Friday, September 19, 2008

Hurricane Relief in Haiti

There is a crisis in Haiti due to the four hurricanes that struck within a month. Here are 3 websites for organizations working in grassroots development in Haiti who are trusted to turn dollars into real help.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

We approached Souvenance...

As we rode from Gonaives to Lakou Souvenance on the back of a pick up truck, the Artibonite Mountains emerged above us and the landscape became more high desert than tropical. We passed the kalfou or crossroads that went towards Soukri and Badjo and turned toward Souvenance as Rara bands filled the dusty road. It was March 21st, Good Friday on the Catholic calendar, and the height of Rara season. Our kamyonet which had been reaching high speeds on the bumpy gravel roads now halted to a snail's pace to maneuver through the formidable crowds that made up each Rara. The colonel with his whistle and whip kept everyone in order and flag bearers led the front. The "brides" followed wearing bright matching dresses and veils and danced grouyad -- winding their pelvises around as they lifted up their dresses to expose their hips. The musicians played their soldered metal horns called banbou and klewon, Petwo and European military drums, and various other percussive found objects, followed by a chorus of mostly female singers, followed by the rest of the crowd along for the "ride" dancing, singing, drinking Babancourt rum or kleren, or just participating in the flow of the crowd.

Rara refers to a practice, an annual festival, a season as well as individual processions or bands that move through public and private spaces. Rara appears at first to be a secular event but as Elizabeth McAlister describes in her ethnography of Rara there are more private elements that are closely bound to the African-based religion and spiritual practice in Haiti called Vodou. Rara, which could appear to be a raucous celebration and demonstration of "carnivalesque play,"
is a complex "public ritual."1

1 McAlister, Elizabeth. Rara! Vodou, power, and performance in Haiti and its diaspora. Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2002. p. 7.

Silent Lakou

We must have passed at least eight Raras which included one to two hundred people each. We passed the processions and drove freely for a short time to arrive at the gate of Souvenance.

Inside the
lakou, or compound, called Souvenance Mystique (as it's written on the front of the peristil or central house of worship) but commonly referred to simply as Souvenance or Souvnans in Kreyol, the environment contrasted greatly to the revelry of the Raras outside the gates. The lakou was seemingly silent. Little did I know how dramatically this would change over the course of two days with the arrival of visitors for the ceremonies. At first I felt uncertain I'd be able to remain in the lakou for the five or so nights we had planned. It was extremely dry and there was no sign of a river. I was traveling primarily with two friends from the United States who had both been to Haiti many times, Isa and Makini. The three of us walked to the back yard area of Souvenance to the sacred Mapou tree -- the center post for a ceremony that would be held on Monday. The branches of the tree sinuously extend out from its center but perhaps what is most unique and powerful about this tree is its huge knotty trunk which holds anthropomorphic facial qualities and the roots that extend to chest level near the trunk. Beyond the tree the land extends to the Artibonite mountain range which rises sharply from the plain and extends as far as the eye can see. In the midst of that majestic landscape, rustling leaves from the wind sweeping through the trees, and calls of the birds and insects, I felt very far away from home where my family was most likely decorating Easter eggs together. At the same time a great sense of peacefulness overcame me. The sound of silence in the lakou filled my heart to overflowing as I watched a cow relax in the shade.

Souvenance is one of a group of
lakous in the Gonaives region that are known for their adherence to specific African traditions in Vodou. Souvenance celebrates the lwas from Daome (the kingdom of Dahomey which is now Benin), Soukri Danach celebrates the Kongo tradition, and Badjo is considered Nago (from Yoruba). Each lakou has a yearly festival or multiple-day ceremony that coincides with important events on the Catholic calendar and they draw observers from urban Haiti as well as abroad due to their beauty and "authenticity." The ceremonies of Souvenance begin the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday and last all week until Friday.

We walked back into the village compound and were told by our other travel
companions that the sèvitè, the spiritual leader of the lakou, was ready to meet us. We met the sèvitè on the porch of a nearby house. He was tall, handsome, and looked as though he had been eating well. I found out later, through David Yih's dissertation entitled Music and dance of Haitian Vodou that Fernand Bien-Aimé was his name and he spent most of his time as a businessman in Port-au-Prince. He had become sèvitè in 1990 after the death of his father who was the previous sèvitè.2 His hair was a bit grey, adding a look of distinction to his already distinguished position, and his eyes seemed to squint and shine at the same time. He shook our hands upon greeting us and began asking Kiran, our travel companion who had made our arrangements at Souvenance, about himself. I wanted to share with him that I was studying Haitian folkloric dance and had been performing the form in New York City and that I was at Souvenance to come to the source and understand more deeply the sacred practices of Vodou.... But it was the kind of conversation where the sèvitè asks the questions he wants answered and otherwise one keeps quiet. I felt content having met the sèvitè, the leader of the ceremonies at Souvenance.

