I've got a few copies of all of my books which I'm selling at the reduced rate of £4.99 (+£2.80 p&p) - an incredible £4 off the RRP - available while stocks last.
Email me at email@example.com if you'd like to purchase a copy.Read More
I've got a few copies of all of my books which I'm selling at the reduced rate of £4.99 (+£2.80 p&p) - an incredible £4 off the RRP - available while stocks last.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to purchase a copy.Read More
I woke up early at the prospect of an exciting day, perhaps the most exciting day of the tour so far. Our lovable ACME tour guides were taking us to Péligre and then Cange in the Central Plateau, the setting for the beginning and the ending of The Other Side of the Mountain.
Jean greeted us like long lost friends. It was good to see him and Rico again, the pair of them smiling as usual. I asked Jean if he’d been to mass and he showed me the ash on his forehead (80% of Haitians, as well as being Vodouist, are catholic).Read More
We had pancakes for breakfast. They were the fat American kind, eaten with maple syrup. Tasty.
Ready to ‘go it alone’ we had given Jean the day off. The plan was to visit Pétionville, a more salubrious area of Port-au-Prince and home to the bourgeoisie, surely a safer place to wander around unguided. But first we had to reserve our seats for tonight’s Carnival. We walked down the hill to the Plaza but once again the T-shirts and wristbands that we had to wear to gain entry, hadn’t arrived, so we ordered a taxi instead. Seconds later, lo and behold, Rico appeared.
‘Mon ami. Mon ami. Come,’ he said chortling delightedly as he led us through the hotel. It’s worth pointing out at this point that Rico spoke very little English.
His friend? Jean. It had to be.
Slept very well in the vast king-size bed, despite the rock-hard mattress and the rigid pillow. Just as well because today we were driving to Jacmel, a southern town situated on the Caribbean coast, two and a half hours away. We’d originally planned a two-day trip, but the news reports had been full of stories about roadblocks at Leogane, and had assumed we wouldn’t get through.
Jean and our diminutive driver Rico, dressed once again in an immaculate white shirt and trousers, arrived promptly at 8.30 a.m. and we were soon driving through the notoriously dangerous Carrefour district. One of the poorest areas of Haiti, with very little in the way of services, Carrefour’s half-a-million population are mainly impoverished minimum wage earners, some of whom have to make do with ‘terra’ – mud cookies baked in the sun – for survival. The streets were crowded with market sellers sitting under multi-coloured golf umbrellas, wooden stalls and dwellings with corrugated iron roofs. We saw (and smelled) a fish market, women carrying baskets on their heads, a man wheeling a wooden barrow laden with bananas, and hundreds and hundreds of pedestrians. Pigs paddled in sewage as they feasted on vast piles of rubbish, and hundreds of dented cars, colourful tap taps overflowing with people and baggage, buses, lorries and hundreds of motorbikes, jostled for space on the busy road.Read More
We woke up far too early, our internal clocks being out of synch, but still I had to pinch myself. Was I really here? Had I actually made it to Haiti, after all this time? Too excited to hang around in our room we took a stroll around the garden before breakfast.
There was a pool with an attractive fish fountain, an unattractive layer of scum on the water, and some mismatched, decrepit furniture scattered around it. No sign of Greene’s dead politician at the bottom though. While we were checking out the Vodou statues – Zaka, Erzulie Freda, Baron Samedi, Damballah Wedo and Damballah Ayida (see earlier post) - a man wearing a bright orange T-shirt, orange baseball cap and an over-eager expression, approached us. He was muttering to himself in Creole or, possibly, French, it was hard to tell as the slurred, slightly mumbled words were spoken quickly.
After a silky-smooth, nine-and-a-half-hour Virgin flight, during which I watched four films (bliss), we touched down in Atlanta. A long wait in the line for passport control, and then, finally, we were at the front of the queue.Read More
I read a lot of books while researching The Other Side of the Mountain, all very different, all very informative, all of them totally absorbing. There were two books, however, that stood out of the pile, as it were: Walking on Fire (Haitian women’s stories of survival and resistance) by Beverly Bell, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Mountains Beyond Mountains (From Harvard to Haiti: the remarkable story of one man’s mission to cure the world) by Tracy Kidder. The former undoubtedly inspired Yolande, while the latter provided me with an eye-popping setting in which to place Clare, the ex-pat English doctor who’d worked in Haiti eight years.
Haitian’s love their proverbs (as those of you who’ve read TOSOTM will know), and Mountains Beyond Mountains refers to the Haitian proverb, Dye mon, gen mon – beyond mountains there are more mountains. This can be interpreted in two ways: there are endless opportunities, or (this is Haiti remember) overcoming one obstacle gives you a clearer view of the next one. Paul Farmer, the subject of Tracy Kidder’s book, is an American physician and anthropologist who overcame a great many obstacles to realise one of his dreams – a medical complex in Haiti that treats patients free of charge.
