A is for Ayiti: Ibi Zoboi writes about Haïti for the Uninitiated

Continued from the POST on the HOME PAGE

The Writer as Psychic.

On November 1st, exactly one year to the date I would leave for Haïti, the Speculative Literature Foundation Gulliver Travel Grant winner was announced.  I received a travel grant for a novel I’ve been working on for a long time. I planned to travel that summer, but started a graduate school program instead. I settled on September 9th—my main character was born on 9/9/99. But Hurricane Isaac had caused so much flooding in PaP that traveling was not a great idea.

I did not know then that one year later I’d be traveling on November First, Fête des Morts.  November 2nd is Féte Gédé.  I write supernatural fantasy, so Vodou mythology breathes life into every story I tell.  I’m very superstitious on top of being Haitian; of course, I knew all those dates had to mean something.  So, I revised my novel where Gédé—the guardian of the cemetery, childbirth, lewdness, and the ancestors, opens the first chapter. I did not choose Legba, guardian of the crossroads.  Maybe I should have  started with Legba. Maybe that’s why there were so many roadblocks to my trip.

The Hurricane Winds Beneath My Wings.

Even when I’d written about a hurricane ravaging through Haiti in the earlier drafts of my work, then making its way to New York City, I never thought it possible.  I considered it excellent plotting for what I was writing, but research proved this was not plausible, especially around the time of Gédé—so late in the hurricane season.

My stomach was in knots when I heard that Hurricane Sandy had killed dozens in the Caribbean, and steadily gaining momentum as it headed north.  I’d just come from a panel discussing the works of Octavia Butler and Oya—the orisha of winds, storms, and change.  Being convinced that all artists—if they listen closely—are soothsayers, oracles, and clairvoyants.  I was listening.

Winds howled. Schools closed. Flights were cancelled.New York Citywas flooded, and I thought, there goes my “research” trip to Haïti.  A few days of Sandy’s wrath were research enough.  As photos of a devastated Haïti (nothing new there) circulated on the internet, juxtaposed with news of “the worst natural disaster to ever hit the city,” I had enough to work with for my novel.  Maybe I’d give back the grant money, travel next year or whatever.  I occurred to me that perhaps I was not really meant to go.  Who knew what fate I’d just escaped?

And then I learned that my flight was not canceled.  Yes, New York schools would close for a week; subways were flooded, and there was a gas shortage, but JFK airport was up and running on November 1st.


I told myself I would just have to meet my fate, whatever that was supposed to be.  I hugged and kissed my family extra long and extra tight before going to my mother’s in Queens.  She had a lot of stuff for me to deliver in Haïti.

Two years prior, when I went to Haïti for the first time as an adult, my mother nearly cursed me out.  Haïti belonged to her and only her. Haïti had nothing to offer me—no job, no money, no place to raise my children.  So why on earth was I going?  This is a long and tiresome discussion on immigration, cultural annihilation, globalism, imperialism, patriarchy, etc.  Nevertheless, my mother was now giving me stuff to take back to family and she was happy about that.  My mother and I had made progress. If not her, then me, she probably thought.

My own luggage consisted of a shoulder bag and a carry-on, but I ended up with a suitcase the size of my ten-year-old.  The message had been sent far and wide that a relative was going to Haïti, so everyone and their mama had yon komisyon (“a commission”) to give me to take for them. Each komisyon was an object—sometimes eerily soft and slippery, sometimes firm—tightly wrapped in plastic bags and duct tape. Everything was stuffed into said suitcase; and “somebody” in Haïti would come for it.

But five rolls of paper towel? Don’t they have rags in Haïti?  Dried herring and salt fish—seriously?  A Ziploc bag of nail polish? Again, these are the questions and complaints of a neophyte—daughter of the diaspora.


Day 1:  Paper Planes. (Handwritten journal entries)

I have a window seat on the plane.  That’s a good sign.  I recline, read, and nap.  There are lots of white folks on the plane.  There’s a little white baby, too.  I wish my mother could see this. She would know that it’s okay to come home now.  The white folks are there.  It’s like Brooklyn.  Not the 1980s crack-era Brooklyn.  Today’s Brooklyn with all the white folks living happily.  It’s okay now, mamma.  Such pathologies . . .

