Voodune

“They think blue-eyed people eat Haitians,” Jack says as I walk into the main tent and sit on the uneven ground.

“What?” Joel laughs, his brown eyes crinkling in amusement.

Kelly, the quintessential blonde-and-blue-eyed American, looks devastated. “You’re kidding.”

Great, I think, instead of bringing five well-meaning volunteers to Haiti, I’ve allowed three cannibals into the country.

Myself and five of my friends are gathered around Jack, a British twenty-four-year-old with eyes like turquoise, and Hannah, his twenty-year-old Australian girlfriend with soft brown eyes. They’ve been running the volunteer project at which we recently arrived for six months now, and have forged strong enough friendships with the locals to discuss Jack’s probable cannibalism.

“No, seriously. One of the kids made a joke about me eating people, and I asked Eddy about it,” Jack says, referring to his best Haitian friend. “He didn’t want to tell me, but eventually he explained that it’s a superstition.”

Why?” Joel asks.

“I don’t know,” Jack says, “I think it’s something to do with colonists. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? These white people with blue eyes show up, take your children away, and you never see them again. What happened to them? Oh, they were eaten.”

“So, Eddy thinks you eat people?” I ask.

“I mean, we’re friends, he knows I don’t eat people,” Jack smiles and rolls his eyes, then looks at me. “But one of you might.”

During the flights, taxi rides, and seven-hour bus trip to the border region of Anse-a-Pitre, Haiti, where we will be spending a month working on a reforestation project called Sadhana Forest, talk occasionally sprang up about voodoo—called voodune by Haitians, Joel tells us, a nugget from his pre-trip frenzy of self-education on everything Haiti. Joel wants to see a ceremony, if possible, and I agree, though I honestly don’t expect to see anything that exciting. I know little about voodune, but I feel confident that it’s not the evil witch doctors who torture heroes in action movies, nor the dolls made with a lock of hair from some poor victim. These are Hollywood dramatizations; I’m sure the practice of voodune is much more tame, logical, even mundane. But that childish part of me that wants to witness the “exotic,” the unnerving, secretly hopes it isn’t.

We arrive at Sadhana and set up our lodgings for the month: an airy six-person tent within the confines of the community, a small rectangle of land with a wall low enough to be scaled, as a few of the teenagers soon prove. Three nights later, I fall asleep to drums and chanting that stomp their way into my dreams. Joel asks if I heard the voodune ceremony the following morning.

“What ceremony?” I ask.

“Didn’t you hear the music last night?”

“Oh, yeah. I thought that was just the disco.” Jack had mentioned the dance halls nearby, some of the few places for recreation in the village.

“Oh, um, I don’t know. I thought I heard chanting.” Joel looks at his feet.

I stretch my memory back through the night, trying to remember the details of my half-conscious mind. “You’re right. So, that was voodune, then? Huh.” Despite myself, I almost feel cheated, as if my first experience of voodune should have been announced, introduced like the beginning of a spooky campfire story. Of course it wasn’t, I chide myself, because it isn’t some fiction to scare children, it’s a real system of beliefs. Within a week the ceremonies have become commonplace, the sounds of rhythmic worship often penetrating our tent’s walls well into the early morning. Voodune is as much a piece of the sound landscape of nighttime in Anse-a-Pitre as the bleating of goats and scurrying of rodents.

A few days later Roosevelt, a teenage boy named after the first United States president to visit Haiti, walks through the doorway into our compound. The doorway is intentionally door-less, meant as a sign of the community’s openness to visitors. Roosevelt looks to be about sixteen, with a shaved head and large, curious eyes that scan us calmly. “Bonjou,” he greets us.

“Bonjou,” we answer. I’ve been eager to talk with the locals, but don’t speak enough Creole, and few of our visitors so far have spoken French that I can understand. Their French is often accentuated by Creole sounds, and sometimes even whole words or phrases are switched out for the more comfortable tongue. But Roosevelt’s French is the formal standard taught in American public schools, and, with my meager conversational skills, we begin to chat.

