Every Caribbean island has its own Carnival celebration. My parents are from Barbados, so I am very familiar with the festive parades, bright costumes, and cheering crowds. Every island also adds its own personal flare to carnival. Barbados Carnival, or Cropover, incorporates steel drums. Trinidad has an extra day known as Jouvet where you cover yourself in chocolate and parade through the street until morning. Despite the unique flavor each island mixes into its Carnival celebration, the HaitiKanaval stands apart, as a triumph of the island's rich history and bold personality.
The most festive portion of Haiti's Kanaval is said to take place in the southern coastal city of Jacmel. The festivities are distinctly divided into two portions, as different as day and night, and, appropriately, takes place during those respective times.
During the day, the main street fills itself with paper mache costumes, colorful figures, and even young men painted in solid black brandishing ropes as whips. Each figure has its importance in Haitian history, voodoo culture, and even current events. At one moment you might see bright red and black uniforms, their owners adorned with large red lips and fangs. These are the Chaloska, who parade in terrifying remembrance of the 1915 massacre of political prisoners, carried out by then chief of police, Charles Oscar Otienne. While you're marveling at that, you might be caught in a surge of Lance Kod, the aforementioned oiled figures with ropes. These are slaves, or rather the costumed vestiges thereof. There are dozens of other historical nods throughout the parade.
The parade also embraces events of current concern, most notably cholera. One particular group consisted of a sick patient on a stretcher, face painted white and constantly throwing up (water). The attendants continuously shouted at the crowd in a call and response manner, demanding to know what was wrong with the patient and how to fix it. All the while, a giant red and yellow paper mache monster (cholera) danced around the scene. You couldn't have paid for a better performance at the Kennedy Center.
And then it all drastically changes. Night falls, the colorful costumes and inventive characters disappear into the darkness and are replaced by big-rig trucks equipped with massive speakers on either side, slowly making their way down the main road. Surrounding these trucks are hundreds -- hundreds -- of Haitians dancing in celebration. Dancing is a word I use loosely in this case; looking outside-in, it's a game of shoving, anger, and constant near-brawls. But, after a while, one notices a pattern, an organized chaos. The shoving is part of an intricate caterpillar-like dance among young men, who form single-file lines, the ones in the rear pushing the ones in the front. It's the job of the one in the front to prevent the whole line from being jolted uncontrollably forward and steady the movement of the entire line.
The dance itself becomes an amazing visualization for Haiti's ability to hold itself steady through each step of its historic development, despite social, economic, and political convulsions. Similar to the carefully crafted costumes presented during the day, the seemingly violent dance at night is a well orchestrated demonstration of Haiti's determination to remain in control, move forward, and not fall off course.
Our most effective moments in diplomacy have been when we recognize this dance, this voice of the people, and encourage it. The U.S. government respected this dance when Haitians protested the results from a flawed presidential electoral process. We encouraged the Haitian government to recognize that its people would not be jostled. The government finally responded by calling the results into question and for an investigation, an outcome to which Haitians cheered. Our determination to respect the will, the very unique "dance,' of the Haitian people is what directly determines our ability to engage, respond, and act.
Those standing still amidst the chaos are trampled. So you dance. When you dance, the crowd finds a way to move with you, around you, for you. Night Kanaval is not a spectator sport. Indeed, there are spectator stands from where one can enjoy the street from a fantastic vantage point, but it's the difference between playing Nintendo Wii sports and actually playing; one is fun, but pretending, the other is difficult, but rewarding.
From a larger perspective, Haiti is the same way. To properly engage with Haiti, you have to be on the streets and have to understand and respect its people. And, it doesn't hurt to dance.