Three hours later, there is an island below.  I can make out the winding roads like creases in my palm.  Too precise and too many.  There are houses lined up in near perfect rows and columns.  This must be Cuba or the Dominican Republic.  This can’t be rural Haïti.  I don’t take a picture yet.  I’m saving every shot for Haïti.

I must have missed the twenty minute announcement preparing us for landing in Port-au-Prince.  We’re closer to the island below and I can see beautiful beachfront property.  I ask the white woman in the seat in front of me if this is Haïti.  She says yes, and points to Cité Soleil coming up.  Cité Soleil does not look nice at all.  The tin rooftops glisten in the sun.  The houses stand closer together; there are hardly any roads.  I can make out the muddy footpaths.  The shoreline is riddled with trash.  This is the Haïti I know from the media.  But it soon disappears.  Mountains, palm trees, and wide open roads emerge once again.  We are landing.  I start to cry.  I’m home.  Something is awakened within me: Memory.


Everyone has a job to do: They help find your suitcases, skip the line for you, carry your luggage out, offer you their cellphone to use; they offer to wait with you until your driver or family member arrives.  Another man offers help, but the one carrying my luggage quickly shoos him away.  It was certainly ten bucks’ worth of hard work.

Haïti is beautiful and bustling.  Most of the rubble has been removed since my last visit in 2010.  There’s a lot of building and rebuilding taking place.  Roads are being paved, my sister tells me. I can see the city for what it truly is.  I am here as a journalist, or rather, an anthropologist—no, an Americanized immigrant going back to her native home to research her novel.  And I definitely sound.

They’re paving a new bus depot in a place which my sister tells me used to be a cemetery.  I ask if there were any protests—something.  I don’t remember her answer.  I am too busy imagining things.

Papa Gédé’s Party: In Which Baron Makes His Presence.  Day 1, Later

My dear sister was willing to accommodate me on this research trip.  She was taking me to see RAM’s Gede performance.  We wore white and purple—Gede’s colors minus the black.  She hadn’t been to the Oloffson Hotel in years, so it was certainly a trip getting down there.  A mile away from the hotel, the streets were suddenly more crowded; cars parked on the narrow sidewalks, right up against small concrete shops.  A young man motioned for us to follow him.  He would lead us to a parking spot right in front of the hotel. He actually stood in front of other cars, risking his life it appeared, to get us that spot.  My sister did not pay him then.  She told him to watch the car instead; she would pay him when we leave.

There was no visible entrance to the hotel, just a tall and wide concrete, barb-wired wall.  No red velvet-roped line, just a noisy crowd. We were the only ones in white.  My sister pulled my arm, heading towards the crowd.  I wanted to step back and try to figure out what the hell was going on before I made a move.  But she was the true native and my guide.  I obediently followed.  Pushing and shoving ensued.  There was no way out.  There was a crowd behind me and in front of me.  I laughed hysterically.  My sister grabbed my arm and told me to hold my purse in front of me.  I did.  I laughed some more—thoroughly confused as to why there was not a proper line.  I thought of all those news stories where people get trampled to death.  Grown men were doing most of the pushing and shoving; some white folks were caught in the melee.

It was complete and unabashed chaos.  I was shouting out all sorts of profanities at the top of my lungs—over everyone else’s—as to why in the world there was no blasted line!  I had dyaspora written all over my forehead, of course.  My sister shoved her way through the crowd and left me behind.  I got pushed up against the concrete wall and scraped my arm.  Someone’s elbow was in my face.  Some big dude felt me up (this has never ever happened to me!) and I elbowed him right in his belly and cursed the $#!% out of him in a kreyòl I didn’t even know I spoke.  In that instant, someone tugged at my purse.  I quickly grabbed it to feel that my wallet was gone!  More kreyòl curses.