In Gonaives we had bought offerings for the sèvitè and his community for the ceremonies that we would be observing. Or, this was my understanding of why we bought the offerings. However, in addition to our presence at the ceremonies we would be staying in the kay or house of Alex, who was a friend of Kiran's and who had recently died. Alex's sister had sent Kiran to Souvnans to stay in Alex's house with specific directions on what to offer to the sèvitè. Our gift included bottles of Babancourt rum, Florida Water, champagne, and candles. It was a large offering relative to how people generally live and spend in Haiti and caused some controversy among the members of our traveling group. It seems that this offering was necessary because of our staying in Alex's house. However, Isa felt that we could have made our own arrangements of where to stay once we arrived and it wouldn't have been so expensive. Plus, we could have contributed to a household that perhaps could have used the income more than the head of this popular lakou. So she felt that this was Kiran's negotiation and he should be responsible for carrying it through. She was also concerned that he was being taken advantage of. Since this was only my second time in Haiti and my first time at a lakou I didn't have a strong opinion about the situation but was thankful for the place to stay and thankful for being able to witness the ceremonies so I contributed what I felt comfortable with. It was not until some weeks after my return that the connection between Alex, Souvenance, and our position in his house became more clear.

Apparently, Alex is Alex Tanisma and was considered second
sèvitè behind Fernand Bien-Aimé at Souvnans. He resided in Petionville and when he decided to become initiated into Vodou, did so at Souvnans. During this process the lwa or deity Ati Danyi claimed him as his servitor. Ati Danyi only claims one initiate at a time, always a man, and this man becomes second sèvitè at Souvnans.3 Alex passed away unexpectedly of "natural causes" and although it is relatively commonplace for young people to die in Haiti it came as quite a shock to those who knew him.4 It is for these reasons that we stayed in Alex's home at Souvnans but were traveling with an envoy including Alex's uncle and another family member, why we brought offerings to the sèvitè and had offerings made to Ati Danyi at the altar in our sleeping quarters.

2 Yih, David. Music and dance of Haitian Vodou. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services, 1995. p. 269.
3 Yih, P. 269.
4 Personal email correspondence with Kiran, May 27, 2008.

Souvenance Ceremonies Commence: Inner Sanctum

Saturday morning I went to the peristil to help decorate. There were heaps of multi-colored plastic banners and fabric flags that had to be untangled and hung inside as well as in the plaza area in front of the peristil and inside a courtyard with a tree for the lwa Ayizan. My traveling companions went into town for provisions such as water, fruit, and vegetables while I stayed and assisted the all-male group of decorators. I had only been in Haiti for two days so my kreyol at this point was minimal. We communicated mostly through gestures, nods, and of course, smiles.

That evening the ceremony started in the inner sanctum -- a room attached to the open space of the peristil that was for ceremonial work by the initiated and where the uninitiated could peak through windows on their tiptoes. We were allowed to watch but I soon realized cameras were not. There were over a hundred ounsi, or initiated participants, all dressed in their finest whites including head wraps, sitting in benches facing the altar space. The
sèvitè sat in front of the altar space that was decorated with flowers, lit candles, images of the saints, and I imagine other offerings for the lwa. The lead singer, or larenn, sat against the wall next to the sèvitè playing the tchatcha, a maraca-like shaker instrument leading the chorus of ounsi in call and response singing. At this point there were no drums.

An ounsi would become possessed by a spirit or lwa and run as if catapulted to the front of the room by the altar. This seemed to happen when the spirit moved them rather than in a particular order. They would then crawl across the front of the room by the altar to the side corner and on to the back where they were then greeted and helped up to return to their seat. This went on for an hour or so. According to David Yih, they are singing a song cycle that is not repeated in the outer temple space. It's called
"lè y ap noble lwa-yo" or "when they are greeting the lwas."5 Despite the Daome lwas being mute, they are greeted and asked how they are doing upon arriving to this part of the ceremony. After this song cycle, song cycles from the two main Souvenance "camps" of lwas are performed -- Chasè and Grenadye.6

5 Yih, p. 265.
6 Yih, p. 265. On pages 126-127 Yih refers to the chasseurs and the grenadiers as French soldiers. Light infantry included chasseurs à pied and chasseurs à cheval. The grenadiers "were taller men and were used as shock troops." Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines' infantry also had chasseurs and grenadiers. Yih posits that just as Desslines was immortalized in Vodou folklore so perhaps was his army. About thirty-six lwa belong to the ekip (teams), kan (camps), or batayon (batallions) of Chasè and Grenadye at Souvenance. Each has its own leader or chef, as well as its own rhythms and dance steps. The Chasè lwa are greeted first followed by the Grenadye.

