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  • John Ryan

Day 4: Catholic mass, Vodou traditions, and thin veil between body and spirit

Updated: Mar 2, 2018

(Photo 1: a random part of the path, walking through the beautiful countryside of Haiti)

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Here I am, my first full day in the field site, and what a time it has been. I really just want to talk to my wife and see my son. Not in a bad way, I just miss them.

But, what I think would me best right now, would be to record as much as I can remember before decompressing with someone. For the blog, I will include a portion of the details.

What an adventure of a day. When I awoke, I thought I would just go to Catholic mass next door with the other family in the lakou (a traditional household unit connecting 2-5 homes, a small garden, chickens, and the like) and return home to relax and read. I was wrong.

I did first go to mass, which I enjoyed immensely. I am amazed at the beautiful gift of learning another language. Today, more than any other day, that gift influenced my experiences, and how I relate with others.

Some friends from last time show up at my house with another the two men riding on a motorcycle. They tell me to hop on, that they have something they want show me, people they want me to meet. I oblige, and we head off, three long on a bike.

As we barrel down the paved road, reaching our turn to the dirt path, they yell over the wind that we are headed to a traditional gathering. We eventually reach a point where bikes can no longer travel. We park and begin walking nearly straight up the side of a mountain, which is covered in rocky outcrops. After some time, we hear rhythm and voices.

Traditional/Vodou Ceremony

I start to realize how far into the rural area we are. There is a structure made of tarps, about the size of an average American living room. I look to the left and I cannot believe how I missed it coming in. There is a building made of concrete and tin roof, with two tall poles reach above the height of the house, with Vodou flags being flown.

There are many people around, more than forty. Merchant stations sit beneath a Figye (ficus) tree towards the front of the opening of the large tent. There, people ask me if I want anything to drink, I choose a Toro, a Haitian energy drink that looks comically like a Red Bull. The woman doesn’t take my money.

Instead, she leads me into the tent, and I sit in a wooden chair that I am directed towards. There is a small group of people across the room huddling together, talking and occasionally looking at me.

Drums start beating to my right, with thunderous sounds. Five men bang them loudly. The rhythm begins to come together, and my heart feels as if it is beating too fast, too hard. Dancing starts, with people taking little steps to themselves, followed by a dip in the 3rd step. And at that 3rd beat they occasionally move their fluid motion together in twirls, with men and women approaching and responding to each other’s movements, not unlike the mock fighting of Brazillian Jijitsu. Occasionally, one of them will order people exactly where to stand or what to do. All in all, it looks like something spontaneous, made up as they go, but based in practiced movements. People move faster.

I look to the drums. They are made of hand-carved wood, the ridges protruding like vertical ribs from the side of the instrument, with animal skin stretched across the top, locked in with wooden spikes. The farthest from me is a tall drum with a man playing with his hands. The second one consists of two smaller drums between a man’s legs. The next is played with two sticks about the width of pencils and three times the length. I realize this instrument is what hurts my ears and penetrates my chest, with twangy sounds shooting out from the place where the sticks meet the hide. There is another closer to me, played with hands, about average size for the group.

The men playing drums do not look at me. They do not seem to care. Other people dancing do, but the drummers don’t look at anything. They look up slightly and to the left or the right, bobbing their head back with fluid emphasis on certain beats of the drum.

“Well what a place to be!” I think to myself. I move my body just a bit, enough to show I am involved with the people there but not enough to get others to think I want to dance with them. When asked to dance, I tell people that I am happy just to watch. It is good to be able to explain these more complicated emotions and thoughts to them and add more complexity to my explanation, not making it seem rude but at the same time not mistakenly agreeing with silence that I wish to dance. Younger people, teens and kids, stand in a circle behind me, watching with us.