While studying medical anthropology at Duke University, Farmer developed an interest in the branch of Catholicism called liberation theology (see Jean-Bertrand Aristide). He read how the Latin American Catholic bishops referred to the oppression of the poor as an ‘institutionalised sin’. On tours of North Carolina he met a number of Haitians working in the fields who told him shocking stories about life in their country. Horrified, he came to think of them as the underdogs of underdogs, and Haiti as a place like Lord of the Rings, a terrible struggle between good and evil, the rich and the poor.
In the spring of 1983, when he was twenty-three, Farmer went to Haiti, his trip funded by the money he’d won for an essay he’d written on Haitian artists, and headed to the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschappelles in the Artibonite Valley where he’d been promised a job. Instead of finding a hospital where Haitians treated Haitians, he found only white, expatriate doctors and no job. Deflated, he returned to the city where he came across the charity Eye Care Haiti. Based in the town of Mirebalais, (the country home of Madam Max Adolphe, the head of the Tonton Macoutes and formerly the warden of Fort Dimanche, where the Duvaliers sent their enemies) the charity conducted mobile “outreach clinics” in the countryside. Here he met Ophelia Dahl who, at the age of eighteen and in order to please her father, had travelled to Haiti to do ‘good works’.
After Ophelia returned home, Farmer travelled around Haiti, succumbed to dysentery and spent a night on a hospital floor, raised money for a blood-bank for a hospital in Léogâne but then discovered that the hospital was not for the poor – all the patients had to pay for their medicine. It was then he decided he simply had to build his own hospital. He returned to Mirebelais to work at a clinic run by Father Fritz Lafontant, a Haitian priest who, together with his wife, helped build schools, and organise women’s groups and adult literacy programmes in impoverished towns. In May 1983, Father Lafontant took Paul Farmer to Cange, a squatter settlement of tiny lean-tos with dirt floors and roofs made of banana thatch and patched with rags in a barren land; the majority of its people, ill. Farmer began to envisage his dream. He wanted to build a clinic, a hospital and a community health system, which he would provide to the destitute for free. He enlisted five Haitians all about his age, and they went from hut to hut in Cange and two neighbouring villages taking surveys. Mortality was horrific, and deaths of mothers, in particular, led to a string of catastrophes in families: hunger, prostitution and more deaths.
Farmer entered Harvard Medical School in 1984 then returned to Cange, bouncing between the two for several years (earning him the nickname at Harvard of Paul Foreigner). Father Lafontant was constructing a clinic in Cange but the idea for the health system came from Farmer. He planned for the creation of what he called a ‘first line of defences’ – people trained to administer medicines, give classes on health, treat minor illness and to recognise the symptoms of major ones.
In the summer of 1985 Ophelia returned to Haiti to help Farmer with his research once again. Later that year, Farmer began raising money – Tom White (the wealthy owner/philanthropist of J.F. White Contracting Co) was the first major donor – and in 1987 he hired a lawyer to draw up papers to create a public charity in Boston which he called Partners In Health, and a corresponding sister organisation in Haiti, called Zamni Lasante. He turned to his old classmate at Duke, Todd McCormack, who was working for his father Mark at IMG, who joined him and Tom White on the board of advisers, then added fellow Harvard anthropology and medical student Jim Yong Kim to the group, which also included Ophelia Dahl.
The result of this incredible work from an American still in his twenties and not yet a doctor was the medical complex that I describe, but don’t name, in TOSOTM, complete with a church and a school. By 2003 Zanmi Lasante was serving about one million impoverished Haitians, who travelled for miles to be treated, was sending about 9000 children to school each year, was employing nearly 3000 Haitians, feeding many thousands of people each day, had built hundreds of houses for the poorest patients, had cleaned up water supplies in dozens of areas, installed water filters in patients’ homes and had assisted various environmental and economic projects throughout Haiti, such as reforestation.
In 2013, PIH opened University Hospital in Mirebalais, a 300-bed teaching hospital that offers a level of care never before available at a public facility in Haiti and provides high-quality education for the next generation of nurses, medical students and residents.
And that’s just in Haiti!! PIH has developed into a worldwide health organisation, with Farmer overseeing projects in Russia, Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi and Peru.
Please check out the website: http://www.pih.org/country/haiti. You will be blown away.Read More
The Grand Hotel Oloffson is a white Gothic, gingerbread mansion; a mystical place that’s always been at the forefront of Haitian social and political life. In Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, it was immortalised as the Trianon. “With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house in a number of The New Yorker,” he wrote. “You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him. But in the sunlight or when the lights went on among the palms, it seemed fragile and period and pretty and absurd, an illustration from a book of fairy tales.”
