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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti Lost I AWOKE THAT MORNING AT 4:00. My mind was full of images and ideas, visions of the people in Cité Soleil and the hospitals and plans of how we could help. Not wishing to disturb my roommate, Lynn, I silently slipped outside the room and went to the pool to recline on a chaise lounge. The people who had been sitting around the terrace a few hours earlier had completely disappeared, some to their rooms and some to dance through the night. The night staff at the hotel had curled up on couches and were fast asleep. There was no electrical power in Petionville that night or, for that matter, in much of the rest of Haiti. Since the United Nations-sponsored embargo to restore Aristide, the capital averaged four hours of electricity each day. As a result, the stars were brilliant and plentiful in the clear skies above. It was a surprisingly cool evening, with a gentle breeze and no mosquitoes. The tranquility ended with the sound of voices singing in the street. Why would people be singing at 4:00 in the morning? I asked myself. To see over the wall that protected the hotel terrace from the street, I had to climb the stairs to the second-story balcony. Coming up the hillside street next to the hotel was a group of five women, all balancing 20-gallon buckets of water on their heads. One woman
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti would sing a line, and the other four would respond in chorus. It was a happy, joyous song, like gospel music, except in Creole rather than English. Earlier in our trip I had noticed the head wraps—the twòkèt—all the women in Haiti wore. They were suggestive of turbans, and the group coming up the hill demonstrated to me their purpose: It made it easier to balance heavy loads on their heads. I thought back to Ginette and her seminar on Voodoo and the zombie curse. Now it was becoming clear, as I listened to the women singing. Here the French god and the older African gods lived side by side, but the old gods were closer to the people and maybe even more helpful to them. “Haiti is a land of contrasts,” Danny T. had warned us on the airplane. How strange to be in a place only an hour and a half from my home that seems like it’s on a different planet, a place where not even water can be taken for granted. I had noticed women carrying water into Cité Soleil. When washing their children, they would have the children stand in a basin and pour the water over their heads so they could collect the water and use it again. Now as I watched the women climbing the hill, it was clear that even in Pétionville water was a very valuable commodity. Yet in a country where no one had collected the garbage for the past three years, everyone was washing their clothes by hand and then hanging them out to dry on shrubs or tree branches. People worked and played, suffered, and enjoyed life simultaneously. At 4:30 the roosters began to crow. Oddly, this reminded me of home, since I lived within earshot of Little Haiti and always arose early. At 5:00, the church bells began ringing and the scent of freshly brewed Haitian coffee permeated the air. It was Sunday. I had lost track of time. The new god was calling. In Haiti people go to church not once but twice on Sunday—once in the morning and once in the evening. Of course, the second ceremony could be Voodoo. At 6:00, I decided to leave the hotel to watch the sunrise. Even at that hour there already was an old, toothless woman standing just outside the door, begging. To the right, about a block away, a foot-
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti path zigzagged up a steep hillside. There was much foot traffic going both up and down. I wondered where the path might lead, and guessed it might provide me with the best sunrise opportunity. The path was no more than a yard wide. If you passed someone, you both had to turn sideways. The people coming down the hill were a mixture of families going to church and people carrying water or vegetables to the Pétionville open-air market. Many of these people were barefoot. I wished I was barefoot, since the steepness of the path and the slipperiness of my leather soles forced me to frequently use my hands to assist in my ascent. People coming down the path would offer me their hands in assistance. It was hard for many to conceal their bemusement at a blan climbing the path, and yet everyone smiled as we passed and everyone said “Bonjou.” “Bonjou,” I responded, and returned their smiles. The top of the path revealed a dirt road that encircled an old stone wall, resembling a fort or castle. The night before, Michel had told me how, after they had expelled the French in 1804, the Haitian leaders built forts and castles in high strategic positions throughout the country, anticipating that the French would return to try to recapture their prize. Haiti, the land of contrasts. The only successful slave revolt in the history of the world and after 200 years it had yet to escape the slavery of dictatorship or foreign control. The view from the base of the fort was spectacular. I could see the entire city of Port-au-Prince and the entire valley the city sits in, turning into countryside as it extended to the east. To the north and to the south were long sweeps of coastline with rugged mountains. In the city three things dominated the view—the presidential palace, the cathedral, and the cemetery. Above the wall the mountains rose perhaps another 2,000 feet, dotted with the homes of some of Haiti’s wealthiest families. The elite had taken a lot of criticism in the American press for its role in supporting the dictatorship. One writer had even coined the phrase “morally repugnant elite,” or MRE for short. The attitudes I heard expressed in the hotel bar toward President Aristide—some-
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti times stated openly, sometimes veiled in political correctness—shocked me. In the American press during the embargo, Aristide was portrayed as a folk hero—a saintly, scholarly man with the courage to stand up to the dictators. Now, in the postintervention politics of both Haiti and the United States, the press at times and the opposition continuously presented a different picture. Aristide was just another demagogue, with his own circle of henchmen and assassins, all out to get rich in the process of controlling the government, a new aristocracy of the formerly poor. What had I gotten myself into? How much of this was true, and how much represented class-based politics? As an American it was best not to pass judgment, at least until I knew more. Focus on our humanitarian mission. Stick to health care. Don’t take sides. Stay out of politics, I reminded myself as I thought back on my experiences of the day before. Stop trying to lay blame on anyone. Just accept the fact that Haiti is yin and yang—a culture with two sides—one elite, book-educated, light-skinned, Catholic, French, and urban; the other poor, tradition-educated, dark-skinned, Voodoo, African, and rural. On my descent down the path back to the hotel, I extended a helping hand to those ascending, as had been done for me a short while before. Back in Miami, Brother Paul, who ran the homeless shelter, had suggested to Ruth that while in Haiti she should try to find Father Luc and Brother Rene, two Brothers of the Good Shepherd who were working in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Our only knowledge of their location was a scrap of paper on which Brother Paul had written, “somewhere just off Demas 31, Frères Bon Berger” and a phone number. I volunteered to go along. Titi, our Haitian driver, said he knew Père Luc and that he was a good friend. He did not, however, know exactly where he lived. On Sundays more life spills into the streets of Port-au-Prince than even during the workweek. People are going to or coming from church or are simply out for a Sunday walk. Everyone is dressed in their best clothes. The churches were overflowing with people, spilling down the stairs leading to the
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti A market woman and her twòkèt. Photo by Wassim Serhan. entryway. We found Delmas 31 easily and headed down beyond Grace Children’s Hospital, looking for a sign that said Bercail Bon Berger. Titi, however, was not looking for signs. He looked to the left and to the right, searching the crowd to find Père Luc. He would occasionally stop and call over to a passerby. “Èske ou konen ki kote kay Pè Luk?” (“Do you know where Father Luc’s house is?”), he would ask. Everyone to whom he directed this question at first looked puzzled. Then they would turn 360 degrees. Some shrugged their shoulders. Others claimed to know Pastor Luc and seemed excited at the mention of his name. No, they didn’t know where he lived, but it was just up ahead and to the right or to the left. We continued this process for several miles, hoping we were getting closer. Finally, we met a young man who said he knew where Pastor Luc lived. After a brief conversation in Creole, he climbed into the van with us and gave directions that led us off of Delmas 31 into a quiet residential area.
