lundi 9 novembre 2015

Grandchamps Welcomes You to Haiti, via Bedford-Stuyvesant

In a photograph on the wall of Grandchamps, a Haitian restaurant near the eastern edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a woman in a sundress and long earrings carries a plate of seemingly just-gathered string beans. The image is bucolic and sternly glamorous at once, a reminder to the chef, Shawn Brockman (who happens to be the woman’s son-in-law) that she has trusted him with her recipes and he had better watch what he’s doing.
Mr. Brockman grew up in Indiana, of German, Dutch and Scottish stock; his wife, Sabrina, has roots in Cap-Haïtien, a port city in northern Haiti. (The woman in the photograph is her mother, Françoise Grandchamps.) They live a few blocks from the restaurant, which they opened in June.
“I never cooked Haitian food,” Ms. Brockman said. “I could never be as good as my mother.” So the task fell to her husband, who dutifully trailed his mother-in-law in the kitchen and learned her ways.
This may explain the generous maternal quality of his dishes. His griot is as fattening as it should be: hunks of pork shoulder inscribed with Scotch bonnets and lime, braised until near collapse and then tossed in a frying pan for a crackly veneer.
Other plates speak of patience, like stewed chicken bright with tomato, underscored by needles of thyme; and legume, a meld of chayote squash, eggplant and a crowd of supporting vegetables, cooked and then mashed with a pilon (pestle) until their borders disappear.
“When we go to Haiti, I’m always looking over the shoulders of the women who are cooking,” Mr. Brockman said. They would be proud of his excellent pikliz, a hash of cabbage, carrots and jumpy Scotch bonnets, bathed in lime and vinegar long enough to give off a hum of heat without losing crunch.
Akra, plump fingers of fritters with creamy interiors, are made with malanga, a taro-like root vegetable, and stoked by Scotch bonnets. Ragged rounds of unripe plantains are fried, flattened and fried again to make crispy banan peze, whose pique comes from a dunk, between bouts of frying, in Tabasco. Rice is cooked in liquid left over from boiling dried djon-djon mushrooms and emerges almost ashy in color, its loamy flavor like a conflagration of balsamic vinegar, soy and truffles.
The Brockmans want to evangelize on behalf of Haitian food, but also serve the neighborhood. So in the morning there are croissants and bagels. Later in the day, Mr. Brockman repurposes a few Haitian classics as sandwiches: stewed chicken tucked into a pita with watercress and herb mayo; griot boosted by rémoulade; salt fish tempered by avocado.
For dessert, there’s a play on bananas Foster with sweet plantains swapped in, inflamed with rum and then mollified by vanilla ice cream from Lady Moo-Moo, a shop nearby. This is lovely, but the revelation is pain mais, a wedge of not-quite cake or pudding, bound by faintly sweet corn flour, dense with coconut milk and condensed milk and haloed with a ring of canned pineapple, overlaid by a long-stemmed maraschino cherry. (The recipe comes from Florette Denasty, a line cook.)
The broad, high dining room is trimmed in sunny yellow tile and topped with a white pressed-tin ceiling. Above, a light fixture of pipes and Edison bulbs suggests an inverted menorah. In a corner leans a domino table, the tile racks framing images from Jalousie, a shantytown in Port-au-Prince. At the back, a row of shelves stands under the banner “Archie’s Grocery” — the name of the previous tenant, whose history the Brockmans honor by stocking not artisanal exotics but basics (Cheerios, Barilla pasta, sriracha).
Service is unhasty, peaceable and somewhat do-it-yourself: Customers place orders at a counter and fetch drinks, like candy-toned Cola Lacaye, from the freezer. But the cashier, doubling as waiter and at times the only one on the floor, ferries food to tables and hands out sheaves of cutlery, each secured with the tiniest of strings, tied in a bow.
One evening, when I handed him a tip, he looked taken aback and tried to refuse it. When I insisted, he waved toward the kitchen and said, “I’m going to share this with everyone.”

