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Secrets of the Zombie Curse

Our last day in Haiti OUR HOSTS WANTED TO TAKE us out of the city. Life in rural Haiti is very different from life in the capital. Our destination was Kenscoff, about 15 kilometers away, on the other side of the mountains that rim Port-au-Prince. We ascended quickly from Pétionville, through a partially canopied road. Trucks heading in the opposite direction were filled with workers returning from the mountain quarries. In valleys and ravines we could see clusters of huts and the smoke of open-air fires. On the road there was a thin but steady stream of people—women heading to town on burros, or with baskets on their heads, or men herding goats or carrying sheaves of wood. We crested one mountain ridge, descended, then started up again in a new valley we could not see from Port-au-Prince. The countryside was dotted with small wood-frame homes decorated with wood carvings and palm-thatched roofs. Farmers tilled their fields, and in the distance long lines of women could be seen descending footpaths, carrying produce on their heads. Kenscoff was about three-quarters of the way up the valley, with a deep ravine and terraced slopes on the opposite side running all the way up the mile-high mountain. Just before Kenscoff, there was a Baptist mission, a



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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti Secrets of the Zombie Curse Our last day in Haiti OUR HOSTS WANTED TO TAKE us out of the city. Life in rural Haiti is very different from life in the capital. Our destination was Kenscoff, about 15 kilometers away, on the other side of the mountains that rim Port-au-Prince. We ascended quickly from Pétionville, through a partially canopied road. Trucks heading in the opposite direction were filled with workers returning from the mountain quarries. In valleys and ravines we could see clusters of huts and the smoke of open-air fires. On the road there was a thin but steady stream of people—women heading to town on burros, or with baskets on their heads, or men herding goats or carrying sheaves of wood. We crested one mountain ridge, descended, then started up again in a new valley we could not see from Port-au-Prince. The countryside was dotted with small wood-frame homes decorated with wood carvings and palm-thatched roofs. Farmers tilled their fields, and in the distance long lines of women could be seen descending footpaths, carrying produce on their heads. Kenscoff was about three-quarters of the way up the valley, with a deep ravine and terraced slopes on the opposite side running all the way up the mile-high mountain. Just before Kenscoff, there was a Baptist mission, a

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti museum, a clinic, and an orphanage. Across the road was a collection of leather goods and paintings for sale by local artisans. The museum contained more than I expected. In addition to Arawak pottery and slave-carved furniture, there was a collection of toys artfully constructed from trash by the children of the mission, which is the oldest in Haiti. We met the foundress, who, with her husband, had started the mission and clinic 49 years earlier. “You see the terraces on the hillside? The mission helped the people build them, so they could farm,” explained Danny T. “Unfortunately, they didn’t hold during tropical storm Gordon last summer,” the foundress added. “Seven hundred people were washed down the ravine. Some were never found. The saddest thing, though, were those who climbed out, covered with mud, who lost everything. We still have seven families we haven’t found homes for. They just live outdoors—foraging for food. If you find someone in the U.S. who wants to do something, we’d appreciate your help.” There was irony in her comments about the flood. There had been a small item in the Miami newspaper about 700 people drowning in Port-au-Prince. Either these people in Kenscoff were totally ignored, or the reporter didn’t know the difference between the city and the countryside. As a second irony, that day the news reported that 1,500 people died in an earthquake in Japan. That tragedy made front-page news for a week. We toured the grounds, including the clinic, where they used a butcher’s scale with an attached sling to weigh the children. The clinic was busy, with a line of people outside the door waiting to be seen. Orphans, identifiable by their shared uniforms, were running around chasing each other. We had lunch in the American-style cafeteria. The menu was mostly hamburgers and hot dogs. I had no interest in eating, but I did order a plate of french fries and sat down with Ruth at a window with a view of the whole valley. As we were preparing to leave, Henri and Junia gave me books as a gift for making their trip possible. One was a book on learning Creole, and the other was a book of Creole proverbs. The foundress

