Joy and Insecurity in Port-au-Prince | Jason Allen-Paisant | Granta

Joy and Insecurity in Port-au-Prince

Jason Allen-Paisant


We approach. A grey mountain, its surface like the top of a molar, with its ridges and crevices. Brown-grey undulating earth. High and timeless like all mountains. I wonder about all the people walking there; they’re right there, though I can’t see them. Their number is large, much larger than I can imagine. Everywhere there are people walking. Real people. I mustn’t stop imagining them there on the mountain. They live a life that I can’t make up in a detached story, can’t know from where I am, so far up, in this plane. They live a life that only they know. I can know it, perhaps, if I go in. I’d like to go in, into that picture, into the mountain, to see what can’t be seen from the outside.

I’m the only Jamaican here, the only one not going home. We fly over the sea again. The sea becomes brown. We move again over land, real land that a human being can know. I can see corrugated rooftops, a canopy of them, and a road that stretches to infinity, a silver silent line. Brown rusted rooftops interrupted by a large factory that makes some kind of statement within this rusted canopy. Around it, space collapses. The factory evokes a feeling of familiar strangeness, a stickiness, a network of interconnected places.

Western media and writing have defined Haiti as a land of catastrophe. But I am interested in knowing what lies beyond the surface of the known, beyond the narrative of catastrophe. The thing is that I approach this land with love, with respect for what its people have done for us, Black people in the diaspora. And this love produces an openness, an open desire for this landscape.



It is 20 November 2018. The organisers of Quatre Chemins, the theatre festival I’m here to attend, forbid me from going out on my own. Even the most mundane trips, to the grocery store or to the restaurant at the bottom of the street, must be organised with my designated driver, Préserve, a local taxi man ‘assigned’ to me and whom I’ve befriended. A jovial father of four, Préserve constantly warns me not to be deceived by the apparent calm of the streets; they are not safe at the moment, he says, and tells me off every time I walk to the restaurant on my own. The atmosphere here is more tense than I had imagined. There have been many protests in recent weeks. I see ‘Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?’ (‘Where’s the PetroCaribe money?’) graffitied on the walls of buildings. The government of Jovenel Moïse is mired in what Haitians are already calling the ‘PetroCaribe scandal’.

PetroCaribe is the name of the strategic oil alliance which Venezuela signed with a number of Caribbean states, including Haiti, in 2006. The agreement promised that these nations would need to pay only a fraction for their fuel upfront and could defer the bulk of the payment for up to twenty-five years. An incredible boon. The 2 billion US dollars which have accrued to Haiti as a result of this oil alliance are now unaccounted for, and people are demanding answers. They’re not just demanding that heads roll; the demonstrations are a kind of uprising against systemic corruption. Thousands of anti-corruption demonstrators, who call themselves ‘PetroChallengers’, have taken their anger onto the streets in a collective uproar, and this tidal wave of opposition to Moïse and his allies has been met with violent, deadly crackdowns by the police.

The streets pull at me anyway, and I can’t help but go out. Besides, I feel deeply embarrassed to have someone come to walk me from my hotel to the main performance area, a bar, less than two kilometres away, so I sometimes walk alone, in defiance of the organisers’ instructions. On walls and street corners, I see graffiti referring to ‘Petwo’, meaning, the scandal; though I can’t help thinking of the family of warring spirits or lwa within the Vodou pantheon who bear the very same name.



In Port-au-Prince, I walk looking down. On the pavements, uncovered public sewer pits are common. They impose a different way of walking and produce a kind of terror. I could easily fall in, I think to myself. It doesn’t seem to me that others are looking down as they walk, that they are visibly exercising my kind of care. I wonder whether the people who walk these streets experience the terror I do, of falling.

Terror is certainly not my only emotion on these streets. I also experience a sense of identification, of kinship. Kinship with the insecurity that shapes life, with this sense of litheness on one’s feet – almost of aerodynamism – of turning hand to make fashion. This litheness that’s produced when lack of safety (net) is coupled with a deep-seated determination to defy death. I think of Anansi, the West African trickster deity who often manifests in the form of a spider: in moments of difficulty or crisis, Anansi switches from his human form to his spider incarnation. Some say Anansi crossed the Atlantic in the hold of the slave ship. He is the perfect illustration of what I see here, in the way the people move their bodies. It is an engineering of space that’s renewed every day, life lived as a choreography.

