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Christmas in Haiti


Herald Angel SM84 by Winston Cajuste

With fireworks, favorite foods, and gift-giving, Christmas – or Nwel in Creole – is a great celebration in Haiti.  Preparations begin several days ahead of December 25th.  Decorating tends to be limited, but often includes a tropical Christmas trees which are harvested in the mountains and hauled down to be sold in the markets. Whether destined for a church or prosperous private home, the whole tree is festively trimmed with lights and ornaments while in more humble dwellings, only branches are used.

Music is a big part of the Haitian Christmas tradition.  There are live performances in the cities as well as television shows which feature celebrities of every stripe singing and dancing to familiar holiday tunes.  (Click here for a sample selection.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TFeHnxZwTQ  If you look carefully, you can see a Three Kings

Nadege Balan with her daughter wearing her new fancy sunglasses.

sculpture in the background!) The tunes have a clear

Caribbean beat with steel drums, bongos, marimbas, and horns as featured instruments.

On Christmas Eve, friends and families gather for merry-making.  A special meal is prepared that may include turkey,

ham, and/or shrimp, along with pate,

rice, beans and fried plantains.  Pineapple upside down cake is often the dessert of choice, and anisette is poured as liquid accompaniment.  Because Haiti is largely a Catholic country, Midnight Mass is very well attended, though it is not

Btutus Wiseton’s young son in his red school bus shirt with super powers.

unusual for serious partying to commence soon after the last “amen” and continue on through the night. This is also the time for gifts to be exchanged if the family can afford to do so.  Fireworks, usually homemade, light the dark Caribbean skies and there is dancing and singing in clubs and in the streets.

Children from even the most humble homes fill their shoes with straw and set them either by the tree, or out by the front door in anticipation of the arrival of Santa Claus, or as he is known in Haiti, “Tonton Nwel”. Late on Christmas Eve, Santa slips in undetected to give gifts great and small and vanish again without a trace. In Haiti, as around the world, the magic of Christmas lives.

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Audubon and His Birds – The Haitian Connection

Birds flying through the flowers, by Louiceus Antelus

While in Haiti with Casey a few weeks ago, she and I looked for new designs to introduce at the winter wholesale and retail shows.  Particularly, we were interested in garden and springtime pieces and did we ever find them! Flowers, trees, bees and butterflies, farmers in their fields, trees budding with fruit, and birds.   Oh the birds!  Nesting, winging, swooping, soaring, lovebirds, song birds, flamingos, swans, and more. An endless avian menagerie in the workshops of Croix-des-Bouquet.

Real-live flesh and feather birds are having quite the struggle for survival, given the heavy toll that deforestation has taken on their habitats.  Yet this is the land where John James Audubon, the great American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter was born.

Yes, you read that right.  John James Audubon, born in Les Cayes, in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue on April 26, 1785.  And though not all of the story is clear, it is intriguing, to say the least.  Of his own origins, Audubon wrote, “The precise period of my birth is yet an enigma to me.” There is considerable weight to the theory that it was not so much an enigma to him as it was a hesitation to disclose, what with legitimacy and claims to inheritance hanging in the balance.  The family as a whole was evasive on the subject. Long after he was gone, his own granddaughter wrote that Audubon was, in her belief, possessed of royal Bourbon characteristics and, “in fact, the Dauphine of France, child of the martyred Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who mysteriously disappeared during the French Revolution.” He was also said to have been born in Louisiana, son of a French Naval officer and creole mother, who took ill on a Mississippi River flatboat moored at Nine Mile Point and died in childbirth. The city of New Orleans was only too happy to claim him as their native son and erected a bronze statue of him to emphasize the point.

It was not until 1917, a full 66 years after Audubon’s death that legal documents were brought forth by Audubon biographer, Francis Hobart Herrick.  These documents established that Audubon was born the son of the swash-buckling Captain Jean Audubon – a sometime gentleman planter and sometime privateer in the service of the French navy – and his creole mistress, Jeanne Rabine in their home in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue. At birth, he was given the name Jean Rabine. His mother died a few months later under unclear circumstances and Jean went to live with another of Captain Audubon’s island mistresses and his half-sister, Muget Bouffard.  At the age of four, Captain Audubon became wary of the clouds of slave unrest gathering over Saint Domingue and fled with his two young children to his French homeland and legal wife of seven years.  Madame Audubon greeted the three with love and grace at the family estate near Nantes, France and raised the children as her own henceforward. When Jean Rabine was eight years old, his parents sought to secure his legitimacy and rightful inheritance by adopting him and changing his name to Jean Jacques Forgere Audubon.  Thereby, his status as a bastard child of Haitian origins were buried and remained so for the rest of his life.

From there, Jean Audubon’s story becomes well known, though

Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme

Audubon himself was prone to embellishment.  He

claims to have been a student of art under the tutelage of court portraitist, Jacques Louis David, where he refined his artistic eye.  However, bemoaning the “boring nature” of his subject matter, that being still-lifes and backgrounds, he left David’s atelier after a few months.  In 1789, with his father’s encouragement and blessings, Audubon sailed for the United States to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army.  After a few fits and starts, the handsome French dandy, Jean Jacques Audubon became John James Audubon, American woodsman, distinguished naturalist, and internationally acclaimed artist.  His magnum opus, “Birds of America” to this day remains a landmark work of art and ornithology.

Okay.  So maybe this is more information about Audubon and birds than you were looking for in one sitting.  But it could win you a round in Trivial Pursuit.  Enjoy your victory, with my compliments!

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

Resurrection and Reforestation

As the eastern seaboard of the United States begins to dig itself out of the mess that Hurricane Sandy left in her wake, the work ahead seems staggering.  The muck and sludge is almost unfathomable. The destruction and number of lives lost are beyond heartbreaking. How do you clean up?  Where do you even start?