Vodou is elusive and endangered, but it remains the soul of Haitian people

Far from B-movie cliches, vodou is spiritual system and a way of life but even in Haiti, where it became an official religion, it faces prejudice and hostility

Saturday 7 November 2015 13.30 GMT Last modified on Saturday 7 November 2015 17.33 GMT

Haiti, the saying goes, is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou is everywhere in the Caribbean nation, a spiritual system infusing everything from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts. Yet it is almost nowhere to be seen: ceremonies are not just expensive, but targets of hate crime. Nowadays, some say, Vodou is in danger.
In the heart of remote Île-à-Vache of Haiti’s southern coast, however, the religion is alive and well. Completely off the grid, the island has only two medical clinics for 14,000 residents and so Jeom Frichenel Sisius, the island’s principal Vodou priest, is a spiritual leader, doctor and midwife all at once.
His remedies, which he claims can fix everything from diseases and haunted houses to career and love problems, are kept in a carefully locked shed in a room adorned with skulls and an nzambi (zombie) painted on the walls.
“If someone has a headache and the doctors cannot heal it, I can,” he explains, taking swigs of herbal rum from a gigantic bottle as he speaks. “The only things Vodou can’t do are radiography and mammography.” Vodou is necessary, he stresses, and the only people who fail to understand that are the Christians.

