Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Greg's Haitian adventure part 6: Markets and Mass

One of my routines during my time in Haiti was going to the market every Saturday with my coworker, Eyleen. We would stock up on the week's produce for our collective living quarters. I enjoyed seeing all the great fruits and vegetables at the market--it reminded me of the fresh market back home in Colombia.

As with the market in Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitien's market is housed in a large structure of red iron grillwork, I-beam columns, and red zinc roofs.

Also like the PAP market, Cap Haitien's market spills out from the central building and occupies the surrounding streets. There are whole sections of streets dedicated to dry goods, salt fish, fruits, root vegetables, roasted cashews, etc.

As in my hometown in Colombia, fresh goods are sold by lot, as opposed to weight. The vendors have their goods grouped into fours or fives, and they give you a price for the lot.

For things like pineapples, you buy by the individual fruit, after looking it over (the yellow passionfruit in the background is grouped by lot).

Usually the price for foreigners starts too high, so my colleague always had to haggle it down. Finally you hand over the money, and the transaction is done (the basket in the photo is filled with raw cashews).

We would always leave the market bearing multiple sacks loaded with fruits and veggies.

We'd also go to the nearby grocery store afterwards to get imported packaged stuff.

One Saturday early in my stay we also went to the tourist market. It was very different from Port-au-Prince's tourist market, which is based in the same building as the produce market, and specializes mainly in intricate authentic Vodou stuff. Okap's tourist market is in a separate location from the main market, on the waterfront. My colleagues had said it was depressingly abandoned, and vendors were overbearing, but I didn't find that to be the case. Apparently, until the fall of Duvalier in 1986, large cruise ships stopped weekly at the tourist market to buy crafts and souvenirs. No more. Anyway, I got a bunch of stuff there.

A dress for my wife, which I later realized was sort of big and formless. Maybe with a ribbon at the waist it'll look nice.

This is a map of Haiti and a globe of the world. My friend actually got it later in PAP, but I'll include it here.

The following is perhaps the most interesting gift I found. I asked the vendor if it was Legba, the spirit of the crossroads. He said yes, which doesn't actually mean much, since Haitians trying to sell things will say yes to just about anything a foreigner asks.

What's under that barrel?

Is that... Let's see the profile.


We also got some dolls of women dressed in ceremonial regalia.

Hand-embroidered napkins.

A few rattles.

A wooden duck for my mother.

Haitian honey.

And a cream liquor drink, like a hazelnut Bailey's.

Later on, my friend gave me a jar of home-grown coffee, roasted at his family's farm.

As you can see, Haiti has a lot to offer in terms of artisanry and crafts.

So Saturdays were usually spent at the market. Sundays I went to 7am Mass. It was always a beautiful, stirring service, clocking in at the two hours or so typical of Haitian Masses. A friend of mine marveled that anywhere you go in the world, regardless of language or culture, Mass is always from 30 minutes to an hour. But in Haiti (and in Benin), the service lasts about double that. It's mainly due to the heavy dose of singing. Most of the major prayers (the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, etc.) are sung, not just spoken. This adds five to ten minutes for each prayer, so it's easy to see how the Mass gets stretched out. These songs are not just any songs, either. In the church I went to, which was linked to a Salesian mission, there was a full band, with African drum, modern drum battery, trumpet, keyboard, electric guitar, and bass guitar, in addition to a well-trained choir. The one time I went that they didn't have a full band, they still had an expert drummer on the big traditional drum, who was able to coax out sounds from that drum that ranged from sharp pops to deep thumps to a whistling sound, like when you blow on a bottle.