Those same questions apply in Haiti as well, for it too is recovering from its own battle against Sandy’s wrath. The Caribbean islands are besieged regularly during hurricane season, which runs roughly from June through November. The reality there is that 6-8 hurricanes will develop annually in the Tropical Atlantic Basin, though some years are better than that and some are worse. 2010 saw a “bumper crop” with 11 named hurricanes.  What makes Haiti so vulnerable to massive destruction in violent weather is its lack of natural tree cover, which exacerbates water run-off and mudslides and results in tremendous erosion, soil degradation, and watershed destruction in addition to loss of property and life.

In fact, only two percent of Haiti’s original forests remain intact.  Deforestation has a long and sordid history on the island of Hispanola, dating back to colonial times.  With the arrival of European colonists, land was cleared of trees so that plantations could be established.  Not only that, valuable tropical woods were harvested with reckless abandon and sold to eager markets abroad. After the colonial period, Haiti suffered from its isolation, and slash-and burn subsistence agriculture began taking its toll.

Now in the 21st century, the culprit is an insatiable need for household cooking fuel.  Trees double as a source of fuel and cash for families who not only use the wood to cook with but also sell it as charcoal in energy-starved Port-au-Prince. (Charcoal is made by burning wood and other carbon-rich substances in an oxygen-proof furnace.) Over time, according to Newsweek and The Daily Beast, the charcoal trade has grown to account for 20 percent of the rural economy and 80 percent of the country’s energy supply. Haitians currently burn an estimated 30 million trees’ worth of charcoal annually.

The barren landscape tells the story of 36 million tons of topsoil being eroded by wind and rain each year, silting lakes and waterways and carrying away nutrients upon which agriculture depends.  Meager drainage systems that do exist suffer extensive damage during storms and clean water sources are compromised, elevating the danger of water-borne disease, cholera being a primary threat.

As if that isn’t alarming enough, results of a recent geological study conducted at the University of Miami indicated that so much of Haiti’s mountainsides have eroded due to deforestation that it may have actually weakened the earth’s crust and contributed to the severity of the 2010 earthquake. The researchers suggest that landslides and heavy rains have carried so much eroded material downstream over time that the surface load of the crust was greatly diminished.  Fractures in Earth’s bedrock from the movement of tectonic plates, known as faults, build up stress as they attempt to slide past each other, periodically releasing the stress in the form of an earthquake. With critically reduced load-bearing capability in the denuded mountains of Haiti, the stage was set for that catastrophe.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon.  Solar and hydropower, as well as biofuels, have all been used in Haiti with encouraging results and their potentials can be further pressed .  Until these renewable energy sources can be maximized, imports of subsidized propane from Dominican Republic can be increased.  In combination, these alternatives can eradicate the need to harvest trees for charcoal produced-energy. There have been victories outside of Haiti, too which can be drawn upon and adapted.  In Ethiopia, it was political will that turned the tide of environmental degradation, in Uganda, it was a civil movement.  Money is, of course, a vital component, but donors are willing to line up behind success. Clearly, it will take popular action, governmental resolve, and international support to restore Haiti’s forests.  As one environmental aid worker observed, “Haiti’s resurrection begins here.”

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus/Beyond Borders

Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy!

Back in my college days, when I was a freshman student of journalism, I was told the story of publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer, who scrawled the words

Evenson Thenor

“Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy!” on the newsroom wall as an emphatic exhortation to his writing staff to get the story right.  Not everything from college sticks with me, heaven knows, but that did.  And while I may not always get the straight facts rightfully expressed, as God and Joseph Pulitzer are my witnesses, I do try.

So imagine my trepidation in going to print with Haitian names.  Haitian names befuddle me like little else, and here’s why:  The order. Many Haitians write their names and refer to each other in a manner to which I, as an English speaker, am accustomed.  Julio Balan , one of the artists we have worked with since the beginning, goes by his first name and his last name in that order.  Simple. But more commonly, Haitians will write their names beginning with the family name first, following with the given name, and then refer to each other the other way around.  Thus, the artist whose friends call him “Evenson Thenor” signs his work as “Thenor Evenson. To be accurate, then, should I write it in the order that my English-speaking audience will expect it, or according to the customary use of Haitian Kreyol ?  The mind boggles.

Mystery solved: Jean Eugene and Jean Eddy Remy

Shall I tell you about Remy Jn Eugene?  That’s how he signs his work, “Jn” being an abbreviation for “Jean.”  But which one is the first name?  “Remy,” “Jean,” or “Eugene”? I could only guess and with a one out of three chance, I did not like my odds.

I got my first clue when I got wind that he has a brother, Remy Jean Eddy. “Ah HA!” I thought, “I got it,” and I started writing their names Eugene Jean Remy and Eddy Jean Remy.  Well, I was closer, but not right.  Their first names are both Jean, they go by Eugene and Eddy respectively, and Remy is the family name.  Are you still with me?

He says, “Go with Edward Dieudonne.”

Then, there is Eduoard Dieudonne.  Dieudonne is his family name and I figured that out pretty

quickly.  But I’ve seen his given name signed both as “Eduoard” and “Edward.”  To complicate matters further, the fellow I asked to help me with Eduoard’s biographical information sent me an email in which he spelled it, “Edoward.”

Was that a typo??? Well no, came the reply.  He writes it that way too.  But he says to go with “Edward.”


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

With all due respect to Mr. Pulitzer then, and with great reverence for his demand for accuracy, I think I’ll beg forbearance and go with Shakespeare this time.  “What’s in a name?”  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the final analysis, the work of our artists is still wonderfully original and beautifully crafted, no matter how their names are written.

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