First Night: In the Peristil and Legba at the Gate

The drummers began the Chasè rhythms and the sèvitè, carrying a candle and cup of water, led the participants into the public space of the peristil. The ounsi sang in response to the larenn and slowly circled around the space, filling the peristil and creating a gentle sea of dancers. Once everyone had filed out of the inner sanctum and circled the space the ounsi organized themselves into lines facing the drummers. They began the cycle of responding to the break in the drums to dance forward, then pivot in place to await the break, and then dance back again. At this point there were so many ounsi that space was limited for actual travel back and forth. Their movements were subtle yet articulate and demonstrated the various progressions of stepping side to side and traveling circularly with the weight on one foot and balanced with the back foot's heel raised. This continued through various songs and rhythms that eventually got repeated throughout the night. My two favorite songs which were sung repetitively throughout the five days of ceremonies are included in the following video clip.

Lè yo we Badé yo di se Lougawou
Kan yo we Sobo yo di se Makanda
Batikan yo de ounsi yo konnen mwee

When they see Badé (lwa) they say it's Lougawou
When they see Sobo (brother of Badé) they say it's Makanda
People who sing and serve the lwa they know me

Danbala Wedo ooo
Vodou na we yo

Aida Wedo eya
Vodou na we yo

Danbala and Aida Wedo are lwa (deities/spirits) who come from the Kingdom of
Dahomey (Daome) which is now Benin. Wedo refers to the coastal town Ouidah
which was a center of the
Atlantic slave trade for almost 200 years. Danbala
represents ancient male creative energy and manifests as a snake. He is said to
connect the oceans of the heavens to the springs and fresh waters of earth. Aida is
his female counterpart represented as a rainbow who connects the earth's oceans to
heavenly waters -- creating a earthly/heavenly cycle.

The ceremony then moved outside to honor Legba at the gate of the lakou. Songs for Legba were sung and ritual libations executed which I could not see from where I was standing. Lebga is the lwa that is always honored first. Legba is the lord of the crossroads and opens or closes the way. This is why he was saluted at the gate which acts as entryway from the road to the lakou. I was positioned right next to the drums and was using my sound recorder to collect rhythm and song samples. I was not the only one as many Haitians also had recording devices to capture the essence of these rituals. Unfortunately I did not leave Souvenance with my recorder so I don't have those samples to share but the video footage here -- while dark -- has clear examples of drum rhythms and various songs for Legba.

When the ritual honoring of Legba had finished the drummers moved their benches toward the peristil and faced the "congregation." The sèvitè and larenn led the ounsi toward the drummers. When they reached the drummers, the musicians again picked up their benches and moved closer yet to the peristil. And again, the congregation moved toward the drummers. This went on three or four times until the group entered into the peristil again, circled the space, and began the cycle of songs and rhythms, moving forward and back, singing and dancing. However, this time the energy was more celebratory than contemplative as in the initial entrance from the inner sanctum. The ounsi sang the songs stronger and with more expression. Their movements also became larger, with arms outstretched, reaching skyward. The rhythms also changed to include Wandjale, Vodou Double Nago, and dances such as the Gran Kat, the most explosive movement where one leg supports the dancer and the other leg extends forcefully back.

The ounsi stay in the middle of the space, the larenn sings from an elevated box on the side, the drummers are positioned at the front of the peristil, and the public line the benches and open windows along the sides. Everyone is allowed to dance with the ounsi but at first only a handful do. The children are especially active dancing along with the adult ounsi and more people join as the evening progresses and the days progress.

Sunday Ceremonies of Sacrifice

I could not stay up for the whole night's activities and had to retire sometime around midnight. Saturday evening's ceremonial activity went on until around 2:30 am Sunday. At that point there was a short respite and the lakou was quiet. After only a couple hours of rest, I could hear the bell signaling for the ounsi to congregate in order to begin the ceremonial activity for the second day. It was still completely dark out and I remained lying on my nat -- the mat made of rolled up banana tree leaves on which to sleep. As I laid in the dark I heard what sounded like the cry of an animal. I thought that perhaps an animal was being sacrificed. When I woke up and emerged from the kay I noticed an ounsi who was still wearing the ceremonial white clothing from the previous evening but which now had some red stains. Perhaps this was blood and my thought that animal sacrifice had occurred seemed confirmed. At that point I went to the market area to have a delicious breakfast of kafe ak let (sweetened coffee with hot and creamy fresh milk) with pan (bread). The breakfast continued with pumpkin soup made with potato and plantains in addition to the squash. This was very flavorful. On other mornings spaghetti with hot dogs or aransél (salted and dried cod) and creole sauce -- a spicy, tomato-based sauce -- became the staple breakfast. Very tasty!

