For many years, I had missed the carnival period here in Haiti because I always had to go back to my university for the semester. Burying my nose in books for the semester while fantasising about the colours, the lights, and the sounds of carnival my mother would tell me about over the phone. However, now since moving here a few months ago, finally I am able to be part of one of the critical events in Haitian culture. Carnival.
It happens annually over a six week period through mid-January and into February, in the major cities all over Haiti like Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Cap Haitien and others all over the country. From what I have heard all around, the carnival in Jacmel is the best and people actually leave the capital to go and watch it in swarms, swirling and buzzing with the lyrical fever that comes around this time of year. A few days ago, while walking through the sweltering heat and maze of streets in Petion-ville, I was actually stopped by a local to ask if I was participating in the carnival…he speaks to me in Kreyol casually as they all usually do – seeing no foreignness in me. I have the brown skin of his mother, of his sisters, of every woman he’s ever known – I belong here, even without having been born here. Simply because we are tied by the blood of our motherland, simply because Africa never left us. For whatever reason however, no matter where I go I always manage to stick out like a sore thumb, bruised and red – shining bright enough to catch startled eyes – unique. Haiti is no different, and with my wild copper mess of braids I suppose I am even more difficult to miss at this point.
At the time when I was approached, I had no idea that many women traditionally braid their hair crazy colours and so my current hairdo was perceived as me getting lost in the carnival spirit. Unwilling to disappoint the man by letting him know that this way just my regular level of ostentaciousness, I nodded and replied in my meager kreyol that I would most certainly be participating in the Jacmel carnival. When I finally saw it on television at Cafe 36 (a tasteful, tranquil restaurant near the Irish Village in Petion-ville which I plan to adopt), I certainly wished that I was going to be a part of it. The faces on the television in front of me were live with colour and excitement, statues made out of paper mache depicting Haitian celebrities, legendary figures, and spiritual entities from both Christianity and Vodou dance over the heads of the people in the parade. While we sat at the restaurant, various bands walked by on foot playing their instruments and followed by small crowds. We watched them from above, and I wondered about the way the parade would be when it eventually started at seven. I was told that the parade in Port-au-Prince was far more lively than the one in Petion-ville, and yet the one in Petion-ville was the most dangerous due to people’s propensity to breakout into lewd and drunken fights. I was not discouraged though, from traveling so much I have learned to take people’s opinions about events and places with a pinch of salt – shrewdly judging everything for myself. Not because I don’t think people know what they’re saying, but because I believe a lot of people allow their fears to sway their opinions of things and I don’t want to be swayed by anyone’s fears – even my own.
When we finally make it to the carnival around nine that night, it is in full swing…crowds gather outside the small junction by Muncheez and the Royal Oasis. Earlier, I had seen young boys who are notorious for roller-blading at death-defying speeds down the streets of the city performing for crowds in red t-shirts. A lot of companies sponsor the carnival, including Rhum Barbancourt which you can see being sold by energetic street sellers who have stubbornly set up their stalls in the midst of the excited crowds. Women everywhere are daring in their clothing, vibrant and neon colours all around, necks adorned with shiny plastic beads and electronic earrings. Smart phones staring into the eyes of their owners, light and sound bathing the crowd and letting you forget the rubbish littering the streets below their feet. Darkness over us, the envious lights of Jalousie glinting down at us and our fevered shouts over the carnival music.
Everyone seems to be paired up, women dancing unabashedly against their men (plump bottoms and thighs jingling salaciously, flesh overloading)….a hand in the air, the other bringing the bottle of Prestige to their lips. Hair jostling from bobbing heads, eyes staring all around looking for the next act of entertainment, and weary for the next fight. And there are fights. Fights that move the crowd as two men shove each other, throwing punches, inciting the others around them. A man pushes a young woman as he passes through the crowd, she shoves him back hard enough for him to sway…he raises his hand in defense, her friends behind her jeer daring him to try. He keeps it moving. Whomever said Haitian women were docile and servile obviously has never witnessed their fighting spirit, their gall, their brazen splendour. My eyes dart around, greedily gobbling in everything in – frightened and yet excited! I am held tightly to one side by a loved one, constantly pushed in passing, eyes passing over me in assessment and all the while music. Music booming over us in the passing trunks, music booming through speakers on high diases, music coming through cells and out of pores. Music. Dance. Sweat. Sex. All wringing into the scent of the night around us, all going up into the sky.