Set amidst the political turmoil of 2001, The Other Side of the Mountain is about three very different but determined women, who join forces to hunt for a child sold into slavery: Yolande, a Haitian peasant, Clare, an English gynaecologist, and Maddy, a young journalist on her first overseas assignment. When tourism dried up during the Duvalierist years, the Oloffson came to be used as a press hotel. With Jean-Bertrand Aristide about to begin his second term, its veranda was once again crowded with journalists, lounging on it wicker furniture, drinking rum, waiting to see how the next chapter in Haiti’s politically violent history unfolded. And so it seemed only right that Maddy’s boss – himself a veteran of eighties Haiti – should dispatch his young reporter to Port-au-Prince with the words, “Book a room at the Oloffson. Be at the centre of things.”
The hotel was built in the late 19th Century as a private home for the Sam family who lived there until 1915 when the president, their cousin Villbrun Guillaume Sam, was torn to pieces by an angry mob after a mere five months in the job. Sam was the sixth president in five years and his death provided the US with the excuse they needed to invade Haiti. The Sam mansion was used as a military hospital throughout the US’s twenty year occupation, after which it was leased to Walter Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain from Germany, who converted it into a hotel.
During the seventies and early eighties, famous writers and film stars including Mick Jagger, Jonathan Demme, Graham Greene, John Barrymore, Marlon Brando and Aubelin Jolicoeur (the Haitian gladfly gossip columnist on whom Greene based the character, Petit Pierre), used to hang out there, and now have rooms named after them.
Richard Morse, who took over the hotel in the late eighties, and who has seen over twenty-two governments come and go, is a houngan, which you will know by now is a Vodou priest. There’s a papier-mâché bust of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines – decked out in his general’s uniform, complete with bicorn hat – in the lobby, and oddball statues of Vodou loas dotted around the garden. Morse is cousin to the departing president, Mickey Martelly (Sweet Mickey – a former Kompas singer), and performs every Thursday in his house band RAM to a packed house.
On 12 January 2010, as the horrific earthquake struck the capital and hotels crumbled all around it, the remarkable Oloffson remained standing.
I can’t wait to stay there.
Aristide was one of the most visible of the progressive young priests and nuns – together called Ti Legliz, the Little Church – whose goal was to change the system that had exploited the peasants for centuries. A small bespectacled man, nicknamed Titid (small one), he had already helped to create a climate of unrest in the capital from his church, St Jean-Bosco, where he preached in lively, witty Creole. His brand of liberation theology pleased no one but his extended congregation – the poor majority, the jobless, and a few liberals among the Haitian bourgeoisie – who heard him on Radio Haiti-Inter and Radio Soleil. ‘Tout moun se moun’ (everyone counts), he said. ‘The peasant’s land, the land that he and his family have worked for generations, that is his private property; no one has a right to take it … As Christians, you cannot accept to continue the Macoute corruption in the country … You are obliged to take historic risks.’
After Baby Doc’s unceremonious departure, General Namphy seized power as the head of a military junta. This was the era known as Duvalierism without Duvalier, a turbulent time of dechcoukaj (uprooting) as angry, machete-wielding peasants tried to rid the country of Macoutes. For two months Aristide supporters took to “necklacing” (a car tyre doused in petrol, thrown around the victims neck and set on fire) anyone connected with the old regime. Macoutes were burnt alive in the streets, beheaded or castrated, sometimes all three.
The Junta finally realised that the United States was not going to give up on the idea of elections and, on 29 March 1987, the new Constitution was resoundingly approved. Strikes and demonstrations followed and to break them up the army began shooting into the unarmed crowds. On Sunday 11 September 1988, while Aristide was delivering his sermon, a group of hit men, armed with machetes and guns, attacked the church. Thirteen members of the congregation were killed and eighty wounded as they tried to flee through a tiny door that led to the sacristy. By some miracle Aristide, who had by then survived several attempts on his life, escaped. The appearance of the men on National TV a few days later, boasting about the killing, brought about a coup d’état and Prosper Avril took over.
Presidential and legislative elections were finally scheduled for 16 December 1990. A reluctant candidate, Aristide, who’d been expelled from the Salesian order, named his movement Lavalas, the flood that would flush away corruption and oppression. His supporters being largely illiterate, he selected a rooster as his icon. Aristide swept to victory and on his first day as President served breakfast in the gardens of the Presidential Palace to hundreds of street kids and the homeless.
During Aristide’s brief seven-month tenure, he separated the army from the police, banned the section chiefs, a key source of brutality and corruption, and replaced them with rural police. He set up a commission to explore reform of the corrupt judiciary, attempted to crack down on drug trafficking, kicked off a major adult literacy programme, pushed for the improvements of worker’s rights and lobbied to increase the minimum wage.
