The Faces of Ogun
The drums pulsate in the Haitian night, and the bodies move, arms outspread in the air. The mass, around fifty people, are a churning sea that rises and falls with the drums. On the surface, bottles of rum float from hand to hand. The smells of sweat, incense, and roasting animal flesh thicken the air. The drums and the tapping of the steel ogan bell grow more urgent, and the mass churns more violently. Then a circle is cleared in the middle. A man pours rum into the space and sets fire to it, making an amorphous blue pool of flame. Another man, shirtless, emerges from the writhing mass. His eyes, crazed and trembling, look ready to burst from their sockets. The drums swell, and the chanting grows louder. The mambo, voodoo priestess, stands beside the shirtless man at the edge of the fire and leads him across it. The man stops, his bare feet in the blue-burning pool, and looks at the mambo.
A bottle of rum is placed in his hand, and he guzzles it. The mambo sprays rum from her mouth into his eyes, and the he stares ahead, unblinking. When he opens his mouth, what comes out is neither French nor Creole: “Ka, ka, ka… Ka, ka, KA, KA, KA!” The mambo speaks, but all he says is, “KA, KA, KA!” Someone gives him a machete. He raises it up over his head and takes another great swig from his bottle. He then lunges into the mass of bodies, the blade hovering high and shimmering in the scant light.
When I arrived in Haiti five months after the January 12th, 2010 earthquake, 20 million cubic meters of rubble remained, and, according to some calculations, two million people were homeless. 230,000 were dead.
I’d wanted to visit Haiti for many years. I’ve long been interested in its status as the world’s only nation made independent through a successful slave revolt. I’ve always been enthralled and inspired by the idea of an army of self-emancipated slaves defeating what was at the time the world’s most powerful country. I wanted to see the land where this took place, and talk with its people. I’d already planned my visit when the earthquake occurred, and I decided to do some volunteer work for the first half of my trip. Seeing all that devastation, I knew I’d have to do something about it. I wanted to do manual work, like moving rubble, and I arranged to volunteer with a non-profit in Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake, now ninety percent destroyed. I arrived in Haiti on the first day of my summer break from teaching high school in New Orleans.
That morning at the Port au Prince airport, I caught a ride with some American volunteers picking up a friend of theirs. They were living in tents on a concrete slab in the center of downtown. I wasn’t due in Leogane to start work until the following day, and they told me I could stay with them for the night. I had a whole day ahead of me. They lined me up with one of their Haitian translators, a man in his early twenties named Wilguens whom I quickly befriended and in whose “tent city” I stayed when I returned to the capital two weeks later.
Like so many others, Wilguens had lost his home. He made decent money translating when he could find work, and he used much of his money on a free English class he’d started and taught near his tent. He made copies for his students from a textbook he’d found left behind in an internet cafe. The rest of his money was spent on a few nice pairs of shoes. Wilguens dressed as though he were going to church and managed to keep himself immaculate, in spite of the dust and crowded streets. When I first approached him to help me navigate the city, I caught him inspecting his reflection in a glass display window, to make sure he was spotless. When I thought of this later, I realized how often I saw Haitians washing clothes. Despite all the dust and trash, I’d never seen anything whiter than Haitian laundry.
I’d read a great deal about the earthquake, but so many of the stories seemed somehow ungraspable, even impossible. I couldn’t wrap my head around the damage wrought and the number of people affected. For this reason, I wanted to see it first hand, to take it in before going to Leogane the next morning to get to work. I’ve always had confidence in my ability to confront difficult conditions. But that day as Wilguens and I explored the ruins of Port au Prince’s interminable piles of stories-high rubble, I wondered to what extent my tolerance for adversity had truly been tested.
We started in the center of the city. Tents took up nearly every open space, and people spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets, as it was too hot to be cooped up in the tropical heat. Seemingly endless lines of tired-looking women waited for water on sidewalks clogged with vendors hawking everything from bread to water to cell phones, and Wilguens and I did our best to snake our way through it all. Legions of tap-taps—converted pickups that serve as public transport—sputtered along the ruined roads. The trucks literally overflowed with passengers: people stood on the fenders, hanging precariously from the back.
Exhaust filled the air—along with dust. Dust was everywhere. It came from the rubble, and from the timber-stripped hillsides surrounding the capital. Many women wore scarves to serve as masks. It’s said that immediately after the earthquake a fog of dust engulfed the city. Monfred, a man we spoke with, was buried in the ruins of a three-story building for twenty-four hours. When he finally fought his way out, he looked like a ghost, his stunned eyes peeking out from the fine white powder that blanketed him. His mother didn’t recognize him and didn’t believe it was her son until after several minutes holding him.
