Monday, February 26, 2007

The White Darkness

The White Darkness

Richard Stanley

Born out of the bloody uprisings of 1791, the complex, primal rituals of voodoo, (or voudou, or vodun - 'invisible force' in the Fon language of Benin), fuse West African and Roman Catholic beliefs in ways that many still find shocking. Commissioned by the BBC, filmmaker Richard Stanley spent three months in Haiti meeting priests, priestesses (houn'gan) and the loa (spirits), that were regularly invited to possess them, sending the displaced egos of the writhing supplicants deep into the void - the 'white darkness'.

Stanley saw at the first hand how intricately voodoo is woven into the fabric of political and cultural life on the island, where the faces of Stephen Lawrence and Princess Diana are as likely to adorn altars as the Virgin Mary. Real power in Haiti, says Stanley, lies not with the military or political leadership but with secret voodoo societies such as Bizango and Makanda, around whom has evolved a powerful myth complex involving cannibalism, shape shifting and the creation of zombies. Papa Doc Duvalier knew this and used his knowledge of Voodoo to maintain a murderous grip on the island.

Today Haiti exists in an unsteady equilibrium, watched with an uneasy eye by the UN and bands of US Marines, ostensibly there to curb drug trafficking. The real drug problem, however, appears to be that of exploitation by American pharmaceutical companies, who view the island as something of a playground for testing new drugs, with often terrible results.


AS the first unseasonably warm spring of the new millennium rolled around New York's Haitian community, its ranks swollen by illegal immigrants to almost a million strong, caught its collective breath and prepared for the worst. Mayor Ruldolph Giuliani and the NYPD had tightened the screws to the limit, implementing a zero tolerance policy that had dramatically reduced crime rates at the expense of the community's civil liberties, heightening the tensions in a city already suffering from one hell of post-millennial headache.

It took the death of yet another unarmed man of African ancestry at the hands of over zealous peace officers for the storm to break. The hysterical collapse of the dead man's mother during the funeral ceremony struck a spark that ignited a riot, a flashfire that ran from block to block, briefly searing its way into the evening headlines and registering in the outside worlds' unconscious.

On April 27 2000 Mayor Giuliana announced to the press that he had prostate cancer and on May 9 the city police Commissioner Howard Safir made his own admission. He too had been diagnosed with the early stages of the disease. By May 20th Guiliana's downfall was complete, reports romantically linking him to a string of mistresses having lead to the break-up of his 16 year marriage and ultimately to his withdrawal from the race for U.S senate, leaving the way clear for his rivals; First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Long Island Republican, Rick Lazio.

In the aftermath rumours began to spread along the usual conduits, those strung out neurons that only ever seem to transmit bad jokes and pop mythology. A tale told in Brooklyn and the south Bronx, a tale of an African spirit, a Loa, called down by the dead man's mother when she fell possessed at the funeral and an ancient death magic that reached out from the spirit world to avenge him, a tale fit only for whispering yet which contained within it the germ of something strangely comforting. A reassurance that even the unbelievers, the high and the mighty in their glass towers were not beyond the reach of this Voudou, the veritable wrath of the spirits and I fancy, the candles burned more brightly in the city's shrines of the thought of it.

I was hooked up with top flight German cameraman Immo Horn whom I had worked with before under pretty hellacious circumstances in Afghanistan and Namibia, the explorer/ presenter Benedict Allen and a burly, somewhat taciturn Voudou drummer named Frisner Augustine who officiated at ceremonies, in one of the oldest temples in Brooklyn and who had recently received some form of national heritage award from the U.S Government on account of his contribution to the city's culture. In point of fact Frisner's recent attempts to celebrate the festival of Bois-Caiman, the anniversary of the ceremony that sparked the "nights of fire", the bloody uprising that liberated Haiti from French colonial rule back in 1791, had floundered when civic authorities proved unwilling to grant him permission to slaughter a symbolic black pig in Central park. Now he intended to make a pilgrimage back to his homeland to honour the feast day of mount Carmel, a Catholic icon analogous to the mother goddess Ezili, Isis by another name, her dual aspects, virgin and whore, represented in Ezili Freda, the white Madonna and the black Madonna, Ezili Dantor. This practise of masking pagan beliefs beneath the images of Christian saints is common in the Americas under various names. Santiera in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, Obeayisne in Jamaica, Shango cult in Trinidad and Voudou in Haiti, possibly the religion's oldest and purest extant form.

Every year on the same date that New York's catholic community process through the streets of Manhattan thousands of Voodooists gather to honour the virgin at the sacred waterfall of Saut d'Eau, deep in the heart of Haiti's impenetrable Antibonite mountains.

What follows are a series of extracts culled more or less at random from my travel journal for that period. Together with the accompanying photographs they convey only the barest hint of what I found there.

July 11th - Incoming

The twin prop aircraft shudders as it comes barrelling out of the clouds, skimming across the southern edge of the Bermuda triangle, a huge cumulo-nimbus cloud banking up before us on the coppery horizon.

Approximately three hundred boats a year still manage to disappear between Miami and Cap Haitian, mostly as a result of bad seamanship and drugs nonsense, although I partly suspect that someone or something down there might just be eating them.