Nevertheless, I cannot get rid of this sense of terror, and I am not thinking only of myself. One day, walking along Avenue Christophe, in the direction of the FOKAL, the famous cultural institute in Port-au-Prince, I turn to my friend Miracson Saint-Val, an actor and theatre-maker, and ask whether these ‘holes’ mean nothing to people here. Are people not affected by them? I can’t remember his exact reply; however, it had something to do with the idea of knowing – of a kind of kinetic familiarity with the space, a sense of this being part of the landscape. These pits that range in depth from the relatively shallow to the seemingly bottomless manhole are permanent fixtures on the landscape. But Miracson did not romanticise the issue for all that. He went on to tell me about people who disappear – simply disappear: one day, they do not show up, and are never seen again by their friends and families. He cannot put a number on it, but some people conjecture that the pits, many of which are filled with water, may account for some of these disappearances, when, late at night, a hapless walker falls in, and there is nobody around to aid or rescue.

I speak of kinship but realise that to be terrorised by this reveals my own sense of security – the way the space imposes itself on me underscores the fact that my body is not native to this landscape. All over this space, people embody the choreography of moving with the hole, contrary to me. I am analysing.



I’m thinking about body praxis as I watch a man board the minibus I’m travelling in. He carries a sewing machine in his hand. He cotches his backside on the narrow ledge behind the driver’s seat and with his right hand he supports the sewing machine that’s now on the roof of the bus. All this has an aura of the temporary and the evanescent, of the moment within a flow, as in a choreography. The door is, of course, left open, as the bus moves along, sometimes scuttling, sometimes hurtling, in the frenetic heave and hum of the Port-au-Prince traffic. I am not trying to exoticise this. I’m familiar with this minivan. So often, I’ve travelled on one just like it back home in Jamaica. I’m familiar with the door left open simply because there are so many bodies at the exit that it could never be closed; I’m even familiar with the potentially dangerous hanging of hands outside. But now, I look at this scene with different eyes. This is also a different country, and I have never been struck by this choreography of movement as I am in this moment.

It’s all normal – nothing could be more normal in this moment and in this space – the man balances his sewing machine for a few minutes till he reaches his spot and calls to the driver, who lets him off, he pays, and continues on his way. I want to plumb the significance of this choreography to me, how it forces me to read the space in a different way. Some may speak of resilience and how it conditions the operations of the body, the way the body adapts to space and its particular constraints. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Without idealising it, I am beginning to feel that this sort of balancing allows people to see each other in a way that’s more present, more open, than the way people see each other in Leeds, where I live. It may be because the way our bodies occupy space conditions what sort of self we are or think we are: moving in choreography involves a heightened awareness of the presence of other bodies. The way traffic moves in Port-au-Prince seems to provide an illustration of this. It’s a flow you enter and exit; things do not stop: no stopping, no hesitating, no doubting; there is no room for that here – there’s a rhythm and all the participants are entering that rhythm, sensing each other.



I have noticed, sitting in a restaurant in the busy city centre of Leeds, certain things about the street outside: pathways and pedestrian crossings neatly marked out, traffic lights regularly punctuating the thoroughfare. But above all, the smoothness of the streets, the way paths are designated, marked out, the way the city is labelled for the walker. Outside the broad window of the restaurant, the pavement is neatly bordered by railings. In French, the word for railing is garde-fou. If safety is already associated with the border in much of our thinking, then this word immediately associates a certain kind of safety with the border between rationality and madness. The railing and the marking make me think of how landscape shapes different ways of being a self, different ways of feeling a self.



I’ve learnt, I think, that one of the secrets of Haitian existence is the joy of creativity and the joy of being creative through this danse de l’araignée – this joy of what Dénètem Touam Bona calls ‘l’indocilité du vivant’, the indomitableness of the creative instinct.

In this sense, re-storying the landscape seems important, not in that it erases the reality of struggle or insecurity, but in that it reframes how we read the landscape, what we are able to see in it. How much can we see the vivant? After my first trip to Haiti, I felt that I had never experienced the vivant as much as I had in that moment. It is that moment that produced in me a desire to understand the source of this vivant. Imagination is not only born out of insecurity; it is part of the endless process of transforming it.