On 27 September, Aristide called on the wealthy to share their bounty, to reinvest profits locally, rather than abroad, to pay taxes and to provide jobs for the unemployed. Two days later soldiers, backed by the elite minority, attacked his private residence, escorted him to the National Palace then put him on a plane to Venezuela. General Raoul Cedras seized power. During a reign of terror that surpassed that of his predecessors, Cédras’ FRAPH (Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) death squads openly tortured, raped and killed thousands of Lavalas supporters, until the US restored Aristide to power in 1994 to complete his five-year term.
In December 2000, re-elected with another large majority, Aristide’s government was almost bankrupt, its social and economic reforms hampered by IMF and US concessions. Despised by the thirty or so powerful mulatto families whose power he sought to curb, Aristide was also under constant pressure from a large group of resentful ex-militia from the army he had disbanded in 1995. The minimum wage was $1.7 a day but, with 70% unemployment, more than half survived on less than $1. Half of the population was under eighteen, with as many as fifty thousand children living on the streets, while three hundred thousand more worked as domestic slaves (restavèks), 80% of whom were girls under fourteen. Public primary school was free and compulsory, and yet over a million children had no access to education, while half the country was illiterate. Soil erosion due to deforestation meant that only 20% of the once-fertile land was arable. HIV and TB rates were the highest in the western hemisphere, as were infant, juvenile and maternal mortality, while 40% of Haitians were without access to primary healthcare. And although Aristide strove to increase the minimum wage, construct schools, introduce literacy programmes, improve healthcare, tax the wealthy and break down the barriers between rich and poor, his efforts were severely hampered by the forces working against him.
During 2002, the paramilitary attacks against the government became more regular and hundreds of Fanmi Lavalas supporters were systematically massacred. On 29th February 2004, probably due to his determination to avoid a civil war, President Aristide and his family boarded a US plane in the middle of the night, without witnesses, to Bangui in the Central African Republic. The US claim he asked to leave. His advocates say he was abducted.
Had he, like so many others before him, been corrupted by his presidential power? Or was he, as his supporters believed, selflessly intent on bringing dignity and equality to a country starved of so much for so long?
Tomorrow: The Grand Hotel Oloffson
In 1971, following his father’s death, chubby nineteen-year-old, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier became the youngest president in the world. After fourteen years of “papadocracy,” Haitians and foreign governments felt able to breathe again because, even though he’d left his playboy son as successor, they doubted Jean-Claude would end up ruling Haiti longer than a year. Besides, the new ‘president for life’ looked and sounded innocuous, was less sure of his power base and any hint of sticking to his father’s Noiriste rhetoric was forgotten with his marriage to Michelle Bennett, a wealthy mulatto and conspicuous consumer.
Haitian economy quickly felt the benefit of Baby Doc’s international popularity. By 1975 US aid had risen from $3.8 million to $35.5 million a year and. Millions were lost through corruption but some key projects, such as the road from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haȉtien, were completed. International interest in Haitian art and tourism returned to the heady levels of 1950–56 and, by the late 1970s, 70,000 US tourists (out of a total of 100,000) visited Haiti every year.
Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election forced Baby Doc’s regime to give its human rights record a facelift. International monitors were allowed to inspect prisons that were cleaned and emptied of prisoners the day of their visit. Haiti seemed to have a turned a corner but beneath the surface, however, nothing had changed. Baby Doc preserved the Macoutes and torture chambers and continued to pay lip service to the black revolution while spending his countrymen’s money in endless parties with his mulatto friends.
Baby Doc worked out that Haiti’s poverty could be its main source of wealth. Using starving children to increase aid, he siphoned off many of the funds to foreign bank accounts to maintain his people at an adequate level of misery. He sold Haitian cane-cutters to the Dominican Republic for $50 a piece and exported Haitian blood plasma and cadavers to US hospitals and medical schools.
Meanwhile, Port-au-Prince had become the brothel of the Caribbean. Amongst the many sexual tourists were American homosexuals. The ensuing AIDS scare wiped out the sex tourism and the blood and plasma trade. The high rate of contamination in Haiti prompted the US Centre for Disease Control to include Haitians in the “Four H” list of at-risk groups along with heroin addicts, haemophiliacs and homosexuals.
By the late 1970s the urban slums were overflowing with peasants from the mountains looking for work. Work was scarce so they embarked on longer journeys to Miami, New York, Montreal or Paris. This was a very different migration from the wealthy, educated diaspora – the brain-drain – who’d fled Papa Doc’s regime. Illiterate and poor and unable to obtain a visa they sailed illegally across the strait of Florida. In 1981 Baby Doc signed an agreement with Reagan’s administration, allowing US Coast Guard vessels to patrol Haiti’s coast, intercept the refugees and send them home.
In 1982 an outbreak of African swine fever in Haiti threatened to reach the US mainland. The US offered to donate American pigs in exchange for the eradication of Haiti’s native Creole pigs. The Creole pigs were small and ugly but required little care, living off garbage until they were slaughtered to fund a financial emergency, like school tuition. The fatter American pigs required a pen, imported feed and regular medical care. The peasants dubbed them “four-legged princes” and tried to hide their pigs from the Duvalierist police, to no avail, and their replacements quickly died of inadequate treatment. School enrolment plummeted.
