JACMEL, Haiti – Tens of thousands of dancing and singing Haitians gathered this past weekend in the nation’s Carnival capital to celebrate the festival’s revival following a respite caused by the January 2010 earthquake (Click to view photos).
The sounds of hammers and saws could be heard throughout the final night of preparations as dozens of carpenters hurried to finish building the wooden bleachers where spectators stood along the parade route in the coastal city of Jacmel.
The speed and determination of the construction embodied a feeling of hope among many that Haiti is on track to rebuilding itself both culturally and economically.
“Last year we didn’t make any money – it was a sad thing, but everything was sad then,” said Guilbert Jean Charles, owner of a bar on Avenue Barranquilla from which patrons enjoyed the Carnival parade.
He said the return of the festival this year is bringing domestic and foreign tourist dollars into the city, boosting its economy which he said has been slow since the earthquake.
That disaster – in which as many as 300,000 are estimated to have died – was followed by a period of mourning that disregarded the usual Carnival celebrations, including the famous Jacmel parade, which take place in February and March.
This year, in keeping with the festival’s tradition, actors wearing elaborate masks depicted Haiti’s slave heritage through scenes such that include a monstrous beast cracking a whip at a shirtless man in chains.
Participants also incorporated current political undertones: In one act, the beasts were replaced by paper maché white men painted with the Canadian and American flags to embody many Haitians’ disdain toward what they view as undue foreign influence over their affairs.
Still, Jean Charles said most of his patrons did not come to Carnival to protest present or past afflictions, but rather in search of an entertaining way to escape them altogether.
“Carnival doesn’t have political divisions,” he said. “Everyone celebrates together.”
But not everyone can make that escape.
Sitting in front of a tent in a park just off the parade route where she’s lived since the earthquake, Françoise Pierre, 68, said she is not celebrating.
Pierre’s daughter Mari Bernadette Saint Paul died in the earthquake that devastated her neighborhood in the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince.
“There are people who dance, who sing – but not me,” said Pierre as she pushed her hand into her chest and described the miseries that have befallen her and her tent-camp neighbors during the past year. “My heart is filled with sadness.”
Pierre’s position – watching vendors sell cookies and candy to Carnival participants spilling over from the parade route to try their luck at roulette tables in the park – is emblematic of the challenges that remain for 800,000 Haitians still living in displacement camps. They are excluded from the recovery that is beginning to take place around them. Seventy of the original 257 Jacmel families who took refuge in Pierre’s camp after the earthquake still remain there.
“Jacmel has the biggest Carnival in Haiti – it is the heart of Carnival. It’s meant to relieve stress, but for us, it creates more,” said Mario Valmont, a 30-year-old member of the camp committee whose home collapsed in the earthquake. “We don’t have the money to buy the things they’re selling – we can’t even afford to send our kids to school.”
But if the festival’s elaborate paper maché animal masks, the women adorned with pastel-colored dresses dancing to the music of rara bands and the other emblems of Jacmel Carnival failed to relieve people like Valmont from the sadness of their predicaments, they at the very least attempted to confront those challenges through artistic defiance.
One group, wearing doctor costumes and surgical masks, carried a young man on a stretcher, his face painted white and feigning symptoms of the cholera epidemic that the government reports has hospitalized more than 241,000 since it began spreading this past October.
Festival-goers said the satirical display is an act of defiance that embodies the fundamental heart of Haitian Carnival.
“This is when we really express – politically, economically, and socially – how we see things going on in our country,” said Vladimir François, 52, after eating a bowl of traditional Haitian pumpkin soup at a local restaurant.
François, a poet and writer who left Jacmel for the U.S. at age 10, said while some of the Carnival traditions of his childhood have disappeared, many like the Zel Maturin – devils who frighten children by violently flapping their large wooden wings – remain. He said the revival of these traditions following their glaring absence last year demonstrates Haiti’s recovery from that event – something the image of Pierre’s tent-camp seems to contradict.
After nightfall, vendors in that park continued selling snacks by candlelight until drops of rain began falling.
Pierre – still declining to participate in the festivities – returned to her tent to try to sleep while Carnival music continued emanating loudly from the giant floats passing through Avenue Barranquilla.
Tirame Fremond, 18, who traveled from Port-au-Prince to see the Jacmel carnival, said contrary to Pierre’s feeling of exclusion, Carnival offers the rare opportunity to move beyond the legacy of grief he said still afflicts every Haitian.
“Last year we choose not to celebrate – there was nothing to celebrate,” said Fremond. “Each of us lost someone, but this year, we’re celebrating the people we have.”