The Fish with the Earring: Interloping on a Vodou Ceremony in Haiti
To call the water muddy is to completely misrepresent the black sludge speckled with crumbled off-brand Ritz crackers and shimmering with a slick topcoat of oil, holographic rainbows dancing across the murky surface.
The pool of water sits firmly in the center of the ruin, a relic of French colonial rule half-buried in the ground and only accessible through a blue and white gate that is stoically guarded by a grey-haired woman who looks about 80, but who is probably closer to 50, the ravages of time carving lines into her dark features.
We paid 25 Gourdes (~$0.47) a piece to try to see the Fish with the Earring, a transaction Dice, our translator, handled. While he assured the gatekeeper that we’d be respectful, we pretended to look away, enraptured by the pigs tied to a nearby tree, running in circles around it until they ran out of leash and had to trace their way back to where they started, only to repeat the same exercise till exhaustion.
Our fare paid, Dice led us down the steep stairs and into the shrine. It was probably once a cellar, but the roof or ceiling or whatever you’d call it had long since been blown off, letting in the wind, sun, and rain. About 15 Haitian men and women were gathered in the space, clumped in groups of three or four and talking to each other in hushed voices. They didn’t look at us, they didn’t seem to register our presence at all, but later that day Dice would tell us that two men, young and dressed in the style of 1995 up-and-coming rappers with something to prove, had threatened to kidnap him – he was with foreigners, so he must have money.
Five of us, out of a group of 12, had gone down with Dice to try to see the ‘Fish with the Earring’, the rest waiting outside. We had recently walked across the Massacre River, a slow and serpentine body that demarcates the northern border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Dice had met us on the Haitian side of the Dajabon crossing after we slipped through customs, doubly oiled up in whiteness and American currency. We were there to visit community development organizations in Milot and Cap-Haitien, seeing the shrine was Dice’s idea, an off-book add-on down a dirt road near where he grew up.
In Haiti, white people, and people who carry with them any of the privilege associated with whiteness (who may be Asian, European, non-Caribbean black, etc.), are referred to as blan, Dice told us. While blan is primarily used to designate race, what it really signifies is the demarcation of an other, a reminder to the person identified that they aren’t from here, that they never will be, and that trying to blend in is like trying to hide a cow in a chicken coop.
“If you’re going to ask for something, you need to give something,” Dice said, looking away from the water and handing me a bottle of bright red alcohol that he’d bought outside. I took a sip, the viscous cherry liquid sticking to my throat, the faintest hint of alcohol burning my tongue. Following his direction, I poured a small amount into the pool and passed it on the person behind me, side stepping to give them access to the edge and squashing myself against a wall covered in graffiti as if I was trying to become one with it, disappearing into the white paint, red words, and candle soot.
Across the narrow space, about two meters in front of me, a seated woman began to sway, her body hinging back and forth with increasing ferocity, winding up the energy within her until she catapulted onto her feet. “Don’t stare,” Dice instructed us, sipping on the remainder of the bright red liqueur. As the energy within her began to climb she cried out in a mix of Creole and gibberish, words foreign to me but familiar to the onlookers who joined in her refrain. A man in a green t-shirt and jeans stepped in front of her, egging her on and echoing her words, sourced from centuries of shared ceremony. We watched for a few minutes, smooshed against the wall yet failing to be invisible.
The spirit of a vodou Lwa inhabited her corporeal form, swinging her hips in wide circles as if it was on her to keep the earth spinning. Papa Legba – the first Lwa to be invoked in any ceremony, the guard to the spiritual crossroads, facilitator of communication.
Dice suggested that we leave. “She’s going into possession now. We should go.”
Now that the action was starting we were acutely aware of our otherness. We’d seen the preamble, the preface, the prelude, but as she groaned and swayed, guttural moans erupting from deep within her as Papa Legba opened the doorway, we retreated back up the stairs.
We walked past the gate, past the rows of stalls on either side of the dirt track lined with women selling beer and liquor, fried fish, stewed horse meat, and plantain chips, past the men playing dominoes and drinking clear Haitian moonshine, to the rest of our group, still sipping Prestige, Haiti’s favorite beer, and making stilted conversation with the curious. “Where were you?” They asked, not having noticed that we had disappeared while they shared shredded cassava bread layered with condensed milk, coconut, and cinnamon, still warm from the roadside fire on which they’d been made a few kilometers down the main road. “A prize-winning recipe,” Dice had told us, “the best in the area,” as pizza slice-sized chunks were slid into black plastic grocery bags.
The group wanted to stay, talk, and drink, having momentarily forgotten that we were blan, a new reminder of the ever present feeling that even here, in a Haitian community’s private space of worship and remembrance, hidden away from NGO offices, UN trucks, and Red Cross housing, they were expected to put on a show for the white (wo)man.
There is something to be said for the deep urge of wanting to fit in, and find equal ground on which to stand, when playing audience to cultural custom. But we had just left a structure built on black backs scarred by the master’s whip, reclaimed by the hands by which is was erected and transformed into a center of spiritual nourishment, only to be reoccupied by the specters of whiteness that we can’t help but be despite our best intentions and Creole flashcards, and Papa Legba hadn’t wanted us there.
After returning the Prestige bottles to the women who had sold them to us, the deposit they’d get back for the empties a coveted second source of income, we were made invisible behind tinted windows and a cushion of air conditioning. “That was funny,” a girl said giggling. I bristled at her reaction to the experience. “There isn’t anything funny about it,” I replied, probably too aggressively. As we pulled away, tires kicking up fine Haitian dust and veiling the shrine from view, I knew why she would say it was funny – when you realize you will never be able to understand something, that you’ll never not be blan, it’s easier to laugh it off than to accept your hopeless otherness.
The cassava had cooled, returning to the texture of tree bark. It was good, I reasoned, that this part of our communion was now inedible. The transition from flesh back into food completed as we turned onto the main thoroughfare, never having seen the Fish with the Earring, yet still hoping that it’d accept my offering, Papa Legba giving permission despite me being nothing more, and nothing less, than completely other.
This piece is based on an experience I had while traveling with Onwards. It was written for my Literary Reporter class at Columbia.