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A Merry Christmas in Haiti

The Haitian Christmas greeting is Jwaye Nwel.

Merry Christmas is Jwaye Nwel in Haitian Creole.

As in much of the world, Christmas is a beloved and eagerly anticipated holiday in Haiti, with rich traditions and exuberant celebration. Preparations begin weeks before with decorations beginning to appear in stores and markets and quickly finding their way into Haitian homes. Trees are a part of the decorating scheme, though in smaller homes, branches suffice to hold colorful holiday lights and homemade ornaments. Fanals are elaborate paper lanterns, often cut to resemble miniature Victorian gingerbread houses or churches. The “windows” are lined with colored tissue and a lighted candle inside the lantern combine to create a stained glass effect. Placed in windows or on porches or doorways, they create a warm, welcoming aura and light the way inside. (Click to see an example of this handcraft.)

Children look forward to a visit from Santa Claus, known in Haitian Creole as Papa Nwel. In preparation, they clean up their shoes, fill them with straw, and place them under the tree or on the porch. Of course, they are hopeful that he will replace the straw with a wonderful toy or present, and that Papa Fwedad, the dreaded dispenser of lumps of coal (and worse!) does not show up instead!

Because Haiti’s population is largely Catholic, midnight mass is an integral part of the Chrismas observance. Following the service, families

Haitian Metal Artist Claudy Soulouque with his Peace on Earth design.

Claudy Soulouque with his sculptural wish for peace on earth.

gather in parties collectively called Reveyon. Children are often allowed to stay up very late, playing games such as wosle (similar to jacks) and lighting sparklers and homemade fireworks. A creamy spiced coconut drink, known as Kremas flows freely (Recipes abound, but this one is a good representative, should you care to try.) while music, dancing and shouts of good will fill the night air until the wee hours.

Jwaye Nwel. No matter how you say it, the traditions are dear and the feeling is warm and heartfelt at home, in Haiti, and around the world. Merry Christmas. And above all, Viv ak ke poze sou Late. Peace on Earth.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Season of Giving

It is the Season of Giving. What an opportunity to do good! Truly, it is a wonderful opportunity – one that anyone is loathe to squander. But how does one give effectively? Ah, that is the harder question.

The art of giving, as explained by a Haitian metal fish sculpture.

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day…

There are many ways in which to give, but I am going to boil them down to two and use the time-honored fishing analogy as my vehicle of explanation: If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Tomorrow, he might get a call that the new job is his and he will never have to learn to fish. You cannot foresee what brightness tomorrow will bring and in the meantime, you help a needy man over a rough spot. He might never know hunger again, yet he will always be grateful for the kindly hand that offered up the fish when the time was tough. Sometimes it works out that way, and when it does, it is wonderful.

At It’s Cactus, we believe in teaching a man to fish, and we do so by giving opportunity. We open trade opportunities and teach our trading

Working in Haiti, It's Cactus gives opportunity for trade and learning.

By giving opportunity, we give a gift that can last a lifetime.

partners about the business of production and marketing, giving them the skills they need to feel success and see it grow. This is not an easy path, and achieving positive results takes a great deal of time and patience. Yet we have seen terrific results in our 17 years of working with our Haitian artists and practicing Fair Trade. The best part of it is that we have seen success sustained. Once the opportunity is seized upon, once the lessons are learned, they sitck. They stay. They LAST.

Here’s how: When a new artist approaches us with an innovative design to sell, he gets an order worth $100 USD to make samples. This enables us to evaluate his style and consistency as well as assess his ability to follow through on our agreement. When those hurdles are cleared, we work with the artist to establish a selling price that is both fair and marketable. We discuss all aspects of pricing; teaching and learning in both directions along the way. When the price is settled, a new order is written, again with 100 percent paid in full up front.

As our sales of the new artist’s design grows, our ability to buy more from him grows as well. This steady growth enables us to experiment with other new designs and orders with him. He becomes more skilled not only as an artist, but also as a

Giving as explained by a mermaid sculpture.