This trip is making you better, I hear myself say; it is drawing you into love. It’s drawing you into a different way of carrying the body.



Pòtoprens fou. A big-car driver won’t stop or slow down even after I’ve signalled to him, asking him to let me cross. Nobody will slow down here. Nobody takes it easy; the city is never easy. The city is never slow. And yet there is a slowness in the manner of people. People take their time, make you wait; everything starts ‘late’. Strange intimacy. A director of a government department tells you to come at a certain time, turns up over an hour late for the appointment. Here, everything is happening at the same time. To be able to hold different things in one’s mind is its own aesthetic. Port-au-Prince never rests.

And yet . . . there is a kind of slowness at the centre of things, a kind of radial movement.

I walk along the route de Delmas. I stop in an alley, there’s a small tavern. The seller offers me a seat when I buy a beer. He says to me, bwè byè ou ak kè poze epi ou pral peye apre sa (‘drink your beer in peace and you’ll pay later’). No pressure, no clock. People are slow. Their hands are akimbo and their eyes are blue from the sea water that fills them. They have the sea in their eyes, visions, a virtual soar. They wake up from time to time, when a friend passes by, greets them, in the rare moments when a customer comes to buy something.

Someone will say, there isn’t a lot of paid work here. And that is true, so true – could I ever deny that? And yet, I know – there’s something else behind this slowness.

It’s the same at the barber shop. Lots of empty beauty salons, except for women, always two women there, under what pretext? Distracted, not really, waiting for a customer to arrive. Everything slow. Suddenly, they see me, welcome me, send for the barber. Yes, there is a barber, where is he? Yes, there is beer. A can of water – we’ll get it. We have everything, we just have to go get it.



Different conceptions of time coexist and compete in Haiti. Ritual time exists side by side with capitalist time, money-making time, survival time; there are messy, complex relations between them. Or perhaps there’s an order that I haven’t yet understood. Perhaps this tension is part of what makes Haiti Haiti. Even Vodouists embrace, or live with, multiple conceptions of time. People are hustling, trying to survive, or even get rich. Much like in Leeds where I live, there is no day of rest in Port-au-Prince. On Sunday mornings at 7.30 a.m., like every other day, the hawkers (vendeurs à la criée) come out with their bells that play an entrancing tune. What is this country in which people never rest? And yet, that slowness . . .

Black people, we always late . . . I imagine that many people know the stereotype. How many times have I myself repeated this? My body has a conflicted relationship with this statement. For centuries, we’ve been taught to believe that we’re lazy; it’s part of the narrative of backwardness written and circulated about us, even while our culture is exploited for its entertainment value, for its vibrancy and energy, even when Blackness is exploited commercially for its rhythms and vitality, we’re stereotyped as indolent. But isn’t Black ‘lateness’ part of a gestic imaginary? Isn’t it an affirmation of a different time-sense that defies clock time and its infinite movement, its irreversible direction? Though not always inherently so, isn’t it also a refusal, a contention for unobligated time within the long shadow cast by plantation slavery? I read the carrying-on, the making-things-last of Black time as a ceremony of refusal, of affirmation of the body’s presence, a gesture (small, large, but always willed) of self-(re)possession. The body is the first measurement of time: to reclaim time is to reclaim the body.

I ask whether slowness isn’t also an aesthetic strategy, a determination to preserve an inner vitality in the face of what Achille Mbembe has called ‘necropolitics’, the politics of the disposability of Black bodies. Slowness is, of course, one part of an intersecting reality, of which the other is daily chaos. Here, people live within a state whose level of corruption has reached absurd proportions; they live with the violence of gangs and police killings. Every day is marked by the hard-flowing adrenaline of fear.



In Haiti, therefore, people develop survival skills; as a result, their own gestures become repressive. ‘When we see a motorcycle behind us, we are afraid, we walk home very quickly, we lock our door’, Guy Régis Jr, the festival director, explains to me over dinner at the famous Hôtel Oloffson. Our conversation is primarily about the festival itself, but he wants to contextualise for me what it means to be able to have a festival like this during this time of chaos.

