March 16, 2011

Haiti’s Rara Culture by Opal Palmer Adisa


When the 2010 earthquake ravaged Haiti, I wondered what good would come out of it? What lessons were to be learned? What greater truth was to be revealed? For I refused to accept that this was a freak of nature, a random and senseless killing of over 100,000 people. As a metaphysicist, I am always seeking to unearth the higher good, and I suppose I went seeking evidence of my belief on January 14, 2011, a few days after the devastation.

What I realized, through observation, is that the people’s will to live is stronger that any earthquake, stronger than the poverty they fight against daily, stronger than, what to my limited eyes, appears to be overwhelming chaos and social need, to which there seems to be no end in sight. What's also clear is that, as with any disaster, there is an abundant outpouring of help from all over the world. Yet, there is also greed aided by bureaucratic structures that serve to impede progress rather than provide the assistance that is desperately needed. This is happening all over Haiti.

There are numerous NGO vehicles driving all over the city (less present in the rural areas), but one is hard pressed to find concrete evidence of what has been done to help the vast majority of Haitians. Allegations abound that some NGOs are getting as much as a $10,000 monthly salary, plus vehicle and house allowance and staff. Also, many USA based companies have descended like vultures, forming non-profit companies, and using Haitians as a front to bid for $25 million clean-up contracts. However, I saw no evidence of any wide-scale clean up. Even the Palace in Port au Prince is still toppled, leaning precariously like an old arthritic man attempting to kneel.

But Haitians do not appear to be neither hopeless, nor frantic, nor on the verge of wide scale protest or surrender to their lot. Haitians, it seems, are about living each day with a righteous zeal, with an acceptance of where they are in the moment, without resigning themselves to the belief that this is how things will always be. What I saw in the people was an unyielding determination not just to stay alive, but also to find and celebrate the gift of joy that is to be found every day--regardless of the circumstances.

In general, this attitude is evident in how the people have responded despite the tragedies that surround them: hair combed, clothes laundered, and a confident stride to match their pride. As my guide drove me through the tangled, rugged, congested heart of Port au Prince, heading out of the city, the air getting thinner and sweeter, the mountain range more expansive, and as the jeep climbed the twisted hills leading to the quaint town of Jacmel, which was also affected by the earthquake, I asked myself, how is this gallant determination possible? What feeds and sustains it?

The answer came in the music. Rara, to be specific.

Rara is a band of revelers and musicians that parades throughout the streets of the villages or towns. Usually, they begin after Christmas and continue until Easter week, culminating in Carnival. Rara groups are often affiliated with a vodun house and are organized by a priest/houngan or priestess/ manbo. Typically, they appear in the mid afternoon or early evening, like the two groups I encountered in Jacmel. Their members were comprised of all males, ranging from six years to their mid-thirties. However, the primary age groups consisted of teens and young adults. Accompanying the rara group was a band of musicians who beat drums carried across their shoulders and played trumpets, metal pipes, maracas, and metal bells, all of which seem to have been made from recycled metal.

The first group, lathered in mud from head to toe, (few who seemed like leaders were donned in blue paint), ran enthusiastically into the crowd, and splattered mud on the observers--especially teen girls, who were rewarded by being gleefully chased and smeared in mud. I had to take refuge several times in the vehicle to avoid being daubed with mud. This process of chasing and branding observers seemed routine-- all in the spirit of the processions. Those who did not want to be smeared, watched from the relative safety of nearby verandas. The air was charged with anticipation, punctuated by shrill and joyful voices, accented by laughter and loud chatter competing with the music.

The second rara band, larger than the first, was lathered in what appeared to be car grease, and its members were more aggressively determined to soil bystanders-- although it seemed more like baptism, a sort of initiation, and the youth seemed particularly targeted by this group. Their dance was more frantic than the previous group, and was dominated by clang-clanging of the bells and the thunderous bom-boming of the drums. 

Rara is a tradition that engages the entire community as both observers and participants co-mingle, and the mud or grease serves as a sort of ritual baptizing, a branding and induction into a specific group, another existence that recognizes the precarious nature of life. The rara bands are followed by the community and as the procession winds throughout the town, it grows and swells in numbers, so by the end, observers become participants and all ages and genders submit to be branded--all united as one with either mud or grease. Or both.

Leaving Jacmel behind, the music of the rara band reverberating in my head, I marveled at the simple pleasure, the playful engagement I had just witnessed, that was as far removed, yet so aptly integrated, into the poverty and struggle and the hopefulness and joy of Haitian life. Here were people who refused to tell or portray a sad story. Theirs is a continuous testimony of endurance and triumph. Once we entered Port au Prince, the news spread faster than wild fire that “Baby Doc” – Jean Claude Duvalier- had returned and was at the airport. The question floated through the air: Why now?

The more sedate rara group, I encountered in Port au Prince, its members dressed in purple shirts, seemingly more organized (no one breaking free from the group and running among the spectators) and employing more standard instruments, including trumpets and saxophones, helped to answer that dominant question.

The rara groups dramatize the relationships between politics and culture. They demonstrate how cultural rituals help to sustain a community and are worthy of further investigation Regardless of the syncretization, rara is an important phenomenon in Haiti; it is a cultural legacy that refuses death, and I suspect, brings both cohesion and hope to the community. 

About Opal Palmer Adisa

Opal Palmer Adisa, Editor of the Caribbean Writer, hails from the Caribbean, born in Jamaica, but whose spirit hovers over the entire region. Her latest anthology, Caribbean Erotic  (co-edited with Donna Aza Weir-Soley),  and her forthcoming novel, Painting Away Regrets, will be released in August by Peepal Tree Press. Visit her sites: and


No comments: