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Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

The Day of the dead - part 1
15 December 2012 @ 23:33

The genesis of my Haiti story lay not so much in the fact that I was interested in voodou per se, but more in that I was looking for a situation to put myself in that would freak out the average person. With Halloween fast approaching, I figured that, of all the places not to be at midnight on that day, a voodou ceremony in Haiti must rank at the top of the list.. 

  However, I did have a passing interest in voodou for personal reasons. Following the death of my girlfriend in front of a train several years previously I had been subjected to a period of what I can only call haunting. There had been several very obvious poltergeist effects. 

  Subsequent to that, an old Jew, well versed in mysticism, whom I had met on just one occasion over a business deal, had warned a friend of mine to tell me that something was trying to take me over and that I should fight it. He had seemed a sensible old man, whom I had never seen before nor was likely to see again. There was no reason for him to lie to me. 

  Last but not least, there was the small matter of the two lives I had taken. They do say that, when you die, you meet the spirits of all those you have wronged. So what of my own spirit? To have done those supremely evil acts, did that not have strong implications for the nature of my soul? 

  I knew that the priest/witch doctors of the voodou religion were well versed in manipulating the spirit world. They also spent a lot of their time striving against evil spirits. Should I have such spirits in me they would be just the people to ask what to do. 

  Call it a consultation if you will, but this was a matter that increasingly troubled me. The haunting situation had severely frightened me and I had been a man not particularly vulnerable to fear. So, on a very personal level, the coming visit to Haiti was going to be a severe trial for me.

  Eoin of ‘Front’ jumped at the story. The juxtaposition of Halloween and Haiti had caught his imagination and he thought it would be a good story for the magazine. Further, a production company had expressed an interest in filming me on my next assignment. The story also caught their imagination. The upshot was that they would supply a cameraman for free, as well as paying half of all the expenses for the trip. In return they would want the rights to all the footage they had shot whilst in Haiti. It was an offer that ‘Front’ couldn’t refuse. 

  However, they did stipulate that they wanted some photos taken for the magazine. To this end they wanted our own photographer to go with us on the trip. They put me in touch with a young woman called Linda, who, apart from being a photographer, was also an absolute fount of knowledge about Haiti and voodou. Over several years and dozens of trips she had become an authority on the subject. She knew all the ritual of voodou, had photographed countless ceremonies and artifacts, and had an extensive collection of voodou dolls at home. 

  The meeting with her was something of a disappointment. As a venue for anything, the run-down African café in Hackney left a lot to be desired. I arrived early and Linda was late. I strenuously resisted the blandishments of the proprietor to order from the menu. I would have continued to do so had I been starving.

  Linda was a somewhat scruffy young woman in her early thirties, with short, cropped, untidy hair. You could tell that her appearance wasn’t amongst her priorities. She was pleasant enough, but underneath it all seemed to lie a deep sadness. I didn’t know if she suffered from depression, but her general air was quite miserable. 

  In order to lighten the situation between two people who had just met and who would probably be working together under extreme circumstances, I did attempt some levity at times. Linda was totally impervious to it. She answered my lighthearted question as if it had been a request for factual information, without so much as acknowledging the intended levity behind it. After a while I gave up, resigning myself to the fact that maybe she didn’t have much of a sense of humour. 

  However, she came across as a very pleasant person, and highly professional as well. She left me in no doubt that she knew Haiti and the subject matter, and that she was more than competent to take any photos we might need. She was also reasonably fluent in Creole, one of the two languages spoken in Haiti, the other being French. 

  Gary, the cameraman supplied by the production company, was as different from Linda as it was possible to be. A Canadian in his late twenties, he was as adventurous as I was and had been pursuing his passion for photography all over the world. The pair of us hit it off right away. The only misgivings I had was that sometimes I needed a sensible head to talk me out of throwing myself into desperate situations. All I would get from Gary was encouragement.

  Unfortunately for me, all the international flights to Haiti went through Miami, as Haiti’s airports were not capable of taking the big airliners. An overnight stay was required before continuing the journey in a much smaller plane. The problem was that the Americans had very strict immigration procedures. I knew that as I had a serious criminal conviction I could well be refused entry. Therefore, this was another assignment that could easily be nipped in the bud. I had nightmares of us paying for three tickets and my being sent back from Miami.

  On the flight, Linda and I sat in adjacent seats. I had done some research on both voudou and Haiti as a background to the story, but the two-hour tutorial I had from Linda more than filled in the gaps.

