20 May 2014

On Voodoo, Black History and Childhood Memories

Standing underneath the red and blue drapeau on Haiti Flag Day, 18 May

It has just occurred to me, as I sit by the wifi dock at the guest house in Cap-Haitien (it's the only way that I can guarantee a solid Internet connection), that my writing has become a little more sporadic in its frequency. As was the case with last weekend's activities, I am almost certain that I will only be able to gloss over (and not consider in any  significant depth, unfortunately) the events occurring over the past few days.

Last week saw the arrival of a 14-strong Canadian volunteer group at the guest house in port-au-Prince. Before this, I had had the house to myself save for the staff and one Alaskan volunteer who was so introverted that he may well have not been there at all. What an initial shock! I knew I would have to share my room as it is the biggest and, thanks to the balcony overlooking the pool, arguably the most impressive. I do like to have my own space, and so adjusting to the four girls who were now sharing "my" amenities and adjusting the room to their own tastes (the weather, save for today, has been incredibly hot and sticky of late) was a slight challenge. 24 hours later, however, and it was as if I were 16 again and back at secondary school, giggling with housemates as we waited for the dinner bell to go off and filling each other in on our daily schedules after a long day. I had completely forgotten about the need for my own space and suddenly appreciated the soft hustle and bustle that had not previously existed, the shared memories that are often lost when travelling alone, and close ties of friendship that can only really be made when living alongside others.

RAM at the Hotel Oloffson

On Thursday night the group invited me to the Hotel Oloffson for live music from RAM (see a video of the band HERE), a group well known in the city for their upbeat performances. Twelve of us drove up in a battered people-carrier blaring reggae and craftily avoiding pot-holes, and I chatted to one of their hired Haitian guides about the politics of speaking French (and not Creole) to certain classes of Haitians. I was told at the end of the night that RAM was in fact a voudou (voodoo) music group, but the general Western perception of voodoo tradition is so narrow that I will have to expand on this point in a later post. The fact that it started a little later than scheduled (I have come to realise that "Haitian timing" and "African timing" are one and the same) was easily overlooked due to the sheer passion and skill of singers, dancers  and musicians rolling effortlessly from one song to another. The music was familiar - almost Sierra Leonean in its sound - and I felt as though I were back at home and at a family friend's birthday hall party. Unlike at family friends' hall parties, where I will routinely consume as many Supermalts as my bladder will allow and stand up only to collect and dispose of food, I was somehow conjured out of my seat and onto the dance floor. We stayed there until around 1.30am, when the band had ended their set, and reluctantly made our way home.

Celebrating Flag Day with a pupil at Frères School, Port-au-Prince

On Friday afternoon I wen down to the local school with a few friends to watch their Flag Day celebrations. Flag Day is a public holiday which celebrates May 18th, the first purely Haitian flag which distinguished the people of Haiti from their a French opposition (an omission of the white, representing the people, and an eventual shift from vertical to horizontal colours). The children were having so much fun, and it was nice to see some universal games (tag, musical chairs) being played against the quintessentially Haitian kompa which was being played loudly by a DJ placed at one side of the school playground. I managed to convince one of the kids to get me a flag, and we bobbed along to the music for a while before returning to the house.

Listening to a talk on the history of the Haitian Flag at Musée Ogier-Fombrun, an old sugar plantation

The museum's grounds

I ended the week with a trip to the Musée Ogier-Fombrun, a hotel resort and museum which was originally an old sugar plantation in the 18th century. Some of you will now that I am greatly interested in colonialism/post-colonialism (I wrote my final thesis on the interrelations between the West Indian plantation and the 19th century literary home in novels Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park) and so I was so excited to discover that I was standing on some of the very grounds that once lent Haiti its status as one of the richest countries in the western hemisphere. And on 18 May itself! Our guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about the history of his country, and I left the grounds (which were absolutely stunning, by the way) feeling a little more informed about what I now consider to be one of the most important pieces of black history to date.

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