This time, I pushed folks away and proceeded to scream at everyone within an inch of where I stood.  Some folks tried to console me, telling me to look on the ground.  “It’s that guy over there…I saw him, it was a policeman…He took my wallet too…”

I felt alone in the world suddenly. I wanted to, but not cry.  There’s another saying: Mete fanm sou ou! “Woman up!”  I thought about going back to my sister’s car and wait for her there, but I didn’t have the key. The crowd had gotten bigger; standing on the street by the car might have made me an easy target for whatever.  I couldn’t imagine going through that crowd again.  But, I had to find my sister.  She was waiting for me.

I braced myself, put on my Brooklyn-we-go-hard game face, and rammed through that crowd like a bull aiming for a matador.  I made it past the mob of mostly men, reached the door to hear my sister calling my name, but the husky dude in front of me insisted that he was me.

The doorway was more like a narrow window.  The only thing blocking the entrance was a bouncer’s fat arm.  I made it through somehow.  My sister and I reunited and hugged like we were Celie and Nettie from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.  I told my sister what happened.  I’d forgotten that her coveted Blackberry Curve was in my purse, too.  It was gone along with all of my ID, credit cards, and a decent amount of cash.  My sister started to yell and cuss too.

Somebody made out like a bandit.  And I thought this had to mean something, too; the working title of the novel I’m working on is BANDIT. The next morning my voice was completely gone.  I sounded like Lord Death himself—Gede.

“Dry and grainy like sandstorm,” I’d written in my first chapter to describe Gede’s voice.  I’d been practicing with my own voice because in my head, he sounded like Voldemort, British accent and all.  That would’ve been totally off.  Gede had to sound as if he was reaching for air and water.  I wrote this down weeks before this trip.  And that’s exactly how I sounded on the morning of November 2nd—Fête Gede and throughout the rest of my trip.

Gédé, known to be a petty thief, took my money and my voice. He did this to my character, too.  And now he had me cussing like…him.

Yes, there were practical reasons why what happened.  It’s now quite obvious.  But the story is in the telling, and within the telling is the myth.

I was very particular about what book I would take with me to read for grad school work while on this trip.  I knew it would have some significance.  One was Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, the other was Frances Temple’s A Taste of Salt. Both authors are deceased.  Gédé guides the realm of the ancestors.  There’s a name for this kind of stuff in African spiritual systems. The uninitiated call it “coincidence.”


Konesans– “Wisdom”

Je m kale.  My eyes are peeled now.  I understand pawòl anba dlo—the deep water talk of Ginen.  I could not have found this in a book, when what I was looking for spoke directly to me in symbolic language.  Campbell’s Power of Myth was my translator.  All else that took place on this trip fell in line like dominoes.  I’d made my offering, or sacrifice, if you will.  That was a good thing.  Now, I trusted that I would be safe and protected.

Day 2

We visited a cemetery.  We stayed there for less than ten minutes.  Gédé was riding his many horses.  I was out of place.  People stared.  If I were white, they’d know why I was there.  But my kreyòl was almost perfect, and I looked different with my bright bohemian colors and kinky hair and fancy camera phone pointed at their faces.  That was short-lived.  I was no photojournalist.  I was home.  But I managed to snap a few pictures.  I needed a visual for my work.  I’d already made my offering.  Still, it was sacred space.  I shared these photos with utmost respect.  This is my people and their beliefs.  They take it seriously.

We visited the Musée du Patheon National Haïtien.  I took copious notes, but we couldn’t take pictures (we did anyway).  Here’s a picture of me on top of the marvelous structure.

There was a group from Indiana there.  My sister calls me “blan.”  Not as in “white” but as in “foreigner.”  She told me to stand near my fellow countrymen—the people from Indiana.  I should have felt insulted.  But I went right along with it.

There are big, fancy supermarkets in Port-au-Prince.  No, I did not know this.  And I found almond milk!  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There are some places in Brooklyn where you absolutely cannot find almond milk, nor rice milk, nor bottled green smoothies.  But there they were right on Rue Delmas along with granola and one heck of a wine aisle.  This was not for the Haïtiens.  Haïtiens have avwan and their smoothies are made with root vegetables and milk.  I even saw a small group of young white folks walking down a road carrying pizza boxes.  I kept thinking of the sanitation system, or the lack thereof. What happens to the plastic bottles and pizza boxes?