  My first mistake had been in thinking that, for Haitians, it was Halloween that they were celebrating. The latter is a very Westernized tradition, but, like so many other similar traditions, it is celebrated worldwide in other forms. Haitians specifically celebrate the ‘Day of the Dead’. There are numerous ceremonies in cemeteries all over the island with the biggest being in the sprawling, central cemetery in the capital, Port au Prince.

  Voudou has strong historical links with Catholicism and some Catholic ritual can still be seen in modern day voudou. However, originally, voudou was a revolutionary movement by the slaves as a means of resisting their enslavement. At times it was banned by the white, slave-masters, but continued to flourish underground. Finally, the Catholic church withdrew it’s priests from the island in protest at it’s continuance This was when voudou became the official, mainstream religion. Today, millions practice it worldwide.

  My second mistake had been in thinking that voudou was some kind of black magic cult. There are secret branches that invoke evil and use magic for bad intent. The sorcerers, or Boko, do their work in cemeteries or at crossroads. They can make objects to bring harm, ‘wanga’, the most feared of which is ‘voye’, which can bring death.

  But the vast majority of voudou worshippers strive against evil, just like in Western religions. The celebrants worship a pantheon of spirits that rule different realms of life, under guidance from the voudou ‘priests’, called ‘oungans’ if they are male, and ‘mambos’ if they are female.

  Practitioners of voudou believe that, at the point of death, the soul and guardian spirit remain in the body. A ‘priest’ must force them out. The soul sinks into the abysmal waters for a year and a day to gain knowledge. Then it will be raised by the ‘priest’, using another ritual.   

  The spirits, or Iwa, can be invoked in a number of ways. Each one has it’s own symbols, songs and dances as well as it’s own symbolic drawing, called a ‘veve’. In ceremonies, ‘veve’ are drawn on the floor to coax the spirits into the earthly plane. The ‘priest’ will encourage the spirit into the material world with drumming, singing, dancing and magical chants. The act of possession is the supreme gift that the spirit can bestow on the celebrants, but no one knows who the spirit will enter. When possessed, celebrants exhibit the unique movements and actions associated with that spirit.  

  I listened with interest as Linda explained all this. Before I had had my own experiences with spirits following my girlfriend’s death, I would have dismissed the whole lot as so much mumbo jumbo. But, as a rational individual, I still hadn’t been able to explain some of the things I had seen and heard. So, unless I was to deny the evidence of my own senses, something unseen and spiritual had entered this material plane. Therefore, why should I refuse to believe that a voudou ‘priest’ could conjure up spirits. 

  The more I talked with Linda, the more I got to understand her. Miserable or not, there was no harm in her. To the contrary in fact. You could tell that she believed much of voudou lore, although she didn’t admit as much, and I didn’t ask. In her own way, she would always strive against evil influences. 

  On the surface, she seemed like a troubled spirit, someone searching for something. She confessed to having her own collection of voudou dolls at home. Occasionally she would add a new one, which would cause trouble. There would be bangs and crashes from the room where the collection was, and, when she went in, the new doll, or several near it, would be on the floor. Sometimes she had to return the doll to Haiti.

  In further conversation though, it emerged that her miserable state had a far more mundane cause. She had recently emerged from a very unhappy relationship. It seems that her boyfriend, who she cared deeply for, had walked out on her. She had taken it very hard. So hard in fact that she had ostensibly turned against men. She gave the impression that she was now a lesbian. Her hair was cut in a man’s style and some of her clothes lacked femininity, but in all the time I was with her she never mentioned a girlfriend, or any other romantic attachment for that matter. I took her ‘lesbianism’ to be merely an extreme rejection of men in general.

  In view of the fact that we were being open with each other, I decided to make a confession of my own. It was also founded on sound practicality. As I filled in the U.S. immigration form, I had to tick the box indicating that I had served a prison term of over five years. I had to consider the possibility that, on landing, I might be refused a visa and be held in the cells overnight, before being put on the flight to Haiti the following morning. In that instance, I wanted to establish where we should all meet in Haiti should we become separated.

   Gary was intrigued and wanted to know more. I promised to explain later. Linda looked shocked. She wasn’t curious, just put out that she had misjudged me, I think. However, always the consummate professional, she recovered and carried on with planning the trip. 

  Miami International Airport was a nightmare. I have been received into prisons with better grace. Massively long queues led to uniformed immigration officials who had unanimously discarded good manners long ago. I knew that the push of a button would bring up my criminal record anyway, so perhaps openness was the best policy. Handing over my press card at the same time as my passport and immigration form, I pointed to the box I had ticked acknowledging that I had served more than five years in prison. 

.... to be continued

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