On top of this knowledge and divine healing powers, Sisius also happens to throw the best parties.
Here, Vodou defies cliches of zombies, pins in dolls and black magic. There are none of the cornflour drawings, animal sacrifices or rattles that characterize orthodox Haitian Vodou ceremonies: just a lot of dancing and ecstasy fuelled by rum, drums and divine presence. It’s almost full moon, and lured by the music and beauty of it all, the spirits – lwas – begin to arrive.
Only weeks after Sisius’s ceremony, a great mapou tree fell. Not literally, of course. In local folklore, the sacred species (silk-cotton tree in English) is the embodiment of someone heroic and Haiti was mourning the death of Max Gesner Beauvoir, the supreme chief of Vodou.
Beauvoir, who stumbled into spiritualism after 15 years as a biochemist in the US, worked tirelessly to protect vodouisants from defamation and persecution. At his home in Mariani, he drank coffee with scholars, seekers, journalists and even Christians, patiently explaining what Vodou was (“the soul of Haitian people and a way of life”) – and what it was not.
At a time when Haiti still had tourism, he held spectacles of entranced women, legs akimbo and biting heads of chickens, even staging a honeymoon ceremony for the Clintons.
While perhaps creating some stereotypes of his own, few did more than Beauvoir in battling distorted horror-flick cliches still associated with Haitian Vodou.
“The most popular Haitian word in the world is zombie,” explains Richard Morse, a musician and owner of Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Oloffson (who insists he never met an undead creature). “And that’s a reflection of the world more than it is of Haiti.”
At a time when “world music” was all the rage, Morse came to Haiti in 1987 for musical inspiration. Growing up in suburban Connecticut to a Haitian mother and American father, Morse never expected to get into Vodou beyond the glimpses of folklore he’d seen at home. In 2001, he was officially initiated.
“I only came for the rhythms initially,” he recalls, seated on the veranda of the hotel that became his livelihood and permanent home. “Then I found out that the rhythms don’t walk alone. The rhythms walk with dance steps, with colors, with spirits, with prayer. The rhythms walk with God.”
Every Thursday for the past 23 years, Morse’s 13-member roots band – which includes his wife and son – plays fiery, upbeat interpretations of traditional Vodou prayers. Aid workers dance next to local hipsters, elderly couples next to a local LGBT chapter. This is his part in dispelling myths about the practice.
“Most Americans don’t know that they don’t know what Vodou really is,” explains Elizabeth McAlister, scholar of religion at Wesleyan University, specializing in Haitian Vodou. They think Vodou is about sorcery, maybe love magic, usually some sort of sinister practice.”
The 1920s and 1930s cinema – the heyday of B-films like White Zombie and pulp fiction – helped reinforce caricatures of Africans as hypersexualized, superstitious and demonic.
“The best thing that ever happened to racism is Vodou,” explains Ira Lowenthal, an anthropologist, Vodou arts collector and former aid worker originally from New Jersey, who has lived in Haiti for over 40 years. “They made up their stories about it and their stories confirmed every prejudice of every white person in the world. It tells that person from Ohio that they’re right about black people as scary and dangerous … you can actually see on a screen your own racist beliefs justified.”
The west’s romance with a misguided understanding of Haitian folklore just happened to coincide with the US occupation of the country – which set out to modernize Haiti, while attempting to systematically erase Vodou.
The religion was born with institutional slavery. Ripped from homelands and heritage, thousands of those who would become Haitians were shipped across the Atlantic to an island, where the indigenous population had already been wiped out, for backbreaking labor in cane plantations.
“They were treated as cattle. As animals to be bought and sold; worth nothing more than a cow. Often less,” says Lowenthal.
“Vodou is the response to that. Vodou says ‘no, I’m not a cow. Cows cannot dance, cows do not sing. Cows cannot become God. Not only am I a human being – I’m considerably more human than you. Watch me create divinity in this world you have given me that is so ugly and so hard. Watch me become God in front of your eyes.’”
And so Vodou, unlike eastern spirituality which is often focused on the mind, begins in the human flesh: Haitians dance, rather than think, their way to ecstasy; a transcendence into a more beautiful reality.
Divine possessions are reserved for Haitians, who inherit their spirits through bloodlines, explains Lowenthal, who attended countless rituals in mountain villages during his research. Foreigners can never be vehicles – chwals (“horses”) – to be ridden by the divine.
“That power is stunning. It’s not scary. It’s stunning. It shows you what a human being can do. And what we can’t do. White people lost their spirits centuries ago. We lost it all. The Haitians believe we used to have spirits, but we were too stupid to keep them.”
Without the lwas, Haiti might never have become a nation at all.
On the night of 14 August 1791, slaves from nearby plantations gathered deep in the woods of Bois Caïman, of what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. By the fire, a young woman possessed by Ezili Dantor, the warrior-mother lwah often iconized as Black Madonna, slit the throat of a large black creole pig and distributed its blood to the revolutionaries, who swore to kill the blancs – white settlers – as they drank it.
With otherworldly strength, the legend goes, the world’s richest colony was overthrown and the first black republic proclaimed. Haitian Vodou became a religion with rebellion and freedom at its heart.
Perhaps these are the roots of the west’s fear of Vodou, Lowenthal speculates: it is an unbreakable revolutionary spirit threatening to inspire other black Caribbean republics – or, God forbid, the United States itself.
“These people will never be conquered again,” Lowenthal emphasizes. “They will be exploited, they will be downtrodden, they will be impoverished – but you can tell not a single Haitian walks around with his head down … They’re more human than the people who enslaved them. They were better than their masters, able to live in another realm. There’s no other more articulate response to oppression than that. And that’s why Vodou is here – because Vodou is the soul of Haitian people.”