The corsairs of the 18th Century once roved these waters and it was the pirates and cattle rustlers of Tortuga who first brought the French influence to Haiti along with the Jolly Roger, the sign of the skull and bones, so redolent with Masonic symbolism.
The Spanish had already succeeded in exterminating the native population, the Taino and Arawak Indians, a vanished race who left behind only the island's name along with their curious stone artefacts.

The plane lurches, the cabin lights blinking as we bank steeply downwards into the waiting cauldron.

July 12th - Port au Prince

The rain is only a memory now, the sun a blazing blue rivet in a shy pale and incandescent as burning gas. The graveyard is a truly terrible place, especially on a day like this, a labyrinth of white washed vaults built above ground like a microcosm of the city, a morbid mirror image of the world of the living, its narrow streets stark and sun-drenched as a De Chiroco painting.

One of Frisner's aunts has recently passed away and so our first act on arrival is to attend a small ceremony at the family vault that starts with Catholic hymns.

The importance of respecting the dead is evident here at every turn. Funerals are held on a lavish and costly scale complete with professional mourners whose wailing cries only add to the pervading sense of anguish as we thread our way deeper into the mecropolis to light our candles and pour water three time before a blackened cross, the seat of Baron Sandi, a guardian of the graveyard and head of the Gede spirit family, the spirits of the dead, associated with the colours of black and purple.

It is vital to keep the spirits nourished and at the base of the cross Frisner starts to give out bread and coffee, sharing the offerings with the urchins and mendicants who live amongst the shattered graves, specialised beggars who survive on food left behind by the mourners.

The burial ground also serves as the hub of a thriving child prostitution racket, echoing the bawdy, mischievous nature of the Gede family whose sexually explicit behaviour recognises that life must continue side by side with death. Many of the vaults have been desecrated by graverobbers while others have been smashed open because the next of kin have only had enough money to rent the graves and when they cannot keep up the payments the coffins are removed and either recycled or hurled onto a huge mound in the centre of the necroplois. Even the bodies are recycled as bones and individual body parts all have their uses in ritual magic.

Frisner grew up in the slums surrounding the graveyard and like the rest of his family spent most of his life surviving off the various rackets associated with this place. Now he takes us on a guided tour, introducing us to some familiar faces from his childhood.

There is an old man at the crossroads, in the dead heart of the wasteland who seems more to writhe than walk towards us, swinging his emaciated body on two battered crutches, lame in one leg from an untreated bullet wound. He is dressed in red and clutches a dusty toy police car in one hand, mumbling incoherently, apparently possessed by Papa Legba, the guardian of the crossroads and the opener of the way who must always be placated first in any Voudou working.

Our meeting is considered fortuitous and Frisner takes me by the hand, leading me through he maze lit backstreets of the surrounding slums, from one candlelit shrine to another, each one seemingly smaller than the last, to be introduced to an aged individual who has a bony protuberance growing out of his forehead like a horn. He doesn't get up as he shakes my hand and although I don't understand all that passes between him and Frisner I gather he gives us his blessings for the journey into the mountains. With friends like these I can't imagine we have anything to worry about.

July 13th - the Antibonite mountains.

Beyond the arid flatlands, beyond the swamps and the spectral forests of moss and fern, high up in the smoky foothills we come after a day's rough ride on precipitous, half flooded roads that were at times no better than crude tracks, to the tiny village of Villebonheur.

Thousands of pilgrims have flocked to this area for the feast of the virgin, tying up its streets in an insane traffic jam. The Madonna is closely associated with the concept of luck and thus great many concessions have sprung up offering roulette wheels and other games of chance for the pilgrims to try themselves against.

Their excited faces huddle around the gaslit stalls, swimming in and out of the tropical darkness like figures in an El Greco canvas, underscored all the while by the wavelike rhythms of the drum tent where an ageing Voudou man in the last stages of his struggle against the AIDS virus sits propped up before the peristyle, the column representing the last link between heaven and earth, belting out one extraordinary song after another, a bevy of sultry backing singers in canary yellow picking up the choruses.
Even here, despite the use of drum machines, people were being gripped by the spirit left, right and centre, flying into shivering trance dances or simply dropping like flies.

When they start jamming like this it can go on for days or even weeks. You can feel its rhythms in your diaphragm, creeping up through the soles of ones feet, running like a pulse through ones blood and even if you can't go with it you certainly cannot ignore it.

July 17th - Saut d'Eau

On July 16, 1843 and then again on the same day in 1881 the virgin Mary appeared on the top of a palm tree at the base of the falls where the tepid water of the La Tombe river plunge into a misty cauldron long held sacred to the goddess Ezili, to Ayida Wedo the rainbow and to Damballah the serpent, the lord of the air and the father of the falling waters whose seven thousand coils hold the earth in place.

When the apparition appeared again during the first American occupation in 1910 the marines are said to have opened fire upon it. The brilliant light is reputed to have danced from tree to tree, finally metamorphosing into a dove as the last palm was felled, lingering in the vicinity of Ville Bonheur for a few days before taking off in the direction of the falls. The marines involved in the incident are said to have either died prematurely or lost their minds, allegedly wandering the forest for days before being found.

