Blog post contributed by Laura Wagner, PhD, Radio Haiti Project Archivist. Translation by Laura Wagner and Tanya Thomas.
It was Radio Haiti’s eighty-first birthday a few days ago. The station was founded on 17 September 1935 by Ricardo Widmaïer, and later, under Jean Dominique’s leadership, Radio Haïti-Inter continued to commemorate that anniversary. On 17 September 1991, they did a special broadcast celebrating fifty-six years of Radio Haiti. It is a beautiful, moving, and enchanting program. They dove into their own archives, revisiting some of their most memorable broadcasts. And Jean Dominique, always the interviewer of others, at last became the interviewee. Michèle Montas asked him about Vodou, the Haitian Creole language, pale andaki (speaking in veiled or covert ways) the 1973 kidnapping of American ambassador Clinton Knox, and resistance to Duvalierism and dictatorship. At the end of the program, Jean took back the microphone to pay surprise tribute to Michèle. He gave credit to the fanm vayan (courageous woman) who shared the struggle, knew how to fouye zo l nan kalalou (investigate, dig deep), ran the newsroom and trained Radio Haiti’s journalists. That less than two weeks after this broadcast, Haiti’s democratically-elected government was overthrown in a military coup makes the program all the more poignant: Radio Haiti was hurtling toward another long exile.
Today, we have translated a portion of the 17 September 1991 broadcast from Haitian Creole into English. In an earlier broadcast, he referred to the Italian adage “traduttore, traditore” – “translator, traitor” – to describe the perils and impossibility of translating Haitian Creole to French. Translating Haitian Creole to English, too, was an exciting challenge, made all the more exciting because the original words were spoken by an uncommonly gifted and playful wordsmith with an uncommonly expressive voice.
With that caveat, we present Jean Dominique:
Before I did radio – don’t forget, I’m an agronomist – I spent a lot of time in the field, since as an agronomist, as an agronomy student, I spent a lot of time in the Artibonite when I finished my studies I went to work as an agronomist in Quartier Morin, in the Plaine du Nord, in Plaine Bayeux, where I spent time face-to-face with Vodou, with peasants who served the lwa, with oungan [Vodou priests], with manbo [Vodou priestesses].
Since I also had books to read, I read them, I learned from them. And after I finished studying agronomy I spent two years in the School of Ethnology (which later became the Institute of Ethnology, but at the time it was the School of Ethnology), where I met a whole bunch of professors who showed me the way. I came to know the way, so I could find what I was searching for. And when I began to work in radio, radio could let people hear Vodou songs for the spirits, to hear rasin songs, to hear the beats of the drum. That too is an important thing. But this also presented a big problem because Duvalier used Vodou, too. The problem was that many people who were opposed to Duvalier thought that all of Vodou was tied to Duvalier. Likewise, anyone who spoke about Vodou was suspected of being pro-Duvalier. So I had to be very careful. Yet again l’oncle, Jean Price-Mars, helped me to be very careful. And the fellow we just heard there, Maître Pierre, and another of my spiritual fathers named Aristène. Aristène Jecrois. They both greatly helped me to understand. And another of my fathers, a father from the Northwest… Hmm! That’s another story. A patriarch, a patriarch from the Northwest. He came one day to the station, and I was testing the waters for my usual little afternoon program, and from time to time I’d put on a little music. And one day he showed up at the station to see me, and he told me, “I had a dream about you.”
And he described the dream to me, and then he said, “There are things you understand, and there are others you do not understand. I understand what you don’t understand. And I understand why you don’t understand it.” Hmm! And he told me. And it was he who put me on the path. It was he who told me, “Jean, under the American occupation, we spoke of everything in the peristil (Vodou temple).” They would speak those words, and the Americans were there, within the peristil, but they didn’t understand anything at all. And so the word spread. It was he who told me of Charlemagne Péralte [who led an armed resistance to the US occupation] . It was he who told me of Benoît Batraville. It was he who told me of the Cacos. It was he who told me of the role of Vodou in the resistance. It was he who explained that this tradition began waaaay back, long long ago, from the time of Boukman, from the time of Biassou. Those words, [historian Thomas] Madiou didn’t write them, [François] Dalencourt didn’t write them, but those words were passed along through song.
Likewise, I came to understand something important that dialectical philosophy could show me, but that the blan could never understand: what we call the Haitian people’s strategy of mawonaj. The dialectic of mawonaj. The dialectic of everything having two faces, two sides. Heads and tails. Everything on the blessed earth has two sides to it. There are two sides. Duvalier took one side, but there is another side he didn’t take. He couldn’t take it.
And so it was, when an oungan was taking me through his lakou, he was showing me his lakou. And when they saw that I wasn’t an enemy, when they saw that I all I wanted was to learn – I didn’t make any trouble – they taught me. And I learned that there were some altars that were sealed shut.