Intensive farming on small plots had sapped the land and it was rare that a farmer had enough money to allow a field to lie fallow. The population grew. The depleted soil produced smaller crops for bigger populations. The peasantry grew poorer and began cutting down trees to provide more land. A growing urban population turned to charcoal for fuel. After the last trees were cut the soil turned to a baked crust, the rain became rarer and, when a tropical downpour finally came, it washed away topsoil no longer held together by roots. The land that had been lush and green turned brown.
In 1983 Baby Doc invited Pope Jean Paul II to Haiti, laying on a red carpet and banquet in his honour. When the Pope landed he walked away from the red carpet, kissed Haiti’s soil then delivered a speech in Haitian Creole, live on TV, attacking the oppression and misery that were Haitians’ daily bread. 'Fok sa chanj,' he declared. Things have got to change. The regime never recovered.
Meanwhile, a shy young priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was bravely campaigning for reform. As he preached about lavalas, the flood to flush away corruption and oppression, hundreds of grass-roots movement, many of them led by his female supporters, began to emerge across the land. Demonstrations and protests intensified. Smelling blood, journalists flocked to Port-au-Prince. After a week of dithering, Baby Doc, (who had along with his family by then embezzled an eye-watering $120 million) finally bowed to domestic pressure. On the night of 7 February 1986, fifteen years after he’d become Haiti’s teenage president, Baby Doc left for Paris in a jet provided by the United States, with as many furs and jewels as they could cram under the strict two-suitcases-per-passenger rule.
On 16 January 2011, Baby Doc returned to Haiti after twenty-five years in exile, claiming he wanted to help with the rebuilding of Haiti following the earthquake a year earlier. On 18 January he was taken into custody at his hotel and charged with corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds. He was released and eventually went before a court on 28 February 2013 where he pleaded not guilty to charges of corruption and human rights abuse. He died of a heart attack in his home on 4 October 2014. He was sixty-three years old.
Next time: Jean-Bertrand Aristide
FRANCOIS ‘PAPA DOC’ DUVALIER.
Francois Duvalier was born on 14 April 1907. He was a bookish, introverted boy who didn’t play games and liked to be alone. After school he enrolled at medical school and in 1939 married Simone Ovid.
On 22 September 1957 Haitians went to the polls to select a new president. Six governments had come and gone in nine months with President Paul Eugène Magloire resigning the previous December. The main opponent to the mulatto-backed Louis Déjoie, a light-skinned man who planned to destroy the army and send all the blacks back to the fields, was Francois Duvalier. He appealed to poor blacks partly because he had spent years fighting tropical diseases such as yaws in the Haitian countryside.
What drove Papa Doc to switch from shy, benevolent country doctor to murderous tyrant remains a mystery. He seems to have been corrupted like so many Haitian politicians before him, by the odd mix of total power and constant insecurity that characterises the Haitian presidency. One theory blames the heart attack that almost killed him in 1959 – the prolonged coma was said to have affected his sanity. In fact repression started the day Duvalier reached office and he organised it with an efficiency that was a testament to his evil genius.
Nicknamed the ‘Lucifer of the Antilles’ his messages to the nation delivered from the balcony of the National Palace in a peculiar stage whisper were chilling. His habit of always appearing in a black suit, the calculated nasal voice, a black hat, lent him the aspect of Baron Samedi, the Vodou master of the dead and the keeper of cemeteries. It suited him that people believed he was an incarnation of the Baron, and that he was a bokor, a Vodou priest who dabbled in black magic. Rumour had it that he wore a top hat in the bath to seek counsel from the loa and that he used to talk to the severed head of one of his arch enemies that he kept on his desk. Haitians are superstitious and Papa Doc manipulated Vodou for his own ends, partly to terrify his people into submission and partly to enable him to control the Catholic Church.
Papa Doc’s bogeymen and secret police, the infamous Tonton Macoutes, were recruited from the black majority in the cities slums, and from the Vodou leaders in the countryside. They were named after a character in Haitian folklore, Uncle Sack, who filled his bag with naughty children to eat for breakfast. They wore jeans, denim hat, red scarf and sunglasses - some thought that they hid their eyes to hide their zombification - and carried submachine guns. They were everywhere, eventually numbering 300,000, and displayed a doglike devotion to their president.
Papa Doc’s murders of disapproving priests earned him a papal excommunication in 1960. The churches in his control he changed the words to the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our Doc who art in the National Palace for life, hallowed be thy name by present and future generations. They will be done in Port-au-Prince as it is in the provinces. Give us this day our new Haiti and never forgive the trespasses of those anti-patriots who spit every day on our country. Let them succumb to temptation, and under the weight of their venom, deliver them from evil.’
