Excerpts from Anse-à-Vodou, A Summer with My Father in Haiti
….Soon after my arrival in Haiti, my father took me to meet Kompè Filo. We drove up the hill from my father’s house to his home in Bois Moquette. An archway from the street led into a front yard overgrown with exquisite wild native plants smelling of earth and moss and ylang-ylang. We entered a warm, sun-infused home full of hand-carved drums, sculpture, and furniture, all made of mahogany. It could have been an art gallery. Sequined tapestries glistened in the early evening twilight. A breath of jasmine flowers entered through openings in wrought iron, and fallen white blooms turning to soil on the fertile earth permeated the air with the soft scent of musk.
The only disturbance was the trill of a bird in a cage. A small yellow canary brought my thoughts to a nagging sense that something was wrong. Duvalier had left Haiti, but the oppression didn’t seem to have left with him. I realised that I was reacting to a cultural difference. Growing up as a middle-class American in a working-class area, I never knew anyone who had a maid, and here even so-called middle class people had at least three. I didn’t like how they were treated. I almost never heard anyone ask “please”. Instead they clapped, yelled, or snapped for maids, which I found harsh and rude. I didn’t see a maid in this home, not yet.
I was uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the stark class distinctions I observed. I was sure my father didn’t have much more money than I did, and my brother James assured me he was middle class, so it was shocking and painful to see the opulence of those Haitians who did have more. The social structure seemed extremely out of balance.
“We’ll see a manbo,” my father said, “a priestess of Vodou.” My heart released the clamp that had tightened around it. Now a hummingbird was hovering inside and I wanted to let it out. I couldn’t wait to go. Kompè Filo smiled at me. I smiled back.
We walked up the street and stopped at a metal gate. A stout woman sat on a low stool in a dirt courtyard, plucking a chicken between her knees.
“Onè.” Kompè Filo’s voice was like a velvet tickle to the ear. My father greeted her in the same way. She nodded to both of them in acknowledgement.
“Respè,” the woman replied slowly, but she was looking me, not at Kompè Filo or my father. Sparkling specks of gold in her eyes reminded me of a night sea touched by moonlight. Though dressed in work clothes and engaged in a task I’d so far only seen maids do, she seemed to me like royalty, holding herself with a strength and charisma that made kneeling feel appropriate. To be polite I met her gaze, and she held it too long. Then she looked me up and down. Her eyes were piercing, like she could see through me. Again I felt like a mute version of the Pillsbury Doughboy, this time, about to be cooked.
Kompè Filo introduced her to my father and me, using my Haitian name, Antonine. They spoke for a few moments and she invited us in. She called to someone inside the house, who came with a pot for the chicken and a bowl of water for her hands.
In front of the manbo was a large cement room with high ceilings, “a hounfo, a temple of Vodou,” my father whispered. Pigeons, doves, and chickens were all roosting in the rafters, and colored paper and Haitian flags hung from the ceiling. I peeked inside the door, and my father said something to the manbo that must have been a request for entry. She nodded.
As Kompè Filo and the manbo spoke, my father touched the ground, his forehead, and his heart, as if honoring the hounfo, and then entered. I did the same. We walked to a table in the middle of the room.
“This is an altar. Every home of a sèvitè – the head of a temple of Vodou – has altars, eh, Toto? In fact, I think most Vodwizans have altars in their homes.”
“What are they for?”
“They’re tributes to the lwas or gedes.” Here the altar was a table in the center of the room covered with a large red-and-white checkered cloth under a smaller royal blue satin cloth. On it were coins, candles in tall glass holders decorated with pictures of Catholic saints, a bottle of rum and one of crème de cacao, and a hard plastic black baby doll with bright blue eyes, a bright blue dress, and a red satin wrap on her head. In her arms was a smaller doll dressed in gold.
Kompè Filo and the manbo spoke to my father in Kreyòl and he guided me toward a red door at the back of the room. He opened it and before we entered, he again touched the ground, his forehead, and his heart, and I did as well. The room was very small, just big enough for a few people to sit on the floor in front of the altar. On this altar were a red satin tablecloth, a bottle of rum and hot peppers, a beaded rattle, a picture of a Catholic saint, and a burning white candle with a picture of the same saint, labeled St. James the Greater. A machete leaned against the table, its blade lightly touching the dirt.
The manbo entered. She pointed to a picture of Saint Jacques and said in English, “You understand?” I nodded, though honestly I had no idea what she meant. I was uncomfortable about the language barrier and too ashamed to ask questions.
“Toto, Manbo Odette speaks English. You understand a little Kreyòl. Ask her your questions.”
I nodded. “Why are there pictures of Catholic saints here?”
She pointed to a picture of a white guy riding a white horse with bodies under the hoofs, and said “Ogoun.” I nodded. Then she pointed to herself and said “Ogoun” again.
“You are Ogoun?”
“I am Ogoun’s horse.” I nodded. I thought I understood from my father’s stories what a horse was, though now I was confused. I hadn’t considered taking it literally, and there actually was a picture of a white guy on a horse. A white guy. I felt clumsy and completely out of my element. I didn’t want to appear stupid, so I pretended I knew what she was talking about.
She started to leave the room and motioned for me to follow. Instead she walked to the altar and pointed to the black doll. “Ézili Dantò,” she said. She pointed to herself and back to the doll.
She smiled. “I work with her. I receive word from her.”
