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9454: Haitians celebrate death and life on Day of Dead (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Trenton Daniel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Haitians celebrating Allhallows went
to cemeteries en masse to pay respects to the dead in a national holiday
that offers a comic and ironic escape for a country mired in political
instability and economic turmoil.
In the Caribbean nation's Day of the Dead celebration of All Saints'
Day, a two-day holiday ending at dusk on Friday, Haitians honor voodoo
spirit Baron Samedi and his spirit followers, the guede.
"It's the Day of the Dead, but in fact we celebrate life," said Eddy
Moise, the national cemetery's director general, amid a team of bodyguards
at his cemetery office. "With the dead today, we're celebrating life."
Baron Samedi, keeper of the cemetery and gate opener to the spirit
world, is also known for encouraging his followers to engage in antics of
pilfering, lewd and lascivious behavior, and public drunkenness.
His influence was evident on Thursday morning as thousands of Haitians
caroused in the graveyard.
Guede, black and purple-clad practitioners of what is referred to as
"Vodou" in the native Creole, and other Haitians filed through the
corridors of pastel-colored tombstones to pay tribute to the spirits at a
9-foot-high (3-metre-high) Baron Samedi cross, a symbol of the crossroad
between the living and the dead.
At the sacred site, where the pungent odor of urine mingled with those
of moonshine and marijuana, Haitians drank and poured alcohol and left
behind staple dishes of rice and plantains for their deceased family
members. Revelers cursed gratuitously and openly displayed pornographic
"I think it's a cry of life against death, and the sexual part is
based essentially on male sexuality," Bryant Freeman, director of Haitian
Studies at the University of Kansas, told Reuters during a visit to Haiti.
"It's a life force making fun of death -- we know we're all going to die,
but we need to have an affirmation of life as exhibited by male sexuality."
Eighty percent of Haitians are Catholic and another 10 percent are
Protestant, according to the U.S. State Department. But voodoo, a national
religion, is widely practiced.
The holiday is not only about hedonism, but also about speaking the
truth and saying that which cannot be ordinarily be said in historically
"We love Duvalier! We love Duvalier!" two tipsy men chanted in front
of dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's grave, which was destroyed and
turned into a mound of rubble after a popular uprising in 1986 ended 29
years of despotic rule.
Duvalier, who died in 1971 and passed the mantle of
"president-for-life" to his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc"
Duvalier, was known for sporting dark suits and homburg hats and speaking
in a nasal twang -- imagery suggestive of Baron Samedi -- as a means to
instill fear in the population.
"Papa Doc, very knowingly, used the symbolism of Baron Samedi ... the
idea being: 'Don't mess with me. I have the power of life and death,"' said
Freeman. "The symbolism was not lost on Haitians at all."
While most Haitians do not miss the violent repression of Duvalier,
some long for the return of order.
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who first rose to power in 1991
after helping topple the Duvalier regime and reclaimed power last February,
has struggled to satisfy the needs of some 8 million people in Haiti, the
poorest country in the Americas.
The majority live in poverty, and a political impasse over May 2000
elections has stalled more than $500 million in foreign aid, damaging
efforts to turn around the sinking economy. Two-thirds of Haitians suffer
from malnutrition, and the average life expectancy is 53.
In another defiant gesture against death on Thursday, voodoo
practitioners gathered at the Sacred Mystic Temple in the suburban slum of
As in the cemetery, guedes donned the attire of Baron Samedi and
patted their faces with white powder to evoke the pale complexions of the
dead. Others wore black-framed glasses, which are said to allow Samedi to
see into the realms of both the living and the dead.
Once the spirits seized the mambos, or priestesses, they begged
bystanders for money and cigarettes, marching in circles as they thrust
their hips and stroked "batons," Baron Samedi's club which is meant to
symbolize the phallus.
For Laennec Hurbon, a Haitian sociology professor, such antics and the
Day of the Dead itself are a way to strengthen ties to one's family.
"If you don't honor the dead, you lose touch with your family -- and
symbolic roots," Hurbon said. "That's very important."