After the nightly performances of the Festival Quatre Chemins, people hang around, often for a long time, to have a drink, to laugh and have conversations among friends. The performance spaces, various in nature, are spaces of liberation, places in which people can feel again that they’re in possession of their movements and gestures. These theatre spaces are not formal buildings of the kind that one finds in Europe. All the formal structures have long fallen into disuse, so plays are performed in bars, in squares, in alleys. The Yanvalou bar is the most famous venue. Occasionally, performances are held at the state-run Centre d’Art and at L’Institut français.

One of Guy’s plays is performed in an alley, between compactly arranged houses. The spectators lean against the walls that separate the houses from the street. They sit on these walls, or on roofs, where they can get a good view of the performance. The crowd is so dense that people stand on tiptoes to see above the walls, which, though not too high, offer a modicum of privacy to the residents. I’m standing on someone’s front-yard terrace; it’s as though we have come into their homes. There are hundreds of spectators in this alley. Residents gradually come outside to watch the play.

Another play, Chemin de fer, written by Congolese author Julien Mabiala Bissila and staged and performed by my friend Miracson, takes place at Yanvalou, in the Pacot district of Port-au-Prince, a bar with no theatre set, backdrop or props. There is no machinery, no special lighting (except that the playing area is in darkness before the performance begins). It is an ordinary, everyday place, which the performance must make its own. Directly in the spectators’ line of vision is a load-bearing pillar. The walls, too, are awkwardly positioned, separating the space where the audience gathers in a circle from another area of the bar in which the actor does most of his performance. The actor is sometimes masked by these asymmetrical walls. But Yanvalou is also an intimate playing space, a place of everyday enjoyment. It’s a place where theatre and city intermingle. The arrangement of forms and objects, including protruding structures and a bar counter, forces a direct interaction between the spectator’s space and that of the actor: we are sometimes face-to-face; the actor is, at times, almost surrounded. We see and feel him close by, his body brushes against others; there is a fusion between him and the audience. At certain moments, the audience members feel like actors in the performance. They are there in the work, in the guitar music, when the actor sings, in his gestures, when he shakes hands with the audience in a Vodou ritual greeting. His noises, roars and resonances inhabit their bodies. They are driven to react, somatically solicited, through the energy conveyed through the floor. The play appeals not only to the actor’s body, but to everyone’s. We support him, we laugh with him, we join in his song.

Kote’m foule pye mwen y a rantre
Lwa tèt mwen
Lwa fwa mwen
Lwa Ginen mwen, kote ou ye?

Wherever I go, they enter me.
Lwa guide of my life,
Lwa of my faith,
Lwa of my ancestors, where are you?

In Fictions ordinaires, which is held at the place Carl Brouard, produced by scenographers and video-makers Jean-Christophe Lanquetin and Catherine Boskowitz along with a team of Haitian theatre-makers, the performance is based on the idea of a ‘dream office’ where people can simply come to speak each day: Biwo Rèv Chak Jou. Vin Pale. Festival Teyat Kat-Chemen (‘Daily Dream Office. Come Talk. Festival Quatre Chemins’). For ten days, they set up this ‘biwo rèv’ in the yard of a house on the edge of the square. Their purpose is to explore marginalised places where people meet, make plans, organise their lives, ‘despite everything’. The participants ask questions of the people they meet in the street or who come to this yard; they too must answer people’s questions. These dialogues produce narratives and exchanges, some of them surreal, from which short video, sound and theatrical pieces are made. They’re presented later that evening, in the middle of the square.There are two screens, one where the Franco-Haitian team project text written by themselves, and the other on which we see a video of the authors writing and reading in real time.

As the performance begins, the crowd is swarming around the readers, making it difficult to move. The voices of the readers grow indistinct, squashed to a drone hardly discernible from the noise of the crowd. What is interesting to me at this point is the crowd itself, as people jostle each other for a view, as the throng of spectators bares down on the performance space. The children hang on the readers’ every word: some are hoisted on the shoulders of parents and watch motionless. In the end, none of the meaning of this presentation (or very little) has to do with the words being said.



Je n’aime pas le public sécurisé (‘I don’t like secure audiences’), says the director Marc Vallès to me. The remarks send me back to my earlier thoughts about security, and the way we walk, move, sit, take the bus, attend the theatre, as an I. Lack of security creates so many different ways of being a body. Among these spectators, I live and feel the body – even my own body – as habitable, as if awaiting others, awaiting to be jostled, touched, moved. These gestures are owned; in here, the bodies belong to themselves.