Again I had no idea what she meant, but I smiled.
She said, “Okay?”
Then she, my father, and Kompè Filo spoke in Kreyòl and it seemed we were about to leave.
“Antonine,” the manbo said, “drink basil tea before bed so the lwas will bring you dreams. The lwas are very fond of basil perfume.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She touched my head lovingly, like you’d do with a small child, and we left. My father and Kompè Filo talked as I walked silently behind them, wondering how long it would take me to make sense of a conversation in Kreyòl. I could barely wait to ask my father questions, to fill in some of the large gaps in my understanding of Vodou. We said good night to Kompè Filo at his gate, and before my father was in the car I asked, “Why are African gods represented by white Catholic saints?”
”Vodou came to Haiti with the human African victims of human commerce, this we know. There Vodou met, mingled, and danced with the Tayino tradition that already existed on the island. Then that mixture was fed Christianity, mainly Catholicism, by European intruders and criminals. Like so, syncretism, a combination of different beliefs, was born in Haiti.
“As we know, Christians don’t tend to incorporate the beliefs of others – they mean to force others to abandon their beliefs in favor of their own. The self-righteous, dogmatic Europeans, mainly the Spanish and French, and by the late 1700s, the Americans as well, destroyed their own Garden of Eden and then they stormed the gates and trampled the ground of the paradise that was Haiti. It wasn’t enough for them to destroy the land and her people, they wanted to rip out the soul of the Haitians – to strip from them the only thing that gave them solace.
“Vodou was a way of life. It wasn’t considered a spiritual or religious practice until it was labeled. Life could not be lived without spirit; it was unthinkable that there could be one without the other. Westerners gave birth to the idea that life and spirit were separate.
“Long ago, the ancient alchemists in European countries, primarily France, Spain, and England, vying for their own survival in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, succeeded in creating a distinction between religion and science – or religion and life – so they could do their work undisturbed. What began as a desperate stance to practice their craft in peace, under the guise of leaving anything spiritual to the priests, ended in a separation of people from their intrinsically spiritual nature. Long before Haiti was ‘settled’, Europeans had succeeded in separating their true nature from natural. They created an existence that largely forgot what it meant to embrace the magic and miracle of everyday life. The ‘civilized’ people who came to Haiti in the 1700s were ill prepared for a culture that didn’t separate religion from daily life. The people they forced to labor for them had walking, talking, living gods, and that scared the hell out of them.
“The invaders were disgusted and intrigued by the raw connection to the earth that the Africans and the Tayinos had. They had long forgotten their roots in nature-based religions but had an inexplicable urge to get their hands dirty. Many of them did. Passions were aroused in their puritan bodies that enraged them and drove them mad. Fear turned to heinous abuse. The vicious, narrow-minded European perpetrators tortured, converted, and killed. They committed grievous crimes against African and Tayino men, women, and children while they called themselves virtuous.”
“For over a hundred years, the punishment for practicing Vodou in Haiti was death by flailing. Vodwizans were cut open and skinned alive. Ironically, it meant the only physical difference between the Africans and the Europeans was literally, horrifically cut away.
Whites, like me, I thought. Whites like me converted African’s to Christianity and invented the eighth deadly sin, noncompliance: Thou shalt not rise above thy station.
“The Europeans destroyed the ancient, intricate structures of the African and Tayino people by force and tried to instill fear in them by telling them that the God they brought with them would do them terrible harm if they didn’t follow His laws. The Africans and Tayino were superstitious, and the Europeans thought they would heed the new doctrines for fear of being damned.
“Imagine, eh, Toto? How stupid the Christians were! They never understood one thing about the Africans! Without knowing it, the Christians gave the Africans and Tayino common ground to work with so they could learn how to work against the Christians and use their own power to crush them.”
“Bon, the African and Tayino embraced their faith with even more zeal. Consequently the fear they imparted to their captors increased. The Europeans couldn’t imagine that anyone would practice religion under the fear of death, and psychologically it affected them to the point of mania. This dynamic is one of the reasons why the revolution worked, why Haiti became an “independent colony”. Fear and passion together built everyone’s energy into a frenzy.
“Ultimately, people from all different houses of Vodou, free blacks, and mulattos came together in Bwa Kayiman and held a Vodou ceremony in the forest. They were led by a houngan named Boukman and a manbo, Cécile Fatiman. The manbo received the spirit of Ézili Dantò – the same esprit Manbo Odette receives, eh, Toto?”
“Bon, people danced with the spirits and freed their minds that night, Toto, and it wasn’t long before their bodies followed. Most of the people who attended the ceremony were enslaved.… Actually, Toto….” My father’s voice rose and he made the cheek-sucking mouth noise. “To tell you the truth, all of them were enslaved. Many of them had papers saying they were free. It meant nothing. It wasn’t a crime for whites to beat mulattos or blacks whether they were free or not. It wasn’t a crime to rape them, to kill them.” He made the cheek-sucking mouth noise again, and the tenor of his voice rose even more. “They couldn’t vote, many of them worked hard to survive, but after that night in Bwa Kayiman all of them got their spirits back.”
On July 16, I attended my first Vodou ceremony, with Kompè Filo and Karine, a birthday party for the lwa Ézili Dantò. It was early evening. My father was campaigning for Desulme and planned to join us later. We parked on a narrow street and walked down a staircase into the front yard of the home of a manbo and houngan, where about fifty people were talking, drinking, and eating. It looked like any other party I’d ever been to, except when I arrived the talking became subdued and everyone glanced my way. Who is the blan with Kompè Filo?
