April 21, 2003

Spring has come to Matenwa, this inside-out world on the island of Lagonav just off the coast of Haiti. And in its inside-out way, spring means that it's not so deadly hot and so the earth is coming alive again.

Ina, the matriarch of the family I lived with for the first two months I was here, explained it like this a week after it had begun raining: "You know how it is when you are pregnant, you have to give your body good nourishment or you won't produce a strong and healthy baby. Well, the earth is the same way. It's nourishment is the rain and the baby it produces is the food that we eat. Now the earth is fed and look what it can make!"

The fertility of the tropics--even in a place as environmentally ravaged as this--is astounding. After a couple of night time thundershowers, the entire landscape was transformed. Trees that had lost their leaves in the drought had produced, not buds, but whole new leaves. Rocks are green with moss. Organic matter in the hot soil decomposes so fast, there is a faint smell of rot everywhere, and you can practically see the grasses and tree seedlings gobbling this nourishment and pushing up taller and taller.

Every morning at dawn I hear the thunk, thunk of hoes as people till the mountainsides by hand to plant. Four grains of peas, three grains of beans into each hole, Ina tells me. She is in the fields all day following the men with the hoes, a sickle (zapet) in her hand, scratching the ground and planting. Long skirt, kerchief--from a distance, she looks like a 18th century French peasant. But she is a 20th century Haitian peasant, so exotic to me, and as common here as the dirt that doesn't quite ever produce enough to fill the bellies of the people who live on it.

Everyone is happy. One man explained, "We plant and we plant and all we can think of is that the corn is coming up and we're not going to be hungry." Nobody mentions that it didn't rain enough last year and the corn crop failed. Nor, as they enthusiastically plant millet, that hardly anyone actually harvests a millet crop anymore. There will be plenty of time to be hungry, this is the time to be happy. And much of that happiness is reflected in Rara season.

In the anthropology books, you can read that Rara is a celebration of the Voudou lwa or "spirit" of sex and death. In anticipation of Rara, that's not what Haitians told me. They said that I would never see people dressed so beautifully, that the music would be wonderful, and that we would dance and dance. Rara bands--drummers and home-made horns of tin, PVC pipe,, and bamboo--ply the countryside, playing and dancing for money, eating when a house will feed them and crashing and sleeping when they are too tired to go on. Anyone who is not too young or too old to stand up (or too religious to participate) follows the band. The dancing is, well, R-to-X rated, with mostly girls and women dancing together and men and boys strutting like roosters trying to get their attention. I go with girlfriend bodyguards who demand money from all the men who want to dance with the white woman, and that fends them off quick, because nobody has more money than will buy a couple of candies to keep them going for a little bit longer.

When the Rara that I was following got to Ina's house yesterday, she was in the field planting with her zapet, pockets full of corn and beans. She cackled and waved and I ran out to her. We danced a little bit there, and I slipped her $20 Haitian--about three dollars US--to pay the band to dance at her house. She walked over to where the band was assembled with the same dignified disinterest she displays when she's bargaining over a sack of mangoes.

When the invisible-to-me negotiation for price, performance and duration were finished, she pulled me to her side. Three major jon, male dancers with several dozen kerchiefs dangling from their belts and batons in their hands pushed the crowd away in a big circle. The major jon stepped forward and passed their batons around our necks and danced for us, graceful and intense, shimmying their colorful hips, and twirling their batons.

The most beautiful thing I've ever seen? Maybe. There are plenty of people at the spring Renaissance Fair in my home town of Moscow, Idaho, who could out-dazzle the major jon in the clothing department, but in contrast to all my friends and neighbors in their usual rags, they were stunning. Standing there among them, with the proud and beautiful Ina at my side as the sun was going down, listening to the throbbing, haunting music, helping them look at the most beautiful thing they had ever seen in their lives, how could it not be one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen? When the dance finished, they mopped our brows with their kerchiefs. The music kept playing and Ina grabbed my hand and we danced and danced together.

"Hurry, hurry!" she said, "Next they are going to Eliann's house!" My girlfriend bodyguards surrounded me, we started our hip-swiveling march down the dirt path, and at the top of the hill I turned around to watch Ina-back in the field with her zapet. Three grains of beans, four grains of corn, and maybe this year we won't be hungry.