This particular feast day get off to a rather bad start when Benedict discovers that a tarantula has crawled into one of his boots during the night. By the time we hit he street the majority of the pilgrims are already crowding to take mass in the church while black garbed riot police move in, waving snub-nosed machine pistols indiscriminately in people's faces, trying in vain to restore order.

Large numbers of beggars throng about the church steps in the hope of receiving alms from the pilgrims. Everyone here has come to ask for something, not just the beggars.

Many people are weeping openly, photographs of loved ones, I.D cards and even passports clutched in their outstretched hands. Some are probably praying for the people in the photographs who might be sick or even dead while others seems to be praying for their green cars so that they can leave Haiti and find work in the states.

The traffic jam is by now so bad that the authorities are forced to cancel the annual procession in which the virgin is meant to be taken out of the church and carried through the streets. Instead we follow the pilgrims, many of them clad in pink and white, the colours of Ezili, on the last leg of their journey, up the mountainside to light candles before an ancient tree associated with Legba, the opener of the way and onwards to the sacred waterfall itself.

The pilgrims gather in the basin beneath the falls, some of them clutching bits of root or wads of mombin leaves brought from herbalists who have set up shop along the trial while others carry wooden chairs, bottles of rum or Florida water and offerings of corn, rice and cassava. Men and women, young and old, strip off their clothes as they clamber toward the falls, adding to the carnivalesque atmosphere by festooning the overhanging mapou trees with their underwear. I clamber with them over the slabs of slippery bedrock that protrude like giant steps from the base of the falls, threading my way past knots of figures bathing, drinking and filling their bottles with the healing water.

Some of them stand with their arms outstretched, invoking the spirits, their prayers lost in the thunder of the falls. Writhing figures begin to fall possessed on all sides of me, dozens at a time collapsing as the water strikes them, their naked, thrashing bodies slithering snakewise across the damp rocks, mounted en masse by Damballah.

There are no drums here, no complex sycopated rhythms to set off the collective trance, only the clear, cold lifeblood of the Goddess falling as a blessing on our upturned faces. A Voudou baptism.

A possessed woman almost crashes right into me, her arms pinwheeling, her eyes screaming tears. Frisner gets hold of her, cradling her protectively and soothing the spirit with the secret words and gestures that are taught to the Voudou initiate for just such a purpose. I climb past them, working my way higher, into roaring hear of the falls. Naked in the presence of the Goddess the cataract takes me into its embrace, bathing my overheated body with drops as hard as bullets.

The White Darkness Pt1

R: Richard Stanley; L: Adelle


17th July - Saturday night in Port au Prince

"Do you know who you are?" the possessed woman leans closer to me, her voice becoming a high pitched nasal squeak. I nod slowly, meeting her gaze and it is Gede who stares back at me now, brave Gede in black and purple, the guardian of the graveyard who wears this young woman's face like a mask.

"I been waiting a long time for you…"

We shake hands in the elaborate manner of a formal Voudou introduction, the first of many such introductions that would have to be made if I were to pass through all the stages of initiation to become a houn'gan in my own right.

"Ayi Bobo."
"Ayi Bobo", I repeat touching my hand to my heart.

With Frisner on his way back to New York I have been left in the care of Edelle, a manbo and highly respected Koongo initiate who comes across a bit like Whoopie Goldberg on D.M.T.

"Where did you get this great guy who's already got so much Gede in him?" she asks my interpreter as she flings her arms about me. "He's mine!" I return her embrace and the guardian of the graveyard cracks a lascivious smile. "Are you happy to see me because I'm sure happy to see you?"
"It's a pleasure…"

She raises a bottle of what looks like fermented chilli peppers and pickled rat embryos, drinking a welcoming toast. Then squatting beside me she pushes back her long, purple dress and parts her legs, rubbing the clear, fiery liquid over her hands and genitalia.

"You've got nothing like this in the States. All power and weirding…you and me…" She taps my chest. 'Natural born loup garou…you and me both…"

She tosses me the bottle and steeling myself I take a deep swig. No turning back now. No half measures in Voudou.

The mouthful of fluid impacts like nitro-glycerine in the pit of my stomach and I stagger to my feet, helping her unbutton my shirt, abandoning myself to a ritual that began just after nightfall when Edelle first took me by the hand and lead me to the sacred tree at the bottom of her garden, teaching me to pour the water, to light the candles and say the words, opening the way for the spirits. Her possession followed quite naturally, letting Gede do the rest.

"You will not have to pay for what your forefathers did. You are saved already." She weaves around me, massaging the burning fluid into my skin and I find myself thinking of fly ointment, belladonna and scraps of testimony from mediaeval werewolf trials. Its funny how these things come back to one.