Today, I’m being schooled by the houngan, the Vodou priest, Erol Josué:

When you fall into a trance, possessed by a lwa, you lend your body to that spirit inside you, which will play its role, which will be itself in your body, in your head.

I don’t know where I am . . . I feel something coming into me; at some point I feel something coming out, and I become myself again . . . But there are other dimensions in which you remain fully conscious . . . you say, today I feel the presence of Ezili, I feel more like a woman today, I’m in a cosy atmosphere that’s Ezili. Another day I feel like Ogou, I am a warrior. I come out of here, my collaborators see something, but I’m not playing a role, I’m not scaring anyone by behaving like Ogou. It’s something that you live.

Possession is also a way of life.

You dream of a spirit that comes to speak to you at night, or to caress you at night; you sleep with this woman, or with a man who comes to make love to you . . . it’s good . . . you wake up with that feeling in your mouth. You wake up possessed, but aware, with that feeling that will decide your day, your relationship with people . . .

I smell tobacco, alcohol, clairin . . . yet there’s none of that anywhere around. Is it clairin in my genes, coming to me from from the plantation, from the master’s house . . . Is it my lwa saying to me, ‘I want to drink’? . . . We don’t know, we live with it. We live with it.



It’s 7 December 2018. I’m leaving Haiti today, my mind filled with memories of the Vodou ceremony I attended last night not far from the Bureau national d’ethnologie. I was taken there by Manbo Sisi, my invitation orchestrated by my friend, Erol. The location was not disclosed to the general public – which is why I was escorted by the manbo. We walked from the Bureau nationale d’ethnologie, crossed several streets amid the dense late-evening traffic – the sun was already setting.

November is the month of the Gede, a family of lwas which embodies the powers of both death and fertility. The celebrations appear to last into December.

Leaving the route principale, we enter a maze of alleys and concrete houses leading to the peristil erected in the backyard of a devotee. The peristil is a simple, unfussy construction consisting of wooden poles planted in the ground in a rectangular formation and extending to a zinc roof. Running along the length of the structure on both sides are concrete walls – essentially the walls that form the boundaries of the alley. The peristil forms a modest courtyard of about a hundred square metres. Its floor is the ground – earth: this is essential. In the interstices between concrete wall and zinc roof, I can see that there are other houses surrounding us – tucked away at the back of this alley, the courtyard feels like an interrupted space within a sprawling bed of tightly packed houses. It’s an outside space to the noise of urban traffic, to the restless hustle of vendors.

I enter the Vodou peristil during a pause in the ceremony – no drumbeats at this point. There are tens of people, men and women, both young and old, standing to one side of the yard – they look like spectators; they all look towards the centre of the yard – their boundary is the line of drummers who sit in a semicircle. The space between that semicircle and the potomitan, a decorated wooden pole, seems to be the area of focus; this is the space towards which the attention of the standing spectators is directed: at the moment, the spectators simply talk among themselves, but their bodies are directed towards the space, as if it had a kind of magnetic pull. Some people on the outskirts move around; new entrants greet and are greeted by others.

I’ve arrived after a moment of trance. A handful of dancers dressed in white look drunken in their gestures. They walk about, exchanging words with other people, but they are restless. Something is about to happen.

I see a young man whose flour-smeared face and torso mark him out as Papa Gede, whose effigy is that of a male revenant, a short, old dark man who wears a high hat and smokes cheap cigars. Papa Gede is hot-blooded and lecherous with a brazen, sometimes crass, sense of humour. It’s his bold, overflowing sexuality that links this dancer to him. Flamboyantly and with a teasing manner, he extends his hands and pitches his torso in drunken gestures, tumbles theatrically across the space. The drums have resumed. Playfully, he invites others to join him in the circle.

Those who are ‘mounted’ by Papa Gede dance to a frenzy, following the young man who has caught the spirit. Some people begin to salute the spirit that has arrived: Papa Gede is here. They exhibit sexual gestures: young men and women greet the manbo, an older woman, by kissing her on the mouth or by moving or brushing against her while dancing in a sexually suggestive way. The manbo gives in to the play of the young men and women.

