Can Haiti change? The French, as always, have a word for it – in fact, several words: “Plus ça change…,” they say, shaking their heads as if to say nothing can be done about the situation, or alternately, shrugging their shoulders in that nonchalant Gallic fashion as if to imply things look pretty hopeless all around. In English, the proverb in its entirety translates as: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Applied to the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, no proverb seems more apt. Haiti remains Haiti, its problems seemingly insoluble, its tired and poor citizens bearing the brunt of its national afflictions, no matter how often America sends in the marines or international agencies send aid, money, and personnel. To paraphrase Rodney King’s plaintive question posed in quite a different context, why can’t they get along? Why can’t Haitians get along with each other, realizing that if they don’t hang together, but continue to hang separately, they’ll drag their country ever deeper into poverty and misery as they have for over 200 years.As a people, Haitians boast rare individual talents—witness their internationally acclaimed primitive art and splendid handicrafts, among the world’s finest. I still cherish the long-wearing handwoven baskets and hampers I bargained for over twenty years ago on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Beautifully crafted of palm or banana fibers, they sold for a song. Haitians are also into sculpturing steel and iron art works, wood bowls and lamp bases, and imaginative terra cotta items—all these objects simply shaped and beautifully fashioned, creatively modeled and enduring.
Why, I wonder, can’t Haitians pull together to fashion a good world for their long-suffering people instead of constantly scrabbling among themselves and continuing to tear their nation to pieces?
Fifteen minutes after my husband Alf and I landed at the airport in Port-au-Prince for the first time in the late nineteen-seventies, a lowering sky filled with huge black clouds that I’d watched uneasily all through our plane’s approach broke into a torrential downpour. Thunder and lightning lashed the area so violently that we all took refuge in the terminal’s modest waiting room before attempting the drive to our new home. American embassy personnel sent to meet their new deputy chief of mission, Alf, and me were no more eager than we to leave the shelter of the airport. Together, we waited out the storm for about an hour. I wondered briefly whether the storm was a bad omen at the beginning of our tour of duty in our first Caribbean posting. When Alf and I were finally driven away in his official car, an elderly embassy driver at the wheel, the potholed muddy roads branching off from the airport still overflowing with water, the driver became confused and a little lost, and it took another half hour before we arrived at our new home in a fashionable suburb of the capital.
There we found our elderly black Labrador Retriever, Dian, wagging his tail and panting quietly in his large steel-barred shipping cage set up in the middle of the airy tiled entrance hall. After being shipped from Miami on our flight, he had been delivered from the airport all right, but no one at the house had watered him or dared open his cage to let him out until we showed up, this despite the fact that he would never have hurt a fly. Later I learned that among the many superstitious beliefs commonly held by locals was that one of Haiti’s early Presidents was supposed to have turned into a fierce black dog – possibly even a loup garou, a werewolf, after being gunned down in the streets. Dian’s very presence probably kept would-be trespassers or cat burglars away. During our stay, no one ever disturbed our large, airy, and open house in its terraced garden, even though Dian spent most of his time sprawled out, napping on the cool tile floors. Although a big, black and bulky hulk, he was old and tired and had never been a watch dog anyway. As someone once told me, “Labs as watchdogs? They’re so friendly they’ll hold the candle for the thief!”
Superstition mixed with or based on voodoo abounded in Haiti. Early on, I was warned not to let Alf keep pictures of me or our children in his office at the embassy lest they be used for voodoo mischief of some kind.Once, I was the beneficiary of some kind of supernatural power, or perhaps it was just local meteorological know-how on the part of my distinguished guest, when we gave an official dinner party for about thirty-five local government officials and diplomats. Although rain was possible in that season, the sky was clear, so I went ahead with plans to seat the party at tables out on our spacious open-air terrace, hoping for a relaxed and pleasant evening. Having heard that the ranking guest, a Haitian cabinet officer, was an American university graduate, as well as reputed to be a powerful voodoo priest, I took the opportunity to ask him whether he thought it would rain that evening.
“I certainly hope it won’t rain,” I said as we chatted over our pre-dinner cocktails, served on our covered porch, “Our dinner would be turned into a mad scramble!” He was a tall and dignified man, impeccably turned out for the evening. Walking over to the low wrought iron railing, he leaned out to peer up into the evening sky and solemnly announced that it would not rain during dinner.
With full confidence in his pronouncement, I unaccountably felt an immediate sense of relief, and the dinner went on as scheduled. It was a comfortably dry evening, a slight breeze cooled the air, and the candle lit tables looked beautiful. After dessert and various polite toasts ended the formal part of the dinner, Alf and I led everyone back up onto the porch for coffee and after-dinner liqueurs. No sooner were all the guests settled than the first sprinkles of rain began. Soon, a downright tropical deluge began that lasted about half an hour. But by then, of course, we and our guests were all under cover, and the dinner was over.