I was invited inside. In a small kitchen in the entryway the manbo was stirring a bubbling cauldron of joumou, a beloved Haitian national dish. My mouth watered as I breathed in the steaming essence of pumpkin soup with ham and spices – cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and Scotch Bonnet peppers. The manbo was a large, strong woman in a deep purple satin dress trimmed with black lace.
Kompè Filo greeted her with the traditional “Onè.” She turned to him with a joyful “Respe!” At the sight of me her expression changed to mild surprise. I smiled but remained silent; I was afraid to say Onè wrong. She responded “Respe” as if I had spoken. I could barely squeeze past her and into the narrow passageway to the living room as she reached for a handful of rice vermicelli and released it into the pot, where it swooshed and hissed. A door at the back of the living room was open onto the bedroom of the houngan and manbo, and all their personal items: a brush and mirror on the dresser, a worn flowered comforter on the bed, clothes hanging in the closet.
In that moment their living room was a temple. A table against the back wall was adorned with flowers, blinking Christmas tree lights, Florida Water (sweet orange cologne), two birthday cakes, one with pink frosting and one with blue, a statue of Ézili Dantò as a black Madonna dressed in a royal blue gown and gold crown, and a picture of Ézili Freda as a white Madonna. For two hundred years color reproductions of Catholic saints had adorned altars in Vodou houses all across Haiti. The manbo entered and placed on the table a bowl of the soup, its fragrant steam rising up for the pleasure of the lwas.
I asked Karine why there were two cakes.
“The pink one is for Freda; the blue one, for Dantò. Freda and Dantò are the two major Ézilis, though there are many more. When there’s a celebration for one, there’s a celebration for both. They’re jealous of each other and it causes problems when one is honored and the other isn’t. They don’t like each other, but they’re always represented at each other’s celebrations and will often both come. Strange to you, eh?”
“How many Ézilis are there?”
“Well, the number is always changing, because the Vodou pantheon is fluid, not fixed. Now there are maybe sixteen.”
“By the way,” Karine said, “don’t think of Ézilis as Madonnas like the Madonna you know as the Virgin Mary. Ézili Freda, for example, is neither a virgin nor a mother, though she’s pictured here with the infant Jesus. This Jesus may represent Legba, though it could be another infant she’s holding, as she holds and protects all children. Ézili Freda is more akin to Aphrodite than Virgin Mary. The Ézilis encompass all the attributes of femininity including its most loved and most feared qualities. Of these, the two main archetypes are Ézili Freda, the goddess of love and anything luscious, and Ézili Dantò, admired for her protective and tenacious manner. She’s a strong leader who’s as much feared as she’s revered.”
Someone handed us each a bowl of soup – a warm magic potion, a banquet all its own, like the ham dinner my mother often made on Sundays, but all in one pot.
After we ate, the service began with the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed. Karine said most Vodou services have started that way since the Africans arrived in Haiti. It was one way the Vodouists tried to both fool the Europeans into thinking they had converted and to invoke the new Christian god that arrived with them.
Then there was singing to pay respects to all the lwas and call them down. Gedes, Karine told me, always came without being called, so there were no songs to call them, just singing and drumming when they arrived – which people generally had mixed feelings about, because they were exceedingly vulgar party crashers who literally made a mess of things.
The drums built into a steady rhythm and rum on breath permeated the air. The manbo stumbled, and the hounsi, the apprentices of the société, rushed to support her and keep her from falling. I started to panic, wondering if what happened to her was going to happen to everyone, including me. I was starting to feel things weren’t quite right. It looked like the room was filling with fog and everything was illuminated with a soft pastel light. I started to feel my heart beating quickly and it seemed as if it had moved to my throat. I hoped I wasn’t going to be sick. Maybe there was something in the soup. I looked at Karine. She put her hand on my shoulder and the fog disappeared.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Do you know what’s happening?”
I shook my head.
“Each person has two souls, a gro bonanj – big soul, literally, big good angel – the divine essence, and a ti bonanj – little soul, the ego personality. When the lwa comes it takes the place of the ti bonaj by chasing it away for a while.”
Chases it away? “Where does it go?” I said, a bit of panic in my voice.
Karine smiled. “Well, I never thought about that. It just goes and then it just comes back.”
Simple, right. It just goes, and then it just comes back – what if it doesn’t come back? I was definitely panicking. I hoped my face wasn’t showing it. I lifted my camera to the space between my face and everything else. Snap, click, snap, click. Focus on composition. Being behind the lens helped me regain composure. Wherever I was, I was at home behind a lens.
“Why is her body moving like that?” I asked, looking towards the manbo apprehensively. Unfortunately I had seen The Exorcist, and this didn’t look so different, if it were real. Of course, that was the answer. This was a performance. Just a performance. Right. It’s not real.
“This is called ‘saddling a horse’. When the lwa saddles a horse there‘s a struggle until the horse surrenders and then the serviteur becomes for a time the éspri.”
I put the camera back in front of my face. I could hear my heartbeat over the drums and not much else. I squatted, presumably to get the best angle for my lens, but the truth was I was about to faint. I slumped to the ground with the camera still pressed firmly to my face. Snap, click, snap, click. Focus on composition.
