in the morning the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince are very desolate-- nobody there but us and the police. And yet a visit to Haiti would not be quite complete without spending at least a few seconds looking down the wrong end of a rifle barrel. We are fortunate, however, to be dealing with the new police trainees (though many of these come from the cadre of ex-soldiers, Macoutes, and attachés), and once the guns are lowered everything is quite correct. After some discussion (in English this time) we are even able to decline their invitation to accompany them to the station. The fun is not quite over yet, however, for the Hotel Oloffson is in its tactful way a fortress, though luckily not so secure as those in Pétionville, and we are obliged to go over the wall.
I wake next morning with a significant hangover and ears still throbbing with the Boukman drums. It's clear that the rainy season is over now, this minute; the air crackles with a heat which will not be abated. We attempt a Sunday morning stroll through Port-au-Prince, moving like swimmers through the gluey heat. For the first time I understand the old creole proverb, dating from slavery time: doucement allé loin, which translates roughly as "the gentlest way goes furthest." A necessary ethic for a slave, perhaps, this line was also one of Toussaint's favorite mottos, but now I feel it is more deeply rooted in the conditions of this country, because if you try to move fast or forcefully in this kind of heat you will be dead in fifteen minutes. Now I begin to understand the sinuous grace of the women who move through the streets with impossible burdens balanced on their heads, the tenuous persistence of the human cart-hauler dragging a coffin-size block of ice on a two-wheeled truck. Creole itself reflects this principle, requiring fewer, gentler movements of the tongue than French. Now I understand the foolishness of a clenched fist, as in my mind's eye I see Lôlô's open hands. I am no longer well able to distinguish causes from effects, but it seems to me that if we had not understood how doucement allé loin, Lôlô would never have appeared to bring us into the lakou.
In the lakou it was very cool and fresh, as if the sweltering heat of Port-au-Prince had never existed. Eight feet from where we stood in the packed-earth forecourt of a small cabin, a hummingbird spun its invisible wings in the air, beak communing with a blossom. Presently three small girls appeared at our knees and showed with their hands that they wanted to kiss us and for us to kiss them. In the lakou one is always greeted with a kiss, even if one is a stranger; one cannot be a stranger there for no stranger can enter the lakou.
The distance from Port-au-Prince to the lakou is negligible in miles but enhanced by the fact that the closer you get the more the road becomes a sheer cliff. Lôlô's jeep tapped out before we reached the top, and we took him and several others, who seemed to be functioning as an informal security team, along in ours. But the last leg of the journey must be made on foot, along a trail no more than shoulders- wide.
The cabins of the lakou are arranged along a looping path that goes up and down the mountain slope, describing an ellipse around the central hounfor, as dancers circle the poteau mitan in vaudou rituals, or during Boukman concerts. The dwellers here have found surprisingly rich veins of soil in the rock; there were ripening stalks of bananas and zigzag plantings of corn. The sense of natural abundance was like what we had seen in the fertile mountains above Cap Haïtien. There were chickens too, and pigs. Outside the cities, all Haiti is scattered with livestock, cows and runty pigs and goats who often wear wooden head stalls to keep them from raiding the gardens. But all these animals look thin and enterprising, for the people must eat before the animals do. In the lakou, for the first and only time, I saw a big fat hog.
Today we had Lôlô, not Theodore; the Sorbonne French was gone and he spoke to us in a mélange of French and creole, and did not speak much in any case. The lakou was, that day at least, a place of stillness. When we had made the circuit of the cabins, Lôlô opened the case des mystères, a small ajoupa made, like the other cabins of the lakou, by weaving sticks together and plastering them with mud. Within, the vévés of different loa were painted on the walls with a turquoise paint that had happened to be there, so that the space within seemed suffused with a cool blue light. Lôlô and the other serviteurs performed a simple ceremony, giving drink to the spirits who exist in small clay bottles on the altar.
The hounfor itself was a large ellipse of packed dirt along the edge of the sacred pool. A cow had lately been drinking there, but now the waters had stilled. It was astonishingly quiet. In Cap Haïtien the painters like to render the island as one with its reflection in the mirror of the sea, like a planet, like a globe. Regarding the mirror of the sacred pool, we seemed to be inside this sphere, the trees curving up above us and also below; we were embraced, suspended there. One began to feel Ginen, and the sense of peace was so profound that one could hardly bear to leave it.
Leaving the lakou, Lôlô spoke a little more, explaining the idea of la colonne. This column is the family tree, and the arrangement of the lakou is the outward reflection of this inner truth. Within this matrix of relationship, children are the responsiblity of the whole village, as in Africa, not just the property of their parents. Indeed, la colonne stretches halfway down the mountain to Pétionville, and we made frequent stops for Lôlô to have conversations with his cousins, or if we did not stop he would flex a hand gently out the window and say hello and goodbye in the same breath with the creole phrase that means "We're here," -- Nou la.
Nou la... but for how long? The air is crackling with heat, elections come at the end of the month, and back at the Hotel Oloffson, the staff turn away from a creole broadcast stiff with a tension no rain will relieve. If there is trouble, it may happen in three weeks, and at the airport I am relieved to be leaving Haiti, though in another way one would infinitely prefer to stay.
Four days away from the murder of his ex-officer friend, Lôlô must be aware of his own danger, though he never mentions it. In Haiti they assassinate both priests and houngans with a crushing regularity, and up the country there are still plenty of guns in the hands of the attachés. Lôlô is protected to some degree by his own precautions, to some degree by his reasonably high profile in the international press, and to some degree by the assassins' fear of making martyrs. It was that fear that kept Napoleon from executing Toussaint two hundred years ago, though Toussaint, who died in a French prison, became a martyr anyway.