Entire blocks were flattened. Wilguens and I walked by such blocks, and I shuddered when I thought of the crushed bodies surely still inside the buildings. Trash filled entire intersections, some piled two stories high. They smelled of rotten food, feces, and burning plastic. Ragged, skeletal dogs scavenged these piles, along with chickens and pigs.
I saw a boy not more than seven years old crouched on the side of a road with his back turned to traffic. He was pressed against a concrete wall lining the sidewalk, holding something. Every now and then he glanced behind him nervously before his gaze returned to his lap. Looking more closely, I saw that the child held a baby, perhaps his sister. He hunched over her like a hardened shell, yet so delicately held a bottle to the baby’s mouth as cars and trucks whizzed by, only feet behind him, honking and spewing exhaust.
Amid all this, there was of course little work. Irano, a short man who stood straight as a rod, was a carpenter who had not worked for months. He told us, “No one is thinking about chairs or tables. There’s nothing for me to build.” He was ready, however. Saws hung from nails in the walls of his tiny shack, which he shared with his wife and two children. He said that the few people in Haiti who could afford it were building expensive anti-seismic structures that he had no experience with, and those who could afford to build, but couldn’t afford anti-seismic, were building with concrete, just like before.
The little work there was often brutal. Wilguens and I took a tap-tap to Cité Soleil, one of the Western Hemisphere’s most entrenched and extensive slums. I’d heard much about it, and I wanted to see what it was like. A man we spoke with there pushed enormous bags of charcoal (charcoal made from timber stripped from the hillsides) on a wheelbarrow to markets all day, every day. The man, his withered body blackened by charcoal from head to foot, said he made a few dollars a day doing this.
Food was hard to come by as well. Distribution at a tent city we visited near Cité Soleil was apparently erratic. Minerva, a heavily pregnant woman in her mid-twenties, told us, “If it comes, we eat. If not, we don’t.” Her two small children looked on as she said this. Their father had been killed in the earthquake. The dead man’s third child, the one in Minerva’s stomach, was due within a month.
That night I slept outside on the American volunteers’ concrete slab in the middle of the city. I would be awakened several times by the fierce, frenzied barking of brawling dog packs. It seemed like hundreds, if not thousands of them. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. It sounded like the world would end, and every time I struggled for a moment to remember where I was. The first few times I had trouble believing such a sound could even be real, then I’d feel the concrete under me and remember. At some point the barking would stop, and an absolute silence would descend over the ruins. And I’d lay there, thinking of Monfred the Ghost, of the boy in the street feeding his baby sister, and of the dogs, and wonder what kind of world I’d thrown myself into.
The following day I was in Leogane, twenty miles from the capital yet two hours’ bus ride over fractured roads half-concrete and half-mud, working with a team of fellow volunteers to clear the rubble of what had been someone’s home. I felt this would be the most immediate way to counteract the helplessness that I felt after walking through the ruins of Port au Prince.
There is rubble everywhere. And I can get rid of some of it. This is what I thought.
I was the sledgehammer man. Other volunteers would bring me wheelbarrows full of rubble, and I would smash it down in order to build a driveway leading from the slab to the road, about forty yards away. While I smashed the rubble from one wheelbarrow, another would dump its contents, and I would then smash that rubble. After a week, it was cleared, and all that remained was a slab on which a family could build a new house, and a makeshift road by which they could get to it. The sledging was a very direct, raw use of human energy that had a useful end. Being the sledgehammer man (and that’s all I was when I swung a sledgehammer, constantly, for hours on end in the raging Haitian heat: a man with a sledgehammer), I’d been able to completely turn my brain and feelings off and focus on nothing but smashing the next piece of rubble. Thinking of nothing but how the brown rubble would break under the hammer, how the white, how the gray, how the red. Or what type of hammer-blow a certain piece of concrete needed; whether to the side, subtle and nuanced, or directly on top, completely unchained. The sledging was meditative, cathartic. It’s the reason I didn’t fall apart when I thought about the mountains of rubble, the mountains of trash, and all those people living in tents. I was afraid of realizing how small of a gesture that a week of destroying rubble was, and I attempted to smash that fear with a sledgehammer.
Would I have been able to do it for years, decades? Could I keep lifting that sledgehammer and dropping it down on those rocks, dusk to dawn, day after endless day, making barely enough to eat? I’m not sure I could, and that was a sobering realization. I think I’m a strong person, but the average Haitian’s daily life requires something beyond physical strength. It requires something that would allow me to swing that hammer and crush down each and every rock dumped before me without thinking of all the rocks yet to come. I was able to do this for a week, but for a lifetime?