The manbo, wide-eyed and mute, lay completely still, spread-eagle on the floor. She looked dead. In a few moments she stirred and three hounsi sat her up. One of them offered her a drink that smelled like gasoline. She drank it and went into convulsions. Whether it was the smell of gasoline or something else, I shivered. I felt like hot electricity was brushing my body, like someone invisible was lovingly stroking me from head to foot with a large, soft, warm, charged paintbrush.
People approached the manbo and she greeted them with a kiss of the drink. They motioned for me to go near her. I declined. I wasn’t interested in a gasoline kiss.
“Is that really gasoline she is drinking?”
Karine laughed. “Maybe. There is a lwa who drinks gasoline. I won’t say her name. She’s very fierce.
“All the lwas and gedes enjoy specific foods, beverages, colors, scents, and music, which are provided for them when they saddle their horses and the devotees ‘get Vodou’ – which means the éspri has inhabited the body and chased away the ti bonanj. When the éspri is satiated, then usually it gives benedictions.”
Many lwas and gedes saddled the people who were present. Amidst the frenetic dance and the poetic din of the drum, I was introduced to Ézili Freda and a racine gede, one who is “at the root” – very old or in existence since the beginning. I was drawn to the circle of people who stood around the racine gede. He greeted people by shaking both their hands. He shook the right, then the left, crossing the wrists one on top of the other, and then shook both hands together, strongly. When it was my turn he shouted “Wifout! Gèt manman w!” at me three times while shaking my hands. Everyone laughed. I was told that gedes shout obscenities as a way of showing affection and that I had been greeted very affectionately.
Over the next few days, I was somewhere between Port-au-Prince and Anse-a-Veau with Kompè Filo. He had found a ride to the ceremony I vaguely believed I might attend and stopped by the house to pick me up.
Kompè Filo was well loved for good reason. He was an announcer at Radio Haiti, the first station in Haiti to broadcast in Kreyòl. It was known for a liberal viewpoint. The Radio Haiti announcers, owners, and operators risked their lives to give the Haitian people the real news. Kompè Filo helped link the people of Haiti together by giving them a lifeline to the outside, some hope that life could be better. He was also a well-known political activist and, maybe, he was a houngan or a member of a société. I guessed that because people asked him for blessings on the road, but I didn’t really know why he did it or what it meant about him. He put water or his hand, or both, on people’s heads. I suppose they could have asked for blessings simply because he was well known. The customs were unfamiliar and without the help of language, I could only try to make sense of them.
Two days into the trip we stopped for the night at the home of Manolo Pressoir, a cousin of my father. I have an infinitely large extended family that I didn’t know existed. It seemed everyone was my father’s cousin. This one had a Key lime orchard and a fish farm. We arrived at twilight and toured the edges of a maze of cement waterways that held shrimp as big as my hand, and as pink.
Back at the farmhouse, I sat on a wooden stool at the small porch table and watched Kompè Filo and my cousin eat small fried fish whole. Growing up, I had always vehemently refused the sardines my father ate, and these were bigger. Soon the inevitable happened – they offered me some. I smiled weakly and took one, and I must have winced as I nibbled at it. They gestured that I should eat it, whole, which I did. I tried to appear gracious. They laughed, which meant I must have had an interesting expression on my face. It was, surprisingly, good. Warm salty crunch tickled my throat.
Kompè Filo and my cousin turned to conversation. For a few minutes I sat with them, watching the single light bulb above us attract moths as it swung gently back and forth in the slight breeze. Then I took a few steps to the porch railing, leaned over, and looked out into the darkness. I heard voices in the pitch black and then saw small lights. After a short time, soft and far away, drums carried a Nago rhythm through the night, and a song, pleading and strong, met it.
The next day we headed out in the jeep, bumping along barely drivable dirt roads, dodging potholes and tree branches. People waved enthusiastically at Kompè Filo and sometimes stopped the car to speak with him or climb on board. There were four people in the back seat and two riding on the bumper when we arrived at a roaring, knee deep, two-thousand-foot-wide river. The road continued on the other side. Many people were fording the river on foot, with large loads on their heads. When Kompè Filo pulled over to let everyone out of the overloaded jeep so it would be safer to drive across, his fans surrounded us. People wanted to shake his hand, pat him on the back, and speak with him. Occasionally they glanced at the peculiar sight of a blan in the passenger seat. I smiled nervously, then got out and snaked through the crowd to cross with the others. Kompè Filo joined me. He let an older man with an injured leg drive through the river.
We were deep in the country. Kompè Filo pointed to a cement sleeping shack, about twelve feet square. I carried my things inside and left them on the floor. The door was a rough rectangular hole in one of the walls. Another entrance was directly opposite. The shack was strangely empty, and I wondered if they had cleaned it out for me. It was big enough to house quite a few people, but no one else slept in it while I was there.
I walked to the main courtyard to see what was happening and await the start of the evening ceremony, which would be inside the hounfo. Like the other hounfos I’d been to, the outside was brightly painted. This one was light blue. Inside, garlands of red and blue Haitian flags made from the same stiff, thin cloth I’d seen everywhere in Haiti were attached to the ceiling, along with red and yellow paper party streamers, all long since faded. Drums lined the walls. At the back a blue door led to the private chambers of Bawon Samedi. A large circle had been drawn with sugar syrup around the offering table.