And then it all starts to come together. I guess this is where I would say that. One man becomes more separated from the group of dancers. Throughout the time, he has been obviously important. It is not hard to notice through his movements, others’ reaction to his movements, and his clothing, based on my past experiences with Vodou, that he was an ougan (Vodou priest). His shirt is red, white, and blue. Things more closely associated with Vodou tend to have these colors, in my experience. This includes the flag in his hand. It is not a Haitian flag, but a half blue and half red flag, nearly square in shape, without the center white portion of the Haitian flag.

This man is older than nearly all here. He has a solemn look on his face. He doesn’t look directly at anyone. He seems to look through people or up and to the side, as the drummers do. Him and the drummers are connected. Throughout the ceremony, this man and the drummers and connected on one level, and everyone else exists in a different group.

After some time of observing, it becomes apparent that just observing is not an option. A woman comes, takes our hands and leads us to the center of the tent, one by one. We stand next to each other facing the drummers.

The music speeds up and gets to a consistent rhythm. No one says anything but obviously something is happening, as when watching a movie and the music changes, you know something is happening. You don’t need to think about “Hey, is this going to be a thrilling part of the movie?” The music tells you. I don’t have to think if this is going to be an important part of the ceremony.

The music continues as the woman who led us there announces our names to the congregation and explains that I am an American, here with people who are friends of the community.

The man lifts the flag and turns around to face us. He doesn’t look at anyone. He holds the pole horizontally, with the cloth end to my right. I zoom out my attention to the large circle of people around us, inside of this tent constructed of tattered tarps, the tarp above me imprinted with the name of a US organization.

He begins to move the flag. It starts horizontal, then he dips the right side. As he increases the angle, the drums beat faster and more pronounced, as if things are falling off the horizon of the flag onto the floor. Then he brings it horizontal again and the drums return to a simple rhythm, one they have had the majority of the time. Then, he tilts it to the left, and as if things are falling off it again, the drums beat faster and faster and faster. He brings it up horizontal again, moving it fluidly through this process.

He takes the flag, pointing the end towards us. With his right hand on the pole, he slowly but firmly touches the flag against the side of my friend’s arm, between the shoulder and bicep. A few beats pass. He does the same thing to the woman. These movements are obviously important, since he takes time between each movement. The congregation is watching us. Then, he does the same thing to me, aligned with the rhythms of the beating drums

The flag is brought back in. Suddenly, unexpectedly (to me), everything stops.

No one speaks. No drums beat. For the first time since arriving, everything is silent. The Vodou priest stares at me, saying nothing.

My friend, after what feels like 40 seconds but is probably about 4, leans in slightly from the right and says out of the corner of his mount (in Creole) “John, speak.”

“What?” I whisper before I can think.

“It is your time to speak. Speak.”

Well, so much for just observing, I think. I start to talk.


When I say this, the drums beat thrice… vroom vroom vroom.

I wait a beat and start talking again.

I begin to explain who I am and why I am there- that I am not with an organization or a non-profit, that I am by myself. I say I am there to study with people, to finish my degree, to work with people, and also to learn more about Haiti.

Everyone remains quiet.

I explain how I have been coming since 2007, about how I love the country of Haiti. I talk about how I will be there in the community for 11 months.

I explain what I am studying, that I want to learn with the people, that I am trying to learn about how people live, those people that work with the environment, that work with the soil, about the connection between the people and the land and between hurricanes and people. I explain I will be there for a long time in the community and that I will hopefully come back to this part of the community from time to time, and that while I am there I will be asking if people would like to share with me. I will be asking people about their experiences and their lives. I say that if people want to speak with me, they can, but if they do not want to, they do not have to.

I try to use a calm, relaxed tone throughout. I tell people there are no obligations, and that I am not offering anything, I am just here as myself doing what I am doing. I tell them I respect them, I respect their culture, and I want to learn from them.

At this point, the drums commence beating again, quickly and louder with each bang… vroom Vroom VROOM VROOM. They stop.

It is apparent that I am supposed to say more. I talk. I explain more about who I am, my past experiences here. I explain how I witnessed disaster with the Haitian people while in Haiti during the earthquake of 2010. I tell them how I felt bonded with the people of Haiti after this experience and how I was determined to work together in the future on the subject of disasters.

