Haiti's Kanaval: A Diplomatic Dance

Posted by Ajani Husbands
March 8, 2011
Reveler Performs During Carnival in Haiti

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.

Comments

Comments

Yomi
|
California, USA
March 8, 2011

Yomi in California writes:

Very insightful piece, I learned something new.

BG
|
Pennsylvania, USA
March 8, 2011

B.G. in Pennsylvania writes:

Great article! Sense I have never been to an actual Carnival or Kanaval festival, this article allowed me to escape my mundane American life and embody the celebratory spirit of the Haitian people.

Your description of dancing (Haitian style) as a metaphor for the social, political, and economic issues was spot on.

See you there next year!

Ochuko
|
New York, USA
March 8, 2011

Ochuko in New York writes:

Both informative and insightful comments about a people for whom optimism to always be in hand.

Warren
|
New York, USA
March 8, 2011

Warren in New York writes:

This is a great article about one of the most joyful times of the year for Haitians if not all Caribbeans. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth jostle of the dance as a metaphor for the seemingly tough course Haiti is following. Applied around the globe, the voice of a people, as chaotic as it may sound, still yields the best movement forward.

Chika
|
Illinois, USA
March 8, 2011

Chika in Illinois writes:

Interesting piece. As one who has not yet been to any Caribbean island, I'm glad it does give me more perspective on pieces of the culture. Looking forward to visiting soon.

Charles J.
|
District Of Columbia, USA
March 8, 2011

Charles J. in Washington, DC writes:

This was extremely informative and culturaly relevent.

Monte
|
Eritrea
March 9, 2011

Monte in Eritrea writes:

It is rare that a piece of writing can provide not merely context for an unfamiliar, faraway place, but indeed a palpable sense of how it feels to walk the streets of a place one has never visited.

This essay provided just such a sense for me.

Well done, Mr. Husbands.

Susan
|
California, USA
March 9, 2011

Susan in California writes:

So decriptive...I have always been fascinated by Carnival celebrations. They are so unique to each geographic location, yet connected by threads that go back so far..

Reginald
|
New York, USA
March 9, 2011

Reginald in New York writes:

Vivid, and Rich

Dan
|
Luxembourg
March 10, 2011

Dan in Luxembourg writes:

Like so many of his other writings depicting his time in Haiti, Mr. Husbands brings the country’s vibe -- its colors, smells, and sounds -- to the reader. But behind those sensory descriptions is something more appealing.

By constantly focusing on “Haiti’s determination,” he implies that Haiti’s future success is more than just a hope or dream. It is a dance being played out daily.

ZULFIQAAR
|
Virginia, USA
March 10, 2011

Zulfiqaar in Virginia writes:

Informative and fantastic.

Shelley
|
California, USA
March 11, 2011

Shelley in California writes:

Informative. Thanks - I learned something new today!

Chris D.
|
District Of Columbia, USA
March 25, 2011

Chris D. in Washington, DC writes:

Nicely done sir! The imagery was quite compelling. Thank you for humanizing the situation on the ground. So often times the descriptions instill a sense of fear; your perspective helped to bring forth the life/light!

.

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