If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

businessman. With lessons well-learned and well applied, the rise in his prosperity – though not meteoric – is substantial and sustainable. In this way, the gift of opportunity becomes a gift that can last a lifetime. Multiply that gift by the 30 artists we work with on a regular basis, and the impact on their families and their community becomes enormous. That success reinforces our continuing efforts to keep opportunity growing and expanding.

Giving is a very personal thing. Bringing happiness in any form to anyone at any time is a worthy gift whether it is meant for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Giving opportunity is simply how we at It’s Cactus choose to give. When you buy from us, you support our artists, and that is a very great gift, indeed.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Peruvian retablo featuring a very traditonal Our Lady of Guadalupe

Peruvian retablo featuring a very traditional Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Tomorrow, in much of North and South America, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe will be celebrated with pilgrimages and fiestas throughout the two continents. It is believed that on that date in 1531, the Mother of God appeared for the second time to Juan Diego, a humble Nahuatl peasant, and gave him the proof that he needed to convince the Spanish Archbishop to build her a temple on Tepeyac Hill in what was to become Mexico City.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is widely embraced as the Mother of the Americas for a number of reasons. She appeared to the indigenous Juan Diego, rather than to the Spanish ruling priests, and spoke to him in his native tongue, saying, “Do you not recognize me? Am I not of your own kind? Are you not in the shadow of my protection?” The miracle of the tilma – her image being emblazoned on Juan Diego’s cloak – was covered

Ceramic recreation of the appearance of Guadalupe by the Aguilar Family of Oaxaca, Mexico

Ceramic recreation of the appearance of Guadalupe by the Aguilar Family of Oaxaca, Mexico

up by Castillian roses and revealed only when the roses tumbled onto the floor of the office of the Archbishop. He would have recognized the significance immediately: The roses did not grow on Tepeyac Hill and certainly not in December. They were from his own native Spain. Even with her uncustomarily dark skin, the Virgin’s image was laden with Marian symbolism which the white colonial Archbishop could not fail to understand, from the blue of her gown, to its celestial brocade, to the aura that surrounded her. In short, Juan Diego’s evidence was compelling beyond fault and her miracle was declared.

The beginnings of the temple were built in 1533 and dedicated in her honor. A second church on the same site was begun in 1556 and in 1695 the cornerstone of a new, larger sanctuary was laid. The modern Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, was formally dedicated in 1976. Therein,

Guatemalan wood carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Guatemalan wood carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Haitian metal art by Edward Dieudonne

The Virgin of Guadalupe worked in Haitian metal by Edward Dieudonne.

the miraculous tilma hangs on permenant display.

Over the centuries, European and New World cultures as well as tradition, history, and politics have combined to establish the Virgin of Guadalupe as a universally recognized Marian icon. Her image is revered and artistically rendered in every imaginable medium: ceramics, textiles, paper – even tatoo ink. As the “Mother of the Americas,” the Virgin of Guadalupe’s role and corresponding iconography evolves continuously in response to the ever-changing needs of society.

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

A Fascination with Folk Art Nativities

Haitian metal Nativity Scene

A Haitian version of the Nativity, by Exulien Exuma

Isn’t it fun to look at Nativity scenes? I love to see how the “First Christmas” is expressed in folk art, with variations from one artist to the next;

one tradition to the next. Diversity is a wonderful thing! Just looking at the three pictured here, the cultural clues are as distinct as they are endearing.

In the first example – worked in recycled metal from Haiti by Exulien Exuma – the evidence of it’s tropical origin is plain. The Holy Infant is unswaddled, for the evening is warm and balmy. He is laying in a tuft of grass under swaying palms, Joseph wears a straw hat, and Mary’s hair is bound up in a kerchief, Caribbean-style. A goat stands in close attendance, nary a sheep or camel in sight.

