Fet Gede - A time for healing
It's that time of year again -- the weather has turned colder, the leaves are falling and here in Pennsylvania thoughts turn to purple and black drag, sunglasses with dirty fedoras and a loud laugh followed by high jinks and outrageous behavior. Yes, it's Fet Ghede, the feast of the Ancestors, and for me a time of turning inward to reflect and think about the path I am on.
Fet Ghede is celebrated for the entire run of October 28 through most of November. It begins with family gatherings and then becomes a loud street party up until the Yam feast at the end of the month, heralding the final harvests in Haiti before winter come. (Hard to think of winter in a tropical location, but it does impact the growing season down there.) Most sosyetes will begin their celebrations with a quiet family party. They will clean and repaint the tombs, set out food, pray and generally commune quietly with the family ancestors.
Then there is the public celebration which we are more familiar with. The colorful parties held around the country with loud people in top hats and one eyed sunglasses, dancing and laughing. That is the Ghede part – the raucous, slightly sinister, a little obscene; a character we both adore and avoid. This photo is from Louis MacMIllian’s book on Vodou - it shows Ghede Mazacca the midwife (left), Brav Ghede Nibo(center) and Ghede Oussous the drunk (right). They carry picks and axes as part of their funeral and cemetery work. And they affect the dress that tells their job. Ghede Mazacca carries a bag said to contain the umbilical cords of the infants who are stillborn. Ghede Oussou has his bottle of wine and of course, Ghede Nibo holds the scythe used to cut life. They are fearsome in look, but often maudlin is person. I was at a local Fet Ghede celebration several years ago, when Oussou took the head of one of the mambos. He seated himself on the floor and began crying pitifully that he was not a woman, why was he in a dress. It was funny and sad at the same time. Despite all the raucous noise, the ghedes all ended up together in a heap in front of the drums, drinking, crying and begging for their father to come get them.
Brav Ghede’s a little dirty (physically / mentally / spiritually) and a little maudlin. He reminds me of a nasty street clown that we like to look at, but avoid at all costs. Ghede’s function in service is like the cleanup crew at the end of the Mardi Gras celebrations. He is the trash collector. He is the last Lwa we call at the end of any celebration, to clean up and remove the “trash” – the spiritual and emotional detritus left from the celebration. If we look at Vodou as a time of healing, then a Vodou celebration is a chance to leave behind your ‘baggage’ – emotional and otherwise. And it is Ghede’s job to ‘clean up’ that stuff. No wonder he’s maudlin – he’s got to carry all those tears, all that anger and all that sickness away.
I am a child of the Baron, the Father of the Ghedes. I was born on November 2 at in the wee hours of the morning. My birth was heralded by my great grandfather's arrival at dawn with an armful of huge white mums for my mother -- the Baron of our household, with a Ghede gift if ever there was one. I am intrinsically linked to this time of year. It was no surprise to me that when I Kanzo'd all those years ago, the Haitians were slightly off put when they heard of my birth. The Baron is feared in Haiti. He is not like Ghede, the loving clown who is a ribald character and a healer. No, the Baron is "other" and we will talk that a little later.
The cemetery in Port au Prince is an ‘other’ world -- one that remarkably mirrors that of the living. The Grand Cimetiére in Port au Prince is divided up just like the country itself. Within its confines are slums, suburbs, stately older neighborhoods and the Grand Rue or main boulevard. You enter through the main gate which reads “Souviens-Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere” (remember you are dust). The cemetery is within city limited, and mirrors the city itself. The North-East side is higher, drier and sports fabulous mausoleums, big boulevards and money -- just like Petionville which is north and east of the center of Port au Prince. The cemetery on the south west side is lower, crowded with rotting tombs and muddy grave sites -- equally mirroring that of Cite Soliel.
At Fet Ghede, these parts of the cemetery come alive with people painting and refreshing tombs, laying out mounds of offerings - candies, candles, yellow mums and purple ribbons. The entire place looks and sounds like a street festival in full swing for two nights - October 31 and November 1. Then on the morning of November 2nd, everyone heads to church and prays for their beloved dead.
But there is also the Kwa Baron - the grave of the first male in the cemetery. A large cross surmounts this place, and it is here that the focus of all the Fet Ghede celebrations in the cemetery are centered. Who is this person who sleeps beneath the black cross covered in flowers, candles, rum and bits of paper? Let's remember that the cemetery was first established as a burial ground for victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic that took so many of the foreign soldiers during the Revolution. The man who lies there is not necessarily Haitian but could be a foreigner, meaning he is "other" -- just as the Baron is not Haitian nor African, but "other". And because of this indeterminate status, this grave, this person becomes the focus of all the lamentations given for those who are not known or named. Just as we have the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier around which much pomp and circumstance is focused, the Haitians have this grave, this man to focus their pain and energy on. And in occult terms, this grave’s egregore has given rise to a spirit known only as The Baron. And, he has become a feared component of Fet Ghede in Haiti. Much honor, offerings and blessings are given to this unknown “other” who resides amongst the family dead of Haitian servitors.
When the Baron arrives in our temple, he sits and stares at the Ghedes clowning and making their riotous noise. He clicks his teeth in distaste and has said to us that the Ghedes are Creoles without family or friends. And he has been very clear that he is not a Creole, but other (his words).
Heating up the Dead -- is a hallmark of the feast day. A conversation and a meal with your beloved ghede is the best way to mark the day. Prepare a dish of their favorite food. Buy their favorite beverage – alcohol, coffee. Set a place for them at the dinner table and toast their lives: it is their life that heralded your own. Don’t know any ancestors? Then toast your ethnicity, your family and your friends who have passed. An offering of the classic piman (rum and habenaro peppers) is a way to help those who have been in the water -- literally anba dlo (under water) -- become warm and enthusiastic again. One wants to engage the Dead to help with things -- advice, job hunting, lost love. But having been sleeping in the cool waters of Ginen, they need to be enlivened, and so the piman goes around to "heat up" the dead, so they will work for us again. Ghede Nibo, the prime gede, loves piman. He will even wash with it (including his genitals), as a sign that he is really dead.
Our Papa Edgar used to say that we should not believe every Ghede does this. And in fact, scholar Kate Smith has shown that Ghede was much more of a healer than a clown fifty years ago. But in this new world of cholera, political fighting and religious intolerance, Ghede is needed to give voice to La Pep. And so he makes fun of the politicians, the elite and anyone else who comes across his radar as a fit target. The photo to the left is Brav Ghede in Papa Edgar’s head during the Fet Ghede at his peristyle.
Serving the Ancestors -- is the way to finding your conversation with Ghede. One doesn't so much adopt these Lwa, as be adopted by them. Mama Lola says everyone has ghede -- because we all have dead in our family. But not everyone has the Baron, and that's ok, too. The Baron is a tough task master. He doesn't cotton to people who dally with his energies. And he is just as likely to take your life, as give it to you. I am careful around my Baron. I honor him at this time of year -- but only at this time of year. I have a head full of spirits who require my attention, and so I try to give each one their due. I think I will make fresh Piman this year for Baron, and make a trek to the graveyard to say hello. It's the best offering I can make, and one that is expected of me as a Mambo. May all your Dead be blessed and well fed this year.
Kwa. Kwa Senbo. Kwa la Kwa.