Travelling through Haiti, Caroline Eden discovers authentic Vodou



Travelling through Haiti, Caroline Eden discovers authentic Vodou
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Travelling through Haiti, Caroline Eden discovers authentic Vodou ceremonies,
unexpected mountain views and a country opening its arms to tourists
ABOVE: Port-au-Prince
‘gingerbread’ houses
from the 19th century;
Mafoun’s dancers – not
smoking or drinking but
dancing with candles; a
‘tap tap’ bus – used as
taxis, the name comes
from the ‘tap’ that people
give the side when they
want to board or alight;
drummers beating out
a rhythm
60 | January 2016
n the outskirts of the town
of Milot in northern Haiti,
night cloaks the hills like a
blanket. The air buzzes
with mosquitoes. My feet
sound feeble on wet cobblestones as I follow the
sound of a rolling drumbeat made by many
hands. A thin cloud shifts in the sky and
suddenly a moonbeam illuminates an eerie
white crucifix on the roadside. It quickly
disappears again. Then, turning onto a dirt track,
I enter a small hall. Roosters scuttle aside. Under
a corrugated roof a hundred or so people are in
ecstasy. The Vodou ceremony is in full swing.
The arrival of my out-of-place presence
apparently goes unseen.
‘That’s the mambo, the Vodou priestess. Her
name is Mafoun,’ says my guide Pierre Chauvet,
motioning towards a curvaceous woman whose
buttocks are bouncing passionately to the
drumming. Shaking a quart bottle of Barbancourt
rum with one hand, Mafoun passes by leaving a
trail of cigarette smoke in her wake. Her dancers,
each one holding a lit candle, groove behind her,
forming a conga-like procession. They shake
their hips and nod their heads, moving trancelike around a large table laden with rum, silk
flowers and popcorn that has been scattered like
confetti. These are gifts for summoning the Iwa
(spirit conversers). Milk-coloured wax drips
down the dancer’s brown arms. Sweat rolls in
rivulets off their faces. The air is thick with
smoke. Dozens of trance-like male drummers sit
in the semi-darkness, singing the same chorus
over and over. The scene is pleasingly authentic,
dramatic and intense.
Outside, raindrops spring off the
cobblestones. ‘Haitians are like sugar and salt,
they don’t like to get wet,’ Chauvet says
straightening his multi-pocketed utility vest as
January 2016 | 61
he points to the crowded room. He tells me that
in her ‘ordinary life’ Mafoun doesn’t drink or
smoke cigarettes but she has been ‘mounted by
Jean Laurent’, a local Iwa who is a lover of
debauchery, decadence and general hedonism.
Then from a dark corner, an elderly woman
emerges. Mafoun pads across the dirt floor and
leads the woman to the table. Aside from a silk
petticoat, the woman is naked. I put my camera
away. Mafoun, still singing, still smoking, begins
her alchemy. Taking the woman’s small hands
into hers she gently cracks an egg onto the
woman’s scalp. Then, rubbing an elixir of yolk and
some kind of red soda into her short frizzy hair,
Mafoun gently administers a cranial massage.
Chauvet tells me that the believer is in good
health but has come to be cleansed. Mafoun
smiles at her disciple, and gets a toothy grin in
return. It is an odd scene for the uninitiated to
witness but it is nothing like the Hollywood
‘voodoo’ of zombies, snakes and sacrifice. Vodou
ties communities together in Haiti. It forms the
country’s national identity and it is the cultural
expression of the Haitian people. It also
connects today’s population of nine million to
their ancestral homeland of West Africa, where
they lived before being brought to Haiti as
slaves to work on sugar plantations. Despite the
saying that Haitians are ‘70 per cent Catholic, 30
per cent Protestant but 100 per cent Vodou’,
anti-Vodou campaigns have recently been
stepped up. Some say Haiti’s first ever Roman
Catholic cardinal, Chibly Langlois, is to blame
after he reportedly dismissed Vodou as ‘magic.’
As I stand up to leave, Mafoun puts down her
rum and stops dancing. She gives me a warm
smile, then leaning in gently she presses me
against her huge sweat-drenched body and
hugs me tightly. As I walk away, she gives me an
unexpected thumbs-up. I return one awkwardly.
More dancing starts. The ceremony will
continue late into the night.