One of the first things he asks me, one of the first things anyone asks during “small talk” in Haiti, is whether I believe in God. I say, “Oui,” because I don’t know enough French to explain my patchwork of spiritual beliefs, which includes the cherry-picked aspects of several world religions and my personal superstitions sewed together. I’m not sure how to explain when, or why, my personal experience has created part of my spirituality, why I believe that coincidences have meaning but predestination is flawed, why I think there’s a powerful Universe but not an all-powerful God. I hardly know how to discuss them in English without sounding completely irrational. But, more than an inability to describe my beliefs, I don’t want to alienate Roosevelt—or, rather, make myself more of a foreigner than I already am.

He begins talking about God, doing things for His glory, his plan to become a doctor so he can help people, as is God’s will. I understand that we’re talking about a Christian God, and I’m curious to hear Roosevelt’s take on voodune, a Christian’s opinion of an oft-demonized religion.

“Many people practice voodune in Anse-a-Pitre,” he says in French.

“I know, we hear them playing music at night,” I respond.

“Yes, there is a voodune house over there—” he points over the back wall of our community, towards the ocean. “They perform rituals sometimes.”

“Can we see one?” It’s shameless, totally shameless. But when will I ever get the chance to see a voodune ceremony in Haiti again?

He explains that yes, we can, they do ceremonies for tourists and we’ll need to pay to see one. In elementary French, I try to explain that I want to see a real ceremony, not one created for tourists, even though I know I am one, but I want to be treated like an insider—does this all make sense?

“Yes,” he responds, “but other people aren’t allowed to see those rituals. Voodune followers only.”

“Have you seen one?” I ask.

“Yeah…” he says, breaking eye contact, and I get the feeling he either hasn’t, or witnessed something he’d rather forget. Up to this point, Roosevelt has only expressed open curiosity and friendliness, so his distant gaze makes me think maybe more questioning is a bad idea, maybe I’ve hit a buried nerve.

About a week later, walking through woody bushes on our way towards the sea, Roosevelt points out two thatched huts.

“That’s where the ganga lives,” he says in French. I ask him to repeat—I don’t recognize this word, ganga. I think it must be a French word I haven’t learned, but after he says it again, explaining, This is where the music, the drums—I finally understand,

“Oh, people who practice voodune!” I’m wary of using the term “witch doctor,” mostly because I can’t use the term without picturing some Halloween bastardization of a wild-haired, skull-wearing sorcerer, but I interpret ganga to mean as much.

“Oui,” he affirms, giving the houses one last glance. I examine the unassuming huts, the large circular clearing in front of them, as we pass. They could belong to any Haitian, ganga or Christian. I guess voodune is really as mundane as I first assumed. I’m ashamed to have hoped for more.

Tropical storms roll in later that week. Jack and Hannah are anxious because it hasn’t rained in months, and the trees that we are supposed to be planting are still sitting in the nursery for lack of hydrated soil. The rest of us are anxious because we’re certain a hurricane is coming.

“If it was a hurricane, someone would have told us,” Jack argues. “The Haitian people here would know. They would tell the group of crazy white people who live in tents that a hurricane was coming.”

We all voice agreement, but no one, besides Jack and Hannah, seems to be entirely at ease. I turn back to reading my book. I’ve been devouring Shutter Island all week, partially because it’s an easy read, and partially because there’s been a hurricane approaching the tiny isle and I think that if I can get past that part in the book, maybe we’ll avoid the same fate in real life. It’s a silly superstition, I tell myself, but a quiet voice in my memory reminds me of that time I cured John’s illness. My boyfriend, John, had fallen ill the same day a character in the book I was reading at the time took to bed. The day I read that her illness had ended, John’s did, as well. I knew the happenstance was nothing more than that, a coincidence, but the part of me that finds them meaningful had a hard time keeping silent. So I read as others talk about tying down the tents and waterproofing valuables, and when the storms pass with little rain and scant damage, we all feel we’d been a bit foolish.

I’d woken up a few times in the morning to discover a sleeping mat lying out in the main tent. As people often used the mat for midday naps, I never thought to question it. One Sunday morning, waking up late—around 7:30 a.m., just before the sun gets too unbearable—I notice Eddy’s straw hat lying next to the mat. Eddy comes around almost everyday, a twenty-year-old Haitian man with a well-groomed chinstrap and a quick smile. He speaks English, French, Creole and Spanish, and often serves as our translator. I remember him being here the night before, chatting with Jack and Hannah in the main tent after most of us had gone to bed, but didn’t realize he had slept over.

“Did Eddy sleep here last night?” I ask, pointing at the mat.

