Next Monday, October 21, is Jamaica’s National Heroes Day, and next week is Heritage Week. For the past two years I have posted a Jamaican poem. This year, I found three poems from a poet whom I admire greatly, Professor Mervyn Morris. His poetry is spare and simple in its elegance – and, in his case, brevity is the soul of wit. Now retired, Professor Morris has taught Creative Writing and West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies since the 1960s. And he is a former Rhodes Scholar – so we have an alma mater in common. His poetry often holds for me a kind of wistfulness and longing, faint regret, and an ironic shrug of the shoulder. How I feel about life, sometimes.
These three poems are taken from “I Been There, Sort Of” published by Carcanet Press in 2006.
enfold me in their loving
For Janheinz Jahn
alive inside the daylight
close up invisible in air
float from the pages of your book.
We called their names.
Enter my father, laughing,
a substantial black.
(When I was young he died.)
Behind him his black father,
Fathers who fathered me.
My mother’s mother shuffles in,
dragging her gentleness along the glare.
She indicates her father,
who looks white.
I start to hear the irons clink.
He dissipates my terror with a wink.
Sentences for Heritage Week
for the energy it frees.
Do not spend precious time
hanging from family trees.
Below are links to poems by two young Jamaican poets, Ann-Margaret Lim and Ishion Hutchinson, that I posted last year and the year before.
Happy Heroes’ Weekend to all!
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/abeng-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day, 2011
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-festival-of-wild-orchid-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ The Festival of Wild Orchid: A Poem for National Heroes Day, 2012
We have noticed that, for the last week or two, a fairly small spider appears every night in a specific corner of the bathroom floor. He/she just sits there, unmoving. With only five legs he/she is probably technically not a spider – don’t spiders have eight legs?
In the morning, the spider thingy is gone – only to reappear the next night at around midnight or so, when I am just going to bed. He does not spin a web. He does not appear to catch anything to eat. He just sits there, on the floor. He is just there.
Last night, I tried taking a photo of him. The photograph came out strangely blurry… It just would not focus. (But then, that could be due to the fact that my camera does not seem to be very reliable at the moment).
My husband has suggested it might be a duppy – a spirit. Like the big flapping brown moths that live in the shadows under trees and sometimes enter the house at night. We call them bats in Jamaica, although of course they are not. Latin American and Caribbean myths about those creatures are not encouraging and usually involve death. So our yard is full of spirits, lurking in dark corners. I see omens of death almost daily.
In light of these superstitions, I am starting to wonder about our five-legged spider. But I am not. Superstitious. Am I?
Perhaps I can catch a real photo of him tonight.
The work of self-taught painter and sculptor Everald Brown is best understood in the context of religious Rastafari and African-Jamaican spirituality. Like many other religious Rastafarians, Brother Brown was attracted to the teachings and ritual practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and in the early 1960s established the Assembly of the Living, a self-styled mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which was located at 82 ½ Spanish Town Road.
Xaymaca is the Arawak (Taino) name for Jamaica. It means ”Land of Wood and Water.”
The Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC) has a small and unpretentious office in Kingston. And it has an outstretched arm, too – eastwards, over the struggling community of Bull Bay and its dusty environs to the rich pastures, rivers and hillsides of St. Thomas. WROC’s outreach program, which seeks to empower women (and men) in rural communities, grew from the organization’s Sustainable Livelihoods program eastablished after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan – a particularly vicious storm – in 2004. But WROC has actually been working in several communities in St. Thomas since 2001.
Sustainability is a key word here – and another one which came to mind when I visited the area last week is resilience. Resilience in the deepest sense of the word: drawing on reserves of strength, stretching and getting pulled out of shape, and “bouncing back.” But the bouncing back might not be a complete recovery; after a hurricane, things are never quite the same again, and never will be. One might perhaps be unable to return to how things were before. But one has armed oneself with skills, with resources – and with the strength – to be able to create and carve out an altered, adjusted life. It is about no longer depending on those elements that were – but that may never be (quite the same) again.
