Dispatches from Haiti: The Snake, The Tree and The Drums
Thursday, April 05, 2012 6:00 AM
The background rhythm, as I head into the small city of Leogane, is of drums and roosters crowing, bad mufflers and lots of people walking along the roadside carrying water buckets or bundles on their heads. Cars weave for position across the newly rebuilt and already crumbling highway, laying on their horns.
The streets of Port-Au-Prince are crowded with traffic, market stalls set up under umbrellas and people walking, all against the backdrop of horns honking and people talking and the drumbeats thumping out of radios.
Tap-taps, the festively painted Toyota trucks with open benches in the back carrying passengers for a few gourdes, blast music. Rara bands, with people dancing and blowing long horns, clanging cow bells and shaking bead-covered rattles, take over the highway, stopping traffic. The beat is everywhere, thumping out of delivery trucks that are piled high with sugarcane and passengers on top of the bags.
For all the misery of Haiti, and there is plenty stretching back over centuries, the beat plays on, giving the feeling that dancing could break out anywhere, at any time of day.
And it does. One night, long after the birds had quieted in the bougainvillea and the banana trees, and the electricity had blinked out in the residence where I was staying, the drumbeats grew loud in the dark tropical night and went on and on. The mongrel yellow dogs that roam the city started howling in response.
It felt like Africa, not the Caribbean.
What is clear is that the drums are deeply associated with vodou, or voodoo, an African-based shamanistic belief in a spirit world that coexists with the physical world and is readily accessible through ritual and dance.
And even for Haitians who don't practice vodou, it appears to be deeply embedded in the national culture. Ninety-five percent of Haitians are descended from African slaves who brought the beliefs, the dances, the drums, and the animal sacrifices with them to Haiti.
After revolting against the slave owners in 1804 and gaining independence, Haiti was cut off from direct guidance from the Catholic church for over half a century. What emerged in the interim was a uniquely Haitian form of vodou with a pantheon of spirits that borrows the imagery of Catholic saints and reinterprets them as loa, the vodou deities also are known as the Mysteries or the Invisibles and who serve as intermediaries between Bondye, the good Creator, and the people.
The loa are not just prayed to; they inhabit the body of the vodou believer, in the same way a psychic is said to be inhabited by a visiting spirit and a Pentecostalist speaks in tongues. And the loa are served. Each loa in the pantheon has their own dances, rhythm and symbols. Chickens and goats are sacrificed to feed the energy of some loa. Some, like Gran Boa, the secretive protector of wildlife, live among wild trees and vines deep in what remains of the denuded forests, eating only fruits and vegetables. When Gran Boa is called forth, the servers have food for him, but he refuses to eat, according to vodou scholars.
I wouldn't see any of that, though. No ecstatic dancers being mounted by the spirit loa, but Robenson, my happy-go-lucky Haitian guide, agreed to take me to a vodou temple to have a conversation with a houngan, a male vodou priest.
"You will have to pay him 25 dollars, US," said Robenson as we walked to the temple, a brightly painted concrete building in the middle of the block with a center pole inside that likely represented the tree loa, Loko.
I thought about this for a minute. Reporters don't pay for stories if they follow the journalistic code of ethics, which I do, but I already knew the priest wouldn't talk to me unless he was paid. This would have to be a first-person account, I decided. Readers could take it at face value; I wanted to meet the priest.
He was lying on a cot at the back of the temple in the shadows.
"Bonjou," I said, using one of my two words of Creole.
The priest was going blind and didn't feel well, but he propped himself up on the cot against the concrete wall, which was painted red and blue and decorated with loa images. Twenty-five bucks is a lot of money in Haiti.
The temple was in two parts, he said, one room for healing and the other room, behind the door, for magic. Good magic, said Robenson, implying this houngan wasn't a sorcerer, a bokor. Both rooms were used in ceremonies where people from other temples came on the feast days to serve the loa with dance and music. He didn't mention the animal sacrifices, but implied the ceremonies were complete.
On non-celebration days, if someone came with an illness, the houngan said he treated the unseen cause with the appropriate loa, which comes through him as the medium, to find out what is at the root of the problem. Then the houngan sends the sufferer off with instructions, which often include a trip to the health clinic. Other people come to the houngan when the health clinics cannot find a cause of their illness.
