Happy Birthday, Haiti – See you soon!

Another New Year’s Day is upon us, and it’s time for soup joumou. (Why? You can read about that in a previous New Year’s post, here.) You can also sing the Joumou rap with Haitian Jonas, here. These two things always make me smile.

What also makes me smile, is the knowledge that I’ll be in Haiti again in a week’s time. It’s been ten years, even before the quake that changed everything. Some things of course haven’t changed much – suspended government and a “president” ruling by emergency decree, MINUSTAH still not taking a damn bit of responsibility or concern for causing a cholera epidemic. But I’m sure others have. All the little kids in the lakou will be teenagers now. I won’t get to see my godmother (who died in the quake) or my maman hounyo (who died later), and a few other people who have passed. Coming home is well overdue, bittersweet, but good. See you soon, Ayiti.

And I’ll be back to post about it sooner than I did last year.

Five years on: m’pa pi mal

It was five years ago today that everything changed for Haiti. How is it now? The idiom, m’pa pi mal, couldn’t be more appropriate. Though this is usually what you say in Kreyol to the question koman ou ye or “how are you,” it doesn’t exactly translate as “I’m fine.”

Literally translated, it means: “I’m not any worse.”

Good things have happened, and bad things have also happened, since that terrible afternoon. I can’t say that there is much change in the grief for me, beyond that its jagged shapes are now known rather than lurking and unknown. I don’t wake up from nightmares of bodies under concrete as often as I once did, but it still happens. And I was thousands of miles away at the time. I can’t even begin to imagine how much more intense these feelings are for those who were in Haiti five years ago today.

Five years on, there is still far too much to be done. For those who lost family or home, or often both – and for the 80,000 (!) people still living in “temporary” shelters, tonight will not be magically different from the last five years of nights. Other than a day on a calendar, it is no different and things must still change. There is so much to be done still, and the pace at which my country and the rest of the world has offered its assistance, yet again, is shameful. So too is the response of the United Nations (don’t even get me started) and of Haiti’s government itself. As if there weren’t enough problems with thousands of people needing somewhere safe to live, there is still much political disruption to contend with, including a (potential) return to dictatorship as early as tonight, if Haiti’s parliament can’t get its act together in time.

How do you know what’s happening, if you don’t have family you can call? Here’s an aggregation of various reports on what’s going on, good and bad, in the Land of Mountains. Be aware of context. I’m trying to avoid the worst of the “disaster porn,” but I want to make sure I cover different contexts and angles.

Today’s news from Haiti Libre – many articles here.

Today’s news from the Haitian Times (aggregated from many sources) here.

ABC: “Five Year Anniversary Approaches” video (from 2010) and story here.

Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates): “Haiti Pays Tribute to Quake Tragedy’s Dead” article here.

Boston Globe: “Hope links Haiti, Boston 5 years after quake” article here.

Fusion: “Five years after the Haiti earthquake: protests, voodoo, and rock and roll” article here.

Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates): “Haiti Pays Tribute to Quake Tragedy’s Dead” article here.

Miami Herald: “Tens of thousands still living in tents 5 years after Haiti earthquake” article here.

NBC: “What Does Haiti Have to Show…” video and story here.

Reuters: “Haitians learn to live with disaster upon disaster” article here.

For my Haitian family, I have nothing but love. I miss you every day, but especially today when some of us – far too many of us – went to the angels.

Racism, Violence, Police Brutality, and speaking up

Despite my attempts to have something smart and useful to say concerning current events most of the time, my friends and family have probably noticed my conspicuous absence of late on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings.

I’ve not been quiet because I had nothing to say about it. Far from it; I have plenty of thoughts about many aspects of these horrible situations, from police brutality to systemic racism, from media coverage to our “justice” system in the United States. I’ve been involved in activism since my teen years, and most of that in the civil rights category. Not just letter writing or the “slacktivism” of the Internet either. I’ve chained myself to a door; I’ve been detained during a protest (though passing for white and being a girl were probably why I didn’t end up getting arrested, like the black girls or the men who were also part of those protests). I’ve been part of various protests and even led them on occasion. So I am no stranger to any of this.

What I am today, however, is cognizant that the last thing that anybody in Ferguson or on Staten Island really needs right now is for me to add to the pile on of white and white-passing people offering their “advice” or explanations or ideas on this. A big part of the way that systemic racism continues to do its invisible and devastating work is the ease with which black voices are silenced. This doesn’t happen just through the ranting of outright racists, or by the lack of response from white people whose silence is louder than any words. It also often comes from well-meaning people trying to talk about being “colorblind,” or making assumptions and statements about black life in the United States that are simply not theirs to make.

The only thing I want to say is that I am listening, and I will do whatever I am asked to do, to help. It may be that there isn’t anything I can do personally to help. It may be that there is. But I am listening, and waiting for direction from the people who are directly involved, instead of deciding that for them. As a mixed-race person and a woman, my experiences, varied and sometimes distressing as they might be? – will never be the same as those of young black men. I will not speak for them, nor will I speak over them.