We depart slowly. Our driver is focusing on the
road – ominously called Carrefour La Mort – that
will take us to our hotel in Haiti’s second city,
Cap-Haïtien. In the minibus I am committing
observations to paper and Chauvet is telling me
how, under French rule in the 17th and 18th
centuries, Cap-Haïtien was the richest city in the
Caribbean. This unpaved mess of a road,
punctuated by holes and made more hazardous
by wandering pigs, makes you wonder where all
those riches went.
chatter on the roadside dressed in homemade
rain hats fashioned out of bubble-wrap and
shower caps.
We trundle along jungle-clad roads for several
hours before entering into the traffic-choked
city of Gonaïves. This is where, in 1804, a
declaration was signed that created the world’s
first black republic. Fittingly, we spot a
monument to Jean-Jacques Dessalines – leader
of the Haitian Revolution – standing tall in the
town centre. We then drop further southwards,
slowly skirting the western coastline of the Gulf
of Gonâve. In small towns, summery carnival
music blasts from barbershops providing a
cheery soundtrack.
Makeshift settlements on the outskirts of
Port-au-Prince signal the entrance to the city.
Around 85,000 people still live in these camps
after the deadly earthquake that shook Haiti in
January 2010. It was estimated that around
250,000 people were killed when, in the town of
Léogâne (an hour’s drive from the capital), a
magnitude 7.0 earthquake flattened the entire
region. Locals, Chauvet tells me, refer to the
earthquake as ‘guddu guddu’ after the noise the
buildings made when they collapsed.
It was one of the world’s worst ever urban
disasters but it has not crushed the spirit of the
Haitian people. At night in the city, people dance
to live music in nightclubs while artistic graffiti
brightens walls and gives snapshots of Haitian
politics. Creative industry abounds at places like
Village Noailles too where arty flat metal
sculptures, known as fer découpé, are made.
The saying goes that Haitians are ‘70
per cent Catholic, 30 per cent
Protestant but 100 per cent Vodou’
Dawn brings a weak sun, deafening birdsong
and a patience-testing seven-hour drive south to
the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Easing out of
Cap-Haïtien, we snake cautiously through the
metallic churn of battered 4x4s, candy-coloured
tap-taps (shared taxis) and convoys of white UN
trucks driven by Uruguayans in wrap-around
shades. Ready for more downpours, women
62 | January 2016
ABOVE: the Statue of the
Unkown Maroon in
Port-Au-Prince, a symbol
of Haiti’s struggle for
independence; LEFT:
Jacmel, a town in
southern Haiti tentatively
accepted as a UNESCO
World Heritage site
Gradually, infrastructure is returning. We pass
the newly rebuilt Iron Market in downtown
Port-au-Prince, instantly recognisable by its
giant red roof. This is where you can buy
everything from a wig to a cat on a rope and
barter for souvenirs like paintings, key rings and
wooden statues. These aren’t made for tourists
in Haiti per se – business wouldn’t be very good
if they relied on the small numbers arriving – but
for tourists all over the Caribbean. Haiti makes
around 70 per cent of the Caribbean’s tourist
souvenirs. They are made here, then shipped
out to be fraudulently stamped with ‘made in
Puerto Rico’, or similar. Next to the market many
buildings, once banks and offices, are crumpled
heaps of rubble still. As we drive along, Chauvet
poignantly says, ‘we can only talk of what
downtown used to be.’
Bolstered by the current calm, Haiti has been
January 2016 | 63
removed from America’s ‘most dangerous
places’ watch-list. Encouraged by this, western
brands are starting to arrive such as the recently
opened Best Western and Marriott hotels.
UK-based tour operators are arriving too.
Exodus, Wild Frontiers, G Adventures and
Steppes Travel now all offer tours. Haiti, it seems,
has turned a corner.
Occasionally tour groups head to the highaltitude market town of Kenscoff, a couple of
hour’s drive from Port-au-Prince, in order to
experience a greener side of Haiti. We follow
their lead and leaving the city limits, climb up
the Route de Kenscoff in the direction of the
Massif de la Selle.
The urban stew quickly falls away and soon
terraced fields and red earth dominate the
landscape. After an hour’s drive we reach 6,000
feet. Vegetables are being harvested in fields.
Pine trees create a natural canopy. Crossbills
and hummingbirds buzz around and the air is
clean. In a country where deforestation is a huge
challenge (today only around two per cent of
the country is forested) Kenscoff, looks, feels
and tastes, a bit like paradise.
The other immediate difference is that there is
far less sign of the plastic rubbish that plagues
the country. Despite the ban on Styrofoam
boxes – mainly imported from neighbouring
Dominican Republic – thousands of takeaway
cartons still pollute streets and clog drains
causing floods. Out of the minibus the air is cool
In a country where deforestation is
a challenge, the high-altitude market
town of Kenscoff feels like paradise
and fresh. The taste and smell of burning
rubbish is conspicuous by its absence.