"It is not your skin that burns. You are not white. Your faith will save you. Gede will never allow you to cry. You will be shipwrecked. When you need me all you have to do is light a candle and throw the water on the ground and Gede will save you. Every family has a head and I will make you the head of this travelling society. You are already with the spirits. You will travel far and spread the word. Its time. Time to extend the family. That is why you came here. This world's in a lot of trouble and we're going to have to work hard to keep things together. Gede will help you. I work for all of you. It was your good luck to find me…"

I bow my head as she splashes raw alcohol in my eyes, her face swimming before me as if seen through a milky ring of fire, her eyes blazing like windows on another world. "You are welcomed…"

She tells me that we will have to make a second, more dangerous pilgrimage, this time to the northern part of the island, to a remote mountain in the middle of the rainforest that is considered to be the seat of Ogoun Fera, the warrior, the god of iron. We will have to ride horses and wear red scarves in honour of Ogoun and although the way will be hard the spirits will protect us on the trail so long as I remember to say the words, light the candles and pour the water, once for Marassa, the mysterious twins, once for Legba, the opener of the way and once for all the other Loa who follow afterwards.

Then, the ritual complete, Gede abruptly leaves her, Edelle's exhausted body collapsing like a marionette that's just had its strings cut.

After making certain that Edelle is alright I go in search of water, eventually plunging into the swimming pool at the Hotel Olaffson in the vain hope of soothing the burning muscles, banishing even the most remote possibility of sleep. Whatever the substance is that she has coated me with it only reacts all the more strongly with water, my skin blazing as if it were made from pure potassium. Floating like a red hot ember between the black waters and the distant stars I null over the events that have brought me to this point, to my first intimate encounter with the spirits and the start of my real initiation.

Edelle has shown me one face of Voudou yet within the faith, as with all religions, there are two sides, light and dark, cold and hot, Rada and Petro. She has introduced me to the mysteries but we are still no closer to understanding the death magic that brought us here. In the days to come we will have to dig a lot deeper and I can only hope that Edelle's white magic proves strong enough to keep us out of trouble.

July 18th - Carrefour

Altes Paul, the bad bou'ko, smiles thinly, revealing some pretty nifty gold work.

"I am the pope", he laughs, "The pope of Voudou and you are a general of spirits".

Altes is a sorcerer, a man who has worked closely with both the underworld and the island's military leadership, fixing things when needed but only ever for a price. Before meeting him we are warned he could have all of us killed with a snap of his fingers but after I slip him a third degree masonic handshake he takes an immediate shine to us, calling for his son, Jackson, to break out he rum.

Years ago Altes sold his soul to the devil, personified as a hot Loa named Kapitan Kriminal and has at his service a personal guardian, a daemon named Kriminal Lakwa who is represented by the familiar sign of the skull and bones. Judging from the extent of his lands, the numerous animals grazing beneath the surrounding mango trees and the impressive scale of the two temples he presides over it has turned out to be a very profitable deal.

His glory years behind him now he has however something of a hunted look in his eyes as if he knows all too well that sooner or later the devil's bound to come to collect. Twelve months ago he accidentally set himself on fire during a ceremony when he spilled rum on his gown, sustaining third degree burns to his legs which have failed to heal properly, his pronounced limp adding to the impression that he is not long for this world.

When it comes time for us to enter his kongo temple we are forced to enter backwards, shuffling nervously across the threshold into a waiting darkness that reeks of incense, raw alcohol and dried blood. It is here that the ageing bou'ko is said to work the death magic that has made him notorious and here too that according to the rumour mill he manufactures zombies, the proverbial walking dead, one of the most potent of all the island's mythological exports.

Coloured by American propaganda from the period of the first occupation and the inevitable western fears of African culture the legend of the zombie was first popularised by one lieutenant Faustin Wirkus, a renegade marine who went spectacularly bush declaring himself the "white king" of the tiny island enclave of La Gonave, his sensationalised autobiography providing the inspiration for the creaky Bela Lugosi programmer White Zombie released in 1932. But then, that was only a movie.

The interior of the kongo temple is like a bad acid trip. An orange lump of olibanum sends its yellow vapours creeping out across a chamber strewn with skulls and bodyparts, the snarling frozen faces of unwelcoming idols glaring down at waiting altars already clogged with blood, feathers and candlegrease.

The oppressive crimson walls are lined with rickety shelves bearing an impressive collection of ceremonial daggers and assorted cutlery, the incense's cloying vapours seething over the husks of starfish, the moult of a tarantula, speckled seabird eggs and countless amber and green bottles stopped with what look likes the thumbs of apes. There are two large coffins propped up on trestles near the back of the chamber where a large door has been set into the ground beyond which I catch a glimpse of a flight of narrow stone steps leading steeply down into blackness.

Altes knocks three times on the portal to let the spirits know he has company, a mischievous smile creasing his skull like face and for a moment I cannot help but imagine there is something strangely familiar about him.

Altes breaks into a low moan, shivering as he begins to emit a series of slow motion snarls and stutters. He falls to his knees, possessed by the devil, at least so Jackson tells us as he rushes to attend to his stricken father, doing his best to interpret the strangled words so that we might understand them.

Something unimaginable has Altes in its grip now, speaking through him in slurred, selpuchral tones, his body quivering with the effort. Devil or not, whatever it is, it promises it will open the gates of hell itself and raise fire and voices from the pit to welcome us but first we have to promise something in return. We have to consent to take Altes and his son with us on our journey to the holy mountain and so on our return we must furnish the sorcerer with a black goat so that he might work the ritual and call up the magic.