Papa Doc cleverly manipulated US fears of Communist to maintain the constant flow of US funds and weapons. He changed the national flag from blue and red to black and red, the black to symbolise that the blacks and not the mulattos were in control, and in 1963 declared himself an immaterial being. ‘I am neither the red nor the white but the indivisible bicolour of the Haitian people. I am already an Immaterial Being.’ An image from the time shows Jesus Chris standing with his hand on the shoulder of a seated Papa Doc and captioned. “I have chosen him.” On another occasion he described himself as ‘this giant capable of eclipsing the sun because the people have already consecrated me for life’.
In 1964 a group of 13 young Haitians, calling themselves Jeune Haiti, attempted to overthrow Duvalier’s regime. The first to get killed was Yvan Laraque. Duvalier was so incensed he ordered Yvan’s bloated body to be tied to a wooden garden chair with a ragged olive-green uniform coat thrown over one shoulder. It was set up facing a giant Coca Cola sign saying ‘Welcome to Haiti’ opposite the international airport and remained there three days.
Haiti had known many dictators but Papa Doc was in a league of his own. Political murders had always been the norm but Duvalier added torture and unspeakable detention conditions - torture chambers were painted brown so that blood wouldn’t mar the walls. Estimates of those killed during his regime were as high as 60,000.
Next time: Baby DocRead More
A zombi is a person who’s been declared dead, and who’s been buried but who has been brought back to life – the living dead – by a bokor (sorcerer who serves the loa with both hands). Haitians live in fear of being turned into a zombi, a shell of a person whose ti bon ange (personality/essence) has been removed and who will be sent to work on a plantation as a slave, the ultimate punishment for someone whose ancestors fought for freedom. It has little to do with the generally peaceful creed of Voodoo and is strictly the concern of black magic.
When a person dies in Haiti their ti bon ange must be separated from the body, placed in a casket and kept safe for a year and a day before it can travel to Guinea, its spiritual home. If the relatives of the dead don’t keep their ti bon ange safe then it will either return to punish them with illness or bad luck, or it might be captured by a bokor and turned into a zombi.
A person is turned into a zombi as an act of vengeance or a form of justice. The bokor, who administers the poisonous powder to the wronged-person’s victim, insists that it kills him out right, that he is dead when he is buried and later exhumed with a magic antidote. However, the victim is in fact buried alive, the poisonous powder inducing a state of catalepsy, or apparent death. The antidote, when administered, prevents the victim from succumbing to death from the poison, which takes up to 24 hours to kill.
The poison administered by a bokor is believed to be a combination of the nerve agent, tetrodotoxin, extracted from the Haitian sea toad and Datura(the zombi’s cucumber), a powerful hallucinogenic plant. In Japan fugu (puffer fish) is considered a great delicacy because of the ultimate aesthetic experience it produces. A specially trained chef has to reduce the concentration of the toxin, present in the puffer fish’s skin, to the right level so that the guest enjoys the euphoric experience, without being killed. Tetrodotoxin produces a prickling sensation in the face and limbs, euphoria and numb lips that may progress to ataxia (the inability to move ones limbs), double vision, respiratory distress, profuse sweating and hypothermia. Death, if it occurs, is due to respiratory paralysis. Most patients remain conscious until shortly before they die, but there have been numerous cases in Japan where a person poisoned by puffer fish poisoning has been pronounced dead only to wake up in the morgue.
But do zombis actually exist?
Well, the most famous zombi in Haiti was Clairvius Narcisse (1922-1994) who, in 1962, was declared dead by a US doctor and buried in a cemetery. Surprising his sister by returning to his village, he later explained that he could hear everything that happened both in the hospital and at his funeral but couldn’t respond. Afterwards, a bokor removed him from his coffin, beat him around his head, then tied him up and took him miles away from where he lived to work on a plantation with other semi-stupefied people. Everyday he was given a concoction to drink so that he could never regain his common sense. While Narcisse was on the plantation he learned that his brother had poisoned him over a property dispute. He remained there for two years before one of his fellow zombi’s attacked their captor with a hoe and they all escaped. Modern reports of zombis are incredibly uncommon, however, and zombification remains a criminal offence under Haitian law.
Pictured: Clairvius Narcisse
Check out The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis if you want to learn more about zombis, black magic and the secret societies of Haitian Vodou. It’s a cracking good read.
Next: Papa DocRead More
It is widely accepted that Haiti is 80% Catholic, 20% Protestant and 100% Vodou. Haitian Vodou comprises a body of basic beliefs and practices: the twin cult, the loa, the role of the dead, the relationship between the loa and the land. It is not an animistic religion - natural objects are not endowed with a soul. Believers serve the loa, which are multiple expressions of God. The loa preside in places of natural beauty and the believer is drawn to these places to be in the presence of God, much like Christians are drawn to cathedrals. Each loa has its own favourite food, personal likes and dislikes, distinct character, songs, drum rhythms, and sacred symbols. There are hundreds of loa, both Rada and Petro, too many to mention here, so I’ve selected a few of the most important in the Rada category.