*** Ricardo Marie Dadoune (known to friends and worshippers as “Bébé”) has known he was homosexual since he was eight years old. He’s now 26 and has a boyfriend, though he doesn’t broadcast it: several gay men he knows have already been killed. In a bustling neighborhood in Port-au-Price, his peristyle (vodou temple) is tucked away between colorful barbershops and vendors hawking barbecued chicken. On a table in a windowless room, plaster saint statuettes are lined up next to African dolls, perfume bottles, candles and a ram’s skull, horns still attached. Ricardo shakes a beaded rattle in all four directions and then pours rum on the cement floor three times: first to his left, then to his right and finally right in front of his orange flip-flops.
“This is a safe place,” he explains. “When we have a ceremony here, nothing happens. People like us here, so we’re not afraid to come and enjoy.”
He may be in a Justin Bieber T-shirt and jeans now, but the peristyle is the only place Ricardo can dress the way he really prefers: with lipstick, earrings, a cloth on his head the way women do in the countryside, and a dress.
While homosexuality in Haiti is not illegal, it is not socially acceptable. To avoid discrimination, violence and even murder, many gays and lesbians lead double lives.
“In other countries the gays are free,” he says. “They can wear what they want to wear, but not here in Haiti. After the ceremony I have to take off the clothes because I can’t walk the street dressed like a woman here.” Today, peristyles across Haiti have become makeshift religious gay clubs, safe havens where the LGBT community isn’t just tolerated but actively welcomed.
The lwas, much like the Haitian ancestors themselves, travel far: underwater, from the heart of Africa all the way to Hispaniola.
While Haitians too worship an almighty God – Bondye in Creole – he is believed to stand above petty human matters. The lwas, not so much. Each with its own area of expertise, lwas have individual tastes: some like champagne and perfume, others five-star Barbancourt rum and animal sacrifices. Spirits only choose those they love, and some prefer to occupy non-straight chwals.
“Many, many gays and lesbians are valued members of Vodou societies,” explains McAlister, who has devoted years to researching LGBT in Haitian religion. “There is an idea that Vodou spirits that are thought to be gay ‘adopt’ and protect young adults who then become gay.”
“Vodou ‘does gender’ totally differently than the Christian tradition,” McAlister explains. After all, Vodou has gender fluidity at the core: men might become mediums for female spirits, women for male spirits. “But Christians, especially evangelicals, have zero flexibility for this; they see homosexuality as a sin, period.”
Stigmatized as a primitive, or even wicked religion, Vodou is inherently progressive and inclusive, McAlister continues.
“Vodou tends to be radically unjudgmental,” she explains. “The alcoholic, the thief, the homeless, the mentally ill, all of these people are welcomed into a Vodou temple and given respect.”
In reality, McAlister emphasizes, Vodou is far more similar to a close-knit church community than most Americans could ever imagine. Or as Morse puts it: with food-centered rituals to please spirits, it’s sort of like Thanksgiving – just several times a year. And it’s feminist too, advocating equal status for male and female priests.
For missionaries and churches already hell-bent on demonizing Vodou, the religion’s progressive outlook may be just another nail in the coffin. Throughout history, Christians have often identified Vodou as the root of all Haiti’s problems.
As 2010’s earthquake killed perhaps 230,000 and displaced 1.5 million people, US reverend Pat Robertson asserted that Haiti had brought it upon itself through a “pact with the devil”, referring to Bois Caïman’s uprising. The subsequent cholera epidemic, most likely caused by leaked sewage from a UN camp, was also blamed by some on vodouisants, triggering mobs to murder dozens across the country.
It is perhaps not surprising that a religion born out of colonial subjugation and the trauma of slavery would irk Christians – who also happened to be the slave-masters. On arrival, slaves had eight days to convert – though their native faith was often later on blended with Catholic practices, resulting in today’s wildly eclectic pantheon of African spirits alongside Catholic saints “creolized” to walk among them.
In fear of a rival power base, the church repressing Vodou became a recurring theme in Haitian history, McAlister explains.
“The Christians humiliate us by saying that Vodou is evil,” Ricardo says. “It’s not true. Vodou is not a bad thing. They have their faith, we have ours.”
Two days earlier, evangelicals came to his temple and interrupted his ceremony to preach the gospel. They told him he must embrace Jesus as his personal savior, as he continued to perform his rituals, unfazed. This time, it didn’t turn violent.
For a long time, even Haiti itself shied away from a religion so quintessential to its national identity. While President Michel Martelly described Beauvoir’s passing as a “great loss for the country”, the government itself wasn’t always so sympathetic, with Vodou officially outlawed until 1934. Even though it became an official religion in 2003, no one knows how many vodouisants Haiti has today.
Vodou is still something many Haitians, including the diaspora, keep underground. Peristyles, even sacred mapou trees, are regularly targets for vandalism and arson. Worshippers risk harassment and violence, with lynchings not unheard of.
Countless attacks against it have forged a newfound solidarity among priests and worshippers as they carve out a political voice. And slowly, things are changing: a new statute is allowing Vodou leaders to perform funerals and weddings, and university courses are now researching the religion. While Beauvoir’s successor is yet to be announced, his legacy may be only the beginning.
Ricardo is cautiously optimistic: one day, Vodou may be a catalyst for a more inclusive Haiti. He’s waiting to go abroad – anywhere – where he can open about who he is (“This is my life, this is who I am and I will be gay forever”).
But until then, he’ll be in the peristyle. “There is a lot of love inside the Vodou: it is our heart and blood. So we will not back down. We have an important and strong force with us. Without it, we could not exist today.”

