Haitian Griot

This is the first of many musings on the not-so-prodigal daughter’s return to her native homeland.

Griot is also a popular Haitian fried pork dish. But here, I mean Griot, the West African concept for a storyteller or djeli (though it’s a French word, go figure), “met kont” in Kreyol, keeper of the culture. And given the history of the native Creole pig versus the subsidized American “princess” pigs in Haiti, pun is intended.

It’s been a almost a month since I’ve been back from Haiti, and I’m still trying to process it all. And the only way I could make any sense of any of it is to make some sort of otherworldly, sci-fi, magical analogy to just about everything. I can’t help it. That’s how I’m wired. And having spent a mere nine days in Haiti, I now understand why.

Haitians are storytellers. We’re an oral people and we tell it like it is complete with dialogue, facial expressions and all sorts of hand gestures. Most everything is embellished with mystery, magic, or some sort of inexplicable anything. (The loogaroo stories are the best—I couldn’t make that stuff up even if I tried.) And certainly there were many stories about the earthquake—some mysterious man with ungodly strength helping this one and that one and then disappearing. Or an old woman appearing out of nowhere to bring meals to a girl trapped beneath the rubble for days. It’s hard not to believe these stories because they’re filled with such passion and awe. It would be quite offensive to tell someone they’re making it up after they’ve expended so much energy reenacting the whole scene. I certainly wouldn’t be the one to do so because every single story I heard—from the lougahoo going around eating babies in the tent cities to somebody’s grandmother spotting UFOs during the Papa Doc years—I believed wholeheartedly.

No, these aren’t mere superstitions or outright lies. The oral tradition, in any given culture, is layered with meaning and symbols. It gives substance to the profound and the tragic. But this is not to say that they’re all noble in their intentions. It’s not a good look if you’re accused of being a loogaroo (think Salem witch trials). Indeed there’s a dark side to everything. What matters here is the cultural and spiritual empowerment when a people are able to weave their own stories to make sense of it all in their own terms, with their own level of understanding of the world and their place in it.

There’s always the facts and the details that can be proven and recorded. Certainly there was an earthquake, with this number attached to it—the scale, the bodies, the dollars in damage. But to say that this quake was a huge, angry dancing woman gives more meaning to the whole event. Why was she angry? What was she dancing to? Who was her drummer? Why a woman? And if you ask the right person, there’d be answers to all of this. And I was blessed to have sat with someone who weaved beautiful details of what really happened on that fateful day.

And that’s when I knew that this is the tradition I come from. Junot Diaz in The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao writes: “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo [and Haiti]? What more fantasy than the Antilles?”

Haiti, Dominican Republic, same damn island. One is where the paved road ends and the other is where the rocky foot path begins. Some imperialist’s Jekyll & Hyde experiment on nation-building. Ah, the stories…

Haiti, Mythology

One Response to Haitian Griot

  1. lambermont says:

    really really really nice! Thanks for posting this, I'm sharing it with others, you keep on.

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