This Peruvian version, created in Ayacucho, has design details characteristic of the indigenous cultures of the Andes. Even the clay from which it

is made is indicative of its source. The bread being offered by the adoring shepherd is likely Pan de Chuta, if I had to guess. (And I do.) I think it’s a good guess, though. Pan de Chuta is a sweet, anise-flavored bread and regional specialty of the Peruvian Andes. Baked in traditional

Folk Art Nativity from Peru

Peruvian Nativity set from Ayacucho.

wood-burning ovens over eucalyptis leaves, and the small, round loaves are frequently offered as gifts. (To read more about the bread or to see the recipe, click here.) The shepherd also wears a knitted cap, very typical of the region, while Mary and Joseph wear heavy felted wool fedoras, also popularly worn in the Andes. Each of their cloaks, and the Holy Infant’s blanket bear indigenous weaving motifs, all of which combine to create a very Andean signature on the scene.

The third example, though not strictly a Nativity scene, depicts the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt, as interpreted by a Central American folk

artist from El Salvador. Again, clues to the artist’s world view abound. The perfectly cone-shaped mountains that loom in the background of the

Folk art painting of the Holy Family and their Flight into Egypt

From El Salvador comes this vibrantly colored rendering of the Holy Family.

painting echo the volcanic cones that dominate the Salvadorean horizon. Mary and Joseph are enveloped in what might be considered biblical robes, but their bright colors and bold floral and geometric patterns are straight out of the Central American tradition as are the chickens that mill and peck near Joseph’s feet.

While the central story of the First Christmas is universal, its representation through folk art is a unique reflection of the individual artist’s cultural identity, conveyed through the values and aesthetics of his communtiy. Like a translation, folk art nativities are expressions in colloquial language, with nuances and accents that make them vivid and easily understood. And that is precisely what makes each one unique and wonderful.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Papa Nwel and Papa Fwedad

Wall Plaque by Winston Cajuste

A wish for you and yours, by Winston Cajuste

Since it is the beginning of December and many of us are caught up in holiday preparations, I thought I would look into some of the Christmas

Hanging Spiral Tree by Evenson Thenor

Decorate our Hanging Spiral Christmas tree with tiny red bobbles for a bit of color and Suess-like whimsy.

traditions of Haiti to share with you here. Christmas is one of the major holidays of the Haitian calendar and many of their traditions are quite similar to ours in the States. There is a holiday tree to decorate, songs to sing, special foods to enjoy, and there is the embodiment of our

Santa Claus in Papa Nwel. However, Haiti being Haiti, there is a Rada to the Petro, a yin to the yang. In addition to the beloved Papa Nwel, there is a dreaded Papa Fwedad as well.

During my last trip to Haiti, i realized how prevalent the idea of balance is. Haiti is ” 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent Voodoo”, as they say in references too numerous to mention. Within Voodoo are two distinct spirit groups – Rada and Petro. Rada is benevolent and kind and the other, Petro, is fierce and dangerous. In Voodoo temples that I visited, I found images from both spirit groups represented in equal measure, together forming an idea of justice within. When the spirits are in harmony, there is balance in the world. In the sense of Voodoo, then, Papa Nwel would be associated with Rada family of gentle spirits, and Papa Fwedad would be the counterpoint, one of the fierce Petro spirits.

To be honest, Papa Fwedad was mentioned only a time or two in my research, but in both cases, it was in the same breath as Voodoo. ( See The Haiti Observer and Prezi.) Though I am no expert, I am not convinced that Papa Fwedad was born of Voodoo belief at all, though the association now is strong. I think he was appropriated from the tradition French tradition of Papa Fouettard, who accompanies Papa Noel on his visits to children during the Christmas holiday season. In both Haiti and France, the one bestows wonderful gifts to good children, while the other brings lumps of coal and punishments to those children who are naughty.

“They see you when you’re sleeping, they know when you’re awake.

They know if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Reading Veves

Last week, Casey sent me a letter from a customer, who was inquiring about the meaning of one of our veve sculptures. Veves, like this one at

veves symbolize the Voodoo Spirits

How do you read this veve?  There are lots of clues!


the right, are symbols for Voodoo spirits, or loas. Each loa has a veve, and when the presence of a loa is required, a veve is drawn to act as an invitation to the loa to come to the Crossroads between the Natural World and the Spirit World.