I got the impression that the congregation of that church was more or less middle class. Some families drove to Mass, and people seemed literate, bilingual, and nonplussed at seeing a foreigner. In fact, one time the priest was a white guy, Italian judging by his accent. The congregation did a few typical things I've seen at other Haitian Catholic churches. Many people brought their own Bibles, and before the readings the reader would give a little mini-homily and make a big point of announcing the chapters of the reading so everyone could follow along in their Bibles. In fact, one time the priest finished Mass with an exhortation to respect the core content of the Catholic rite, to refrain from too many innovations. I assume this refers to the mini-homilies delivered by laypeople before Mass and before each reading, and probably other tendencies I didn't even pick up on. I bet this reminder from the priest was meant to maintain the distinction between Haiti's native Catholicism and the Protestant denominations that have been expanding over the past few decades.

I want to talk a bit more about this influx of Protestantism to Haiti (and much of what I have to say applies to the rest of Latin America). It distresses me, because it implies drastic changes in (and loss of) local culture, which has a strong Catholic basis. Furthermore, Protestant evangelizing in Catholic countries represents to me a profound lack of respect. If Catholic missionaries arrived en masse to Alabama or eastern Texas to try to turn Evangelicals from the errors of their ways, local people would rightly tell them to buzz off. If the point of evangelizing is to bring people to Christ, then that means you don't need to go to places that are already Christian! To do otherwise is to imply that some denominations of Christianity aren't really Christian, which is especially incoherent if the denomination in question has been pondering and purifying the concept of Christianity for fifteen hundred more years than the evangelizing newcomers.

But beyond theological disputes, which are ultimately fruitless and acrimonious, I am distressed that the Protestant influx in places like Haiti and Colombia often bring ugly cultural traits along with it, traits that theoretically have nothing to do with one faith or another, and that should in fact be purged from the lives of any Christian. I'm talking about materialism, consumerism, shallowness of thought. To me it seems that the way many new denominations have "marketed" themselves to Latin Americans is by associating themselves with economic progress, modernity, Western-style suburban consumer culture. The new churches aren't just importing Baptist ideas, or Pentecostal practice, or Adventist interpretations--they're importing 20th-century postmodern US culture. It's as if converts are buying a new consumer product, whose shiny novelty will supplant the boring old cultural and faith traditions that have sustained local people for generations. A number of people even asked me during my stay in Haiti if I'd been "converted yet", as if it were the new thing to do, like upgrading your Kindle. Everybody's doing it! Well as my mother says in the face of frustration with the Catholic Church, "I'm leaving the dance with the same date I came with". Furthermore, from at least the time of St. Augustine, the great thinkers have understood that conversion isn't a one-time, fickle change. It's a lifelong process of growth and contemplation, regardless of what faith you practice.

Granted, I can't take blame away from the Catholic Church in Haiti for not working more to maintain the faithful. Many villages in Haiti have a Catholic church, an Adventist one, a Baptist one, and a number of other innovative denominations. That is to say that the Catholicism that supposedly represents 70% of the populace is no more present on the ground than other churches. It wouldn't of course make sense for the Catholics to put more than one church in a given parish, but still, I'm sure they could provide more services, providing for both spiritual and material needs. Maybe the Church just took for granted that all Haitians were de facto Catholics, and so it didn't take measures to hold onto them.

At the same time, the Catholic Church is indeed very present in terms of major infrastructure in Haiti. More of the big clinics, orphanages, schools, and other projects associated with wellbeing and development are run by the Catholic Church than by other churches. The Adventists do have an admirable development agency that is a world leader in on-the-ground, effective development work, but most other denominations stick to preaching and making noise. For instance, there is a church just above where I was living that blasted out wailing and hollering and growling and singing and crying over a speaker system, for most of every day. I always asked myself if those people didn't have to make a living, and more importantly, if all their racket was about Christ, or more about themselves.

Sometimes I think that the problem is precisely that the Catholic Church in Haiti has focused more on providing for the poor and helping the needy, as opposed to hollering and drawing attention and cache. Aside from the Catholic church in the plaza of every town, the most visible presence of the Church is in the clinics and schools it runs. If that's the case, I guess I'd rather the Church stick to what it's doing, helping the least among us instead of just trying to "grow the organization".

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