As a Haitian-American (Black) woman, I can say that, particular to my experience, there are some things would cause whole uproar in Haitian people should they disappear. Sure, this is completely up for debate, but the importance of the following things can never go unrecognized.
“Bel anteman pa di paradi.”
[A beautiful funeral doesn't guarantee heaven.]
Whether or not you consider yourself a vodouissant (practitioner of vodou), all soul’s day (or the day of the dead) likely means something to you, just as it does for many Latin American population groups. Through the month of November, in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora, many families actively remember the past they’ve inherited in the future. They light a candle for those deceased, visit the cemetery with food and drink for their loved ones, and they celebrate life, while accepting death as the conclusion to a full and complete story.
The emphasis placed during this time on ancestry certainly creates the context within which we understand Fet Guédé. In short, guédé are a nation of lwa (or spirits) in Haitian Vodou that embody both death and fertility. They are the representation of family ancestors who manifest themselves almost as guardian angles. They are responsible for surveying for and protecting against harmful energy. Their dance and music, acknowledged and performed at the end of any dans (or ceremony), can be described as erotic, indecent, and even comedic. This is most attributed to the notion that the dead find the seriousness of human beings, with regards to their own lives, comedic. These spirits of the dead, then, use their dance and music to blur the rigid boundaries of fertility and sexuality — as it pertains to life — and death. For this reason, Fet Guédé during the month of November brings along with it a period of reflection – a moment to find peace amidst all the chaos or struggle that may come with being alive and human.
Remembering the ancestors, then, is more than simply a romantic act and more than just culturally significant. It is absolutely necessary.
“Mapou mouri, kabrit manje fey li.”
[When the Mapou tree (an oak-like tree) dies, goats eat its leaves.]
In fact, often times we discuss success by referring to the shoulders of those we stand on. We learn from the experiences of the people who came before us. From them, we discover what should be done, what needs to be done, and what can be done differently for our families, communities, and society overall. From them, we motivate ourselves to be more (or be less). In my opinion, proverbs are the orally transferred transcripts of all of these ideas. We grow up hearing them, and, we tend to make sense of them just when they apply particularly to us.
For Haitian people, proverbs document historical life lessons. Proverbs are the very tools that we depend on to remind us of a sound truth, that connects us to the generations of bodies, thoughts, and brilliant minds that define us, in part, today.
The proverb beginning this section quite literally talks about the cycle of life. A tree dies, and its leaves are the prime food source for an animal. What is left behind from the tree serves to nourish the future of another living being. There is nothing more precious and sacred than that.
“Kreyol pale, kreyol Konprann.”
[Creole spoken is, creole understood]
Similarly, we can consider Haitian-Creole (or Kreyol) to be a part of our life cycle, as it is a remnant of the resulting body of African culture, language, and people stolen away to work for their colonizer against their will. The tangibility of the words that depart from our lips echo the sounds of a home characterized by drumming, song, dance, laughter, and community. Furthermore, the increased use of the language in schools, politics, and daily talk couldn’t be any more of an applaud to the struggle, and subsequent success, of our ancestors than it already is. It’s a language that holds on to its African roots while also sending an overwhelmingly powerful message to “The Man.” Like Vodou, Haitian-Creole is a perfect example of how to make the sweetest lemonade from the sourest of lemons.
The three things I mentioned here define, for me, what it means for my peace and happiness to be a product of my inheritance.
I am one with the life lessons of my past. And, I will be that way until it is my time to join the nation of my ancestors.
The above post was original written and published November 2016.
Ignace merges her passion for public heath and global health in her dance, her writing, and research interests.