Reluctantly we have little choice but to agree to his terms. Altes begins to slowly relax in Jackson's arms and as the spirit leaves him I suddenly realise why he seems so familiar. In his dark glasses, purple shirt and black felt hat this bony little man is a dead ringer for the deceased dictator and rogue anthropologist Papa Doc Duvalier who once used his intimate knowledge of the working s of Voudou to hold the magic island in his undisputed sway, whose sombre dress sense and nasal voice seemed to indicate that he too was in permanent thanatophillic thrall to Baron Samdi and the ubiquitous Gede family who have thus far dogged out tracks at every step. Now it seems the devil himself has decided to hitch a ride with us on the journey north.

July 19th - Hotel Oloffson

"Papa Doc was a monster", sighs Aubelin nostalgically, starring out at the thunderheads that have cast the city into premature darkness. "The original monster…"

Aubelin Jolicoeur, dapper as ever in a spotless white suit complete with carnation in the lapel and the inevitable silver headed cane, sits beside us on the long veranda, cradling a mint julep. Aubelin has been here longer than anyone can easily imagine, long enough to have a suite named after him and to appear as a character, Petit Pierre, in Graham Greene's novel, The Comedians.

How he avoided the firing squads hinted at in Greene's fiction and the predatory attentions of the Ton Ton Macoutes, the black garbed bogie men who policed Papa Doc's traumrepublik is anyone's guess but now, like so many other Haitians, he looks back on those days as a halcyon period, a time of strength when the country was still the in-destination for international jet setters and life was even cheaper than it is now.

"…But his son was no good!" he adds dismissively, shaking his head at the thought of the old man's weak successor, Baby Doc, who ended up giving away the keys to the kingdom. "He was a bisexual! Not that I have anything against bisexuals I just don't like them holding my country hostage…"

He grins and from somewhere, not far off comes the familiar sputter of gunfire, riding on the coat-tails of the thunder. The rain follows a moment later, coming down by the bucket load as if heaven is sinking and all the angels are frantically bailing out water.

Within Rada, the cool Voudou, the pantheon is fixed, the rollcall of Loa unchanging and immutable but within Petro, the hot Voudou as practised by Altes Paul and his kin, the pantheon is highly unstable with new and ever more exotic Loa cropping up all the time.

Some of the heroes of the original uprising such as Makandal the poisoner whom the French sentenced to be burned at the stake outside the main church in Port au Prince and the great general Desaline have already returned as Loa to mount the faithful and live again, and I have seen the faces of Stephen Lawrence and Lady Diana adorning sequinned Voudou flags and the backs of brightly coloured taps taps in the downtown traffic.

"DUVALIER WILL RETURN IN 2001" reads the current crop of neighbourhood graffiti, a thought that no longer seems particularly far fetched.

July 20th - Port au Prince

"The holy sprit cannot compromise with Satan and essentially that's what you do when you compromise with Voudou." Colonel Walker, the head of the American armed forces currently occupying the island, blinks into our camera lens as he effectively dissess Catholicism. The camera is currently riding on Mr Horn's shoulder while Benedict does his best to look like a television anchorman. In the background a group of Special Forces marines loiter in the shade of a palm tree, waiting to board their humvees. Some of them openly sport what appear to be neo-nazi tattoos.

"It's the light and the darkness basically," continues the Colonel, a little red faced now as he tries to clarify his position. "I believe you need a Christian consensus in the nation before you can have a democracy."

The Americans are not popular here and the purpose of their mission to the island is far from clear, presumably something to do with the cocaine trade and the current ambitions of the Bush family. This year 75 tons of the drug were believed to have been moved through Haiti and up to a thousand Colombians working for the big Cali and Medelin cartels are thought to be somewhere in the country.

The Americans are no angels of course. Ever since the young ethnobotanist Wade Davis did his groundbreaking work in the early eighties, isolating the drug used by the secret societies to manufacture zombies and proving the existence of an extraordinary reality lurking behind the outlines of the myth, this country has been perceived by American pharmaceutical companies as something of an adventure playground complete with a ready source of human experiment. Studies involving brain washing, mind control and illicit drug testing are said to be ongoing on several fronts, mostly under the cover of U.N approved charities.

Experimental AIDS vaccines have been tested as a matter of course on some citizens of Port au Prince while others have been deliberately denied treatment so that they might be monitored for long range studies of the diseases progression. If a successful vaccine ever were to be produced the Haitians would invariably be the very last to benefit from it.

Over a hundred children recently died in the festering, harbour front slums of Citie de Soleil after being inoculated by aid workers with a new flu vaccine and up to a thousand adults suffered uncontrollable menstrual bleeding and incapacitating illnesses brought on by an experimental birth control device named NORPLANT, a sort of hormonal version of a nicotine patch that had been implanted beneath their skin during check ups at American backed clinics. Although these reports are routinely denied the truth on the ground is plain to see, as are the psychological problems and escalating suicide rate amongst the armed forces personnel stationed on the ground.

Colonel Walker and his men were recently called out when a Baptist missionary was hacked to death by his congregation in Citie de Soleil and even now seems genuinely bemused by the hostility with which he was met. "We came under spiritual attack. That's the only way I can put it but even when they started rocking the vehicles and throwing stones I knew Christ was on our side. Christ was working in our group."

