Gonaieves Nights: Haiti, March 2009 Part II

near Poteau, Haiti

near Poteau, Haiti

Poteau is not much more than a few shacks, some tents, a church, a public school, an open-air marketplace, and the shop for a state-sponsored automobile repair school line a wide gravel road with a canopy of trees arching overhead, casting the road in perpetual shade, a stark contrast to the sun-blasted denuded landscape of most of Haiti. The Church of Christ at Poteau meets in a pole structure with a tin roof and walls constructed from mats woven from the long leaves that look like they come from a yucca plant. Beside the church was the foundation and walls of a cement block building. Construction appeared to be halted, whether from lack of money for materials or the hurricanes I don’t know, but the walls of the first floor were complete, and the load-bearing columns had lengths of the rebar extending from the tops, waiting to be linked with a roof or a second floor sometime in the future. We park alongside the road and dodge tap taps and a bus piled high with harvest and passengers to walk across. Two Bible classes are meeting outside, boys and girls dressed in immaculately cleaned and pressed shirts and shorts. The Haitians wear their best for church, though it’s hard to believe the crisp bright colors on these children were washed in the stream the day before and dried on the thorny bushes that fence in Haitian homes in the country. On the drive from Port Au Prince to Gonaives the day before, every flowing stream along the highway featured women washing clothes. The hedges lining the homes along the road were adorned with the drying wash.

We walk into the church, basically a pavilion with matted walls, where the adult Bible class is going on, and find seats on the wooden benches. The shade is deep here, and pleasant. Unless a Haitian is angry, Creole is a pleasant language to listen to, but it can turn harsh quickly because Haitian culture is aggressive. Even in church. The preacher who is teaching the class and a man in the back get into an argument that goes on for several minutes, the man in the back apparently challenging the preacher about some point of scripture. Each man points at his Bible, emphasizing his point. From my point of view, the classroom is tense. The preacher eventually walks down the aisle to within a few feet of the man—also standing, gesturing—to stress his point. The preacher finally goes back to the podium and resumes his lesson, although it’s not clear that he’s won the argument.

While the theological argument is developing and resolving, another Rara band is forming up the road. Later I would learn that Rara is tied to the voodoo religious tradition. On the drive in to Gonaives the previous day, we’d been alerted to “voodoo compounds,” marked by a congregation of buildings surrounding a red banner mounted atop a flagpole. According to Wikipedia, “Rara is performed between Ash Wednesday (the day after Carnival ends) until Easter Sunday (or Easter Monday in some parts of Haiti.) Rara bands roam the streets of Haiti during Lent performing religious ceremonies as part of their ritual obligations to the ‘loa’ or spirits of Haitian Voodoo. Gede, a spirit associated with death and sexuality, is an important spiritual presence in Rara celebrations and often possesses an ougan (male Voodoo priest) or mambo (female Voodoo priest) before the band begins its procession in order to bless the participants and wish them safe travels for their nightly sojourns.”

There’s an energy to the Rara music that appeals to me, perhaps dating back to my grad school days when I went to New Orleans Mardi Gras every year.. A Rara horn plays a single note, but there are at least three models of Rara horns, each a different size, so the three sizes of horns combine to form a chord. Up close the three distinct notes of the Rara horns sound cacophonous, but from a distance, combined with the drums, whistles, and the deeper notes of the improvised horns, the music is melodious, and to my ears, primeval and exciting. The music approaches, coming closer by the moment. The preacher keeps on preaching—you’d think he was sitting in an air-conditioned church in Arkansas, oblivious to the parade marching down the road. Outside the church the kids are singing Bible school songs in Creole, familiar childhood tunes like “Jesus Loves Me” in a language that’s a weird combination of French and West-African dialects. I’m wondering what is going to happen when the Rara confronts the Christians.
The music builds and builds. I’m debating whether to get the video camera out and record what is about to happen, but I keep thinking about the literature that was passed out at the last stateside meeting, my first meeting with the group, that stressed being culturally sensitive, especially when it came to taking pictures. I opt to leave the camera in its case, a decision I came to regret later that week, and even now as I write. The ending is anti-climatic. The Rara lingers in the road in front of the church, obviously signaling a challenge to the upstart religion on the island, and the Christian don’t miss a beat with their Bible school or the Bible school songs. After a few minutes, the Rara continues down the road, and church continues without missing a beat.

The service proceeds normally, following pretty much the same prescribed order of worship that I grew up on in a conservative Church of Christ in Mississippi: welcome, scripture reading, three songs and a prayer, another song and the Lord’s Supper, the contribution, sermon, and song of invitation. The songs were familiar tunes, traditional Gospel songs, only sung in Creole. The main difference between this service and one back home was that Dr. David Smith, our leader, addressed the church. Pausing for frequent translations into Creole, he addressed their suffering during the floods, but he also challenged them to be a light to their Haitian neighbors. Following the sermon about 8 teenage girls got up and sang a song heavy with Caribbean rhythm. They were followed by a group of older women, singing similar song. I don’t know what the words meant, but it followed the pattern of a call and response, where one woman would sing out a phrase, and the other women in the group would respond. I liked being in the deep shade of the church. I liked the music even though I didn’t understand the words.

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