“Oh-oh!” I said, “Papa, why are these altars sealed?”
“Mm-mm. I’ll tell you another time.”
Another altar was sealed. I said again, “Oh, papa, why are these altars sealed?”
Now remember, this was in ‘73, ‘74, we were under Jean-Claude Duvalier. When I got home, I kept thinking about what he had said, I got in my car, I came back, and I asked again. “Why are these altars sealed off? I know there is a spirit, some meaning behind it.”
Eventually, one day, the patriarch told me, “I’ll tell you why those altars are sealed off. In 1957, when the devils took over the country, a great many of the Ginen spirits returned to Africa. They turned their back on the country. They left the country for the devils.”
I said, “Oh!” I said, “Papa, those are serious words you’re telling me!”
He said, “They are serious words, my child. That’s why the altars are shut.”
I said, “So, they’ve abandoned us! They’ve left us helpless!”
He said, “No, my child. The day the Ginen spirits return, that means the time has come. The time has come.”
So, since I’ve been traveling deep, deep into the countryside, I’ve come to realize that there is a force in the Haitian people. The word “no” cannot cross their lips — but that’s not what’s going on in their hearts. They bow their heads when someone says “Bow your head!” It looks like they’re bowing their heads, but in their hearts they’re not. And they’re waiting for the day to come. They’re waiting for the moment to come, when they can say, “No!” When they will raise their heads again. That is what I learned within the peristil. That is what I learned Vodou held.
And then came a day, then came a day (I don’t remember whether it was in ‘72 to ‘73), I said to someone who was close to me, “Oh, I’m going to take a little trip, I’m going to go up to Ville Bonheur, to the annual July pilgrimage, when they celebrate the festival of Saut d’Eau.” So I went, like any tourist, like any citizen, like anyone else from Port-au-Prince, who goes to watch and have fun! When I got there, that fateful July at Saut d’Eau, I started moving through the crowd: people, people, people, people, people everywhere! I got to the front of the church, cassette in hand, I started to record, and there I discovered a great truth. That truth…! I realized — and I said all of this on the radio in a report that caused an uproar at the time, because it was the first time that listeners had heard such things. And we were under Jean-Claude Duvalier, we were under [high-ranking Macoutes like] Luc Désir, Jean Valmé, Luckner Cambronne, and company! We were under the tigers! The people opened their arms in front of the pilgrimage site, they looked toward the church, and they described their misery. They described their oppression, how the life was squeezed out of them [peze-souse]. They described how everything was being destroyed [kraze-brize]. They spelled it all out. They described it in a litany, for hours. For days. And when I arrived under the palm tree — you know? You go past the church, go straight down, and there’s the palm tree where they say Emperor Faustin saw the apparition. When I arrived under the palm tree, I heard something else: “Those who do evil cannot set foot in Saut d’Eau.” Big words! When you got up to the water, they said the same thing. I said, “Hmm! Listen to what the people are saying. The people are using the spirits to reveal their enemies.” That is what I meant at that time [in that report].
I feel the same thing in the drumbeats that echo throughout the country. Sure, Macoutes could use the drum, too. To make a show, to intimidate people. But there is another kind of drumbeat: boom. And that beat, Haitians of courage will understand it. Haitians who are ready to fight will understand it. That is the drumbeat that sounded at Bocozelle [where peasant farmers rose up against landowners]. That is the truth I came to see — implicitly! secretly! — but I came to see it nonetheless. And when I saw it, I held onto it! I held tight! And it revitalized me. It let me understand that my people are a people of courage. Days came and went — February 7, 1986 was about to be set in motion. That is the quest that Vodou taught me.
I’m not saying “go practice Vodou, sprinkle water for the spirits” — no. That’s not the question, no, that’s not it. It’s that strength, that capacity for resistance that I found within the peristil. And I found it again, later, in the ti legliz [Catholic churches preaching liberation theology]. The current was always there… heheh. The current was flowing, the current knows nothing of the borders between the Vodou peristil and the church of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost — no! The current doesn’t know anything about those kinds of borders. Wherever it finds an outlet, it gushes out! Like hot water ready to boil! It finds an outlet under a mapou tree, it gushes out! It finds an outlet under layers of rock, it gushes out! It doesn’t choose. It pushes ahead. And that is what I discovered at Saut d’Eau, Ville Bonheur. That’s what I discovered in the Artibonite, that it what I came to understand, deep in the countryside, from Aristène Jecrois: one day, the Ginen spirits are going to come back, they’re coming to purge the country and drive the devils out, so that the brave people can rebuild their home. That’s the message contained in the songs. That’s the message contained each beat of the drum. And that is why, on Radio Haiti, the drum never stops beating.
The Voices of Change project was made possible through a generous grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.