U.S. needs strict Haitian pledge of accountability

Historically, United States has underut democratic efforts in Haiti
Congress lobbies Obama for policies that allow clean elections there

Tribune News Service
When an earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, former President Bill Clinton said that the reconstruction would provide an opportunity to “build back better.”
Some $9.6 billion was pledged by the international community, including the U.S. government. But nearly six years later, although about $7.6 billion has been disbursed, there is not much to show for it.
Hundreds of thousands of Haitians displaced by the earthquake remain without adequate shelter. USAID, the U.S. State Department’s development agency, pledged to build 15,000 homes but has so far only delivered 900.
Most of U.S. taxpayers’ money, it seems, didn’t get outside the Beltway. Of USAID contracts, for example, more than 50 percent of payments went to contractors in the Washington, D.C., area, while only 1 percent went directly to Haitian companies or organizations.
Everyone worries about money being potentially lost to corruption in the Haitian government, so just a small fraction of the billions pledged went to desperately needed budget support. But the large-scale corruption, fed by lack of accountability, is much closer to home.Haiti needs a government that can collect taxes, especially from the rich elite and companies that can pay them, and provide services. This should have been the target of “building back better,” rather than foreign contractors. But the U.S. government has never shown much interest in building a democratic, legitimate government in Haiti.
Haiti needs a government that can collect taxes, especially from the rich elite and companies that can pay them, and provide services. This should have been the target of “building back better,” rather than foreign contractors. But the U.S. government has never shown much interest in building a democratic, legitimate government in Haiti.
In 1991, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a military coup. It was later determined that leaders of the coup had been paid by the CIA.
In 2004, Aristide was deposed again through a multi-year effort by Washington, which took him into forced exile for seven years. In 2011, Washington intervened once again by arranging for the Organization of American States (OAS) to reverse the first round results of Haiti’s presidential elections.
This was done without a recount or even a statistical test of the sample of ballots examined, and independent research showed that there was no statistical basis for the decision.
Now we are witnessing a potential repeat of the 2010-11 elections. The legislative elections in August were plagued by fraud and violence, with only 18 percent of eligible voters participating and more than 20 percent of the ballots lost.
On Oct. 25, the first round of presidential elections was held, and although the violence was limited and voter turnout marginally higher, observers have raised serious questions about whether massive fraud occurred.
Over 900,000 party monitors were given credentials that may have allowed them to vote at multiple voting centers. A black market in these passes was created, and with only an estimated 1.6 million total votes cast, it is easy to imagine the election being bought by the party with the biggest bankroll.
[Last week, second-place presidential candidate Jude Celestin challenged the results, calling the elections “undemocratic.”] It remains to be seen if the authorities tried or were even able to screen for fraud. Will the United States and its allies, who are paying for the elections, simply accept the result — as in the past, if their side wins?
In 1995, members of Congress, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, forced President Clinton to reverse the military coup that his predecessor’s administration had sponsored, temporarily returning democracy to Haiti.
Members of the current Congress have written numerous letters to President Obama and lobbied the administration, even passing legislation, demanding accountability and a change of course that will allow for Haiti to have democratic, clean elections for a legitimate, functioning government.
They will have to step up the pressure, as they did in the early 1990s, if they are to have an impact.
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article43667814.html#storylink=cpy

Why Haiti deserves visitors

 Long before I arrive in Haiti I get a sense of what the name itself conjures up. There are no direct flights from the UK, so I’ve flown in via the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s conjoined twin on the island of Hispaniola. The tourists on my flight cannot understand why anyone would risk Haiti: “I hope you survive!”; “Will you have armed guards?” and, perhaps the key question, “Why?” But tour operators like the one I’m travelling with, Wild Frontiers, feel that Haiti’s time has finally come, especially with Cuba looking more visitor-crowded and less adventurous than before. There is also a sense that responsible tourism to Haiti could put money where it is really needed.

Hispaniola is shaped like a large canine tooth extracted from the gob of Mexico and thrown into the centre of the Caribbean Sea. Haiti is the western third of it, and I’m arriving on a small plane from the east of the island, gazing out at the mountainous terrain and totting up reasons for Haiti’s unsavoury reputation. So far I’ve got deadly earthquakes, dire poverty, the brutal Tontons Macoutes, the tyrant Papa Doc Duvalier, plus, of course, the zombies – mustn’t forget the zombies. On the plus side, I scribble “fresh fruit”. Then, out of the aeroplane window, the verdure of the Dominican Republic is giving way abruptly to something eroded and bone-like. Over Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, we enter a pall of dust, and the plane bounces and sways before landing. I cross out fresh fruit.
It was not always this way. Expectations of this land were high when Columbus touched down in 1492, noting the extreme fertility, the abundance of food and clean water, the gold, and the handsome, happy people. “With 50 men,” he noted ominously, “we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we wanted.” And that is what the conquistadores did, shipping in fresh workers from west Africa when the locals died. By 1660, the western third of Hispaniola was French, the other part Spanish, and in all but name, the two countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic were established. They both had wars of independence, years of American occupation, and brutal dictators, but Dom Rep, as everyone now refers to it, somehow emerged as a place where you can buy a pizza 24 hours a day and visit shopping malls. But what about Haiti?