So, is this truly “the poorest country in the western hemisphere?”  To hear this over and over again as a child about your native home…it begins to snowball.  To remember this and to bear witness to such unabashed opulence—no big deal in the U.S., but when boys on the street and women at the market are fighting each other for your business, it is relative opulence.  Katia D. Ulysse wrote this very poignant piece of Haïti as Fantasy Island.  This is true.

The Audacity of Comfort

The first and last time I took a spinning class was in Port-au-Prince.  The first and last time I had duck was in Port-au-Prince.  Yes, there is dire poverty, but for the right price I can be just as comfortable or even more so in a place like Haïti.  It’s a Caribbean island after all.  After a lovely few hours at the Karibe Hotel for my cousin’s wedding (great konpa, fancy food—and I mean fancy, bright lights, push button flushing toilets), it was back to reality.  We drove home in the dark, unpaved narrow roads with no lights.  And then there’s the bathroom situation when we reached my sister’s place.  In relaying all this to my husband, he reminded me of the saying, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down.”  Yes, there is a toilet, and a tub, and a faucet, and a shower.  But access to running water involves an expensive pumping system, which of course, runs on electricity and would require a generator.

My sister told me of the time she lived up in the hills of Port-au-Prince, where the wealthy hide.  Trucks travel up the narrow, winding road to deliver water which spikes the overall price.  You can’t simply have a good job living up in the hills.  It truly is the domain of Haïti’s elite class.

No matter how often I hear the words, “Well, this is how things are in Haïti.  This is how it’s always been,” I will never understand the audacity of wealth in a place like this.  The audacity to want to be extremely comfortable in the face of such dire poverty.  What kind of logic does one use to justify push-button or motion sensor toilets where there are thousands around who don’t have any toilets to begin with.  Or the audacity to purchase little bottles of green smoothie when the country barely has a recycling system, much less a working sanitation system.

We’re resilient, they say.  We can handle any tragedy.


The Boon

The boon is the art.  Haïti has been rattled to its core and what’s rising to the surface is its art.  Music, visual art, pottery, metal work, literature, poetry, dance.  The pain, anger, hope, and joy all must be expressed in the symbolic.  No politician, NGO, foreigner investor can truly shift the tides.  As a former professor once said, culture is the ultimate inoculation.  Journalists and painters have been assassinated; the lives of musicians threatened, poets have been sent into exile.  There is always this universal war between the truth-telling artist and the truth-suppressing dictator/politician/businessman.

I’m even more convinced of the power of myth—the deeply complex system of Vodou Haïtien cosmology is like an umbilical cord connecting it to the wisdom of the ancestors. Stories have survived. There are symbolic answers to just about everything.  And after watching Konpè Filo on Radio Tele Ginen, everything was confirmed.  There is indeed a science, a world of layered truths that reveals itself to the listener, the searcher, the uninitiated.

Haïti, because of its history—from the defiant Anacaona to Dessalines and Marie Fatima to hurricanes, diseases, a devastating earthquake—has a jealous kind of magic.  Forces were called and spirits were summoned, but no hole has been dug to send them back to their resting places.  There’s restlessness all around: I could feel it in the air.  Children are born each day, taking in this restless air, their cries begging for stability.  And as an artist, returning with this boon, I’ve captured enough material for several stories. Now, I’m left with one thought:  Haïti needs in innovator—someone or something that will force the world to see this nation with new eyes.  Old stereotypes need to fall away so that a new myth can replace them.

There’s another saying: Bourik swe pou chwal ka dekore ak dantèl.  “A donkey sweats so that a horse can be decorated in lace.”  I found this pwovèb online.  I’ve never actually heard any Haitian say this; I’m still being initiated.  Maybe sometime in the future, as it was once, Ayiti will reclaim the title of “Jewel of the Antilles.”  Maybe not.  That jewel shone on the backs of enslaved Africans and the annihilated Arawak. That jewel shone by their sweat and devastation. Is this what all those foreign investors and business folk have in mind today? Do they plan to make the Jewel of the Antilles shine again—by the sweat of and on the backs of Haitians?

We are Beautiful and We Are Here