“Yes,” Jack replies. “He sleeps here a lot. Is this the first time you’ve noticed the mat?”

“No,” I respond, a bit defensive, “I just didn’t realize. I mean, why would he sleep here? Not that I mind, but doesn’t he live nearby?”

“Because he’s scared of the dark.” I scoff. Jack stares at me. “I’m not joking, he really is.”

How could Eddy, the bodybuilder who lifts weights everyday, be scared of the dark in his own neighborhood? “Why?” I ask.

“The jab, of course.” My blank look prompts Jack to continue: “The jab is like the devil—or, more like an evil spirit, really. Haitians believe that if you’re walking alone at night, and someone shines a light in your eyes, the jab can enter your body. I mean, it’s very practical really, because a lot of men get jumped at night.”

“But it’s never completely dark,” I say. “What about moonlight, doesn’t that count?”

Jack shrugs. “I don’t know, it’s not like a cut-and-dry thing, it’s a superstition. Anyway, Eddy sleeps here when it gets too late.”

“Where is he now?” I ask.

“He had to shower,” Jack replies, “before going to church.”

One day a CD shows up in the kitchen, near the barrels of filtered water. The only electronics we have in our campsite are a few cell phones, solar-powered flashlights and one radio, so this new addition is glaringly out-of-place. No one seems to know where it came from, or to whom it belongs. We leave it there, waiting for someone pick it up. After about a week Mackinson, one of the local teenagers and a frequent visitor to Sadhana, off-handedly scoops it up on his way out.

Jack notices and calls him back. “Mackinson, what is that?” Mackinson describes it as something given to him at the church, by one of the missionaries. Eddy had told us about the group of Americans who were visiting this week. Apparently, one of the priests gave a guest lecture last week.

“Eddy thought it was funny,” Jack says.

“In what way?” I ask.

“Well, he said it was good, it was just…funny. Kind of boring.” I imagine a congregation of Haitians chuckling softly as a priest expounds upon the evils of adultery and the kindness of the Lord from the pulpit—Does this white man know that most of us mothers aren’t married, because we can’t afford to be? Does he know what real evil feels like, when it stalks your village at night? A new irony dawns on me—

“Wait, does Mackinson even own a CD player?”

“No,” Jack says, “I’m not sure anyone does in Anse-a-Pitre.”

“So, how is he supposed to…”

Jack shrugs. “Don’t ask me. I’m not a missionary.”

During our last week in Haiti, Jack and Hannah declare a National Sadhana Forest Holiday so we might spend the day relaxing together instead of planting trees or carting water. A couple people decide to use the Internet in a nearby town, and Kelly convinces the rest of us to go spelunking on the closest mountain. She found an awesome cave the other day while adventuring alone, and wants to share this breathtaking natural wonder with us. We gather up our water bottles and a couple headlamps and venture out for a day of exploration.

About an hour and three misleading stone outcroppings later, Kelly is still set on finding her spot. “God, where is that cave? I know it’s around here, you guys,” she asserts, again.

“Wait, is this it?” Hannah hikes up a steep ridge, pointing at the gash in rock face on the other side.

“No, it was…cooler than that,” Kelly says. “I can’t explain it, it was just so beautiful, and I just really want you guys to experience it, it was like…where is it?”

We continue up the slope, around the cacti and shrubbery that somehow flourish in this parched landscape. I’m bantering with Joel, trying to avoid slipping into one of the mini-canyons that often sneak underfoot, when from up ahead Kelly cries,

“This is it, oh my God, this is it! We found it!”

The mottled rock plateaus out at the entrance to the cave, an unassuming orifice in the mountainside. Kelly and Hannah have already descended into the dimness when the rest of us reach the opening. I scoot my way past Eddy, who stands planted at the lip of the cave, ready to lend a hand to anyone stumbling down through the earth. He looks away, up towards the summit, as Jack follows the group into the cavern.

The cave walls seem in a constant struggle—expand or contract?—as folds of eroded rock crawl across them, giving them a feeling of movement. The air hangs damp, like the inside of a pneumonic lung. Kelly is leading us through the remembered space, eager to point out the cave’s obvious beauty. Layers of rock, the colors alternating amongst gem tones of reds and blues and greens, compose the encompassing walls.