These are the complexities of climate change. As we headed out of the city, there were signs everywhere. As we crossed the Harbour View Bridge, I remembered the destruction of Tropical Storms: Nicole (2010) and Gustav, two years earlier. Last week, a trickle of water had worn a narrow path along one side of the wide, dry riverbed of the Hope River, which opens up into a rough and restless stretch of the sea coast on the other side of the long Palisadoes spit that takes you to Kingston’s airport. The Donald Quarrie High School, named after the Olympic champion athlete who came from Harbour View, sits precariously, on a flat area, now much too close to the sea. Huge waves flooded the school compound and several classrooms just last year during Hurricane Sandy; the school wants the Chinese engineering company that built up the Palisadoes spit to build them a sea wall. In 2007, Hurricane Dean stirred the waves to such fury that the sea knocked a huge hole in the schools’s Industrial Arts Department; while not far away, a once desirable housing development (Caribbean Terrace) has been steadily torn apart by successive storms since Hurricane Ivan. You can still see some of the solid concrete homes, overturned by the strength of the waves, knocked sideways like abandoned small toys.
Did you notice how many storm names I mentioned in that last paragraph?
The main coastal road took us across the dry Yallahs River, where as you cross the now-raised fording you look inland to the spread of hills, dark with forests. But the palette is different now; the landscape of St. Thomas is colored auburn, blond. As the road passed close to the shore at Roselle, we noticed that bulldozers were busy, piling up huge stones where once there was a rocky but attractive fishing beach. The ocean was always strong and lively here, with “white horses” piled up to the horizon. But we used to stop sometimes at the beach, where fishermen sold their catch. On the other side of the narrow road, a delicious waterfall slides over rocks, creating a natural (but not at all private) shower for local residents. That waterfall was small and modest last week, barely enough for a good wash.
At last, we reached the quiet village of Trinityville, having turned off the road and driven through pastures that showed the effects of prolonged drought. An arc of irrigation water hung over brown fields. As we drew closer, the exquisite rounded, green hills that I admired on my last visit came into view, now sunburned and dry. The several rivers we crossed en route were low, their waters trickling among dry boulders.
But when we arrived in Trinityville, they had enjoyed a shower of rain that morning. The air seemed to want to turn into water; humidity dripped from the trees. We met Ernest Grant, a goat farmer who had benefited from WROC’s sustainability project, with two of his animals. Guided by WROC’s energetic outreach officer Nkrumah, we then visited a greenhouse, tucked away among tangled foliage behind some houses, and flanked by large black water tanks (a regular feature of our landscape these days). There we met Lenford Brown and Clinton Bailey. They were growing 426 tomato plants in the greenhouse, which cost around J$1 million. They were also starting a seedling nursery, where young sweet pepper seedlings were already flourishing, with the assistance of the Digicel Foundation; delicious romaine lettuce was also growing nearby.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Bailey were hoping for more rain. They would like to have more greenhouses, expand their operations. They are also hoping to expand the market for their produce, although they already sell to local “higglers” (traders) and to those outside the community who sell in Kingston’s markets. The logistics of selling to hotels are not workable; roads in the area are poor, and it would simply take too long for the produce to reach its destination. There are no large (or even small) hotels nearby. The local market fluctuates somewhat, but it is there.
Mr. Brown, an astute and highly-focused graduate of the nearby Robert Lightbourne High School, has a business plan. He believes in value-added products. He has helped develop a tomato jam or ketchup. WROC also launched a delicious guava ketchup (sauce) at the Denbigh Agricultural Show in 2010; the project was funded by the European Union and Christian Aid to provide income to the rural residents. Now, guava is a resilient and abundant crop in the area, growing virtually wild; and it is nutrition-rich, with many possibilities for value-added products.
We moved on, climbing a little further to the village of Somerset, set a little deeper in the hills above the gently chiming Somerset River. There we met Joslyn (not sure if I got the spelling of his name right), who oversees another WROC project sponsored by the European Union, to build check dams.