Papa Legba is called on first because he is the loa who removes the barrier between the two worlds. No loa shows himself without his permission. Often likened to St Peter, Legba is the protector of the home and the master of communication. Haitians leave offerings to Legba at crossroads in the hope that he will guide them. He is represented as a feeble old man in rags, leaning on a crutch and smoking a pipe. Offerings are simple: grilled chicken or goat, fresh fruit, peanuts, beans and rice and strong coffee, no sugar and he’s also partial to rum, vodka and beer.
Damballah-Wedo (the serpent), and his wife, Ayida-Wedo (the rainbow). Damballah is a loving father, the master of the sky and the creator of all life. Ayida-Wedo is the loa of fertility: – ‘In the beginning there was only the great serpent, Damballah, whose 7,000 coils lay beneath the earth holding it in place. In time it began to move its coils, which rose slowly in a spiral that enveloped the universe and created the stars, the planets, the mountains and the rivers. As the water struck the earth the rainbow (Aiyeda-Wedo) arose and the serpent took her as his wife.’ – a great story worth a read. They are often depicted as two snakes diving into a sink beside a rainbow. People possessed by Damballah-Wedo dart out their tongues, hiss and slither on the ground. His colour is white, he eats white food, and he has a mistress Erzulie Freda.
Erzulie Freda is often compared to Aphrodite and is commonly pictured as the Black Madonna. She is passionate and is the loa of motherhood, love, beauty, jewellery, dancing and flowers but she can also be jealous, spoiled and sometimes lazy. She wears three wedding rings, one for each husband, Damballah, Agwe and Ogun. A flirt who enjoys seducing people, she possesses both men and women. Her symbol is a heart driven through with a knife and every sanctuary has a corner dedicated to her.
Baron Samedi (Guéde loa), the head of the Guéde family, is the master of the dead and the keeper of the cemeteries. A protector of the living he is often called upon by those approaching death. He is depicted as a swaggering skeleton in a top hat, black coat and sunglasses, with cotton plugs up his nose, like a Haitian corpse. Disruptive, obscene and debauched and with a fondness for rum and cigars, his props are that of a gravedigger – a spade, pick and hoe. Although he is married to Maman Brigitte, he is known to chase after mortal women. He is scared of fire.
Ogun is the blacksmith and is symbolised by a sabre stuck in the earth in front of an altar. He is the loa of war and fire and takes the guise of an old veteran of the civil wars, waving a machete. When possessed by Ogun a person will wash their hands in flaming rum, swear, chomp on a cigar and mutter Grenn mwen son fret – my testicles are cold.
Loko is the spirit of vegetation and guardian of sanctuaries. Offerings are placed in straw bags, which are then hung in the branches of a mapou tree. Portrayed in the form of a butterfly, Loco has an extensive knowledge of the pharmaceutical uses of herbs. It is said that houngans and mambos receive their knowledge from Loco. He is known for his good judgment and often, during conflicts, is called in to judge. He is known for his intolerance of injustice. It has been said that he transforms into the wind and listens to people without them knowing he is there.
Zaka is the minister of agriculture. A peasant farmer dressed in denim, with a red scarf – a look replicated by the Tonton Macoute – he carries a macoute (straw bag), and smokes a short clay pipe.
Pictured: Baron Samedi as protrayed in Live and Let Die.
Tomorrow: Are Zombies Real?Read More
Was there ever a more maligned and misunderstood religion than Voodoo, or Vodou as it is more properly known? It conjures up visions of mysterious deaths, secret-rites and dark saturnalia - think Live and Let Die - when in reality it’s a way of life, a medical service of sorts and great theatre. The slaves mainly came from Dahomey, now Benin, in West Africa and brought their beliefs with them. Vodu is Fon (the language of Dahomey) for spirit. There is no national church just a body of basic beliefs which has become mixed with residual rituals from the Taino Indians and Catholicism. Some say that the trouble with Haiti is that its people are superstitious, but 'if one man’s religion is another man’s superstition, then perhaps the trouble with Haiti is that its people are too religious' (Alfred Metraux).
Vodouists believe in one God, Bondye (from the French le Bon Dieu), an easy-going father figure a bit like Fate or Nature. Common illnesses are referred to as illnesses from God, while natural disasters, such as earthquakes, are also ascribed to Bondye. The loa are lesser spirits who love, protect and guard. Persistent bad luck is put down to some transgression which has aroused the wrath of a loa. Any man deserted by the loa is at the mercy of poisons. There are two types of loa: the Rada and the Petro. The Rada are cool and gentle spirits and are summoned 90% of the time. The hot and angry Petro loa are linked to black magic and are rarely invoked. Those houngan (Vodou priest) that do so are called Bokors (sorcerers) and are said to practice with both hands.