The manbo orders me to remain seated. I am occupying a place of honour next to her, as her guest. As such, I am often asked for a banknote – or a gift in whatever form – which is to serve as an offering to the spirits. This is play, I can see that. Earlier in his office, Erol had said to me, The manifestation of the lwa is a kind of play, and you have to know how to play.

Manbo Sisi is obliged to translate for me: Give me five dollars for the drummer, Give a little something, Give something, anything . . . an offering, whatever it is. To a young man who has just been Gede, who is Gede, I give a £5 note that was in my wallet. Initially, he can’t make out where this money originates from, but eventually understands what it is – the manbo helps to explain – and how much it is worth in Haitian gourdes. He’s very happy, makes me get up, blows clairin, a spirit made of sugar cane, into my front and back pockets. The manbo explains that this is a blessing, to be prosperous.

At some point in the ceremony, worshippers process with food around the potomitan, the central wooden pole by means of which, it’s believed, the lwas enter the earth and the bodies of the faithful. They offer rice, chicken, sodas and a large cake to the lwas. Then, once the food is offered, a large portion of it is distributed, and is eaten. The faithful should not take the food themselves. Those who transported it give it to them.

Erol has arrived. He performs an elaborate greeting with his entire body, a greeting, he explains afterwards, only performed among Vodou initiates. Again, after the feasting, there is movement in the ceremony, beating of drums. To precipitate the trance, the drums are beaten more frenetically. I watch Vodouizan retracting their legs, pitching themselves back and forth, as if intoxicated, falling to the ground. Only one person is fully ‘gone’ by the end. But after about fifteen or twenty minutes, the spirit is gone.

It struck me that the Seremoni has something to do with endurance. People keep going and going; the ceremony goes on for hours. Through successive manifestations (catching the spirit), dancers get closer to trance – this is a rite of endurance. Time is suspended in the ceremony – the time of work, etc. Here, time is orchestrated by the body, not by the clock. This is a mockery of what is not the Seremoni, what is not this festivity, and this trance. But it is also a space of care, a place where the community cares for itself, where its members care for each other. For hours, tens, if not hundreds, of people, are entranced in dance and song, in a visceral, visual, embodied poetics.

Here, time and space fuse in our perception to become one substance, and people rendered invisible by society’s daily grind can feel that they’re still there, that they belong to themselves. In this death-defying, joyful dance to defy limitations, time belongs to them; they can take it, they can occupy their moment.




Today, we’re in a very different time. Jovenel Moïse, the president who had just come to power the year before I visited Haiti in 2018, is now dead, assassinated by mercenaries allegedly hired by some of his local political opponents. The political chaos has created conditions that have favoured the return of gang warfare. Haitians are as if drugged by the catastrophic situation that they hear news of all the time on the radio.

I asked Guy Régis Jr why he persisted in hosting Quatre Chemins, despite the risk and insecurity of organising crowded evening events at a time like this. It turns out that, for many, the safest time to be out in the city is the night. Nightlife offers spaces – concerts, bars, shows – in which one suddenly forgets everything that’s going on and lets go. According to Guy, going out to have fun, to take part in culture and make art, is a form of resistance. ‘The thing is that, for us, art has its place in this country, despite the chaos,’ he adds. ‘When I saw the benches fill up for my play, one of the first ones to be performed at the 2021 festival, when I saw the people smiling, I found it extraordinary, because for a moment, people forgot that this was no longer Port-au-Prince as we know it.’

What happens in Quatre Chemins, precisely, in these extreme moments, is that after the shows and performances, when everyone is afraid of being kidnapped, people stay – for a drink, to mingle with the artists – they feel good in those spaces. The bars which Phalonne Pierre Louis has photographed at night are also spaces in which people can feel as if they’re in a normal Port-au-Prince.


Artwork © Phalonne Pierre Louis
This photo was taken on the set of Ti Seri Ayiti, a video series that addresses insecurity and political instability in Haiti.

Jason Allen-Paisant

Jason Allen-Paisant is a Jamaican poet and non-fiction writer based in the UK. He is the author of Thinking with Trees, and of the forthcoming memoir Primitive Child: On Blackness, Landscape and Reclaiming Time. He is also an Associate Professor in Aesthetic Theory at the University of Leeds.

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