The ceremony started at dusk. The apprentices bent and licked the syrup from the dirt. Large tubs of food were brought in and three spoons of rice, three spoons of spiced beef stew and three spoons of mango were offered to Bawon Samedi on his altar in the small room behind the door. I had asked someone at Société Saint Jacques about the significance of the number three and learned that it represents the Holy Trinity.
The people at Anse-a-Veau were the same ones I’d met at my first ceremony, for Ézili Dantò. It surprised me; I didn’t know we were going to be with the same société I’d encountered there. It seemed that this Vodou family had two temples, one in Port-au-Prince and one here in Anse-a-Veau.
I sat helping the women, led by the Gede Queen, Manman Brijit, prepare elaborate ritual dishes for the lwas. We rubbed lime on pieces of beef cut from the bull and placed them in a pot with water. Manman Brijit sat in possession, rubbing lime on meat, wearing the same dress I’d seen her in at Ézili’s birthday party.
“Blan! Sa wap banm … foto yo ou bin lajan?” she asked. “White! What are you going to give us? Photos or money?”
“Foto,” I replied.
Each piece of meat was carefully rubbed with lime again and placed in a second pot with water, spices, and more lime, and then in a third pot to cook. The intestines were made into bullion.
A man brought his young daughter to me so I could photograph her. He said she was light skinned because she has Tayino blood, meaning she was pretty because of her light skin. Though his words saddened me, I began to photograph, and she began to cry. I bent down to ask her why, and someone said it was because she thought I had taken her soul. Then I began to cry, because she had willingly obeyed her father and stood there, clinging to his leg, and let me take her soul.
Suddenly I began to feel all the souls that had been taken. Visions filled my memory of the lives of people who had been tortured, beaten, and starved. A woman, pregnant, crying softly, washing a wood floor with a rag, bones visible through her blooded back, and I felt it, felt her intense fatigue, the hot pain on her back, her broken heart, and saw her memories: she, a little girl, her mother holding her close on her lap, resting her head on her mother’s softness, feeling her warmth, the silky smooth fabric of a beautiful dress, bright red and trimmed in blue, rocking back and forth to the sound of drums while her mother hummed, held her close. Sweet spiced flower-filled round-moon night, a belly warm and full of food, not cursed baby. Water fell from my eyes in torrents. I was completely inconsolable. Everything went white. I found myself looking at the sky. Had I fainted? Water, I needed to drink some water.
I knew why Ézili cried. She cried for every person, every leaf of every tree, every drop of water. She embodied sorrow and pain. I saw lifetimes of needs and wants that were never satisfied. I felt violent hunger and unquenchable thirst, and I felt beauty of indescribable proportions. Heavenly beauty, stillness. I saw the miracle of every living thing, of life itself. I panicked. It could not be real. I knew it could not be real.
I saw people hanging in trees, skinned alive. I saw people beaten until they were unidentifiable but for the bones, babies impaled on sticks, children’s heads smashed against walls, people with machetes lifting people’s arms to cut arteries.
I felt deep emotion about things I’d barely noticed before. The scent of Florida Water was euphoric, intoxicating. How could I have questioned its wide use and merely tolerated it as cheap cologne? Even the people’s sweat seemed pleasant – it was life, so rich and full! Instead of clothes faded and threadbare with wear and washing, I saw vivid colors in fascinating patterns. And the people! So beautiful! I could see the blood pumping in their firm and perfect bodies. I marveled at the sparkle of the delicate hairs on their bare arms, touched by sunlight. And the sun! Oh, the sun was so magnificent I was near faint from the miracle of it!
Pleasure and pain filled my senses until there was nothing else, nothing but sensation, but at the same time everything around me was a medley of colors and shapes shining, dancing. This is what perfection looks like. This is what WE look like to heavenly beings. A flash of lightning exploded my senses in an orgasmic frenzy and left me aching for more.
I felt a desire inside me that wasn’t mine. I saw inside other beings’ thoughts from inside my head. I felt them – éspris, lwas, gedes. They want to be human, and the only way they can is by entering our consciousness and looking through our eyes. By looking and feeling through us, they know once again what it is to have a human experience.
The gods want to be human as badly as we want to be gods. That’s why it works. That’s why people willingly lose themselves to the éspris and the éspris enter our dimension. They appear in anguish or confusion or joy; they eat as if there’s no way to get their fill. They want to feel pleasure, and they want to feel pain.
I felt joy like I never felt joy before. In front of me was a large beautiful flower, each petal a different color, each petal alive and moving. Had my eyes been closed and I just opened them? I squinted. The white light like bright sun in my eyes was clearing and as it faded, I saw that the petals of the flower were people who had formed a circle around me. They were watching me.
Now I cried for not knowing before that every pain, every problem I’d ever had was a luxury. I cried because everything I thought was important until then meant nothing. Then I felt stupid and weak for crying. Holding my head down, I got up and moved away from the crowd. I was embarrassed. I felt like people had seen me naked, had witnessed something private, and in a strange way, I felt like I had stolen something.
I took silent guilty pleasure in realizing that I wanted what had just happened to happen over and over again, with complete abandon, with sweet surrender, until I didn’t feel weak when I cried. The experience challenged me to believe something I wouldn’t openly admit even to myself, that I had felt God. It opened a want deeply buried, like a ray of sunshine that had found its way down a crack through hundreds of feet of stone. I wanted to feel God again, but there was fear in my excitement. I was afraid to lose myself the way the Vodwizans yes did. I wasn’t ready for complete surrender. I wanted to glimpse God, the way the children in Haiti glimpsed me, through the spaces between their fingers.