"You may have too many zombies on you to get well," Robenson said, interpreting."Zombies?" I asked.
"Bad spirits," said Robenson.
It must be a loose interpretation. Zombies are real walk-around people, not invisible. In vodou, they are supposed to be corpses who are brought back to life through a bokor. Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, in his studies in Haiti, claimed zombies were people in a hypnotic state, induced by a combination of cultural beliefs and drugs. Once awoken, they could unknowingly be manipulated by the bokor. Davis' claims, though well-documented, drew skepticism. But, regardless whether they were in flesh or spirit form, one wouldn't want them hanging around.
Sometimes the houngan uses cards to divine the problem. Sometimes he uses medicine and spirits of the trees.
Was it Loko, the loa of healers and trees, I asked. Instead of answering, the houngan called to a young woman in the other room and she went outside and came back with a leaf, lance-shaped and deep green, not quite leathery, but reminiscent of a rhododendron, and handed it to me. Robenson called it cedre, and I looked it up. It appeared to be Spanish cedar, which is really a mahogany, and on the good list: it is an antidote to the zombie poisons, according to Davis.
"He has faith in this tree," said Robenson. "It is good treatment. There is a good chance to save the patient."
I tucked the leaf in my notebook and looked around the temple.
I knew voodoo dolls were an invention of Hollywood and sold in Haiti as tourist trinkets, but I didn't quite know what to make of the Barbie doll in the corner who was lashed to a statue of a skull with wings. With her platinum hair all frowzly, she looked like Lady Gaga caught in a windstorm.
Robenson looked at me when I asked and just shook his head. He knew who Gaga was. He wasn't even going to try to ask.
"Okay, how about the Statue of Liberty with a snake wrapped around her," I said, pointing to the wall. "Is it something to do with Americans."
"No, no," said the houngan. "That is just a popular image." Vodou appropriates images not only from Catholicism, but also from the Masons and popular culture.
The snake is the important thing, he said. It is the snake spirit, Dumballah, the spirit of prosperity, power and fertility. Usually a good spirit.
"For money," said Robenson. "A lot of people here get the snake spirit to make a lot of money."
I laughed, thinking he was joking with me, because nobody I had seen in Leogane appeared to have much, but Robenson believes in vodou. He didn't laugh.
People who want to make money or have power come to seek the snake spirit, explained the houngan, calling the spirit by the name Ieda Wedo. They make a devil's bargain, trading a more powerful life for a shorter one.
"Twenty years, maybe like that," said Robenson."Then the snake spirit comes for you and there is nothing to do. No cure."
"If you want to make money you get a snake spirit," he said.
Robenson and the houngan got into a long conversation in Creole. Robenson kept saying "non, non," his eyes widening with each "non." I tugged on his sleeve, trying to get his attention.
"What's he saying?" I asked.
The houngan had been naming names of people who Robenson knew that had taken up with the snake.
"That kid with the motorcycle, you know him?" he said. He was referring to a young Haitian who worked as a gate guard where I was staying. He had a shiny new motorcycle that Robenson coveted.
"He's a snake," he whispered.
"What? He got a snake spirit bargain?" I asked.
Robenson glanced back at the houngan.
"That's not good," he said. "It's very bad. He is too young to do that bargain."
"You aren't going to become a snake, are you?"
I liked Robenson. If you believed that you sold your soul, then what would happen to you when the time was up? Belief is a powerful agent.
"No, no. Never," he said.
I had slept badly in Haiti, throwing my back out of whack, so I went for a spinal adjustment when I?returned home. In the middle of the session I had the image of a large snake lying along the length of my spine from the base to the skull, its head genially covering mine like a hood. It wasn't quite smiling and it didn't seem threatening.
I shivered. I am not a believer.
Later, when I opened up my reporter's notebook with the notes from Haiti, the cedre leaf, the antidote to zombiism, fell out. I had forgotten to declare it when I went through four security checks at the Port-au-Prince airport, including two full-body pat downs, or at U.S. Customs.
I tucked it away where I could find it, just in case.