Tag Archives: Paul Farmer

Night Demons

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.

Kidder continues:

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?’


On adequacy next to Saints

Been feeing a little inadequate. The culprit? The Pullitzer Prize winning “Mountains beyond Mountains” – which recounts the tale of Paul Farmer, a somewhat superhuman physician to the poor in Haiti and beyond. (He now has a job with Clinton here.) If you want to feel good about yourself, don’t read it.

Within one week of his arrival in Haiti, the 22-year-old Paul Farmer was already well on track to finding his life’s selfless calling, and had all but mastered Creole. I have a gnawing sensation that any journalist worth his salt would already be au fait with half the country’s political, intellectual and activist establishment, have unearthed three earth-shaking scoops, and redefined the way first worlders view third world deprivation for a decade.

A Haitian roadside boutique

Hmm. I have a blog, and have only just managed to organize travel outside my house. My Creole consists of decoding the eponymous banner ads slung across Petionville’s streets. (It’s actually quite a fun game. Speak the clipped words phonetically, and meaning emerges in quasi-French).

Adding to my disillusionment, our first serious excursion – beyond house-hunting – is to the seaside. And I am currently at the rather charming Petionville Club. So much for dedicating my life to telling the stories of the disenfranchised.

People, people everywhere.

Still, all comes with time, and let’s face it, as Anna reminds me, Paul Farmer didn’t have kids with him – those delightful, life-affirming, energy-sapping, career-destroying, paralysis-inducing exhaustatrons. Scant comfort, but it helps a little.

This leads me to contemplate a little how I shall measure myself here. I have a sense of wanting to make a difference – although I have grown more realistic (less ambitious?) about how much difference one person can make. Little things.

But what is the yardstick? I guess I shall seek validation through the approval of others. (A normal goal for a social animal, but we all crave it in different quantities.)

A history of journalism for the FT has spoiled me. Almost daily reports garner almost daily reaction – of one form or another. One’s life is constantly validated in a public sphere. It is hard to wean oneself off that drip of quasi-relevance.

I am also taunted by the increasing success of past acquaintances. A couple of bestselling authors. Friends emerging as ‘thought leaders’. Entrepreneurs who have made a fortune by spotting an amazing opportunity. Documentarists. Scientists. Doctors. etc etc.

I wonder whether I should instead seek my current validation through the happiness of my children. Hmm. I mean, I love them to bits and all, but it doesn’t quite do the job.

From previous positions of employment I often advised others: just do one really cool thing every couple of months, and the rest doesn’t matter. That’s as good as it gets.

Perhaps I should take my own advice. One and a half months to go!