What are check dams, you may ask? Well, they are small dams, built across gullies or water channels or ditches, to “check” the water flow. During storms or heavy rains, the water gushes madly down the hillsides, sweeping everything in its path. Crops, forested areas, even homes are damaged and destroyed, and entire hillsides with precious soils can be eroded, washing away into nothing and swamping the valleys below. The check dam slows the waters down; it creates pools, and the overflow slips over – often to another check dam below, which again slows the water and prevents that furious, destructive torrent.
From Somerset, we walked up the hill to one of the check dams under construction. On the way up, we saw the kind of damage that the dams are designed to counteract: the hillside torn away by landslides, exposing tree roots; and a house that had been abandoned years before when the hillside pushed down on it.
And here was the dam. The men joked loudly as they worked, shoveling cement under a bright blue tarpaulin. Another man walked up the steep gully from the site of another dam to be built lower down. At the end of the path, we met a group of women, sturdy and strong, who gave us a demonstration of how they carry river stones from the huge pile at their feet down to the dam, hand to hand, to be cemented into the structure. This turned out to be an interactive project; the whole group of us joined in, passing the large stones along. The visitors found this amusing; the women were serious in their work.
The higher slopes were a dull brown, with bright green fans of bamboo still flourishing where other trees had been cut down. Farmers are moving higher up in the hills to grow their cash crops, Joslyn told us – ackee, coffee, pear. It is cooler up there and the rainfall is better. Nevertheless, we saw many fruit trees in the village - “fruit trees are always cared for.” Mules and donkeys are still valuable in these parts, we were told; there are no roads – at least none suitable for cars – and to reach their farming plots on the higher slopes, farmers must hike for two hours or more on the animals’ backs. They have to do it. It’s a change for them, but they are adapting.
And what of the native trees, the hardwoods that used to flourish in this beautiful watershed of the island? There are very few remaining. During the 1980s, the Forestry Industry Development Company (FIDCO) operated in the area. According to locals and environmentalists alike, FIDCO’s logging operations, while replanting with fast-growing pine trees, did untold damage to Jamaica’s forests. The state agency, established in 1978, was finally wound up in 2000. A reforestation project is now under way; but again, to make the young trees take root and grow properly, proper irrigation is needed. Without water, the wood cannot flourish. And it is hard, very hard, to repair the damage.
We walked back down the hill for lunch, passing a small office made from a container, where a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Sarah Marshall works on a number of community environmental awareness projects. She’s doing great work, especially with the schoolchildren, we were told. As we ate our flavorful chicken and rice and peas and drank delicious fresh carrot and orange juice, delicately flavored with ginger, I reflected on the mysterious, quiet beauty of Jamaican country life.
Times change, the climate is changing; but I strongly feel that the women and men of Trinityville and Somerset are ready for whatever the future brings. With the ongoing support of organizations such as WROC and with adequate funding, these communities can face the future. They understand what is needed, and they are ready. I am filled with admiration for them all.
Thank you to WROC, and to the visitors from the Seven Hills Outreach Center in Boston, Massachusetts for allowing me to hitch a ride on their bus. And especially, my grateful thanks to the people of Trinityville and Somerset, in the living, breathing hills and valleys of St. Thomas.
You should go and visit them soon.
http://wrocjamaica.org/focus-areas/sustainable-livelihoods: WROC Sustainable Livelihoods
http://www.forestry.gov.jm Forestry Department, Jamaica
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7APrx74afw Hurricane Sandy damages Donald Quarrie High: Jamaica Observer/video
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100704/news/news5.html Caribbean Terrace a shell: Gleaner, 2010
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110901/cook/cook1.html Check out Beechwood’s Gourmet Guava Sauce: Gleaner, 2011
http://www.jamaicaelections.com/general/2002/articles/20021016-5.html The dawning of truth: article by environmentalist Peter Espeut/Gleaner
A couple of my readers asked me about an entry in my first “Sunday Stumble”… “Why would anyone stone owls?” Good question.
