Japan's economic rise post-WWII was the subject of vast commentary in the West among politicians, economic...
Photo: The author's great-grandfather among colleagues on the Western Front during WWI.
In the United States, since World War I, the last Monday in May, which was once known as "Decoration Day," has been known as "Memorial Day."
While many will be setting...
It is said that in riding a horse, we borrow freedom.
Horses and humanity have had a deeply intertwined history; horses have been an ancient fixture in antiquity, seen on the most ancient of cave paintings, from Lascaux and Chauvet, to other examples of early art, when human beings first tried to capture the most powerful symbols often dramatically depicting their connection with the environment.
Following these ancient depictions as early as 25,000 BC, the horse was then domesticated some twenty thousand years later, found to be essential to the very existence of homo sapiens in the quest for survival. Legends such as Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus, and mythologies from the Greek myth of Pegasus, the Scandanavian Sleipnir, mount of Odin, to the horses depicted in Chinese, Hindu, and Persian mythology, each were similarly tamed and ridden by both great leaders and the gods as a symbol of their authority and power.
Since, horses have been depicted as a metaphor for the wild, the majestic, and the unbreakable. To this day, this spirit and the subsequent loyalty of equus ferus caballus has been used to not just inspire the imagination, but even for healing, from programs using inmates to tame wild horses for adoption and therapy programs, to other examples of the horse being used for therapeutic purposes among the most emotionally and physically vulnerable.
This connection with the horse, when done well, is one built on a slow and steady process of trust, and eventually, if horse and human bond, of mutual confidence and devotion. This connection with nature resides deep in ancestral and even genetic memory, reaching so deeply into the history of our development that at its best, it marks the human capacity to connect and exist in harmony with the wildness of nature. At its worst, it mirrors the darker human tendencies toward subjugation and need for harsh and sometimes brutal control.
Reflecting the best tendencies of those who consider themselves to be horse people, close to where some of the oldest horse paintings have been found in southwestern France, is the home of one of the oldest breeds of horse known.
The white horses of the Camargue have been both a well-known fixture and inspiration for the people of the area, a section of of Provence in the Alpes Côte d'Azur and the Languedoc between Arles and the mouth of the Rhône near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The landscape is comprised of vast area of salt marshes, where the Camargue horses continue to run wild and make up one of the many reasons for tourists to come to the area.
(The other: the annual pilgrimage of Roma, commemorating Sara, thought to be either the handmaiden or daughter of Mary Magdalene, who was thought to have landed where the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer sits, to spread a true version of Christianity that embraced the involvement of both sexes in the decision-making and leadership of the faith.)
Often depicted in promenades et "balades à cheval," theatrical experiences marking their history in the area, as domesticated, they are a powerful reminder of the ancient connection between both nature and humanity as well as horse and rider.
Bred and ridden by "gardians" among various local "manades," or farms, the white horses, standing from 13 to just over 14 hands (hand = 4 inches) and weighing in at up to 1,100 lbs, among those not still running wild, are bred under strict guidelines by the French government, who since 1976 have had a strict classification system for the breed and breed standard, closely delineating those born in the region and under specific conditions.
Because of the nature of the breed, being strong, stocky, and calm, they are utilized both for demonstrations of the breed-specific equitation, and for the work of herding another famous fixture of the area: the famous black bulls of Camargue featured in a non-lethal form of bullfighting popular in this part of France.
Gardians of the manades congregate at various events, exhibitions and meetings, comparing bloodlines of their horses and showcasing their natural capacity for herding, in equitation, and for safety and rescue operations in the region.
A combination of both French culture of the region and its own version of native horsemanship, these events mark a meeting of business and long-standing recognition of families that have worked with the Camargue horse for generations.
As a true celebration of the breed, its history, and its capacity, while innately close-knit, the community of horsemen and women, are, like many who are attached to a particular horse culture, are both hard-hewn and passionate ambassadors, showing the hallmarks of the breed's abilities, with events often being free to both insiders and the public.
But the public may be more aware of the breed than they realize: a beloved film among both children of a certain generation and horse lovers, White Mane is about the eponymous Camargue horse and the child who tames him. Better known among French and European audiences, in 1960, Denys Colomb Daunant made documentary Le Songe des Chevaux Sauvages, "Dream of the Wild Horses" which won the Small Golden Berlin Bear at the 1960 Berlin International Film Festival.
As the old adage among horse people suggests, "Show me your horse and I'll tell you who you are," the same would be said for the native horse of the Camargue and its landscape. Rugged, strong, steadfast and full of spirit, this horse reflects the ancient connection that epitomizes the balance that can be found when we respect one of the animals that has truly affected human history. And these, as one of the oldest breeds of horse alive, also remind us that there is beauty in nature worth nurturing, and a true partnership to be had, if we allow ourselves the profundity of such a relationship.