The first thing I notice in Port-au-Prince is the people: they are all out on the street. Men and women carrying their goods on their heads: bananas to sell, water, a roll of naif paintings to hang up outside a hotel. There are horses, mules and donkeys amid a tangle of good-natured, slow-moving traffic. And behind all this frenetic activity, rising above the heads, is a mixture of ruins and new buildings. It is five years since one of the most devastating earthquakes in human history razed huge areas of the city, killing up to 220,000 people. Finally, Port-au-Prince is being rebuilt, and very attractively too, judging by what’s been done already.

I visit the reconstructed Marché de Fer, the bustling central market, where a stately rastaman called Dominic shows me around (for $1 – this is a place where you need lots of small dollar bills). After spices, vegetables and beauty products, we enter an area selling flouncy blue dresses and sinister-looking dolls. I tackle the voodoo question head on.

“Is voodoo scary?”
Dominic chuckles gently: “No way. It’s our religion.”
He shows me some veve, intricately beaded flags that carry the symbols of certain spirits.
“This one is Ayida Weddo, the rainbow snake.”
Voodoo is a polytheistic faith that came to the island with slaves from west Africa, and took on a camouflage veneer of Roman Catholicism. Its importance to Haiti was firmly established when, in 1791, a voodoo ceremony triggered the only slave revolt which has led to the founding of a state. Ever since, the religion has prospered, often in the teeth of official disapproval. Western attitudes have sometimes been fearful, and frequently condescending: “proper” religions have gods and miracles; voodoo has spirits and mumbo jumbo. Unfortunately, Papa Doc, dictator during the 1960s, further tarnished the religion’s image by encouraging the belief that he was Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead.

At the refurbished National Museum I get to see Papa Doc’s bowler hat, cane and evil little machine gun, plus photos of Haiti’s many other presidents. It is a wonderful little museum – from the slave torture devices to the inscribed names of early rebels (Hyacinthe and Chickenshit included); from the ostentatiously Napoleonic insignias of the first black leaders to the earlier simplicity of Taino Indian stone carvings (the Tainos were all but wiped out within a century of Columbus’s arrival). There is even an anchor that claims to be from Columbus’s ship, the Santa María, wrecked on the north coast.
After a night at the Montana Hotel, elegantly rebuilt from the ruins of the quake, I meet Serge, my local guide, who takes me to the highlands behind Port-au-Prince.

 He’s a fascinating character: having grown up in an orphanage, he had a successful career as a dancer, then worked as a researcher on almost every film project in Haiti for the past decade. We leave the car and walk around Wynne Farm, a project encouraging farmers to plant trees and work sustainably. Hummingbirds thrum past and we spot two nests, one with a pair of tiny chicks inside, neither of them larger than the tip of my little finger. Serge’s conversation runs through modern slavery, voodoo, cuisine, art, music and the iniquities of Minustah, the UN stabilisation mission that still exerts a powerful influence in the country. Over the treetops we enjoy vast panoramas of green hills, heavily farmed. Haiti has a severe deforestation problem.

We head downhill, to the home of Janey Wynne, the owner of Wynne Farm, and a plant enthusiast. Her current obsession is bamboo. “It could save Haiti’s poor farmers,” she says. Some of her poor neighbours just sold a bundle of canes for US$200 – a small fortune. We drink herbal tea, eat mango cake and then tour the garden, which is magical: there’s macadamia, ginger, naranjilla, datura, and several strange fruits I’ve never seen before.

Serge finally drags me away: he wants us to visit Croix-des-Bouquets, a village on the east side of Port-au-Prince, where a tradition of metal-working has developed. As we drive, I note that Janey’s enthusiasm has worked: Serge is clutching a handful of seeds and some cuttings for his garden.
En route, we stop at an upmarket art gallery, a chance to orientate myself. Haitian art is complex and colourful, incorporating various schools and traditions, and long since “discovered” by collectors. Top names, such as Prospere Pierre-Louis, command substantial prices, but there is always the chance of finding an emerging talent.