It's conceivable that Theodore Beaubrun has some slight vocation for martyrdom, but I believe that Lôlô would see it differently. Certainly Boukman Eksperyans has structured things differently, for it is a group without a leader, and when there is no leader, the leader can't be killed. Also there are many groups besides Boukman Eksperyans. The death of the historical Boukman made no difference to the movement he had forged. As General Leclerc finally figured out, you give up or else you have to kill them all. In any case, the dead do not depart from Haiti, and Lôlô seems already well-versed in the art of living in eternity. Maybe it doesn't matter so much which side of the mirror he finds himself residing.
Another bloodbath in Haiti remains a lively possibility. The spiking of the Haitian army's sole artillery division is certainly a positive step, a true feather in the cap of the foreign intervention, but the army itself is only disbanded, not destroyed, and the U.N. effort to retrieve rifles from ex-military personnel seems to have been no more successful than Leclerc's attempt to get the guns back from the rebel slaves who founded Haiti. Without artillery, the next violent power struggle in Haiti, if it does come, will be carried out with small arms and machetes, like the civil war in Rwanda, which in its turn resembles the Haitian War of Knives.
Let us admit, however, that the foreign intervention has done some tangible good in Haiti. For the moment at least it has scotched the worst extremes of terrorism. Without the U.N. retraining effort and the continued U.N. presence, our encounter with the police would have been much, much more unpleasant (although I wonder how those officers would have handled a carload of black Haitians). The foreign presence has at least temporarily restored the popular voice of the Haitian people, and created forms of democratic process, yet one wonders if First World democracy will ever fit this country, if Haiti does not require something more on the order of the konbit, communal work parties rooted in the lakou, which Boukman Eksperyans sings about.
Eavesdropping on conversations at the Oloffson, trying to sleep in Graham Greene's old room while listening to chopper blades flogging overhead, it's hard to forget The Quiet American. It's hard to forget that the First World can destroy a culture more thoroughly with money and good intentions than with knives and guns. Our great weakness in the First World, and particularly in the States, is that whenever we look in a mirror we always assume we are seeing ourselves.
Haiti shows that there are some advantages to having been a pariah state for two hundred years. Port-au-Prince is a classic Third World slum, complete with its Cité Soleil where people starve in boxes, enduring famine conditions that resemble Somalia. But outside the cities a self-sustaining agrarian life seems at least marginally viable. Because tourism has been aborted in Haiti, comparatively few Haitians have been turned into beggars and waiters and hustlers and thieves. The archipelagos of discarded plastic that clog the seas around "successful" tourist islands don't exist in Haiti. Outside Cité Soleil, people don't live in shacks of discarded First World materials, tin and cardboard: they use centuries-old techniques to make houses out of daubed wood and thatch and woven palm leaves; they make most of what they need by hand. In the north, for instance, they still weave indescribably complex donkey saddles out of straw. It's a hard life, and one must not sentimentalize it, but one should also remember that there are worse alternatives. Remember, as Club Med prepares to reopen, that successful tourism in Haiti turned the country into the most appalling prostitution market in the Western Hemisphere and made it a major crossroads in the global spread of AIDS.
In the First World, we are always firmly situated inside our individual selves. In Haiti it's not at all that way. The difference can sometimes be annoying, as when the one who leaves the lug nuts on the ground is not the same one who in some other context would easily recognize their worth. But when it comes to forming communities it is better not to have such a strong sense of one's personal boundaries. Haitians are able to love and care for their children in ways now unimaginable in the First World, where fission has exploded most nuclear families, let alone anything that might once have resembled la colonne. A child may wander safely anywhere within in the borders of the lakou because she enjoys the love and protection of all. Even in small-town America these days, a child alone is simply a target.
Haiti pour les Haïtiens, as angry crowds will sometimes shout outside the U.S. Embassy. There must be some alternative for this country to becoming a cheap-labor market for global corporations, to becoming another Caribbean tourist spectacle. Fish-farming, craft exports. Haitians make a sort of pistachio butter that would fly off the shelves of First World gourmet shops. Haitians make the best rum in the world-- a five-star bottle compares favorably to Courvoisier or Calvados.
Flying over Haiti, one sees surprising things. I had assumed the country was a dust-bowl now. Eighteenth-century reports already speak of overlogging and overfarming and the erosions and floods that resulted. Then there is the population bomb. In slavery time, the people died like flies, from mistreatment and murder and suicide. Mothers would abort, or kill their infants-- out of love, to send them back to Africa. It was necessary for the slave masters to import twenty thousand slaves a year to maintain a constant work force. But after the revolution the people stopped dying, and I'd assumed that six million Haitians must have eaten up the whole country like a flight of locusts before now.
Not so. In the mountains above Gonaives and the Artibonite there is much erosion and the peaks are dry and bare. But the mountains above Cap Haïtien are still fertile, as we saw by land. By air we can see clouds blanketing the peaks, and know that there must be rich land below them. As we fly deeper over the interior, we see pockets of remarkable fertility. Down there, where there are no roads, there are lakou that can only be reached by horse or by foot. Surely there must be places left where you can go up the country with nothing more than a box of matches and a cane knife and not come back for a decade or so. One can imagine that, in the Cibao mountains along the Dominican border, some rain forest may still survive. The land is wounded but not murdered yet, and the spirit of Ginen is still strong; the Boukman singers know that, but they are not the only ones who know. It is imaginable that after all the Haitian people will not be destroyed. Their roots are planted very deep, and they spring up everywhere.