There is a powerful scene in the Tracy Kidder book about Paul Farmer, where the doctor and his chronicler are caught deep in rural Haiti late at night. A friend is sent to fetch a car. The duo start walking down the dark road alongside Ti Jean, a Haitian colleague.
Roosters crow in the night. Now and then a dog barks. Then we hear a strange sound coming towards us, like something scraping the road. ‘What is it?’ Farmer asks Ti Jean.
Ti Jean says, ‘Job pa-l.’ The literal translation is: ‘Its own job.’ He means, ‘Don’t ask.’ In a moment, the shapes of a pair of men appear, dragging some lumber down the road towards Casse. A few minutes later we hear a squeaking sound approaching. Farmer asks Ti Jean what it is and Ti Jean answers more emphatically. ‘Zafe bounda-l!’ Which means, ‘It’s own ass!’ He’s telling Farmer to shut up and mind his own business. A moment later the shape of a person on a squeaky old bicycle passes in the starlight.
This continues. Another person passes, and Farmer says, ‘Bonsoir,’ and Ti Jean shushes him, then issues these instructions: If someone passes you at night and doesn’t speak, you too must remain silent, but if the person asks who you are, you must say, ‘I am who you are,’ and if the person asks what you do, you must say, ‘I do what you do.’
What’s the danger? Farmer asks.
Ti Jean says you might be talking to a demon who will steal your spirit. Then you’ll wake up in the morning with diarrhea and vomiting, and the doctor will say you have typhoid or malaria, but in fact the problem will be more complex. ‘You should take the medicines,’ says Ti Jean. ‘But then you should also go to a Voodoo priest.’
I sympathise. My demons come at night also.
I lie in bed and they appear, taunting me with things undone, ambitions unrealised, with decisions poorly made, conversations badly handled.
I did not need to come to Haiti for these demons. They were there in Brooklyn also. But they traveled with me and have taken on local powers.
Now they whisper to me about potential break-ins, about doors unlocked. About how to make my way on this troubled island.
I get up in the dead of night after one demon convinces me to move my MacBook from the study to the bedroom, which feels safer, behind a barred gate.
I read once that some Haitian superstitions could be traced to medieval Normandy. The colonists also imported their demons, it seems. They intermingled with those of other cultures, taking on new forms, new habits.
I pad around the house at 4 am. Petionville glistens below. Noise drifts up the hill. The occasional honking car. Snatches of music. The bustle of a city on partial power, of people still working.
But rural Haiti is never far off. I can see it in the shadowed hills which frame the city. The cock crows at night here too, dreaming of a dawn far off. Insects sing loudly, chirping their dominance over people; a light breeze hushes the blossoms.
I take some photos. Somewhere our night guards are prowling, or sleeping. A demon whispers that they may shoot me by accident, so I turn on some lights. I am here! We have electricity! The demons scuttle into corners.
The camera gives some control, some purpose. I consider what I might write in my blog the next day. Intention offers solace, and the demons retreat further.
I head back to bed. The demons return; teasing me with yearning dreams, reintroducing me to old friends, colleagues, places, even as Anna sleeps beside me and the children breathe peacefully in the adjoining room. I lie with eyes open, the faint light of the city streaming through the window, thinking of the next day.
And yet, ultimately, I remember I am comfortable here. My concerns are minor. How much more powerful these demons might be were I born Haitian, concerned about my next meal, my children’s health.
So I empathise with Haiti’s night demons. They are very real.
We stroll on. Farmer says that Ti Jean’s discourse has reminded him of his first ardent explorations of Haiti and the dozens of Voodoo ceremonies he attended. Contrary to almost everything he’s read about their luridness, he found them long and boring. ‘The majority were held because someone was sick.’ He asks Ti Jean his opinion. Are half of the Voodoo ceremonies attempts to drive away illness?
‘Three-quarters,’ says Ti Jean.
‘Isn’t it amazing,’ Farmer says to me, ‘that this simple fact has eluded all the many commentaries on Voodoo?’