When we reach Croix-des-Bouquets, Serge introduces me to Jacques Eugene, who makes mask-like pieces, punctured and perforated, adorned with twisted cutlery and car parts. His inspiration comes in dreams, from a voodoo spirit called Ezili Danto.

Down the road we pass dozens of workshops and shops. At one we meet Serge Jolimeau, one of the stars of Haitian art, whose work hangs all around us: huge, textured heads surging with vitality. In Jolimeau’s hands the metal becomes fluid and magical. The trouble is, once I’ve seen what I can’t afford, I don’t want the cheap stuff.

We drive north-west along the coast, stopping at simple fishing villages such as Luly, where the people are sitting in the shade, weaving fish traps. The beach is something of a curate’s egg: gorgeous pink conch shells mixed with plastic bottles in one great fascinating mess, like the country itself. At Montrouis I tour the Museum Ogier-Fombrun, part of the delightfully laid-back Moulin-sur-Mer beach hotel. At this former French plantation, 600 slaves eked out miserable lives to help create what was France’s richest colony. Now the place is home to a superb collection of artefacts, and tranquil gardens filled with semi-tame birds.

The visitors here seem to be mainly Haitian emigres from the US. The few European tourists tend to head south – to Jacmel, and a few well-kept beach resorts. Haiti, however, has a lot more to offer. Up in the north is the city of Cap Haïtien, a crumbling masterpiece of colonial-era architecture: brightly painted, well-kept houses mixed with the dilapidated and ruined. Like everywhere in Haiti, I find the people friendly but not effusive: smiles are not freely given, they have to be elicited. I stay at Habitacion Jouissant, a much-extended, shady bungalow on a patio high above the sea, where at dawn, wooden sailing boats can be spotted heading off to the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Cap Haïtien has some great markets and, nearby, good beaches and a potentially world-class attraction in La Citadelle Laferrière, an imposing fortification that sits on a high ridge above the village of Milot, where it’s worth seeking out Maurice Etienne, owner of a guesthouse-cum-cultural centre. Maurice’s great-great-grandfather was a soldier in La Citadelle, and Maurice has turned himself into an expert on the place. When I arrive, two American archaeologists are picking his brains.

Built by Haiti’s first post-slavery president, Henri Christophe, between 1805-1820, La Citadelle was both a warning to France and a bold statement that the former slaves were capable of great achievements. As the latter it was a success, but sadly the French did return, blockading the ports and demanding reparations for their lost, slave-driven businesses. Haiti capitulated, embarking on a withering series of debt repayments that would sap its strength for generations to come.

After our visit, Maurice and I have lunch on his patio. He’s optimistic about Haiti’s future now, and with La Citadelle, he knows Milot has a real winner. We eat fresh fruit – yes, there’s plenty of it – and he talks of Haiti’s unique culture, more strongly African than anywhere else in the Caribbean.
“Once, a government delegation came here from west Africa and we entertained them with voodoo drummers.” He laughs. “When it ended, we found the head of the group was in a deep trance.”
I’m beginning to feel a similar trance-like state coming on.

Back in Port-au-Prince, I meet up with Serge again, and ask him a question that’s been bothering me: do zombies exist? He is perfectly sure they do, but there is nothing supernatural about them. He found some when researching a film years ago. “They are people who get drugged, then buried alive and dug up at midnight. After that they are kept as drugged slaves, working in bad conditions.”
“And people are really afraid of it – being made into zombies?”

“It’s like a cultural memory of slavery, really – a fear that it could return, to you personally.”
In a few words, Serge has blown away all the nonsense that is talked about zombies, and revealed something deeper and very real. And then, a few minutes later, I’m heading into the airport to leave, and I’m thinking, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. This place deserves time, and it deserves visitors who want more than a beach.

• The trip was provided by Wild Frontiers, 020 7736 3968, which offers 11-day, small-group tours to Haiti, visiting sights such as Bassin Bleu and La Citadelle; with whale- and dolphin-watching, walking in the Central Plateau, and overnights in homestays. Departures in March and December 2016, from £2,450 full board (on a twin-share basis), including entry to attractions, and the services of local guides and a tour leader. Single supplement: £270. Flights with American Airlines start from approximately £950 and require an overnight in Miami on the outbound sector. Local excursions and tours available with Voyages Lumiere