I‘d been attracted to the Virgin Mary since I was a child. That day, I knew she lived inside me.
The batteries in my camera were weak. I hadn’t brought replacements. Most of the ceremonies were after dark or at night, and it was getting to the point where I couldn’t photograph until morning. When I walked into the hounfo to take pictures inside the windowless altar room dedicated to the veneration of Bawon Samedi, I was hopeful that I would walk away with at least something on film.
I had my tripod with me and wondered how much battery power it would take to keep my lens open for a long exposure. Maybe the light coming through the doorway and the windows of the main temple would be enough to get something on film.
I entered the altar room and did a little bow. I had no idea what I was supposed to do and hoped my greeting would be accepted. I still had the flash on my camera and I turned it on to see if I could get just a little something out of it. Not only did it turn on, but it was ready immediately. The flash worked perfectly, exceptionally actually. In amazement, thinking it was an anomaly that wouldn’t last, I began to photograph like mad. I captured every detail of the room, and the door on my way out, with the same result. Something completely energetic had taken over my camera. Bawon Samedi wanted me to photograph his altar room. I sat down on the floor of the temple, my back against the cool cement wall, deep in thought, noticing that I also felt like a battery, full of electricity.
The rainy seasons are April through June and October through November. The rest of the year, it rains only at night, almost every night. It had rained every night since my arrival three weeks before. Haiti had once been a jungle, a splendid rainforest, when there were trees.
That night, the Petro Lwa of Fire requested veneration. I was told that a ceremony for this lwa happened at random every ten, seven, or four years and that it was better not to say her name out loud or even write it. Her devotees barely dared speak it. I will write it only once.
Her invocation required strict obedience. If her demand for veneration wasn’t satisfied, someone and sometimes several people paid the price for negligence with their life. I was told that the lwa would kill one person each day until the ceremony commenced. If the presiding houngan or manbo was killed before or during the rites, one of his or her children continued the ceremony.
Funerals and ceremonies were carried out simultaneously. If the ceremony was halted for funerals, more deaths would occur. It was feared that an entire house of serviteurs could die if the lwa wasn’t satisfied.
When it rained it wasn’t possible to build a fire, and there could be no ceremony. If it rained in Anse-a-Veau the night of July 29, 1989, someone was going to die.
In the late afternoon a faint wisp of smoke was visible from the hill where the group of serviteurs sat and prayed. Blue-black skin stark against bright white clothes looked like ghostly shadows. They had been praying, singing, and dancing all day so that the rain wouldn’t come.
The wind sang electric, thunder cracked angrily, and lightning illuminated the path from the field to the mountains. Rain was in the air. The leaves on the trees were shaking wildly and turning upside down. No one spoke. Everyone moved around nervously, silently preparing for the ceremony, or sat with their heads in their hands, or watched the serviteurs. I leaned against the temporary hounfo, a dirt-floored temple made of straw, bamboo, and mud that housed the sacred objects for the fire lwa.
I thought that rain dances were legends. I never believed that a dance and a prayer could start or stop rain, or that people could affect the weather. I was wrong. They stopped the rain. It didn’t rain until the following night.
A hard, steady Petro rhythm matched the pounding in my head. Respects were paid to all the lwas; and to the Gran Met, the Vodou Christ who opens the gates to the spirit world; and to Erzulie, the Holy Ghost. When the Latin prayers were complete, a man dancing with a machete gracefully spun in a circle and in one swoop decapitated a goat.
The Petro Lwa of Fire arrived immediately. She had accepted the offering of blood, the water of life. Her horses, all women, all screaming primordially, rushed the goat, ripped it apart with their hands and ate the meat raw. One woman drank blood from its head and then held it to the night sky. Another held the headless body of the goat tightly, rolling on the ground, caressing it, and sucking blood from its neck while other women tried to grab it from her. She sat on it defiantly, but the frenzy of women eventually succeeded in displacing her and ripping the goat apart with their bare hands! There was no question that the women who had incorporated the éspri now had superhuman strength. When they weren’t in possession I was one of the strongest among them, and I was certain I couldn’t have ripped a large animal apart no matter how fierce I felt.
The lwa in the women was ecstatic, relishing every bite, every moment. The lwas danced with each other and with everyone else – me and about two hundred others. They danced on hot coals, held hot coals in their hands, hugged them to their chests, and rubbed them on their bodies like they were some kind of exquisite, energy-infused flower. They didn’t get burned.
They didn’t stop until the fire was completely out. The lwa was pleased.
When the frenzy ended I slumped in the dirt and realized I had been mechanically photographing. My camera seemed foreign in my hands. I smelled blood, sweat, and ash. I looked up at the dark before-dawn sky to see if I could see myself watching from above. I was imagining the waves of ecstasy moving through my body, wasn’t I?
I felt like it was two thousand years ago and I was attending a Bachhic ritual. But I wasn’t in the temple of Dionysus, the god of everything wet. I was in the temple of fire, the opposite element, and I was being consumed by it. What was this sensation I’d had at every Vodou house I entered? This strange feeling of familiarity, even memories that weren’t mine – or were they?