He tails off, thanking us as a shifty looking American cultural attaché appear behind him, breaking up the interview. The newcomer wears civilian clothes, the image of the Empire State building emblazoned on his tie, a thoroughbred Ivy League spook who is plainly very unhappy about the somewhat candid remarks the Colonel just made to our camera although he swiftly abandons the thought of confiscating our tapes when we flash our BBC accreditation.

Britain is still perceived as an ally and he's rightly confident that the BBC is solid enough not to broadcast anything contentious. "Religious programming", Benedict reassures him. "Strictly non-political." And he means it.

There is more gunfire tonight and I am just preparing to bed down beneath my shroud of mosquito netting on the Olaffson's long upstairs veranda, lighting the candles on the makeshift shrine beside my bed and pouring the water the way Edelle told me when a pigeon comes fluttering in out of the darkness, circling me as I make my various prayers.

There is a rush of displaced air and the momentary sensation of wing tips beating against the side of my face. I raise my hands, palms outstretched and the bird goes soaring away from me, circling around the partition halfway down the veranda and vanishing into the suite next door.

Moments later there is a piercing shriek, closely followed by the crash of falling furniture. I open my door and a slender, young Haitian girl pushes straight past me, scampering into the presumed safety of my room, her eyes wide with fear. She is stark naked, blood streaming from a wound in her leg.

I slowly close the door and reach for a cigarette, trying to get my head around the situation. I try to offer her a towel but she is still too agitated to make any attempt at covering herself, explaining in broken English that she was just drifting off to sleep next door when she was startled by the sensation of falling, as if all her muscles had relaxed at once and she was plunging backwards, right out of her body. She came violently awake, her eyes snapping open to see a shadowy bird circling above her, flying round and round her as if demented. Still half asleep she had been so convinced that the spirits had come for her soul that she had tumbled out of the bed, striking a chair as she fell.

Reaching instinctively for a can of STAY AWAY EVIL (100% genuine SPOOK SHOO with seven advertised Indian powers), a weird little aerosol I picked up in a botannica in New Orleans, I spray it around the eaves of the roof which makes the young Haitian girl feel much relieved. Fafun, for that is her name, lies back on the couch, her sweat streaked body visibly relaxing as the sickly scent of daemon repellent wafts across the veranda.

July 21st - Downtown

When Edelle hears about the incident the night before she becomes very agitated, insisting that Altes Paul is to blame. Sorcerers often send spirit animals out to spy for them, seeing through their eyes at a distance and she suspects that the pigeon that startled Fafun was just such an animal. Absurd as it seems her explanation calls to mind an old pulp story by Robert E. Howard, luridly entitled "Pigeons from Hell", a far-fetched tale of hoodoo in the Louisiana bayous that was based around just such a notion.

Edelle is even more disturbed to hear that Altes and his son will be travelling with us on the journey north. Altes is a "malfetter" she explains, "a guy who just loves to do bad things". Fearing that no good will come of it she busies herself with casting spells and weaving blessings over the red scarves that we are supposed to wear on the trail tomorrow.

Personally I am more than happy to be leaving Port au Prince. Things have gotten a little weird for my liking lately. There were a couple of Americans scrounging around the Olaffson this afternoon, blonde guys with crew cuts, asking too many questions.

I have the distinct impression that someone is keeping an eye on us alright only I don't know if it's just Altes.

The White Darkness Pt2


July 23rd - The citaedel

My horse snorts, starting in a panicky gallop as the first peal of thunder comes rippling across the treetops. The storm is closing in fast now, dark clouds rippling around the forested flanks of the magic mountain.

Warm sticky rain gusts against my face as we bolt up the narrow, precipitous track, leaving the rest of the company far behind us.
Having no choice but to go with the flow I try to make the best of the situation, crouching low in my saddle and holding on for dear life, taking the last stretch of the ride at full tilt, overhanging branches whipping past my face and tearing at my clothes, terrified farm animals and jibing children scattering before my mount's madly racing hooves.

The track is rapidly becoming a torrent, jagged bursts of lightning flickering about our heads as we round the last corner, catching up with Altes, the sorcerer, who has somehow been keeping ahead of us all day, seated astride a foaming black stallion that's even bonier than he is. Despite the inclement conditions he seems as composed and immaculate as ever in his rakish black hat and mirror shades.

He cracks one of his patent creepy smiles as I catch up to him and we ride side by side through the storm, racing each other as far as the rainswept courtyard of the mad emperor's castle, a monstrous dry stone construction that straddles the summit of the holy mountain, a Gormenghastian hybrid of medieval French chateau and Mayan ruin.

The emperor Henri Christophe who ruled the northern half of Haiti after it was divided in the aftermath of its struggle for independence built this fortification as his last redoubt. Twenty thousand people died in the construction of his folly, fully three thousand metres above the canopy of the rainforest and too far from the sea to be of any real strategic value in defending his crumbling kingdom.

Christophe ruled as an African king, choosing this site not for any imagined military advantage but because he knew it was the home of Ogoun Fera, the warrior god of iron and the lover of Ezili, associated with the colour red and the Christian image of St Jacques. Like Ogoun, Christophe hoped to become both immortal and indestructible, a strong man of Voudou. In the end he proved to be neither, taking his own life with a pistol still on display in the museum back in Port au Prince.