It wasn’t until our tour in Haiti was almost over that I was offered a chance to meet a famous mambo or voodoo priestess. While escorting visiting dignitaries, I had already been a spectator at several voodoo shows especially put on for foreigners and tourists. Even though they were prepared programs lacking spontaneity, the shows were authentic ceremonies and hypnotically riveting in intensity. While drums throbbed, swaying barefoot dancers moaned, sang, and danced to rhythms spellbinding in their powerful insistence. The word “magic” hardly seemed too strong for the visible effect the proceedings seemed to have on the white-robed participants, who twirled about, shook all over, and often ended rigidly stretched out on the hard packed dirt.
Believers in voodoo apparently felt that their tempting inducements could indeed call down the gods to work their will and force human beings into compliance or perhaps even to use humans as channels to perform such acts as the gods might desire done for their own hidden purposes. Whether hypnotism, drugs or other mind-altering influences were involved, who could say.
In any event, I looked forward to meeting this priestess who was reputed to have tremendous influence in the local society, far beyond what might be assumed from her residence in a simple village outside the city. An acquaintance and I arranged to drive out to the village, which was suffering from a severe drought, watch the ceremony that would petition the gods for rain (much like our Native American rain dances, I assumed), and meet the priestess.
On my way out of our driveway, I noticed a little heap of stones carefully piled at the foot of the trunk of a large flame tree in the center of our front garden. I didn’t remember noticing the little cairn before. A little uneasily, I remembered once hearing that in Europe, gypsies are said to mark householders’ doors with special cabalistic signs in chalk, indicating which houses are to be robbed or burglarized. But perhaps in Haiti, the stones were an offering of some kind, perhaps thanks for a good harvest or for a favor done – something simple like that. Not necessarily an evil or malicious sign, I thought. I would ask the gardener about it another time.
As arranged, I met Alyce, my contact, at an entrance to the Iron Market, a well known building in the heart of downtown. But I was surprised to find myself scurrying behind her up a staircase in a nearby, rather dilapidated apartment building, rather than driving together out to the village. She explained that the priestess had suggested that we meet in town first for a visit, probably in order to meet me before permitting me to attend the village ceremony.
In a corner of the first-floor landing, I noticed a large covered pottery water jar with a tin cup attached to it by a grimy string. Through an open door, I could see into a small room where a barechested man was bent over, working at a foot-pedalled sewing machine.
Alyce stopped at the second floor and knocked at a closed door. The woman who opened it struck me immediately as one of the most impressive individuals I had ever seen. Tall and thin, with a light café-au-lait complexion, she had in great measure what could only be called “presence.” Her erect posture emphasized her look of command. Dressed in a simple cotton print shift and barelegged, she wore scuffed, flat, brown leather sandals. Yet she was graceful as a dancer and somehow elegant. I tried to put my finger on why she seemed so remarkable. There was nothing unusual or special about her. With a start, I soon realized that the striking thing about her was her eyes.
They were a brilliant aquamarine. Surprisingly light-colored, pale, penetrating, they were piercing, almost like an eagle’s eyes. They seemed to have the power to look directly into one’s very soul. I remember flinching at the thought. But after her first look at me, she lowered her eyes as she ushered us in.
Once inside the small, sparsely furnished room, she quietly asked us to be seated and offered us a soda.
I thanked her but asked for just a plain glass of water. A sudden vision of the unhygienic water jar on the landing, probably used by all the tenants, made me regret my request. But she reached over to a small bottle of Perrier on a table by her chair and opened it. I drank a whole glassful.
Mother Marie, as she was called, was born in the Dominican Republic, where her father was a sugar cane cutter – a back-breaking job generally taken on only by the poorest Haitians, who crossed the border seeking jobs. As a result, she spoke fluent Spanish as well as French, she said, and of course, Creole, the main language of Haiti. Before I knew it, I was rattling on, telling her in an addled mixture of French and Spanish about my own language studies, and even about some of my travels around the world.
“And now, here I am in another new city,” I remember saying, “and I’m enjoying being in this fascinating place. There is so much to learn about it.”
Smiling, Mother Marie agreed. She planned to hold a ceremony, she said, in order to ask for rain. The villagers requested it. For weeks, their village had been suffering from severe drought. But the event would not take place for some weeks yet; it took time to make all the necessary arrangements. She was sure I understood. When all was prepared, she hoped I would be able to attend. Again, she smiled, looking directly at me. Those eyes were spellbinding. Her look was really special. I felt honored to have been invited in person.
I smiled back at her. “I’ll certainly try to be there,” I said.
She rose to her feet. The visit was over.
But I never went to the village or met Mother Marie again. I have long regretted it, but it was too close to the end of our time in Haiti. Our three-year tour was almost over.
And, although the country left a powerful impression on me, I haven’t been back. Still, I follow its problems closely in the news, hoping that some day that unfortunate nation will find its way toward giving its people a better life.
Bobbie Bergesen, who has written a number of reminiscences for American Diplomacy, was a U.S. Foreign Service spouse until the retirement in 1984 of her husband, Foreign Service officer Alf E. Bergesen. Four years after his death in 1995, Bobbie Bergesen remarried, but continues to use the surname on this article in her writing activities. She now lives in Florida.
Other articles by Bobbie Bergesen can be found here.