In the morning I walked down the hill to the large open area where the main ceremony had taken place. Many of the women were now sitting on the houngan’s lap, leaning on him, and collapsing over him, like children would with their father. This father was a spiritual father embodying Bawon Samedi, and their relationship was free of history or concepts. It was pure, untainted love and acceptance.
Tifra found me. I was grateful to see him. He, like Gede, was always checking in on me. He told me he was leaving tomorrow, Sunday, to return to Port-au-Prince. I said I wanted to go with him. I was anxious that I’d been gone so long. My father would have expected me two days ago, and he’d be worried. Kompè Filo wasn’t planning to leave until Tuesday, and possibly later. He was staying as long as the energy stayed, and no one knew how long that would be.
Bawon Samedi came over to tell me not to leave. Actually, he forbade me to leave. He hadn’t been in earshot of our conversation, and Tifra and I were speaking English, which the houngan didn’t speak or understand. Bawon Samedi heard our conversation in English. Somehow he knew what was being said. I even doubt that we were in his line of vision. He was sitting in the middle of the circle and we were far on the outskirts. He had gotten up and left the circle to come speak to us.
Zinga made the cheek-sucking mouth noise and lifted the right corner of his mouth. He looked me up and down disapprovingly, and also lovingly. “Be careful of your new skin in this sun,” he said. “You will burn like a pink Yankee pig now.” I looked at my shoulder, melting pink wax turning to red.
In 1981 all of Haiti’s native black pigs were rounded up and slaughtered by emissaries of the United States government because of a supposed threat of swine fever. The swine flu epidemic was a farce, a starvation strategy in the guise of humanitarianism perpetrated in the last days of Baby Doc.
Native black pigs were a hearty breed and a prime food source, and their slaughter helped accomplish the same goal as the slaughter of the buffalo in the United States. Thousands of healthy pigs were killed and replaced with pink pigs. The Haitians found that the pink pigs required more care than people. Most of them died.
The black pigs were a symbol of Haitian spirit, a symbol of the night of August 14, 1791, in Bwa Kayiman, when the houngan Boukman offered a black pig to Èzili Danto, and manbo Cécile Fatiman received her spirit and officially started the Haitian revolution.
Zinga got up, an old man moving like a child sprite through the cornfield and away from the river. I followed. He knelt devotedly before a silver-green plant and kissed its leaves lovingly. He was singing a plant’s song in a child’s voice. The plant seemed to dance and glow in the early morning sun.
He spoke to it. “You are growing here in Soukri. Once I was walking in the forest and your grandmother spoke to me. She said, ‘Use me for your eyes.’ I made tea with her leaves. I drank some of it, and when it cooled I washed my eyes with it. I have done this for a long, long time and thanks to your family my eyes are always sharp and healthy. I am Zinga. In the past I have used a tincture made from your leaves to cure pinkeye. Ti Marc, my brother, has pinkeye. May I take some of your leaves to cure him?” He waited until satisfied the plant had given him an answer, and then carefully pinched three small clumps of leaves, thanking the plant each time it offered leaves.
Zinga turned to me, face lit like a child’s, voice cheerful. “Remember the plants! Always rooted in Mother Earth, always reaching to God. Always honoring the ground that supports them, always honoring what is beyond. Do the same, Golden Flower. Do the same.”
He sighed. “We will hide the leaves from the priest. Don’t tell him we have leaves, okay?” I nodded. “The priest calls our tinctures poison and says this horse is possessed by the devil. Once he tried to beat it out of him, beat me out of him. I stayed but was quiet so that I could bear the pain for my horse.” He shook his head.
“The priest has dried white berries that he gives people to cure pinkeye. They work, but they have a foul taste. The priest will leave, like all the rest have left. He will run out of money, or hope, or both …” Zinga’s eyes looked at me through the tears that rolled down the old man’s cheeks. His smile was pained and melancholy.
“I have watched the priest. I was there when he talked to his god.” He shook his head. “He clasped his hands and looked at the cockroaches on the ceiling of his temple. There was no one there, no god I could see and no god I could not see, Golden Flower.” Zinga leaned in. His ancient face close to mine, he whispered, “The priest is already crazy. He will leave soon. He will leave his school, his church, his hospital, and his home, and there will be no teachers, no priests, and no doctors. Someone will try to live in his home, people will fight over it, and ultimately all the buildings will be torn apart, piece by piece. The wood will be used to build other houses or to cook with.
“The people will forget that they can cure pinkeye with anything but dry, foul-tasting berries that they cannot get. Like a child who is abandoned, a sense of shame will grow in them like a virus. They will think it was they who let down the good father because in his absence, they will grow fonder of him. They will do the opposite of what they should. They will start to think that if they believe fervently in his god and his devil then he will come back, but he will never come back. Eventually they will leave the village for the city. They will want to find another priest, another church, another school, another hospital, another way to do what we have been doing since before we can remember, and they will never realize that the treasures they’re looking for are found in the place they left.
“Here, everyone used to know how to do something. Someone knew how to fix the broken door of a hut, someone knew how to collect the herbs that healed the sick, someone knew how to fish, someone knew when to plant. In the société we were medicine women, wise men, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, cousins, brothers, sisters, ancestors, and friends. We were together, then pink pigs came with their dollas and their ‘help’, and we started to die.
“You know something, Golden Flower? The church people are loups garous (werewolves). Zinga says so, but no one listens. They‘re too busy holding out their hands for bad rice and bitter berries.”