The rain eases off, a watery beam of sunlight breaking through the mist as I tie up my horse in Christophe's courtyard and glancing back find the rest of the posse are only just emerging from the treeline. In their bedraggled red scarves they look like a wayward band of overgrown boyscouts.

I join Altes atop a cyclopean stone battlement and what looks like all of Haiti unfurls itself before my feet, crumpled patchwork of sun and shadow. Looking down I can see the backs of eagles turning in the valley far below and the pulse of drums quickens in my blood their insistent rhythms rising from the base of the sheer white cliffs beneath us where hundreds of pilgrims in identical headscarves are climbing through the mists and gathering beneath a scarlet banner to touch the rocks, light candles and make obeisance to Ogoun.

"The world we live in," breathes the sorcerer, looking out over creation and taking in all of it as if for the first time.

July 24th - Bassin Saint Jacques

For hundreds of years the pilgrims have wended their way from the white cliffs of Ogoun tot he luck baths, the Bassin Saint Jacques at Plain du Nord.

Until recently the stagnant pool stood in the midst of a wide open space but walls have sprung up since then in a futile attempt by a corrupt local administration to limit access. No force on earth though could control the phantasmagoria.

A naked man rises slowly from the ooze before me. He might as well be the first man emerging from the primordial pool of protein soup itself, clay grown animate, his shrieking, distorted features sculpted from the same grey brown stuff as the earth, his clenched fists raised towards the heavens, the very image of Ogoun.

All around him his fellow pilgrims are swimming and sliding through the sludge now, old men and children, pregnant women proud as paleolithic fertility goddesses, their bellies heavy with new life, their faces touched by ecstasy, some of them screaming too, some of them chanting, all of them possessed.

To bathe here is to take on spiritual powers that can backfire with great force unless they are properly controlled. I've heard that having too much luck can turn a person into a werewolf and although Edelle assures me that I'm already a werewolf, I still make my prayers before entering the enclosure as I hate to imagine what this sediment is really made of.

There are people crowded everywhere around the verges of the pool, getting down on their hands and knees to drink the mud or scoop up bucketfuls to take home to their friends and families. Before leaving every one of them says a prayer, lights a candle and hurls it into the ooze along with generous libations of rum, Florida water and often the soft parts of animals, the hearts, lungs and lights. Despite the drifting incense the smell of putrefying flesh is thick enough to be almost tangible.

Specialised beggars work this muck, true denizens of the pit their thrashing bodies churning in the viscous grey fluid as they grapple for the choicest offerings, hands clasping desperately for half empty bottles and fistfuls of entrails. A vision out of Dante and enough to warm even Altes' dark heart.

Afterwards the smell stays with me as we make our way to the coast with the other pilgrims to bathe in the cool, blue waters and scrub ourselves with mombin leaves. Swathed in white now, Edelle stands waist deep in the ocean, her arms outstretched towards the far horizon where sea meets sky, chanting a husky hymn to Agwe, the lord of the deep, her voice rising clear and clean tot he cloudless heavens while Altes watches from the shade of a palm tree, Jackson, the sorcerer's apprentice hovering just behind him like a shadow, a bucket in one hand and a glinting carving knife in the other.

July 25th - Chalbert

"The Americans herded them into barracks that were hooked up to the exhaust pipes of big trucks that kept running all night. That way the monoxide would take care of them all, hundreds at a time. Afterwards their bodies were carried down a track to the sea where they were fed tot he crabs…"

All that remains of the camp at Chalbert are the occasional stubs of walls, vague traces of concrete foundations still showing through the weeds in a fallow field just outside Cap Haitian, a relic of the first military occupation, a period of unprecedented brutality that claimed the lives of many thousands of Haitians. When the marines finally caught up with the leader of the resistance they literally crucified him, nailing his body upright, spread-eagled against a wooden doorframe.

In the face of such monstrous tyranny it's no wonder the Haitians turned to the powers of Voudou for help, unleashing a genie that could never really be put back into the bottle. People like Altes would once have been heroes of the struggle but now, devoid of a common purpose, their powers have been placed at the service of questionable causes, supporting military dictatorships and crime families alike, silencing rivals and shielding smuggler's vessels from the searchlights of the American coast guard.

"Those were the good times," says the old man who has been acting as our guide, his eyes brimming with misplaced nostalgia and a typically Haitian desire for strong leadership.
"Now things are worse. Much, much worse…"

August 9th - Carrefour redux

This morning we purchased a black goat from the rambling waterfront market in downtown Port au Prince and delivered it to Altes, making good on our part of the bargain.

When we first arrive at the compound Altes is out back, feeding his birds from a sackful of grain. All around him I cannot help noticing are row upon row of pigeon coops. The sorcerer welcomes us, shaking my hand in the manner of a worshipful brother before slipping away to don an embroidered crimson robe and summon his cohorts. After that the ceremonies in the kongo temple begin in earnest, one drummer after another joining in until the air vibrates with tones too subtle for the mind to follow, a cresting tidal wave of sound that builds and builds as the shadows lengthen, Altes' voice guiding them in the old songs sung in the secret tongue of his ancestors, an African dialect incomprehensible to all save the initiated.