The loa are approached in ceremonies as interlocutors between this world and Guinea, which is where they live and where the spirits of the dead hope to depart to, a year and a day after burial. The ceremonies take place in the peristyle of a hounfour (Vodou temple). In the centre of the peristyle is the poto mitan (central pole), which represents a tree down which the loa enter when summoned by the houngan. The houngan or mambo (female priest) waves their asson (sacred rattle made of a gourd with a tail of snake vertebrae) and La Place (the master of ceremonies) enters followed by the hounsi (Vodou initates), barefoot men and women dressed in white. The houngan stops rattling the asson, tips some conrmeal on the ground, tracing the vévé (sacred symbol) of a geometric cross, and starts to sing. One of the hounsi lights a candle and another places a red bowl at the foot of the poto mitan. The geometric cross is the symbol for Papa Legba who is always called upon first because he’s the master of the crossroads, the spirit that removes the barrier between the two worlds. The four cardinal points are saluted acknowledging the rising and setting sun, birth and death.
The spirits appear in a strict order and are summoned by their own particular rhythms, songs and food. Three drums are used in the ceremonies. The first is the bula, which is the smallest and played with two sticks to create a high staccato pulse. The segon creates a bass rhythm on which the manman, the largest and loudest, dances. As the rhythm becomes louder and more violent the white-robed hounsi start to dance, swinging their arms wildly and stamping the ground with their bare feet as they circle the poto mitan in an anti-clockwise direction. The musicians’ movements become more frenzied as the beat rises to a passionate crescendo.
Papa Legba enters via the poto mitan, mounts a recipient and drives out the man's gwo bon ange, (big good angel, or soul), so that he can take over his body. The recipient trembles and convulses and feels like he’s fainting before he becomes possessed. When he wakes up he remembers nothing, because if he admits to being ridden by a loa, he's also admitting to faking. Once the man’s fit passes he’s handed a cane and a pipe and begins to hobble around the peristyle, leaning on the cane, puffing on the pipe, while offering the audience rum and coaxing them to dance. Pure theatre!
Tomorrow: The Voodoo Pantheon
Legend has it that on the 21 August 1791 slaves gathered in Bois Caman (Gator Wood) for a Vodou ceremony led by Dutty Boukman, who announced that Odun, the spirit of war, wanted the slaves to revolt. To seal the pact each slave drank warm blood from a sacrificial pig and the following night scattered revolts erupted in neighbouring plantations. Over the next two years slaves, mulattoes (mixed race) and whites fought against and formed brief alliances with each other.
Out of the chaos stepped the freed slave, Toussaint Louverture who, together with generals Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, led slave armies against the French. When slavery was finally abolished in France, Toussaint allied his army to the motherland and with his generals crushed the British who, amid the confusion, had invaded the island. Toussaint became governor-general and in 1801 invaded neighbouring Santo Domingo and freed the Spanish slaves. His political ambitions frightened Napoleon, who had taken control of France. Assuming that the freed slaves would want eventually demand freedom from France, Napoleon invaded again. Losses reached 40,000 before a truce was agreed. Toussaint again pledged allegiance to France if slavery was forever abandoned but was tricked into travelling to France where he was imprisoned.
Dessalines now raised the country in anger once more, this time promising the slaves full independence. In a bloody campaign he defeated the French and on New Year’s Day 1804 proclaimed Saint-Domingue dead. He ripped the white stripe from the French Tricolour to create the new country’s flag, choosing Haiti the old Taino name for the world’s first black republic and only the second nation after the USA to break free from European colonialism.
Pictured: Toussaint Louverture
Tomorrow: VoodooRead More
My fourth novel The Other Side of the Mountain is set in Haiti. A question I'm often asked is, But where is Haiti?
Haiti occupies roughly the western third of the island Hispaniola - the second largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba. Named the 'Spanish Island' by Christopher Columbus in 1492, it was originally inhabited by Taino Indians. At the close of the seventeenth century, the French seized the western third of Hispaniola and named it Saint-Domingue and turned it into the richest colony of the world, or 'The Pearl of the Antilles' as it was dubbed.
On New Year’s Day 1804, following the defeat of the French, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Saint-Domingue dead. He ripped the white stripe from the French Tricolour to create the new country’s flag, choosing Haiti, the old Taino name, which means 'mountainous land'.
In 1807, three years after the slave revolt, the country was split in two. General Henri Christophe declared himself King of the new Kingdom of Haiti in the north, while General Alexandre Pètion was declared President of the south.
Tomorrow: The Slave Revolution.Read More
Fiona Cane author of When the Dove Cried, The Gate and Killing Fame.