Author: Amy Wilentz (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Reviewed by Doris Friedensohn
How do we view people in conditions of abject poverty and powerlessness? In circumstances of catastrophic loss when the earth erupts beneath their flimsy dwellings, leaving them without a cooking pot, an extra tee shirt, or a blanket for the night? In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, about Haiti undone by the 2010 earthquake, Amy Wilentz takes on these and other discomforting questions. Her treatment of Haiti-in-the-world, the real subject of this book, is intellectually rich and politically forthright. Wilentz’s lyrical, emotionally charged prose makes this a riveting read. Literary non-fiction, with a national culture as protagonist, doesn’t get much better.
Wilentz subtitles her book A Letter from Haiti. But it’s really a love letter to Haiti–to the “man (and woman) in the street,” the voluble talkers and charmers she’s been deeply connected to for 25 years. They are the Fred Voodoos of her title. That term, it’s worth noting, was coined by British reporters in the 1980’s to encompass all Haitians, as a sign of their exotic, exciting Otherness. The author invokes the Fred Voodoo cliché even as she separates her own views from the abuses it implies.
The overwhelming majority of Haitians, who have been poor for generations, are even poorer now. As Wilentz demonstrates, they live out the tragic hand they’ve been dealt: by colonialism, slavery and imperialism, by climate and terrain, by powerful NGOs and naive do-gooders, and by the nation’s home-grown kleptocratic class. Even as they have been systematically oppressed, Haitians have their quirky coping mechanisms and mysterious strengths. Wilentz’ portraits reveal them as people in the round, perhaps not fully knowable but fully human.
Amy Wilentz first visited Haiti in 1986, on assignment from Time magazine, just as Baby Doc Duvalier’s dictatorship was ending. Since then, she’s lived there for extended periods, made many visits and learned to speak Creole. To be close to ordinary Haitians, as she has been, and to understand their lives, Wilentz couldn’t wing it in French (a language she also speaks). When she appeared in Port au Prince right after the 2010 earthquake, she sought out Jerry, Samuel, Black Rouge and Fillibert, guys she’s known since they were orphaned kids, sheltered and fed by Father Aristide (then a young priest and “the one to watch”). The men are full of chat, sweetness, sly maneuvers, anger and hope. They lead her through mud-running, trash-filled streets to old haunts she can no longer identify. The earthquake has destroyed every landmark. Except for one. She spots a family of fat pigs, cheerfully devouring orange peels and compost. “Hi, pigs,” Wilentz says, remembering the spot at the corner of Rue Tois where the animals always gathered for their midday feast.
Post earthquake, Haiti is more beholden than ever to NGO’s and multi-national benefactors. In fact, death and disaster are good for NGO business: terrible calamities, featured 24/7 on the news, bring in more money that most charities are organized to distribute to victims. There’s more to spend on staffing, on-site operations, promotional materials and conferences. One of the many ironies of relief operations is the generous flow of NGO funds to rich Haitians who rent their homes and cars to visiting project specialists along with providing drivers, cooks, construction workers, trucks and other resources.
Among the famous outside “players” profiled in Farewell, Fred Voodoo is Sean Penn. Penn, the biggest private philanthropist and biggest Celebrity on the post earthquake scene, arrived knowing nothing about the country. Yet he managed to get things done: moving rubble, rescuing cholera victims, building homes, and bringing medicine into Haiti. He was effective, Wilentz tells us, because he is Sean Penn. Everyone wants a piece of his aura – – or at least a photo op. Penn remains something of a puzzle to Wilentz. Why, really why is he doing so much, spending so much money, committing so much of himself to Haiti? Readers can appreciate her puzzling. Mystery is real. We’re poorer without it.
The opposite of Sean Penn is Wilentz’s unassuming volunteer heroine, Dr. Megan Coffee. An American in her 30’s, Dr. Coffee not only ministers to patients in a TB ward but also provides pasta, which she cooks at home (to be served with ketchup and mayonnaise) for their breakfast or lunch. There are no hospital meals. Coffee, we learn, has no car, gets no salary, and pays no rent. Everything she needs is provided by friends and strangers, including a network of health care aid organizations. An infectious disease specialist, she thrives on the demanding work and learns from Haitians how to deal with their needs. She has no plans to leave any time soon.
Most outsiders, unlike Megan Coffee, believe they know how to fix Haiti. Wilentz knows better. She has seen too many overconfident aid mavens plan for Haiti in terms that don’t work for Haitians. These visitors-on-a-mission want to feel useful and validated. At the very least, they’ve got a new eye-catching item for their resumes and new photos, perhaps with a smiling Fred Voodoo, on their Facebook page. Of course, Fred is no fool. He knows that the informal economy is his only lifeline. He’ll pose for pictures if asked and give good quotes to his journalist friends; they’ll give him loose change, a meal and a couple of smokes.
Wilentz quotes a Haitian saying: Tou sa ou we, se pa sa. Nothing you see is what it seems to be. The challenge for reporters, foreign funders, volunteers, investors, tourists and readers of this book is the same. We need to learn how to look: to make sense of strangeness and not sentimentalize or demonize the unfamiliar. Some of the most difficult looking, Wilentz insists, is personal. She wants us to acknowledge our studied blindness, guilt, culturally induced superiority, and linguistic deficiencies. Is our compassion a form of contempt, she asks? Do we need to label others “victims” to appreciate our own well being?
Doris Friedensohn, professor emerita of Women’s Studies at New Jersey City University, is the author of the food memoir Eating As I Go: Scenes from America and Abroad and Cooking for Change: Tales from a Food Service Training Academy.