I will attempt to explain – although if anyone has more information or insights to contribute, please feel free. I am no expert, but I do believe the stoning of owls in Jamaica is based on superstition. They are a symbol of death – or they bring death. An omen, rather than a symbol, actually.
The name “Patoo” originates from the Twi word “patu.” Twi being Ghana‘s principal native language. There is a bit of confusion with another Jamaican bird, the Potoo, which is by no means an owl, but a “goatsucker” (a nightjar), an extraordinary bird I will have to tell you more about another time.
And for my competitors on “Words With Friends,” Patoo is not accepted as a word…
There are two types of owls in Jamaica: the Barn Owl (also often called the Screech Owl or Scritch Owl), and the Jamaican Owl – somewhat smaller and very brown, with charming ear tufts. I understand that the Barn Owl is more feared, and more often stoned. Of course, we have similar Barn Owls across several continents – but our Jamaican one seems especially pallid, ghostly white (and, to me anyway, quite beautiful, with his huge face and black eyes and silent white wings). In many parts of the Eastern Caribbean he is called a Jumbie Bird – or Spirit Bird. So he is very much associated with ghosts (duppies in Jamaican parlance).
The fear of owls seems to have been brought to Jamaica by African slaves, and generally all over Africa owls are regarded as harbingers of bad luck, disease, death. In Zimbabwe, I understand, many believe that if one lands on your roof, there will be a death in the family. Just as in Jamaica today, they are also stoned and chased away in some communities. No one wants them near their house.
In several other cultures, owls are revered and respected, rather than feared. Most Native American tribes find them powerful creatures and the Tlingit tribe used to go into battle hooting like owls. In European traditions, owls are often considered wise. One of my childhood books (whose main character was a motherly grey rabbit dressed in women’s clothes, an apron and such) included Wise Owl – who was only marginally scary because he was pretty much a recluse, and rather mysterious. In the end, though, he turned out to be a very useful member of the quaint little woodland society in the book, and of course quite fearless. I always associated owls with wisdom (often holding a book in their claw). I believe this all derives from the Greek myth of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who actually shape-shifted back and forth from human to owl.
And yet Will Shakespeare himself regarded and described the owl as a bringer of doom, just as Jamaicans do. Many Arab traditions also fear the owl, for the same reasons. In Mayan mythology, the messengers of the Death Gods are owls.
Nevertheless, when I hear the Barn Owl’s wings creaking steadily over our house in the evenings, and his hissing screech, I feel in a way reassured. To me it is far from fearful, it is comforting.
And I wish him happy hunting.
PS Did you know the word for the fear of owls is oclophobia? Well, among several other phobias which I do not wish to discuss here, it seems there are Jamaican oclophobes. Like the fear of lizards (herpetaphobia) it is one that we should really try our best to overcome. After all, owls are very useful creatures; they eat the rats that are threatening to overwhelm us here in the city – oh, and they eat the much-feared lizards, too. What’s not to love.
- The Sunday Stumble – premiere edition (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Screams in the night (eyeonnature.wordpress.com)
Now that Hallowe’en is over, the Petchary would like to speak up on behalf of an ancient tradition that is often much maligned on this island of Jamaica. Primarily by Christians - and I say this with emphasis, as they do themselves, possibly to emphasize their sense of superiority to the rest of us heathens. There we are, I’ve already started on a controversial note.
Hallowe’en – October 31 – was the last day of the Celtic year. As someone with more than a drop of Celtic blood in her veins, I don’t really appreciate people condemning the traditions that are a part of my cultural and indeed family heritage. I don’t disrespect other people’s traditions – and I think a little more understanding (and research/information/knowledge) would be nice. (It puzzles me that in this “age of information” one can still be so ill-informed. I guess it’s lazy thinking).
But I digress. The original Hallowe’en was the Celtic feast of Samhain. It goes back to the eighth century and even further back – some say to Roman times. A time of year when the nights draw in, the sunsets are richer and the shadows deeper. The end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. A time when thoughts turn inward, away from the material, towards the spiritual. OK so far? I think so. Evil and Satanic? I think not.