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti gave me a toy helicopter made of oil containers and bottle caps and a book entitled God Is No Stranger. The text contained spiritual expressions from the people of Haiti. The photos were beautiful—candid, but capturing the souls of their subjects. To my surprise, on the twenty-fourth page was the same woman I had seen in a photo in Régis’s book 13 years before—the one sitting in the chair having her tooth extracted. This was your mission, wasn’t it Régis ? It had to be. It was the first, and the only one here long enough for you to grow up in and to return as a dentist. Is this where you returned to die? Are you here in one of the tombs I saw as we ascended the mountain? Or did you feel too stigmatized to return home? Did you die in the hospital in Port-au-Prince? Are you buried in that huge cemetery I could see from the hillside in Pétionville? Is it a comfort that I still think of you? It has been 12 years and not a week goes by that I don’t think of you. You and all the others. But especially you, my blood brother. You were infected by the blood of one of your patients. The first occupational fatality. The first to die as a consequence of your professional duties. Am I the only one who knows the truth? You should have been hailed as a hero. Instead, they insisted you were gay, so they could blame you for your fate, wash their hands of your blood. If you were an innocent victim, there might be other innocents as well, and God would have no justice or mercy. But you were all innocent. We have no one to blame but ourselves—our own ignorance and willingness to tolerate intolerable conditions. You were just the most irrefutable case, and it took me 13 years to understand. It’s bad enough that you all had to die, but how much did we add to your suffering through stereotype and blame? You had a curse on you, didn’t you? But, then, so did I. Cursed by naivete and enslaved by conventional thinking. I’ve been sleepwalking through the biggest medical event in my lifetime, enslaved by the constraints of my world and ignorant of the reality of yours. It took this visit to your home to wake me up. Once you see it, it all makes sense—the poverty and the things some people have to do to survive in places like Cité Soleil. So even if we can’t cure AIDS, we ought to be able to do something about its cause. The problem is, most of my

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti colleagues have never ever seen anything like this. They’re under a zombie curse that’s even worse than mine. No point in worrying about that now, though. I’ve got to focus on what I can do, how I can make a difference, Régis. I promise I’ll try. Ruth caught me staring across the valley, lost in thought. She touched my arm. “Time to go, now,” she spoke softly. “What were you thinking about?” “Just daydreaming. I knew a person from here once. A dentist. He died of AIDS. One of the first.” I was still staring across the valley. “How do you know he was from here?” “He told me so, in a roundabout way. Are you glad you came to Haiti?” “Glad? It’s been the most moving experience of my life.” “It’s good to hear that. I was a little worried. Every time I turned around, you had tears in your eyes.” “It’s just that I’ve learned so much, in such a short period of time, and it’s been so emotional. I have to confess, I came here with some preconceived notions, and they’ve been pretty much shattered.” “You’re exceptional in that regard. Most people have their minds permanently made up. Most people in the United States have never seen anything like Cité Soleil. Even if they did, it wouldn’t change the way they think for more than a minute.” “That’s a pretty dark view of humanity for such an optimistic person, Art.” “It gets worse. You remember that young girl in Cité Soleil who wanted your purse?” “Remember her! I’ll never forget her.” “What if I told you she would sell herself for money. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it won’t happen for a few more years. Maybe it won’t happen to her, but it could happen, if not to her, then to some child just like her.” “Having seen Cité Soleil, I wouldn’t blame her.” “You see, you are the exception. We blame the poor for their

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti fate. It’s the only way we can justify in our own minds the fact that we live so much better than they do. The same is true for all our outcasts and pariahs. Have I ever told you the secret of the zombie curse?” “The zombie curse? Where did that come from?” “It has to do with AIDS, both here and back home in Miami. But not just AIDS. Lots of other stuff, too. I’ll tell you about it as we ride to the airport. We really do have to go.” Marlon and Jerry were at the airport to see us off. They were already planning our next visit. “You’ll come back, won’t you, Dr. Fournier? Come for Carnival.” “Se sèten, Marlon ak Jerry. Ayiti te met yon wanga sou mwen” (“For sure, Marlon and Jerry. Haiti cast a spell on me”). I put this phrase together from the book Junia had given me a few hours before. It took Marlon, Jerry, and all the people in our group by surprise, and they broke out in laughter. I needed a laugh myself. If I couldn’t dance, at least I could laugh. Haiti had cast a spell on me. But it had also freed me from the zombie curse that had enslaved my mind all these years. A magical land. A magical people. A land of contrasts. An onion, and I’d only peeled away the first layer. “I must come back.”