When I returned to the peristil I entered the ceremony fully in progress and the energy of the space was palpable. Four goats (kabrit) had been sacrificed and the ounsi were processing around the peristil counter-clockwise passing the goats from one servitor's shoulders to another's. I found my friend Makini and joined her on the ledge where I could observe from a raised position. I had my video camera with me but I did not immediately grab for it. The sacredness of the moment was so evident that I watched quietly and absorbed the quality of focused, somber, and intense energy. Makini then leaned over to tell me that cameras were not allowed until the goats were placed on the floor. Fine by me! The strength of this image was overwhelming. The symbolic nature of sacrifice became more clear to me with this rite. The weight of sacrifice on the ounsi's shoulders symbolized the historical bloodshed of slavery and revolution, of hard work, and of honoring what had come before to make today possible. The ounsis feel the weight of the sacrificed animal on their shoulders and we witness this acknowledgment of struggle and honor.

They then moved outside into the courtyard to the tree for Ayizan. This is one of my favorite clips but for some reason it is extremely short. The dancer for Ayizan here is the servitor that emerges first in colored clothing on Monday at the Mapou tree ceremony. I also include in this video clip footage that shows the courtyard during a transitional moment.

Next everyone moved to another tree where there were many songs for Loko. Whereas in the peristil the format of the congregation is oriented toward and away from the drummers now the orientation is toward the tree. Loko is a lwa that is associated with Legba and Ayizan and is said to reside in the trees. The sevité and larenn sat next to each other in front of the tree and the ounsi were behind. The sound of the ounsis' feet on the packed dry earth as they danced in place made a repetitive and rhythmic "thud" sound that reminded me of a heartbeat. They created a vibration that could be felt.

The sevité poured ritual libations such as Babancourt rum and water near the tree. Two cups of blood mixed with a liquid representing the Chasè and Grenadye camps were passed around and small amounts were ritually sipped by the ounsi. During the goat sacrifice certain ounsi are not allowed to carry the sacrificed animals or to have their blood touch them. Perhaps there is a similar code to the drinking of ritual libations. A rooster was chosen to be sacrificed. At first the rooster was made to eat corn, demonstrating that it is fit and healthy enough to be offered to the lwa.

Many songs were sung before the sevité began the sacrifice. He plucked many of the bird's feathers, broke each wing and leg, and then bled the animal from its neck into a pan. Again, the energy of the whole area changed radically during the sacrifice. A woman fell to the ground seeming to embody the pain and struggle of the dying animal. Her body mimicked the convulsions of the bird as she laid next to the tree stump where the bird had been placed.

Out of context, I believe the issue of animal sacrifice can be hard to understand. While I accepted the practice as existing and playing a role in Vodou, I never truly understood it. Even now, as I watch the video footage of the sacrifice far removed from the context of the ceremony and the way of life in Haiti, I wince at what looks brutal by our standards. However ceremonially, the sacrifices carry an immense strength in what they communicate. The moment is profoundly sacred and the animal's life is not being used carelessly. In Haiti, farm animals are heard and seen. They roam in yards and streets -- their voices are heard morning until night. As the poorest nation in our hemisphere, most people, I would argue understand the importance of the life and death of an animal. Whereas we slaughter our animals en masse behind closed doors to be consumed without thought, in the context of Vodou sacrifice in Haiti there is a consciousness to where those animals are coming from and what necessary purpose they serve.

The ceremony then moved to the other side of the tree for the bull sacrifice, I believe to Ogou. The bull was lead from its post in the center of the lakou and tied head first toward the tree for Ogou. Libations of Florida Water and rum were poured onto the bull's back and it was given swift slaps between the shoulder blades by the sevité. The sevité held the bull's testicles and a man attempted to mount the bull -- succeeding on his third or fourth try. Once he was sitting atop the bull the crowd cheered and the conch was blown. As soon as the man descended from the bull's back, a man standing at the head of the bull quickly bore his dagger into the bull who immediately collapsed to the ground. Singing began and the ounsis carried a wooden machete-like prop to dance around the tree in a counter-clockwise direction. Many observers were either watching the bull's ritual blood-letting or also looking at the woman who still laid on the ground next to Loko's sacrificed rooster. All that remained from the sacrificial action was for the bull to be prepared for consumption because it would be cooked and served for the next day's ceremony at the Mapou tree. And so, the ounsis, drummers, and larenn began the cycle of songs, rhythms, and dances in the courtyard of the lakou -- just next to the trees in which Ayizan, Loko, and Ogou had been honored.