The odd thing about these Christian anti-Halloweeners is that they completely miss the point that, although this Celtic festival pre-dated Christianity, it was almost immediately absorbed into the Christian (Catholic) calendar and has always been recognized int (although the Puritans weren’t too happy with it in England for a time, but then they weren’t happy with a lot of things). Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day. Again, these days are a time to reflect on the spirit and its passing from this earthly life – and a time to pray for the dead.
What is wrong with honoring the dead? The Mexicans (and others) do it every year at the same time – the Dia de Los Muertos – they are doing it right now, putting flowers and sweet things on the graves of their ancestors. Sure, there are lots of skulls and macabre costumes, as there are in Hallowe’en, but it is a celebration and an honoring too. Now, I do wish Jamaicans would honor their dead more. If you look at “then and now” photos of Kingston’s May Pen Cemetery (the “now” being a wasteland) you would see what I mean. Respect for those who have gone before us is a part of All Hallows’ Day and All Saints’ Day – it is a time of mysterious connection, when the spirit world draws closer to us. A recognition of that world of spirits – that land of shadows. And that’s the “scary” part.
Where does the dressing-up part come from, and the trick or treating? Well, they are both connected and both originate from the belief that if you disguise yourself, those spirits won’t recognize you. Again, it goes back hundreds of years – it is not some silly new-fangled American thing. Trick or treating was called “guising” (as in disguise) and it is even mentioned in Shakespeare. And it has been a tradition in Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall (going back to the Celts again of course) for hundreds of years.
Now, my Christian friends always talk about the “Satanic” nature of Hallowe’en. But where does that come from? I grew up with Hallowe’en, and never was there any mention of “Old Nick” in that context (that was my grandmother’s name for him – an English expression that dates from the seventeenth century). He never came into the picture, nor does he in any of the Hallowe’en traditions that I know of (someone, please correct me if I’m wrong).
In fact, I have never heard so much talk of “Satan” as in Jamaica. When something won’t work out, it is blamed on Satan. I was rather startled when I first encountered his name in an everyday conversation, and I still do wonder why his name is recalled so often. Even gangsters call themselves Satan from time to time – the baddest of the bad, I guess. I think part of the confusion of Hallowe’en is the confusion of the “dark side” – the spirit world of ghosts, spirits, fairies and the like – with Satanism. But why? Jamaicans have their own incredible duppy stories too – the Rolling Calf sends shivers down my spine – but Satan doesn’t get mixed up in those legends. But then, there is no Christian origin to those stories either. All very complex.
And now for other Hallowe’en traditions, which you may or may not know. One of our favorites at home was “apple bobbing,” the kind of thing they would do on TV game shows these days to get people to make a fool of themselves. You had to kneel and grab an apple out of a bucket of water with your mouth, not using your hands. Of course apples were in season at that time of year, and there were the toffee apples (or candy apples as they are called in the U.S.). I remember as a child, in great fascination and excitement, watching my grandmother dipping the apples into the sticky, tawny-colored toffee, which she boiled up in a deep pan with dire warnings not to go anywhere near it.
Then there were the fancy-dress parties. The whole point that the Jamaican Christians are missing – sadly – is that in fact, Hallowe’en is tremendous (and quite harmless) fun. Their cries of “Satanism” and “evil” sound like killjoys.
We had fun. I would spend weeks planning my costume (always home-made, by my long-suffering mother) and we would have noisy, boisterous parties, pretending to be someone else. What kid doesn’t love dressing up? It is empowering. My parent would pretend to be scared by me and my raucous friends. And we felt safe and secure in our masks and crazy headgear. My best-ever costume was a scarecrow.
So please, give Hallowe’en a break. Try to understand and respect a tradition that is hundreds – if not thousands – of years old.
A little more tolerance. A little more understanding.
And remember there is the light, and there is the dark. All a part of life.