“Somebody was gettin’ crunk!” Kelly exclaims, gesturing towards the empty alcohol bottles resting in depressions across the cavern floor. A simple metal plate lies near them. Jack approaches one of the bigger stalagmites, a stone taller than him erupting from the cave floor, and knocks on it lightly while pressing his ear against it.

“I don’t think we should yell,” he advises.

I giggle, then realize he isn’t joking. “Wait, really?” He nods, his eyes scanning the ceiling’s precarious geology.

“Oh, sorry,” Kelly whispers. “Hey, guys, check this out—I think it’s a voodune mask!” She rests her hands on either side of a hollowed-out tree trunk, or branch, some piece of a tree large enough to fit over a person’s head and small enough to stay there. Holes the size of coins punctuate the wood, which looks weather-beaten, etched with wrinkles.

“Or it could just be a tree branch,” I say.

“But look at these eye holes!”

“Kelly, they’re all over, and no two are close enough to actually see through,” I contend. “I think it might just be driftwood.”

“Well, yeah, I guess that’s true,” she admits. “I just didn’t know what it was. I really wanted it to be something interesting.” She walks away and I step in to take a more critical look. I feel a bit guilty for disparaging Kelly’s discovery—it could be a voodune mask, I don’t know nearly enough about voodune to say it isn’t, but I’m not going to immediately equate weird object with voodune. Besides, driftwood makes a rational explanation, given the remnants of sea life that speckle the mountainside, perhaps specimens from a time not too long ago when this mountain laid underwater.

Kelly and Hannah, head lamps secured, slide down into the darkest reaches of the cavern, claiming to look for the aquifer that lies under the mountain. Joel and I linger, taking our time admiring the incredible reality of something that seems so fake. I imagine we are in a gorgeous mouth, being eaten alive by the rows of wavy stalactite teeth hanging from the ceiling. As Kelly and Hannah descend deeper into the crevices of the earth, Joel and I sit halfway between where they venture and the entrance. There is something that won’t let me follow them, something tugging me back.

Jack’s absence reverberates like an echo. I look behind me and see him perched on a wide stalagmite, face open towards the entrance and the sun. Jack isn’t one to shy away from exploration, from witnessing every part of a landscape, I think. He must feel something is amiss.

I whisper his name, and he turns slowly towards me. “What’s up?” I ask.

“I don’t know where Eddy is,” he responds. I follow his gaze back up the eroded footholds to the opening and notice, for the first time, that Eddy hasn’t joined us in this adventure; he isn’t even within eyeshot.

“Maybe he’s checking out another part of the mountain,” I respond weakly. Of course he isn’t, he knows this mountain as well as I know the streets of my hometown.

“I think he’s scared of this cave,” Jack responds.

The plate, the alcohol bottles, my general sense of unease suddenly all make sense: This is the jab’s cave, a place of voodune worship and terror. And we’re shamelessly invading it. Just days before, Jack had explained the midnight ritual of offering food and drink to the jab before delving into its cave, swimming through the tunnels of the aquifer to an opening at another part of the mountain. It’s a cleansing practice; the participant is believed to be inhabited by the jab before exorcising him on the other side of the pure underground river. The locals use the caves that pockmark these mountains as altars, some of them housing spirits and their beliefs as naturally as they were formed.

We know caverns like this are something sacred, and yet we’re still trying to see how far we can probe. I imagine watching a group of people play Sardines in a cemetery, or a church; the image makes me uneasy—That would be quite uncouth—but I know it’s not the same feeling. My spiritual beliefs are not so concrete as Eddy’s, not so compelling that I actually fear places. I try again, this time imagining myself as a young Haitian man who just watched a group of foreigners, my friends but outsiders nonetheless, access a cave I believe houses an evil spirit, and with aplomb. Am I more worried for their safety, hurt by their nonchalance, or angry at their transgression? All of these emotions at once? Eddy wasn’t standing by the entrance to help us descend into the cave; in fact, he probably didn’t want us to enter it at all.

I feel almost nauseous, swaddled in guilt and the awe of beliefs I don’t understand. Jack turns back to me. “I don’t feel good about this,” he says.

“It’s…eerie,” I offer. He nods. The word isn’t enough, doesn’t begin to cover my new understanding of the pain we’re causing Eddy, my wish that Kelly and Hannah weren’t so deep in the cave already, the feeling that the walls are inhaling around us.