At around 3 pm there was a slight lull in the action and I decided to have lunch. Unfortunately I missed the ritual bathing that the ounsi participated in together at a large square concrete water hole on the other side of the peristil from the ceremonial trees.

That afternoon my friend Jen and her travel partners arrived. Hundreds of others must have arrived as well because that night was incredibly crowded in the lakou. The ounsi changed into colorful ceremonial clothing and the ceremony took place inside the peristil. I watched for a bit in front near the drums but as the energy heightened and more and more possessions started to occur, I decided to leave. As I made my way through the crowded peristil I could see that many people were packed into the space. There was a more aggressive quality to the dancing and possessions that seemed to be happening with the crowd. When I went outside it reminded me of a huge rock and roll festival -- crowds just hanging out socializing and drinking. I spent the rest of the night chatting with people near our house and then going to bed. I knew the ceremony at the Mapou tree the following morning would begin with the rising sun.

The Sacred Mapou

The ceremony at the sacred Mapou tree in the back of the lakou began just as anticipated -- with the rising sun. All the participants were dressed immaculately in whites just as they had been on Saturday at the opening of the ceremonies. A warm morning light fell on the site of the Mapou tree ceremony and added to the gentle nature of this Souvenance rite.

Souvenance means remembering. The ceremony commenced with a procession to the Mapou, and then circled it -- symbolizing the journey across the Atlantic that African slaves made coming to Haiti. It can also have a dual meaning referencing the crossing of water in Vodou cosmology. Kiran, one of my travel partners at Souvenance, told me this in a personal communication.  

At first the music was only voices and then the conch call joined the drumming. The ounsi and any other people invited to participate gathered and sat on the large roots of the Mapou awaiting their ritual piece of meat -- almost like a Catholic communion -- distributed by the sevité. I was told that this was the bull that had been sacrificed the previous day. There were ritual actions occurring at the base of the Mapou that I could not see. The energy in general was peaceful and calm.

Observers and guests in the lakou began to gather in the larger yard area to take in the rhythms and songs from a comfortable position in the shade. Most of the vendors in the market moved to the yard as well and everyone seemed to spend the day at the Mapou tree whether they were paying close attention to the ceremony, participating, or just enjoying the company of many and the beauty of the day.

The ceremony moved to the side of the tree and there was quite some time devoted to individual salutations. Three leaders -- the sevité, eldest larenn, and possibly the sevité's brother -- stood and greeted the ounsi as they engaged in a typical Vodou salutation of either holding both hands and turning around, shaking hands firmly with an accent down, or hugging. Sometimes when the ounsi are turned by the sevité they are overcome momentarily by a spirit.

Again, a cycle of songs and rhythms continued with the ounsi dancing back and forth between the tree and the drummers. A couple of ounsi fell to the ground and their muscles contracted so that their legs were tight together, crossed at the ankles and feet, body stiff, and arms tight in towards the body. It was explained to me that this is called "sep." Sep is when someone has broken a rule of Vodou and the lwa are punishing them. The sevité must say a prayer over the person in order to break the affliction. At that moment the person is able to get up and continue with the ceremony or whatever they were doing. However, it is a great moment of shame for the person and their family. When I told a Haitian friend of mine in NY about it afterwards she mentioned how it had happened to her when she was visiting either Soukri or Souvnans. She had had sex in the lakou and then got the sep because of it. Sex is not allowed in the lakou during the ceremonies.

The younger larenn sang tirelessly into the afternoon. At one point a key was presented to the elder larenn by an ounsi. Late in the afternoon an ounsi appeared in her colored ceremonial garb. This was quite a contrast to the day's ceremonial clothing of crisp whites. Her presence also signaled the transition for all the ounsi to change into their colored ceremonial clothing. Once everyone had changed there would be a procession back to the peristil.

Journey Home

Throughout the afternoon at the Mapou tree the drumming and dancing never stopped. Ounsi would leave the scene individually to take a break and change into their colored ceremonial clothes. By sunset all the participants had changed their clothing and congregated at the Mapou. They processed back to the peristil with a similar bass chant that was sung without drum accompaniment in the morning. Inside, the ounsi were blessed with water from the sevitè standing on the raised platform and the conch was blown. The energy grew and the Chasè and Grenadye cycles were repeated late into the night.