This helped me to reflect on Jamaica’s sad history, and the sacrifices of our ancestors. It has been in my mind all day, above the platitudes of the politicians and the post-colonial pomp of the National Awards Ceremony at King’s House – this beautiful, bright morning.
The colonel’s face turns to mist, the tasselled-horn trembles in his hand
before he raises it to his lips and hears a goat’s faint wail -
thin like straw grass he blew as a child at the foot of the Blue Mountain.
They will come soon, the old people, to the village centre, with no memories,
mist in their eyes, their mouths parched at the once-a-month ceremonial meeting.
This is how culture dies, the colonel sighs, watching as smoke goes through the leaves,
joining the horn’s call, all one echo; nothing from Cudjoe, or Queen Nanny,
neither long-head Accompong; the smoke is just smoke,
but a flight of blackbirds burst from the treetops.
He lowers the ranking ram’s horn, and says, At least some still runaway.
With permission from the author.
- Blue Mountains’ Women Coffee Farmers Turn to Weaving (repeatingislands.com)
- Jamaica to Restore Marcus Garvey’s Childhood Home (repeatingislands.com)
- Peepal Tree Press Authors predominate in Guyana Literary Awards (caribbeanbookblog.wordpress.com)
A mind-expanding journey it is, narrated with growing intensity by Alec Baldwin. The images are so powerful, but more than that… It made me think, and wonder, and left me completely in awe. Watch ALL of it in 12 parts on YouTube. I guarantee, your mind will be blown…
- Alec Baldwin considering run for mayor of NYC (thestar.com)
Monday morning, but an after-Christmas holiday, and quiet has descended on the town. No traffic, only the loud and restless wind in the trees, blowing blossoms and dry leaves across the lawn; and the occasional gentle creaking of the roof rafters. The birds are flying at high speed, blown by the wind. The Whitewing Doves bicker over the food table.
But the essence of this morning is a welcome stillness. To honor this, we are playing the overture to Wagner’s “Parsifal” – really “Good Friday music,” but Wagner was also strongly influenced by Buddhism when he first conceived this story. The strong, calm tones of the trumpets and horns and violins soothe and elevate the soul. Try it.
Back to Christmas. Last week when we were buying our newspaper as usual in the morning, the vendor, a tired-looking, middle-aged woman with a gentle smile, pushed an envelope into our hand. Instead of the usual request for Christmas money, there was a card inside. When we opened it, it played a piercing, tinny version of “Jingle Bells,” instantly followed by “Santa Claus is coming to town” and “We wish you a merry Christmas” – back to back.
It was the message, hand-written straight from the heart:
“To my customer. In the beauty of this season may you find happiness and joy. Merry Christmas, God’s richest blessings for the New Year. From Marcia, your Gleaner and Observer lady. Love you.”
The Petchary and her husband felt, at last, that uncomfortably warm emotion that we all search for at Christmas… and throughout the year. It’s hard to get it from sentimental films; they often take us too far into the realms of the maudlin. And the lovely animated film “The Snowman,” narrated by David Bowie, is filled with such pathos that the Petchary’s son, as a young child, regularly burst into tears at the end. Christmas songs and carols don’t always work either, unless you are deeply religious perhaps. ”Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” for example, was always one carol you simply belted out as loudly as possible, trying to tackle the high notes.
That simple Christmas card and its heartfelt sentiments did it for us, this Christmas.
Meanwhile, let the winds blow us all into a calm and purposeful New Year.
“Poor Haiti.” This is what we Jamaicans say with a little sigh. ”At least we are not as bad as Haiti,” is another common refrain (“bad” meaning impoverished, destitute, virtually leaderless). Our “Christian” friends say earnestly, “It’s God punishing them because they practice voodoo.” They only have a vague inkling of what voodoo is, but it must of course have a lot to do with the devil, the Christians (with an upper case C) believe…
Jamaica is one of Haiti’s closest neighbors. They are our “Haitian brothers and sisters,” as politicians and church ministers like to say, when they are trying to prove their solidarity.