I want Kelly and Hannah to return. I want them to reach the end of the cave, I want us all to stop admiring this space in the wrong way. But from somewhere deep under me, I can hear Kelly’s exclamation that they’ve just found the aquifer, and this cave probably goes on forever. I have to retrieve them, I can’t possibly sit here any longer. And, in some selfish part of me, I still want to explore as much of the cave as I can.

I call down for Kelly to bring me one of the headlamps so I can join them. I hear her scuffling over, and a steep but short drop is illuminated under my feet. I ease myself down. Kelly turns back to the edge of the aquifer, and I can see nothing.

I’m not afraid of the dark. Imagining unseen rats, snakes lying in wait to slither across my feet, does not frighten me. Yet suddenly I feel a spurt of adrenaline, my fight-or-flight response kicking into high-gear.

I’m not afraid of the dark.

I can only attribute my alarm to one thought: the jab. That’s crazy, I tell myself, I don’t even believe in the jab. But down here, it almost seems crazier not to.

Here, I am a bit afraid of the dark.

“Hey, you guys,” I whisper.

“Hannah, this is so cool,” Kelly says. “Seriously, the coolest thing I have ever done.”

“You guys,” I say, more loudly, dispelling some of my fear. “I think maybe we should go.”

“Oh.” Kelly’s enthusiasm is cut short. “Um, okay, we’ll be up soon.”

I make my way back up through the crevice, breathing in thinner air and light. Joel is taking pictures of the stalactites.

“How was it?” he asks.

“Yeah, good, good,” I respond. Jack is still scanning the entrance from his perch. I want to apologize to him, but I can’t think of a logical explanation for why I should. In my peripheral vision, I see a scrap of paper lying near Joel’s feet.

“What’s that?” I ask, picking up the grimy sheet. It’s been ripped out of a common school notebook, part of it torn off, all of it covered in dirt and slightly damp. Joel and I examine the writing that covers both sides. Not much is legible, except the phrase, “I hope to God,” and a couple other disconnected words.

“This looks like a prayer,” I say.

“Yeah,” Joel agrees. “We should leave it here, but take a picture.” I hold the paper into the light as Joel tries focusing his camera. For some reason, we can’t get the words to show up in any of the photos we take.

“Maybe we’re not supposed to record it,” I say. The longer I stay in this cave, the more I exercise my superstitions.

“Maybe,” Joel says. We return the paper to the spot where we found it, and follow Jack up into the day, Kelly and Hannah following close behind. Eddy appears suddenly, and heads quickly back down the mountain, keeping a good distance between himself and anyone else. As Jack rushes to catch up with him, I hang back to talk with Kelly.

“I can’t believe we just did that,” she gushes. “We just went spelunking, in Haiti, and that cave went on forever, Sarah, we got down to the aquifer and it just kept going, that was so much fun!”

I nod, quietly interject—“I think Eddy is upset.”

“What?” Her face drops, the urgency in her voice changes. “Why?”

“I think he believes the jab lives in that cave.”

“Really? Is that why he didn’t come in with us?” she asks. “That actually makes a lot of sense. Oh, I hope we didn’t offend him.”

“Let’s ask Jack,” I suggest. Eddy has again pulled away from our group, and Jack is walking a bit slower.

“Hey, uh, Jack?” I ask. “Is Eddy upset?”

“No, he’s alright. He said it’s okay, he’s just scared of the boem that live down there.” Boa constrictors? Jack shakes his head slightly. “He suffers from superstitions we don’t, that’s it.”

But, I think, what makes this a superstition and not a religion? Or a lifestyle? Does it matter what we call his beliefs if they affect him so powerfully? I don’t believe Eddy is okay, but I also don’t believe he’d ever tell us otherwise. His relationships with us mean too much to him, and in the past month I’ve never seen him get upset over anything. I wish he would just tell us off, we deserve whatever guilt he has to lay on us. By the time we reach camp, any coldness Eddy has chosen to show us has worn off. We’re only here another few days, and I suppose he’d rather enjoy our company than dwell on our misguided transgressions. He stays with us the rest of the evening, cooking dinner with us and eventually falling asleep in our main tent. A voodune ritual thumps steadily through the night, the third night in a row, and I stare through our tent’s screen roof at the clear light of the moon.

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