By Bob Maguire, Director, Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program, GWU.
On January 31st at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC, before a gathering of roughly 75 folks, most of whom held a newly-purchased, yellow-jacketed book on their laps, Amy Wilentz spoke and read from that book, her just published, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti.”
Her first order of business was to discuss the title of the book. ‘Fred Voodoo,’ she pointed out, was a short hand, dismissive term for ordinary Haitian men and women used by foreign reporters when she first started going to Haiti in 1986. They are something akin to Haiti’s “Joe Six Pack” she said, elaborating that the foreign correspondents who descended en masse on Haiti in 1986 as the Duvalier dictatorship fell, and gathered at the hotel bar each night to trade stories, would ask her (she said in a faux British accent) ‘so, what did Fred Voodoo have to say?’ when she would return from yet another foray into the world of ordinary Haitians.
That world which initially attracted Wilentz – and provided her with her entrée to former priest and Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and is the topic of her first Haiti book, “The Rainy Season” (1988) – has been her touchstone for understanding the country and its people ever since. Wilentz did not ignore or belittle the interpretation and insights offered by ordinary Haitians, often seen by others as nothing more than backdrops to a good story or photo. Rather, she allowed herself to be drawn deeply into that world and came to appreciate ordinary Haitians as the humans they are and as essential in understanding Haiti. Her book, she explained, is an effort to put to rest once and for all the idea that the voices of Haiti’s voiceless are meaningless – hence her ‘farewell’ to Fred Voodoo.
Foreigners – including journalists, international ‘experts’ and relief workers – have descended on Haiti en masse periodically since 1986, as has Wilentz, who at one point spoke about her ability, after all her years of visiting the Caribbean nation, to view Haitians from a foreign perspective and foreigners from a Haitian perspective, and to glean from their interactions the expectations and motives of each – ‘like a word bubble above their heads,’ she joked. Emanating from this interaction, she surmises, is that fact that every Haitian ends up having his or her own ‘blan’ (foreigner) and every ‘blan’ has his or her own Haitian. She places herself, realistically and rather uncomfortably, within this framework. She elaborated with by reading a passage about Filibert Waldeck, one of the ‘orphan’ boys she first met in 1986 and talking about a child she met in the immediate post-quake period after he lost both hands in the quake and is now caring for from afar. She also read a passage about ‘Rubble Man’ that illustrates the complexity of the relationship between foreigner and Haitian.
In a book that is set principally in post-earthquake Haiti, she meanders in and out of the country’s history and draws from her pre-quake experiences to add depth and context as she constantly examines Haiti from the perspective of the relationships between those descending upon Haiti and those they descend upon. From her readings and comments last night, it is clear that Wilentz does not suffer fools gladly – and those fools include not only disaster-chasing journalists and photo-journalists, but also those usually naive and well-intentioned souls who have landed in Haiti following the earthquake and who compose what author Linda Polman has called the ’Crisis Caravan’ in her book of the same name. Sometimes, she wryly commented, those descending on Haiti, including Wyclef Jean and Bill Clinton, are not particularly naïve, but nevertheless, embrace or support the ‘Fred Voodoo’ syndrome. On the same token, Wilentz offers complements to individuals who do better by listening to Haitians, establishing respectful relations with them, and who refuse to see ‘Fred Voodoo’ as an inconsequential character or as simply a backdrop to a country in periodic crisis. She read a particularly moving passage about Dr. Megan Coffee, an American physician who came to Haiti following the earthquake, as someone who exemplifies this approach.
Wilentz offers her book as part personal memoire, part post-quake analysis of how Haiti has not been ‘built back better,’ and part appreciation of Haiti. I have not yet completed the book, but can attest from what I have read so far, that it offers provocative insights into why Haiti, after years and waves of development experts and sincere ‘do-gooders,’ remains a nadir of development whose people have deserved – and continue to deserve – something better than being viewed disparagingly as ‘Fred Voodoo.’