But if truth be told, Haiti makes some of us quite uncomfortable. It really is a troublesome neighbor – one whose kids cry too loud, who fills up his back yard with junk, with an annoying dog that starts barking when you are trying to get your last little bit of sleep in the morning. A neighbor you may even suspect is involved in criminal activities, mysterious comings and goings late at night. So our sincerely felt sympathy is often tempered with just a little touch of exasperation.
Now this evening, Jamaica is sitting on the edge of a meandering tropical storm, Tomas. So far it has brushed us very lightly with its feathery, pale orange outer clouds, bringing gentle rain. Pale orange on the satellite map, that is. The dark orange is reserved for – oh, poor Haiti again.
“Oh, how much more can Haiti take?” we cry, wringing our hands. This year, first the earthquake (which shook us in Kingston, as a warning), then cholera, and now storms which will surely wash them all away. And even before this year, for many years there has been some kind of “Haiti crisis.” Fleeing dictators; a populist ex-priest in exile; and battered wooden boats arriving on Jamaicans shores, helped onto the beach by kind fishermen, the occupants hollow-eyed and hungry. The refugees sat forlornly on the porch of a run-down old people’s home in rural Jamaica, and some ended up in a kind of modified correctional center, before being sent home. The priest and his family were also housed in Jamaica for a while, rather more luxuriously, at a pretty country home with satin sofas and nice rugs on the floor, giving the occasional staged interview with his wife and their two daughters in their best Sunday dresses.
Poor Mr. Jean Bertrand Aristide. He loved the poor, and he wanted to help them. He might also have said, “Poor Haiti!” But the Petchary is always wary of politicians who say they “love the poor.” What makes them especially lovable? Now they say they want him back, but the chances of him returning are remote. He now lives in a government villa in Pretoria, South Africa, he can speak Zulu really well and is now Dr. Aristide (he has obtained a doctorate in African Languages). He has a new life, but the poor don’t.
But let’s get back to Haiti now. Why do Jamaicans find Haiti, and Haitians, so disturbing? Well, they are so… African, aren’t they. And there is the voodoo thing, and (one major stumbling block to comprehending their culture) they speak not just French, but a particularly opaque Creole, a language all their own. Very few Jamaicans seem to speak or understand French, but a few more are now managing to learn Spanish. The language barrier is not to be discounted.
What else about Haiti? Well, so much else. The culture is a powerful concoction of European (French with a dash of Spanish), African and Caribbean (Taino). Stir it up and you get something delicious, incredibly rich, and you can sip it in small sips and enjoy. Haitian art is so explosive and colorful it almost hurts your eyes, like staring at a huge fireworks display. There have been different schools, like the Jacmel School and the Saint-Soleil School. The Petchary has a painting by Prospere Pierre-Louis, a former member of the Saint-Soleil School, whose thickly painted expressions of the voodoo religion just jump out from the wall at you. Mr. Pierre-Louis was the son of a voodoo priest, and he died in 1996. Happy to have him on our wall.
Then there are the glittering sequin flags, the humorous, spiky metal sculptures. But sad to note, the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince was destroyed in January’s earthquake and its director, Francine Murat, died a few weeks later.
And the music! There is compas, a kind of lilting calypso, and hard-driving bands like Boukman Eksperyans, who danced up a storm at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC this past summer. Oh, and there are great writers like Lyonel Trouillot (in Haiti) and Edwige Danticat (in New York) and the poet Jean Metellus (in France). And Haitians go to the movies – yes, they do – and the Motion Picture Association of Haiti was founded in 2007.
“Poor Haiti.” It is so much more.
(The Petchary salutes inspirational and ground-breaking artistic entrepreneur Melinda Brown of Roktowa, who returned to Jamaica from Haiti just a few days before the earthquake. A couple of months after, Melinda organized a three-month residency for Haitian artists at her studio/gallery in downtown Kingston. This was a way to nurture the artists and give them the mental and physical creative space to continue their work. Jamaica, and Haiti, are lucky to have met Melinda).
- Confusion, fear as Haiti camps evacuate for storm (thegrio.com)