Photos courtesy of K.J....
That history repeats itself is a known truth borne from both philosophical reminders and from experience, for humanity has a way of forgetting its most important lessons, even those from fewer than three decades ago.
There are those alive now who do not remember or weren't alive during he Cold War-the constant strain of East versus West, the arms race, and a world subsumed by two distinct superpowers whose every movement, every action was a means of stymying the other in a real-life game of Risk -- holding the planet in the balance in a decades-long battle for supremacy.
The United States and the Soviet Union were in what seemed like a war which would yield one of two things: either the perpetual continuity of a powerful stalemate until one side broke, or at some unknown fork in the road, a path to ultimate destruction.
This fear was categorically real. The Nuclear Age was a palpable presence, and it hung in the air like an ominous fog, and the stakes were truly high. Those of us who remember can still hear in our minds the newscasts or some "Special Report" when in some part of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union went head to head, whether diplomatically or during proxy wars -- visible or surreptitious support of opposite sides in certain asymmetric conflicts, and often in the developing world, some of which had the capacity to explode into the potential for nuclear confrontation. Some of us remember the truly paralytic fear and significance of DEFCON (i.e. "Defense Condition") 1.
During the Cold War, Germany had been split post-WWII into two separate states to represent the spoils of the Allied Powers -- the Western nations, and the Soviet Union. East Germany -- or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in German, Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) -- in being a satellite of sorts of the Soviet Union (despite being considered sovereign in 1955, it still had Soviet troops ensconced by virtue of the Potsdam Agreement), was under the fist of Communism, and their henchmen in keeping the DDR in control were the secret police known as the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit -- MfS / Ministry for State Security). Their job was to keep watch on the citizens of East Germany and single out any one or any organization which would be considered a threat to the state.
This included -- as any communist regime would -- artists, actors, writers, directors, playwrights, musicians, academics, intellectuals-anyone who could surreptitiously influence the thinking of the public, and whose influence might indeed be considerably powerful were they also to be successful-including were they successful enough to be an influence outside the DDR.
In such cases, those with that kind of notoriety and influence might feel enough audacity-and have access-to perhaps be tempted to reveal the actual conditions under which they and other citizens were forced to live. Such people are always targeted in such regimes, as they were potentially very dangerous to the overall stability of the state and its hold over its citizens.
Give anyone a whiff of freedom, and watch how quickly they are apt to become agitators, on some human level somehow believing freedom is a human right. Instead, surveillance by the state was one of the most profound and powerful forms of both information and a means of control.
The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006, depicts this reality with the starkness of how life in the DDR must truly have felt, represented by two sets of characters, the Stasi and those who commanded it, and the artistic community made up of the writers, directors, actor and playwright who are bending to the point of breaking under the system and the inability to speak, write, or act unless it is according to the will-or consent-of the state.
All DDR scenes-in the temporary detention center-in the home of the Stasi officer who is one of the people at the center of the film-are bleak, gray, flat and institutional. Among the artists, there is the warmth and the texture of earth tones which seek to break out of the gray-a metaphor, perhaps, of the natural will of humans who are forced into submission. Like the gray of winter, spring will come-the inevitable will of the human soul, like the earth, warm and soft, and ready for the seeds of whatever can most grow in fertile soil.
In this case, there is no more fertile soil than that of the powerful mind and soul of one who finds himself succumbing to the natural will to express truth-and such truth, as the old adage goes, at some point will out...regardless of the personal cost.
In the midst of this struggle is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by former East German actor, the late Ulrich Mühe, who is charged with keeping eyes-and ears-on the playwright Georg Dreyman, whose play he has just seen, and whose lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (shortened by the Stasi in their reports as CMS) is the object of desire by Minister Bruno Hempf, whose influence, and lascivious greed, makes Dreyman a target. He is both an influential playwright and a supposed "believer" in the state-but that means nothing in the face of the lust of a government official used to getting-and possessing-anything he wants. The Stasi-and Wiesler-are to find something on Dreyman-whatever it takes.
These people's lives mean nothing in the balance, and perhaps can even be used, Wiesler is told, to advance his career if he succeeds in finding some means for Dreyman to be implicated of any crime against the DDR.
Such are the priorities of a powerful state hell-bent on maintaining control. Implicating another, or subjugating someone with less power, has its privileges. And if one won't cooperate, what better means than fear to cause one to conform. Whether the threat of surveillance, of being taken to interrogation for days without sleep, or being kept from doing the one thing which makes you feel human-even if it means offering someone you love in a Faustian bargain, one will be forced to submit.