The customer’s question was an interesting one, which I dug into with relish. However, after looking at several references, I found that many loas have two or more veves. Furthermore, this particular veve matched nothing that I had reviewed. Some of the lines of the piece writhe, snake-like, which could indicate Damballah, The Creator. The triangle at the bottom might further that possibility. Yet the rooster on the left is the favored animal of Papa Legba, The Protector. It is also favored by Ogun, The Guardian of Truth. Couldn’t this veve indicate either of those as well?

Curiouser and curiouser. I had to stop and think a bit. There was an answer somewhere, but I had come to the realization that I wasn’t going to find it in a book or online in black and white. I had to summon my inner Sherlock Holmes and use the available clues come to a logical solution.

First clue: Voodoo is not a religion with a book. No Koran, no Torah, no Bible and therefore no single set of rules. It is a religion based on oral tradition. Ever play “The Telephone Game” as a kid? The one where you start out with a single message and whisper it down the line and see how the message changes from beginning to end? Well if you did, you know what happens: Inevitably, some details get rearranged. That explains the variations on particular veves, of course. A variation, then. Maybe that’s what this is.

Second clue: Voodoo has hundreds of spirits. While there are a couple of dozen that are commonly invoked, dozens upon dozens more are only common in the vernacular. Like a local accent, they are recognized in small, localized areas and not by the entire body of Voodoo practitioners. It could be a fairly exact veve, but one that didn’t get on the academic (ethnographic? ethnographical??) radar because of it’s relative ideological isolation. A symbol for a minor spirit, then. Hmmmm….Maybe that’s what this is.

Third clue: The sculpture was created by an artist. Ever heard of artistic license? Sure you have. Artists take liberties all the time, bending their work to fit their own view of the world. It could be a an abstraction, a commentary, or even a synthesis of several veve symbols. An artistic interpretation, then. Ah, maybe THAT’S what this is.

So, Sherlock, what’s the the answer? Well, Watson, it could be anything. Maybe not a brilliant deduction on my part, but at least it’s honest. Guessing does no one any favors. Still, the possibilities are intriguing, are they not?


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Expected and Unexpected in Haiti

Curious teens climbed the walls to dance to the music and get a better view of the procession.

Curious teens climbed the walls to dance to the beat of the rah-rah band get a better view of the procession.

Last Wednesday, when I boarded the 9:45 flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince with Casey, Gigi, and Mary, I was struck by conflicting senses that I knew what to expect and that I have never known what to expect. I fully anticipated that traffic would be slow and chaotic, but the ride would be endlessly fascinating. The language would be tricky but the smiles would be genuine. The heat and dust would be oppressive but tropical breezes and Prestige at the end of the day would be blessed. I have come to expect all of these things. But always, always there something that lies in wait; something beyond my experience base that finds its chance to be added.

This time it was a funeral procession.

It was mid-morning and we were motoring purposefully along when our progress inexplicably slowed to a crawl. There was a string of cars, and a large number of interspersed pedestrians seemed to be following them. A few blocks along, Franz, our intrepid Haitian driver, spotted the hearse ahead. “Ah,” he said, “a funeral. Well, it is Saturday. Lots of funerals on Saturdays. This could be a while.”

A few blocks later, we came to a “dead stop.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) The hearse had reached the cemetery and the crowd had begun to swell.

Huge floral arrangements swirled behind the casket as mourners entered the cemetery.

Huge floral arrangements swirled behind the casket as mourners entered the cemetery.

Up ahead we could hear a rah-rah band; drums and vuvuzelas creating a wild, not quite melodic but definitely rhythmic cacophony. The cemetery was surrounded by a large cinderblock wall, and agile teenagers scrambled to the top and bopped to the beat. Moments later, the coffin appeared, born by black-suited pall bearers, who began to dance vigorously with their heavy load up and down the street. Women and girls dazzling in their finery cavorted behind the coffin, swirling voluminous floral arrangements of yellows and whites. This went on for fifteen minutes or so; a spectacle of funerary custom that I could certainly recognize, but that was far from the sedate traditions of my own experience.