Now Zinga offered me a bath to purify my spirit, and for good luck. He said I’d need it. He prophesied that something bad was coming my way, though what it was he didn’t say, and a bath from him might protect me.
Karine said I needed supplies for the bath, so we drove to Gonaïves together. She said that Zinga was giving me a great honor, that usually people had to ask him for a bath, and they had to pay. She looked at me hard. “Zinga said you were his sister and that you deserved a bath.” Kompè Filo called it an initiation.
I was somewhere between feeling really lucky and blessed, and worried about an
unknown and impending doom that the bath could erase. What if it didn’t work? What if something really bad was going to happen?
When the bath was nearly ready, Kompè Filo called me into the temple. I entered a small square room just off the main temple. It was lit only by sunlight coming through the thin wooden walls separating it from the outside courtyard. The floor, like all dirt floors I’d seen in Haiti, was somehow packed so hard it could be swept without much of the dirt coming up. A round orange plastic basin about three feet across and half full of water was in the center, filling most of the room.
I watched as three hounsi, dressed all in white, with white scarves on their heads, helped Zinga and Kompè Filo prepare my bath. After removing the leaves from some branches, they crushed them into the water, which became green and fragrant. Then they cut eight oranges in half and scooped out their flesh. They dipped cotton balls in the oil we bought and placed one in each half orange to make sixteen candles. They lit the candles and placed them on the water. It was beautiful. The water reflected the candlelight and the flickering bright white garments of the hounsi, who squatted with their heads down, elbows on their knees, and sang a prayer for me. I felt a peaceful, clear, cleansing calm that I had never experienced before. Zinga stood at the edge of the tub holding handfuls of leaves I was asked to disrobe, which I felt wildly uncomfortable about, and kept my underwear on.
When I stepped into the basin the hounsi quickly, carefully, and reverently turned the candles face down in the water. I imagined that their prayers or the energy in the candles transferred to the water when they were snuffed. I didn’t ask; I felt it wasn’t appropriate to speak. As I remained standing the hounsi dipped cups into the basin and poured the herbal water over me while they sang and said prayers. Then I stepped out and they lifted the basin above me. Kompè Filo, Zinga, and a manbo poured some of the water slowly over my head. They placed the basin back on the ground and the hounsi again dipped into it and poured the water over me. I was asked to make sure that the water had touched every part of my body. The manbos and Zinga helped wash me. When the bath was completed, Zinga took a sip of Florida Water and sprayed it at me.
Another prayer was made and I was directed to the altar. I didn’t know what to do, so I thanked everyone and asked for things I wished for, including for us all to be well and free of stomach problems. I prayed for my mother, my father, my sisters – Suzy, Joanne, and Debby, and myself. I asked for the school year to go well and for blessings for my return so I could come back to help Haiti.
Then we all drank three times from a pot of water on the altar. I was covered with pieces of leaves. I felt lighter and joyful, like my cells were giggling. Zinga gave me a candle broken in four sections and told me to burn one section each night, while praying, on the three nights before I left Haiti, and to burn the last section after I returned to the States.
Still a sense of trepidation was setting in. What did I need good luck for? What was going to happen that would require the support of such a strong blessing?
The picture I painted of Kompè Filo when we traveled together that summer in 1989 was of an incredibly kind and impeccably trustworthy guide who was loved by everyone. I thought at the time and for more than twenty years afterwards that he must have been a reluctant chaperone doing my father a favor. Yet he was so glad to see me when we met in Souvnans in March 2013, when I returned to Haiti for the first time since 1990, that I realized I must have been wrong. We still couldn’t speak to each other and had to communicate through a translator, but his eyes spoke volumes about his kindness and it struck me how incredibly protected I had been as a naïve teenage girl completely outside her element. Through the translator I asked how it had been for him, traveling with a blan tagging behind, having a child to watch out for.
He replied that he loved my father very much and would have done anything for him. It was an honor to travel with his daughter and a pleasure to introduce me to his country. He enjoyed our time together and hoped that I enjoyed it too and that I had received Haiti and its culture well.
I was moved beyond words.
I had neither humility nor trust in any measurable quantity before my trip to the mountains with Kompè Filo. I had plenty of low self-esteem, and I learned that summer that low self-esteem and humility were not the same thing. Before my trip to Anse-a-Veau, humility was an idea they talked about in church – you had to be humble if you wanted to get into heaven. Which I thought meant, in the main, you had to be poor or have a bad opinion of yourself.
I never considered that being humble had to do with how I interacted with people. I knew from the story of Saul that if I wasn’t humble when God appeared before me, I would end up blind. The opportunity to prove my humility never arrived until that summer, when I met God, and God taught me that humility means that I see God in everyone and bow down before everyone as manifestations of God. Since God lives inside all of us, it means I’m recognizing our divinity. It has nothing to do with turning the other cheek. It is clearly not Haitian to turn the other cheek. My initiation into humility that summer taught me to be much more kind, gentle, and considerate. In an unsuspected way, being treated like a queen in my travels with Kompè Filo awakened my humility. Being cared for sweetly and attentively by people who were practically strangers was something I had never known and it prompted me to show the same kindness in return.
Kompè Filo looked after my every need, expressed and unexpressed. Everyone I met was incredibly welcoming to me. And trust? Well, my life was in his hands. I hadn’t put my life in anyone’s hands before that – except of course my parents’, but I had no control over that.