Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, whom we first interviewed for our program “Living Vodou,” grew up in Haiti, a member of the country’s aristocratic elite of African descent. He studied political science in the U.S. and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. Unlike his well-known grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith was first drawn to his homeland’s indigenous religion as a way to understand his cultural identity, and later became a oungan.
The professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee responds to our questions about Haiti’s history, the mass media’s reporting, and Vodou’s role in recovery:
I find myself wanting to hear about the context and perspective that only you can bring to the way Haiti is being viewed and discussed while the earthquake spotlight is on it. What are your thoughts?
I am running on adrenaline at this moment, often unthinking, unfeeling, “zombie-like.” I didn’t sleep for the first several days. A Haitian baby girl, 15 days old, was found alive and well after seven days. Half her life! What stamina shown by the buried, the undead, after one week after the cataclysm.
The UN says that it is the worst disaster it has faced, presumably in terms of actual death and refugees in a single country. It is the worst earthquake in Haitian history, in a country and in a geographic/geologic area that was literally created from fault lines and tectonic plates and volcanoes. When earthquakes occurred in the 19th century, Haiti picked itself up and rebuilt itself, without assistance from the outside world. We do acknowledge that we need it this time, and hope that Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, at the direction of Haitian governments, with all that Haiti has in terms of a reservoir of talent both inside and outside the country.
When you say that you hope Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, what do you mean? Are there certain examples you’re thinking of?
Haitian models abound in all fields, areas, and systems of life. The culture provides with indigenous models of development, as well as indigenous patterns of housing development, some predating European colonization of the island of Haiti (Hispaniola), e.g. Amerindian sources. The “Miami model” now found throughout the Caribbean insists on low houses, flat cement cement roofs, and the like, which do not accord with the environment.
Other more “settled cultures” have improvised upon their legacy, while Haiti has opted for a pale imitation of American standards all too often. In the same way that our art is distinctive and derived from our religion, our housing and our cities can also be creative and innovative within our own traditions and foundations. Hence, my call for all architects and engineers to come together to rebuild Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince had eathquakes in the 1860s and 1950s. It was rebuilt. The second city of 500,000 inhabitants, Cap-Haïtien, was destroyed in 1842. It was rebuilt.
There’s been so much non-stop coverage of Haiti since the first earthquake devastated the country where you grew up. I saw a series of reports on one news channel and its website that featured a reporter standing outside of a Catholic church…
Haiti has always been “defined” as 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, but 100 percent Vodou. This recognizes that the national religion is part of a worldview that belongs to all Haitians, and for which all Haitians should be proud. Typically, we can and do worship in churches, temples, and ounfos, realizing that it’s all about “spirit” and that all spiritual disciplines have access to the spiritual world.
Vodou is merely the culturally Haitian form of such worship. Haitian music, painting, oral literature — all systems inherently found in all cultures — have a Vodou foundation at its base. Much the same as the Judeo-Christian ethos suffuses all that is American, even those millions of Americans who are atheists.
…and the report would cut away to shots of Haitians worshiping while the correspondent continued to talk somewhat off-the-cuff. I thought, “Why aren’t they speaking to more people and featuring their voices on camera — even if they need interpreters?” What’s been missed in U.S. coverage of Haiti and its cultural/religious/spiritual moorings?
Much is missing from the American reportage by media. American media, all together now, refuse to mention that the first responders were more than 400 Cuban doctors doing good work in Haiti for several years. American media are not reporting that Venezuelan and Cuban help is being resisted by the U.S. when Cuba and Venezuela are very significant allies of Haiti for the past 200 years — for the past 100 years, depending on when these countries achieved independence.
The emphasis was not on water or food, but on landing 12,000 American soldiers in Haiti. Why so many soldiers? Please explain. Haitians are refusing to oblige American reporters who insist that Haiti will have “riots” and that Haitians “loot.” Is it because Haitians are black? The same arguments were made about New Orleans during Katrina. Racism always remains true to itself. When will that stop, coming from people who are genuine in their desire to help, but remain racist nonetheless. Please stop!
I have lost nine members of my extended family. Cousins of my generation have all survived, but their five homes have collapsed. One cousin in her mid-60s is sleeping in her car with her gravely ill husband. I have yet, as of today, been unable to call. News is intermittent. I am distressed and distraught.
I remember Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s and 1950s — une ville jardin, a garden city with abundant greenery and water, a small population of 150,000. I am well-born and come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death — and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought.
That sentiment — “the dead are not dead” — reminds me of a line from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: “The future stems from the past, so life and death become one in the same.” Could you say more about the Vodou understanding of spirit and energy and not wasting the wisdom of one’s ancestors? And how might this Vodou worldview inform a Haitian approach to rebuilding the country?
The Gede family of spirits protect the cemetery, and also protect new life in a never-ending chain. The Gede love children, reminiscent of the relationship one often finds between grandparents and grandchildren. One’s past predicts tendencies for certain outcomes, yet, through the exercise of free will, one can transcend one’s limits.
In traditional African thought, as in most spiritual systems, reincarnation is taken for granted, though attenuated in Haiti by the impact of Christianity. Hence the lack of a heaven and a hell, yet alone a purgatory or, in pre-John Paul II times, a limbo. Souls are nearer than we realize, and their interaction with the “living,” generally beneficent. No energy goes a-wasting in a close universe!
The way one interacts with fellow beings on the planet is far more significant (and rewarding) than the way one might interact with the spirit world or with God for that matter. At critical points in our lives’ journeys, God shall not ask about our beliefs or treatment of “It,” but how we have managed our relationships with humans and other facets of nature alike.
In what ways are you seeing your local community and, perhaps, larger Haitian-American community coming together during these times?
Haiti was in the process of reinventing itself politically, socially, culturally. Now Haiti has to reinvent itself physically as well. Out of tremendous pain, rays of hope. We rebuilt after past earthquakes, after hurricanes. We are spared the scourge of volcanic eruptions; our sister English and French colonies in the Caribbean, Monserrat and Martinique, did not escape volcanoes that are at the foundations of our countries.
The Haitian diaspora, more than a million strong, will come to the rescue. This signal event forces us to come into action. “L’Union Fait la Force” (“Union Makes Strength”), the national motto of Haiti must be practiced or else the international community will dictate the terms of Haiti’s “recovery.” And worse will follow!
As a Vodou priest, how has the spirit world been present during the aftermath?
Haiti needs all its ancestral spirits, now more than ever. Praise the Lwa.
You began this interview by sharing the remarkable story of a 15-day-old baby surviving the quake. How do stories like this inform your notions of the human spirit? Of what Haiti’s future might hold and look like?
Her spirit is strong, and I would hope that she was spared to produce great things in her lifetime. This is one of many miracles we have been fortunate to witness over the last 12 days! That girl, name unknown, has proven as resilient as Haiti herself.
Who might have predicted that Haiti would have survived 206 years when faced by the opprobrium of the Western powers? In defiance, we cry out, “nou met led me nou la (we may be ugly, but we are here)!”