I have read many times that Haitians celebrate their culture by giving thanks for those who have lived before them. They believe their future depends on the ways they honor their ancestors. What I observed, I think, is that very thing. The Haitian way of honoring the dead is to mourn, yes, but also to celebrate the life that was lived. To see that played out was wonderfully unexpected.


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Promises, promises…

Dove and Flight, SM488

Dove and Flight, SM488

A promise is a promise. In the previous blog, I told you that I would delve into the symbolism of the Dove as the Holy Spirit, and so I shall. But after a fair bit of digging, I confess that the research hasn’t gone quite as I had expected. Yes, the dove is a strong symbol of the Holy Spirit, but its representation as such is hugely variable. I thought I could say, “When the dove looks like our Haitian art piece (photo left) it symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and here are lots of other examples.” Well, that’s just not gonna happen. The Dove as Holy Spirit flies, it hovers, it perches, it sits, it is in profile and it is in full frontal view

Brazilian carving, ca 17th century, artist unknown.

Brazilian carving, ca 17th century, artist unknown.

. In short, it seems that if a dove has a few leaves in it’s beak, it is a Dove of Peace and pretty much EVERY other posture a dove can possibly assume could be interpreted as a symbol for the Holy Spirit.
The origin of this association is found in several instances in the New Testament of the Bible. According to Bible History Daily, dove imagery is noted at the baptism of Jesus in all four of the Gospels.  When John the Baptist brought Jesus up out of the water, “The [Holy] Spirit [of God] came from heaven and descended on him ‘like a dove’  (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). The baptism story built on the pre-existing symbol of the dove as God’s spirit (and its many other meanings) and firmly entrenched it as the preferred representation of the Holy Spirit.”
Italian Renaissance artists took that ball and ran with it, including doves in their renditions of events such as the

Folk Art Cross by Felipe Gonzales, ca 1985.  International Museum of Folk Art

Folk Art Cross by Felipe Gonzales, ca 1985. International Museum of Folk Art

Annunciation of the Virgin, The Baptism, and The Crucifixion.  Latin American artists followed suit and thereafter folk artists used the dove in their depictions of these same

biblical events. (See photos right.) Notably, Andy Warhol added a dove to his 1986 series, “The Last Supper – Dove.” It was a characteristically Warhol interpretation of DaVinci’s epic piece in which the Renaissance Immortal apparently thought no dove was required. (View Warhol’s “Last Supper – Dove” here.)
So there you have it. Doves can represent  Peace and the Holy Spirit, not to mention Motherhood, Purity, Love, Innocence and a host of other attributes. But I’m not going to write any more about doves and their symbolic meaning hence forward. The subject becomes fuzzy very quickly and the challenge for coherent delivery is just too great. I did find some interesting images with peacocks and trees of life together, that could lead to grand adventures in hypothetical correlation and I might even write about them someday, But I’m not making any promises!


Final Installment in a series of two

Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Dove of Peace

Doves which carry an olive branch, however stylized are universally recognized as a peace symbol

Doves which carry an olive branch, however stylized, are universally recognized as a peace symbol.

When is a dove just a dove? Almost never, it seems. Doves are simple birds that have been heavily endowed with symbolism in cultures that criss-cross time and space. Depending on it’s form, its perceived meaning can change rather profoundly. These, pictured left, are Doves of Peace. Everyone knows it. Everyone I’ve ever heard call it anything has called them Doves of Peace. One hundred percent of the time. But why is that?
The answer is several thousand years old, with the passing of time and events sealing the deal. Back when Noah was sailing on his Ark, desperate for a sign that God’s wrath abated, he sent off a dove in search of land. It took a few tries, but one day, the dove returned with an olive branch in its beak. Noah knew by the olive branch that land had arisen from the flood waters and God was at peace with Mankind once again. This story is, of course, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but there are other sources as well.
In Central Asia, there is a very old folk tale about two kings who were about to face each other in war in Central Asia. A dove had built a nest in the helmet of one of the kings and the king’s mother implored him not to disturb the nest and leave his helmet at home. The next day, when the two armies marched out to face each other, the king without the helmet rode out to meet the other king. When the second king found out that the first king was without protection because of the dove building a nest in his helmet, he was moved by his compassion and

A slight variation on the sculpture above, Both are by Haitian artist Guy Robens Remy.