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti “Sa se li” (“This is it”), said our guide as we disembarked. We knocked on the door and were greeted by a young mother and four children. Unfortunately, it was not the home of Père Luc and Brother Rene. We asked her if she had a telephone. She didn’t, but she walked us four houses down the street to the home of one of her neighbors who did. She went inside, spoke with her neighbor for a minute, and then they both came out to invite us all in. I had Titi call the number on the scrap of paper we had from Brother Paul while we talked with the families. He spoke rapidly with someone on the other end, and I couldn’t understand everything he said. After he hung up, he assured us that he had just talked with the housekeeper of Père Luc and knew exactly where she was. We thanked both families and piled into the van to head back in the general direction of Delmas 31. We took encouragement when we saw “Bon Berger” painted on a garage door. We stopped and inquired from some people on the street, who identified the house across the way as the home of Luc’s housekeeper. One of the people in the group decided to accompany us, so now there were five of us. We met the former housekeeper for Père Luc and Frère Rene. Unfortunately, the priests had found their building too small for their needs, so they had moved to the other side of Delmas. She volunteered her husband to guide us to that location. The neighbor from across the way would guide us to where her husband was. The five of us piled into the van and headed back toward Delmas. We pulled over next to a small restaurant/bar and waited while Titi pounded on the door. After a few minutes, a slight man came out, exchanged greetings with the entire entourage, and traded places in the van with his neighbor. He gave directions to Titi in Creole as we headed back up Delmas and crossed over to its other side. He was sure the new location was at Delmas 42. Alas, there was no sign of Père Luc. Someone in the crowd there spoke English with a New York accent, having grown up in Brooklyn. He said he thought Père Luc might have taken his orphans to church. So in one last desperate attempt, we doubled back to one of the churches look-
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti ing for either Père Luc or his orphans. The two gentlemen who had now been accompanying us for several hours climbed out of our van in front of the church and made their way through the crowd inside. A few minutes later they came out to tell us that indeed they had seen the orphans but that Père Luc was not there. I turned to Ruth and suggested that it was time we call off the search. We had been looking for five hours. I suggested to Titi that we needed to bring our guides back to their neighborhoods. He said no, it wasn’t a problem. And no sooner had he said that than they ran across the street to catch a tap-tap back to Delmas 31. We had taken up several hours of their lives, but we barely had time to thank them. As we headed back to the hotel, I noticed that tears were once again streaming down the corners of Ruth’s eyes. “I’m sorry we didn’t find Father Luc and Brother Rene,” I offered in consolation. “Next time we’ll need to get a more accurate address.” “It’s not that,” she quivered. “It’s just that people have so little here and yet they are so helpful. Five hours of their lives to help us find someone. Can you imagine that happening in Miami? And then they wouldn’t even let us take them back.” Back at the hotel we shared our adventures with some others in the group. “That’s because politeness is taught in the schools here,” Ron informed us. “I was taught, and indeed everyone is taught, if you ever come across a stranger who has lost their way, you stay with them until they find where they are looking for.” That evening at the hotel, even Lynn, the most senior member of our group, got caught up in the dancing. He and some others decided to take a walk before dinner. Near the market square in Pétionville they were caught up in a ra-ra—a surge of people singing and dancing, part political, part religious, part festive—that swept up the streets from Delmas. The costumed musicians and dancers of the ra-ra surrounded the group and demonstrated their dance steps. Lynn responded with a meringue he had learned in Haiti 40 years earlier. The journalists captured the festivities on video. I stayed behind at the hotel again, talking to the bartenders, Junia, and Henri.
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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti “Why is President Aristide so popular?” I asked in Creole after a few drinks. Junia and Henri were quiet, so quiet that I knew I was guilty of another breach of diplomatic protocol. But perhaps because I asked in Creole, one of the bartenders volunteered an answer. “Here’s what you need to understand. Papa Doc was feared but obeyed. Baby Doc was hated because he was such a gwo manje (‘big eater’). Titid stood up to him and the generals. Anyone who survives three assassination attempts, God is with him.”
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