Up here, one family is leading by example in the
battle against rubbish, deforestation and
hunger. Wynne Farm Ecological Reserve is run
by Jane Wynne, a proud Haitian, environmentalist
and educator. Slightly built and wearing an
orange bandana, Wynne’s enthusiasm, positivity
and laughter proves infectious. Within moments
of me arriving, she is steering me past the yurt
(‘this is where we have our yoga classes’) and
the compost loo (‘the walls are made of bamboo,
but it’s quite safe’) both of which she is proud of.
We stop to admire the climbing vines of
Black-eyed Susan and Wynne’s bandana merges
perfectly with the abundant orange petals.
Spanning 30 acres of land Wynne tells me
64 | January 2016
ABOVE: a street in
Cap-Haïtien; RIGHT:
Anse-à-Galets is an island
northwest of Port-auPrince; FAR RIGHT: a
waterfall at Bassin-Bleu
near Jacmel
January 2016 | 65
ABOVE: fer découpé
metalwork at Village
Noailles; LEFT: street art
plays a vital role in
forming Haiti’s culture;
BELOW, LEFT: Haiti’s
ports are recovering
following the earthquake
in 2010; BELOW, FAR
LEFT: Citadelle Henry, a
large mountaintop
fortress in northern Haiti
how her father, Victor Wynne, born in New York,
arrived in Haiti in 1925, as a civil engineer during
the US occupation (between 1915 and 1934). He
later returned, married and purchased various
plots of land from local landowners around
Kenscoff. His aim was to fix the misuse of land,
tackle deforestation and eradicate threats of
erosion. He founded and terraced Wynne Farm
with 40 men in 1956 propagating indigenous
species to conserve Haiti’s biodiversity and
emphasising the need for soil conservation,
composting and reforestation. He also
experimented with agricultural techniques such
as terracing and the use of bamboo in the soil to
stop run-off during the rainy season. ‘Bamboo is
a saviour to us. It regenerates and it is flexible in
earthquakes,’ Wynne says.
She calls to one farmer who is carrying a
basket on her head filled with vegetables.
Putting the hamper down, the farmer holds up
– one at a time – a cabbage, a handful of carrots,
a bunch of dill, green peppers, potatoes and a
sizeable squash. It’s an impressive haul in a
country that fails to produce enough food and
imports 80 per cent of its main staple, rice.
Today when Haitians visit, Wynne tells me,
they are encouraged to put their hands in the
soil and to ‘reconnect with nature.’ There is a
recycling area too, which often amounts to
several tonnes and on Sundays there is a
farmer’s market.
Next, we jump back into the minibus and drive
with Wynne to her main reserve, a little higher
up the road. ‘On a clear day it’s like a map of
Haiti up here,’ Wynne says. Despite the haze we
can see the southern mountain range and the
sprawling city of Port-au-Prince. Around us
15-litre water bottles have been recycled into
giant plant pots and lettuces sprout from them.
In greenhouses Alstroemeria blossom in hues of
peach and yellow, practically bursting out of
trays. Honeybees buzz around the Acacia trees.
One problem, Wynne tells me, is fencing. ‘It
would cost us $150,000 to put in a cyclone fence
to stop people just jumping over and picnicking.
People help themselves and take what they
want, when they want.’ She sighs. Then, with a
sparkle back in her eye, she says ‘ironically, that
is what my father would have wanted. He
bought this land to show Haitians the beauty of
what they have.’
The hope for Haiti today is that as the tourists
slowly start to return, it won’t just be the
Haitians who will experience this beauty.
C o - ordinates
When to go
December, January, February and March are the best months to visit, avoiding
the intense heat of summer and the rainfall between April and November.
Caribbean Sea
Île de la Tortue
66 | January 2016
Île de la Gonâve
Cap Dame
Massif de la Hotte
Les Cayes
Haiti is malarial. Visit a doctor for advice before travelling. British passport
holders can buy a visa on arrival at Port-au-Prince airport for $10.
Hotels: Cap-Haïtien –
Port-au-Prince –
Wynne Farm Ecological Reserve:
Tourist information:
Golfe de
la Gonâve
if du
There are no direct flights from the UK. Exodus has a 12-day tour to Haiti from
£2,399 including return flights from London (
More information
Le Môle
St Nicolas
Getting there
C a r i b b e a n
50 km
50 miles
S e a
January 2016 | 67

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