A slight variation on the sculpture above, Both are by Haitian artist Guy Robens Remy.

thought that perhaps he had misjudged him. The two kings talked out their disagreements instead of fighting, and they all lived happily ever after. The dove thus symbolized the peace that was achieved between their two nations. (Hear the story as it is told to children in Azerbaijan here.)

Fast-forward a few milenia to post-war France. Pablo Picasso lived in Nazi-occupied Paris for the duration of World War II and the experience hardened his position as an avowed pacifist. Peace organizations flourished after the War and were eager to engage Picasso and reap the benefits of his celebrity. The First International Peace Congress chose Picasso’s life-like lithograph “La Columbe” as it’s emblem, thus reafirming the dove as a symbol of peace in the modern era. His later renditions of doves were simple line drawings of the bird with a single olive branch in its beak or with colored flowers and an olive branch. These dove drawings became widely associated with the global Peace Movement in the early 1950s and remain among his most popular works today. (See those images here)

And so it is the Dove of Peace. But give it a slight change of form, and it becomes representation of the Holy Spirit.  More about that to follow…
First in a series
Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

Black Madonnas of the New World

Our Lady of Guadalupe retablo from Peru.

Our Lady of Guadalupe retablo from Peru.


Since the first known representation of the Madonna, found in the catacombs of Rome and believed to have been painted in the second century A.D., the portrayal of her physical characteristics have been widely varied. Though images of ivory- skinned madonnas often pop readily to Western minds, there are over four hundred “officially recognized” Black Madonnas. These Black Madonnas are considered by academics to be aa type of Marian statue or painting of mainly medieval origin (12C-15C), of dark or black features whose exact origins are not always easy to determine, and most important, of particular prominence. The latter, the prominence of the Black Madonna, is mostly due to the allegedly miraculous character of the image. Read the article by Michael P. Duricy here:



In the New World, two “Black Madonnas” have special significance, though both have their roots firmly planted in Europe. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of the Americas, was the dark-skinned image that appeared on the cloak of a poor indigenous man that Mary visited on a hilltop in Mexico in 1531. She came to be called, “Guadalupe” because of her similarity in origin to an earlier Black Madonna, Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Caceres, Spain. That Madonna was a wooden figure that had reputedly been carved by St. Luke and given to the Archbishop of Seville. During the 8th century Moorish invasion, the statue was hidden and remained so during the years of occupation. Seven hundred years later, a cowherd by the name of Gil Cordero was visited by the Virgin Mother. The cowherd ran to the priests and told them to dig at the site of his vision. There they found the long-lost sacred statue, now blackend after its years of “entombment.” A shrine was quickly erected, which grew over time to become the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Extramadura, Spain.

St. Luke was also the reported creator of “Our Lady of Jasna Gora,” a Black Madonna on canvas which he painted on a cedar table belonging to the Holy Family

Image of a Black Madonna as Erzulie Freda adorns a sequined bottle from Haiti

Image of a Black Madonna as Erzulie Freda adorns a sequined bottle from Haiti


. The painting was “discovered” by St. Helen in Constantonople in Jerusalem in 326 and worked its way over the next eleven centuries to Jasno Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland via Constantinopole and Belz, Ukraine. It is this image of Mary that Polish soldiers, fighting on both side of the Haitian Revolution, brought to the Caribbean. There, black slaves and free men embraced her as their own. In Haiti, Our Lady of Jasna Gora was absorbed into Voodoo culture and became associated with the Voodoo spirit, Erzulie Dantor. See Blog:here:https://www.itscactus.com/blog/2013/04/10/erzulie-dantor-the-fierce-mother/


In both cases, the arrival of Black Madonnas on New World shores resonated with local populations. They recognized her as the Universal Queen. To them, her message was clear: “Am I not here with you as your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Surely you recognize me, for I am of your kind.”


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus


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