I will only speak long enough to say I’m listening, and I am hoping that others will shut up and listen too.

Sacrifices in Vodou (Excerpt from HAITIAN VODOU)

A current trending topic among friends and colleagues is the discussion of sacrifice and its place in religious practice. Far more eloquent people than myself have said some excellent things. I’ve been asked to share my own thoughts, and I’d like to offer an excerpt on this topic from a book I wrote a couple of years ago as my response. It’s still as relevant now as it was then, or when I was asked to speak on a panel about the topic at PantheaCon last February. It’s a long read, but I think it will be helpful.

Excerpted from HAITIAN VODOU, Chapter 3: Sacrifices in Vodou

Getting back to Haitian Vodou, we address perhaps the largest confusion and/or controversy that outsiders to the tradition will confront: the nature of sacrifice, and particularly animal sacrifice. The Lwa of Haitian Vodou request, and are given, many things as offerings or gifts as part of their ceremonies and service. Some Lwa want special candles or tangible objects like perfume, mirrors, or drums. Some Lwa might demand various drinks, from cool water to fiery kleren (pronounced kleh-REN, a high-proof, raw rum). Still other Lwa want various kinds of foods including fruits, vegetables, fancy pastries, breads, candies, and specially prepared dinners. Very few of our Lwa are vegetarians, and most of our Lwa eat meat, just as most Vodouisants eat meat. Remember that the practice of vegetarianism, or other decisions about what to eat or not eat, are generally considered luxuries in a country where food shortages and famines are far too frequent.

Continue reading Sacrifices in Vodou (Excerpt from HAITIAN VODOU)

Why Vodou work isn’t free

There’s a Haitian proverb:

mambo (houngan) pa travay pou gran mesi
“Mambo (Houngan) doesn’t work for a big thank you.”

This means not only that good mambos or houngans aren’t doing spiritual work for the adulation of the millions, or for the show of it – but also that they don’t work for free.

There is a distinct difference between charging for one’s time/effort/materials and the prices I see some people charging for their services. I have seen variances of hundreds of percent. I know a houngan who charges less than $50 for a reading that takes him the better part of a day to prepare for; I know another who spends considerably less time, charges several hundred – and gets it.

Is there a difference between charging and overcharging, or is every Vodouisant who asks to be paid for his or her work a bad person?

You get what you pay for, and what you pay for something is not always in money, whether in Haiti or anywhere else.

I cannot attest to knowing a single initiate, “good” or “bad,” who works for absolutely nothing in return, even if that payment is non-monetary in origin.  Everything costs something to somebody.  There is no such thing as free when it comes to the spirits.  If it doesn’t cost you in dollars, it’s going to cost you attention, work, effort or maybe even responsibility.  It WILL cost you something, period.

This is not a bad thing at all.  It is the way the entire universe works.  The Lwa themselves cut deals with people and each other, and sometimes those deals are sealed with money.  If Metres Mambo Ezili Freda tells me that the work I want her to do for me is going to cost me a party I have to pay for in her honor, does that mean she’s a fraud too?  After all, the grocery store isn’t going to accept my undying love and thanks in return for all that champagne and cake…

What I have learned over the years is the sign of a good mambo or houngan that can be seen in the way they price their services is that the good ones ALWAYS work with each individual and that individual’s personal circumstances.

If you really need work done but you cannot afford it, ethical Vodouisants will arrange payment plans,  scale down the work or accept lesser payment.  Sometimes they’ll let you pay for work later, or pay for it in forms that aren’t monetary, if their own finances allow it, and sometimes if they don’t, if Spirit tells them to.

Additionally, during the entire process, they will be honest and up front with you about costs.  If something is going to cost more than it was estimated, they’ll explain why and quickly. You won’t suddenly be told after you have invested in a reading or a work that suddenly it’s now going to cost you another (insert ridiculous amount here), or suddenly that there are MORE problems than the original reading/work revealed that (surprise!) require yet more money.

Just like if you were shopping for a dentist or a guy to fix your plumbing, you have to be savvy.  Ask any potential Vodouisant you are considering to hire to do magical work on your behalf for estimates on that work.  Comparison shop.  Talk to their clients, both the satisfied ones and the unsatisfied ones.   The “good” mambos and houngans sort themselves out fairly quickly if you do this for yourself.

Enough rant for one night, but this is a subject that irritates me on both its extremes:  the one extreme where people think that the more you pay for something the better it must be AND the other extreme, where money is evil and anyone who wants or needs it must also be evil.

People should not assume that just because they paid $2000 for something it’s guaranteed to work when only Bondye can guarantee anything, or, conversely, that a houngan who can barely feed his kids is “bad” if he asks for $50 to spend the next three days working on your problem.  Both extremes are far from the truth.

A Haitian Vodou blog