Life in Haiti is hard—harder than in any of the many countries I’ve visited in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Yet the charcoal man kept pushing his wheelbarrow, Irano kept his saws sharp, and the little boy on the side of the road kept fighting for his sister’s life.
My mind was heavy with thoughts of Haiti’s troubled present, and I was ready to explore the country’s proud, revolutionary past. I left Leogane for the north of the country. I visited the Citadel, a mountaintop fortress built in the early 19th century by King Henri Christophe to defend the newly-independent nation from a French return which never developed. The colossal stone structure, the Western Hemisphere’s largest fortress, was constructed by up to 20,000 workers over fifteen years. From atop the Citadel, I scanned the miles of lush, green mountains running all the way out to the sea. Two centuries before, Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s army defeated France, and Haiti became the world’s first black republic. The Haitian Revolution inspired slave revolts throughout the region, striking fear in slave owners all over the Americas. Furthermore, loss of the revenues from its most profitable colony played a pivotal part in forcing France to dramatically scale back its presence in the New World, Louisiana included.
After walking the seven miles back down to Milot, the town at the bottom of the mountain on which the Citadel rests, I visited the Lakou Lakay Cultural Center. Maurice Etienne, the center’s founder and director, said his mission was to preserve Haitian culture and educate Haitians in the history of their country. I told him how awed I was by the grandeur of the fortress and of the legacy of struggle it represented. I asked him what the Citadel meant to the average Haitian now.
“Unfortunately, not much,” he said. “People have forgotten our history. Right now it’s like they’re sleeping, they’re too worried about living from day to day. But very quickly they could wake up.”
The day before I left the country, I visited Wilguens’s English class in the capital. His ten or so students were full of questions: “How are things different here from America?” and “How you like Haiti?” The question that got me the most, however, was one asked by a bright-eyed young man named Alix, who said, “What is the one thing you think about more when you think about Haiti?”
I paused for a moment, and then I replied, “The fight. I think about how living in Haiti is a constant fight.”
They agreed. One student said, “You know Haiti.”
I nodded politely, despite recognizing I would never be able to truly know their country and what it’s like to live there. So I asked them, “What is it like, fighting this fight every day?”
Alix said, “It’s tiring. Sometimes you just want to stop.”
Sabine, a fifteen-year-old girl who smiled incessantly, continued, “Yes. Some mornings I am late for school and I go to catch tap-tap and when one comes all the people fight and fight for space and I feel like not going to school.”
“What do you do on those mornings, Sabine?” I asked.
“I fight for space on tap-tap.”
When Sabine said this I thought of Maurice’s words in Milot, at the foot of the path to the Citadel: “But very quickly they could wake up.” I realized I’d been looking at everything the wrong way. My thoughts were fixated on the obvious daily grind of Haitian existence, and I needed to look deeper. Yes, the rocks keep coming, and one must keep crushing them, but they don’t have to be the only reality one can imagine. Sabine fights to get on that tap-tap because she wants to awaken, and Maurice and Wilguens educate because they want to awaken others. In Haiti it’s hard enough to just fight for subsistence. That’s what elevates something as simple as going to school or teaching a free English class to an act of outright heroism. And in Haiti people are doing such acts every day. There are those who are awake, and they will awaken still more. This is how things begin.
The shirtless man I saw at a voodoo ceremony in Leogane had supposedly been possessed by Ogun, the god, or loa, of war. In “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti,” Maya Deren writes that the “actions and utterances of the possessed person are not the expression of the individual, but are the readily identifiable manifestations of the particular loa or archetypal principle.” Ogun is the original warrior-hero, the original fighter. He is brave and can make others brave. During ceremonies he can walk on fire, just as I witnessed, and he can withstand rum being sprayed directly in his eyes, as I also witnessed. Ogun can be summoned in times of struggle. It is said that he assisted, if not led, Haiti’s triumph over France. In Leogane, he was being summoned again, many years later, for strength during a completely different kind of struggle.
That night, the shirtless man (Ogun) threatened the devotees with his machete, and they seemed to feign fear. After raising the machete in the air countless times before pulling it back, Ogun suddenly appeared exhausted. His machete clanged to the ground. The mambo came to Ogun’s aid. Ogun’s arm wrapped around her neck, and she held him up as the two made their way through the crowd to a nearby dwelling. The god of war was tired, as were those who had summoned him. But he will return. As will they.
Woodlief Thomas teaches and writes in New Orleans. His work has appeared in The Progressive, Oxford American, and In These Times.