Just after sundown, Jackson leads in the goat, holding it over one of the coffins while his father reaches for a carving knife and a bottle of rum. Two of their colleagues produce a white sheet, spreading it over the wretched animal so that what happens next can be hidden from the eyes of the onlookers. The shadow of the sorcerer flickers eerily across the billowing cloth as the ageing bou'ko crouches beside the goat, gently pressing his blade to its quivering throat, whispering softly in its ear and comforting it all the while as he draws its blood, catching the thick, cascading droplets in a metal dish and mixing them with the rum. The goat makes barely a sound, so unperturbed by this ordeal that at one point it begins to lap contentedly at its own blood as if it has been rewarded with a special treat for it's patience, achieving a kind of awful, stasis, refilling the dish from the gash in its throat just as fast as it drinks. Then reaching the end of one phrase in the music Altes presses his bony fingers to the wound, stemming the arterial flow so that when the sheet is refolded and the goat led away the beast seems completely unscathed, mercifully unaware of what it has just been through. The goat will be turned loose, Altes tells us, to wander the night and find its own destiny.

A sheet of blue flame ripples across the coffin lid as one of the candles kindles the rum, sending shadows flicking out across the faces of the leering idols, briefly investing them with the semblance of life. A tongue of fire climbs the blade of Altes' carving knife as he stirs the blazing bowl of blood, the dark fluid slowly boiling away as he sends the offering over to the spirit world where I imagine his masters must be well pleased by it.

Finally the moment has come for the sorcerer's party trick, the thing that has made his name a legend on this island. Asking me to take a sheet of paper he tells to write down the name of whoever it is that I want him to kill, reassuring me that the workings of this curse will be swift and sure. No one can escape the hand of the death magic once it has been unleashed. And for a moment I think it over, composing myself as I meet the sorcerer's gaze, his eyes glowing in the half-light like splinters of antimatter. And I think of my father and all the people who lied to me and betrayed me, and all the names of a great many film industry movers and shakers. It would be a perfect crime, a perfect revenge, clean, sure and undetectable. The faces of various politicians and famous mass murderers swim through my consciousness. I even toy with the thought of nominating Colonel Walker who told us so eloquently about his mission here but in the end I have to bow to the sorcerer's powers and admit that although I don't really believe in his death magic, I still can't think of anyone I hate badly enough to want to put in its way.

This amuses the old man greatly and taking his leave of us he retires to his secret chamber, limping slowly down the long flight of steps into his private underworld content in the knowledge that with all our learning and western logic we are still irrationally afraid of him.

In our heart of hearts we have not come so far from our paleolithic ancestors. So long as we still live in fear so people like Altes will exist to feed off it and find it sweet. He and his kin have always prospered in those shadows just as they will continue to prosper, down through the ages, leeches growing fat on the world's pain.
I feel the first flush of the fever taking hold of me once more but I manage to keep it together until the ceremony is over before staggering out into the night and falling to my knees, voiding the contents of my stomach into the humid, Caribbean darkness.

August 17th - Port au Prince

"Don't fucking move! Don't even think about it!"
Just outside the airport a phalanx of American military policemen close in on our jeep, levelling their automatic firearms at our faces. It's a moment that seems to have been a long time coming and now that it's finally here Mr Horn, hardened by too many years of trying to deal with the American film industry, simply refuses to put down his camera and stop rolling.

"I said put the camera down and get out of the car! You're under arrest!" "By what law?" hisses Mr Horn, zooming in on the marine for a close up. "This isn't the states this is Haiti!"
"Fuck you! You're not Haitian!"
"You think your pretty fucking slick, huh?" The bullet headed stormtrooper cocks his rifle, bracing himself as if about to open fire. Danielle, the driver, ducks, trying to take cover beneath the dashboard.

"That man's dangerous! He's assaulting an officer!"
"I did not assault you, sir," sighs Mr Horn, realising slowly that they are about to kill him. "Put the camera down, man. It'll be alright," I tell him. And he does, resignedly handing it over to the armed posse who proceed to escort us back to their base.
"Where's Colonel Walker?"

The newcomer wears a colonel's stripes and is evidently in charge yet his face is unfamiliar to me. He does not give his name.
"The Colonel was sent back to the states two weeks ago. I heard about that interview he gave you. Seems he shot his mouth off one time too many." He pauses, giving us a long hard look before issuing what must be the marine Corp's official disclaimer.
"In America, see, we have a separation between church and state. The colonel's views were intended personally. They do not reflect the policies of the U.S Government or the aims of the Haitian American support group as a whole. We'd appreciate it if you didn't use any of the material you shot concerning our presence here but of course under international law I can't stop you. I'm just asking you nicely. As a favour to us."

Which was how we came to learn that we had inadvertently toppled the leader of the armed forces on the Island. It was a small blow, barely a glitch in the scheme of things, but afterwards I found I slept better at night knowing we had made some incremental difference, no matter how slight, reassured that somehow, despite everything, the camera lens is still mightier than the gun and possibly more effective than Altes' death magic.

"You boys have caused quite a bit of trouble here. If I was you I'd be on my way back to London." "I'll take it on advice, sir. Speaking personally I think we've all seen quite enough."
And none of the posse sees fit to disagree.

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