Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bible, Hymn Books Replace Carnival Masks in Jacmel, Haiti

By JESSICA LEEDER, Toronto Globe and Mail

JACMEL, Haiti - Waving their arms in the air, marching in sync and singing in chorus, hundreds of revellers flooded the dusty, rubble-strewn streets of downtown Jacmel during the last hours of afternoon sun.

Instead of the papier-mache carnival masks that normally characterize February street gatherings in Jacmel though, this crowd was laden with Bibles and hymn books, dressed in their Sunday best. With their polished shoes and flowery dresses, several hundred people gathered in front of the crumbling and vacant Eglise Baptiste Strict de Jacmel and waited until their group was so large it flooded the tiny street.

Then many joined hands and began shuffling slowly forward to launch a symbolic cross-town "crusade" that would take them through the city's hardest hit -- and poorest -- neighborhoods.

"When God is in the village, everybody will respect one another and there will be justice," said Dieucin Marcelin, the pastor responsible for the city's oldest church. "Haiti is a country that is based on injustice. When it comes time to reconstruct the neighborhoods, we're going to try our best to invite God into everything we're doing," he said.

In the district where many of Jacmel's famous mask-making artists live, several porches of surviving structures were crammed with life-sized paper replicas of toothy devils and monsters. Although they were unpainted, it was clear that many were nearly ready for Carnival, a historic tradition that usually takes place throughout February in Jacmel. This year, however, it was outlawed and revelers who have attempted, during the past week, to conduct small parades have been arrested.

"Up until now, they are still finding people under the debris," said Michelet Divers, a carnival historian and cultural expert in Jacmel. "How could you expect ... to have a carnival? The country is going through such a catastrophe right now, it would not be appropriate," he said. "It would not be respectful for the surviving loved ones."

The January 12 earthquake that devastated southern Haiti did not hit Jacmel, a seaside town of about 40,000 people, as hard as Port-au-Prince or nearby Leogane. City officials say, however, that 500 residents perished in the incident and another 4,000 were injured. In addition, about 70 per cent of the city's homes and infrastructure sustained some sort of damage, but the poor enclaves that fan west from Jacmel's ancient district seem to have suffered the most.

With official rebuilding yet to begin and jobs still scarce, many people have been spending their afternoons in extra prayer sessions, many of which have been held outside.

The crusade march capped three days of intensive prayer throughout the city, designed, Marcelin said, to spread the word that "God and God only can save humanity."

As the crusaders wound their way out of the hobbled historic district they made their way into a neighborhood of small, one story houses in which most dwellings had been reduced to piles of rubble and dust.

"Over here we need food, water, a lot of other necessities," read a charcoal scrawl on the front of one semi-collapsed house in which the second floor had pancaked directly on top of the first. "Hurry up," was written above an eight-digit Haiti phone number. Some of the crusaders stopped to stare at the scrawl and bent to peer into the rubble at the squashed first floor, although it was impossible to see anything but crushed concrete and stone. Others raised their hands in the air to say a short prayer for the dead.

Many people, however, seemed glad to see some life in the streets. As the crowd wound its way out of the worst hit areas, their singing livened and began to sound more celebratory and relieved.

As the crusade swept past her turquoise-painted stucco home, 64-year-old Eliyna Bayard stepped out onto her porch smiling. Although the houses on each side of her home had collapsed into a mass of twisted rebar and cinderblock, she had a twinkle in her eye as she watched the flow of people.

"It's God's word that they're preaching," she said. "The singing is appreciated. It's more than appreciated."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

Source: SHNS

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