The drums beat again, triggered by some motion I do not see.

The priest looks at us, gives a nod, and returns to his seat.

People begin dancing, beating drums, and nodding in my direction when I look at them. It is apparent I didn’t fail miserably. There is now some sort of knowledge, some agreement about why I am there.

We sit down for a bit. There is a bottle of kleren (moonshine) being passed around the circle. Each person seated around the ceremonious pole takes a swig as they pass the bottle. Though I have been abstaining from alcohol recently, I know that an egregious level of disrespect would arise should I turn down the offer.

Yet, before the bottle reaches me, a woman leans in, telling us we are to meet another priest. This man comes up, in more typical clothing.

This man leads us to the building with the Vodou flags on either side of the door. We walk in, me in the rear. Since the building is not part of the public event, I will avoid description in this public medium.

Once I step down the two concrete steps and begin to walk away, the priest approaches me from behind. In his hand is a bottle.

He pushes it out to me, palms up, an unopened bottle of Barbancourt Senk Etwal (Five Star) rum, the most expensive drink regularly made in Haiti. I try to be polite and not take it. He tells me, “take this, this is for you.” The others look at me, assuring me with their gazes that I have no choice, I must take it. I try to estimate to myself how many days’ or weeks’ wages this is for people living in this rural community. I am humbled by the kindness of this man and this community.

We walk towards another large fig tree beside the road, the tent receding behind me with the music and dancing continuing. I ask the woman, why he gave this to me. She laughed, saying “It is a gift!” I am stunned by the kindness.

The woman repeats, many 3-4 times, how she is so happy we came, how she is so excited to be my friend, and how great this is.

I tell the woman I will bring back a bottle of good whiskey from my country to give to the man. She says, “No no no, you don’t have to do that.” I say, “Yes, this is what I want to do.” She repeats, “There is no obligation, you are not obligated.”

I say, “I know I am not obligated. If I get the chance to go back and see my wife, I would like to find a good bottle for him and bring it back. It is a separate gift, as a friend, and because I want to.” I want to show him I am thankful and that I don’t take for granted his gift.

As we are leaving, I try not to be rude, and I want to emphasize how thankful I am, even though it looked like I was turning down the gift at first. I repeat this over and over to the woman. Gift giving is such strange but natural and beautiful human interaction. When there is no obligation, it makes me want to receive it, and it makes it ok for me to give back. That at least is how I feel in this complex little relationship arising today.

We laugh together. I look back at the tent with people filling it, gray tarps with various acronyms imprinted. I think of how symbols take on different meanings in their various contexts.

This woman and a couple others ask me about my country. They are curious and seem not to have much experience sharing experiences with outsiders. We discuss religion and how it plays out in our different countries. Unlike our compartmentalization of religion and life in the U.S., here the spiritual and the physical realm are separately only by a thin veil, and the distance between the parts on either side of the veil seem to be thinner still.

The dichotomies brought in by outsiders do not seem to be in such stark contrast here. Instead, everything is life. Everything is just the way it is. People follow the ways they have learned to be a member of their community, as I have learned to be a member of mine.

I try to explain to them how in the U.S. we have many religions and that people are supposed to respect all religions. I explain how the U.S. was founded on religious tolerance and acceptance of all people. I talk of how each group of people there, except for the native people, came to the US at some point in the not so distant past. They all brought their different religions, and they are all free to practice them. I am happy not to be asked about political racism at this point, though many other people so far have asked me why my country hates theirs.

They repeat how happy they are to meet me and to see me, and how they hope we can be good friends. I tell them I will be back in a few weeks, but I don’t know exactly when.

We say goodbye, laugh, and hug one another. I am preciously holding the Senk Etwal.

My friends and I ride, three long on the little motorbike, back to town. I feel the wind rushing around me, I look to the side, mango trees rush past. I soak in everything that happen, and I breathe deeply, smiling.

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