One must also never forget the threat of years of imprisonment-even death-at even the slightest political, creative, or personal affront. One need only look the wrong way at someone in a position of authority, and your name goes on the list. More evidence, and unless you have something to offer, you may never see the light of day again.
It is in this reality, and in becoming a secret part of the lives of Dreyman, Christa-Maria, and their circle of friends, that Wiesler is given a glimpse into another world. They are unknowingly under constant surveillance-every word is being heard-every movement documented. Their world even amidst the oppression of everyday life in the DDR is somehow alive. The depth of friendship, the love between man and woman, the true emotion expressed in the word and actions of these men and the one woman among them-awakens the humanity which has been suppressed by years of constant propaganda and the life of a Stasi officer-in which one may as well be a machine-never showing emotion-never betraying vulnerability, and instead are taught to manipulate the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. No personal connection-no emotion-is sacred. Anything can be used to break a human soul who has been targeted, and to do so, one cannot be seen as human.
The act of listening-truly listening-is an intimate action. Wiesler is a man whom we can see is strung tight-and seemingly almost imperviously so. And perhaps because he is so stoic, by popular rather than philosophical definition, we must reasonably assume that there is much emotion there-even if it is unseen. Those who will not bend at some point must break. That emotion would find catharsis somehow-and whatever human being-whatever man hiding underneath the severity of his Stasi facade is at first almost subconsciously drawn to the poignancy of their lives-and later, ultimately to the point where he is willing to sacrifice the necessity of his role-and his job-to keep some semblance of the power of these people's souls intact.
Once one feels that freedom-and the truth of such emotion-he can never go back. And this is paralleled by Dreyman's personal arc-the celebrated playwright who has willingly supported the idea of the state. Where once he could find expression within the limitations of the system, with the subjugation of his dearest friends-including one's suicide after having been implicated-to the subjugation of his own lover-he comes to realize that the system under which he has tried to work is a behemoth whose means of existence are dependent upon the destruction of others. This destruction has touched him on the deepest personal levels to the point where he, too, cannot go back.
The Lives of Others depicts the choices we must make when faced with a similar choice, in a world whose brutality and subjugation is just as great, and, similarly, in which we have the power to express truth, should we find the courage.
It also shows that only when the stakes are truly great that the true character of someone will be known-and this is shown, heart and soul, by Mühe as Weisler, and Sebastian Koch as Dreyman. For two characters who have never formally met, their lives are inexorably linked, as is the power of the choices they have chosen to make, each of which, in a rather poignant metaphor in the film, shows him to be a good man.
In watching this film, many will forget that again, while the characters are fictitious, the conditions are based on actual history. And even now in different parts of the world, even our own, limitations on essential freedoms continue to occur -- whether openly or surreptitiously -- in the name of security, hegemony, power, and control.
As we choose to ignore signs and events of history repeating itself, from NSA surveillance to former KGB officer Vladimir Putin's quest for the glory of Russia, many are still preferring to think old hatreds, affronts, political and economic interests or reminiscences of power have disappeared from the equation, and that current crises are occurring within a historical vacuum.
These realities have only been buried, waiting to rise when the time comes, should we let them, and should we choose not to awaken from what, if we are not careful, will be a continued collective and complicit...
They were shooting machine gun fire at us, tracers coming at us at nighttime just like a war zone. We had some Vietnam vets with us, and they said, "Man, this is just like Vietnam."
- Jim Robideau, American Indian Movement (AIM), about the Wounded Knee Incident (1973) on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in The American Experience: We Shall Remain (PBS)
The Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of six recognized Lakota reservations, has, as a nation, been one of the more historically powerful avatars of the Native American experience in the United States, both in terms of the long-term struggle for cultural survival, and because of a warrior tradition that remains deeply ingrained in the tribe's culture.
Despite the U.S. government having traditionally subjugated, marginalized, and even committed genocide against the Lakota, members of the Oglala nation have served in every branch of the service both before and since the Snyder Act (1924) and the Nationality Act of 1940 made Native Americans legal U.S. Citizens.
However, members of the Lakota who have served in the U.S. armed forces have been veterans of not just one kind of conflict, but two.
One has been the longer, more sustained siege historically against the Lakota, from the armed conquest of land originally belonging to the Sioux nations, to the usurping of mineral and other natural resource rights, to continued resistance regarding the right to maintain Lakota language, traditions, and cultural identity, epitomized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970's, including during the Wounded Knee Incident in 1973 (recently commemorated this year on its 40th anniversary), and the face-off between members of AIM and U.S. Marshalls in 1975.
(Many may remember two different films about the latter incident by acclaimed director Michael Apted: the documentary Incident at Oglala, narrated by Robert Redford, and the narrative film, Thunderheart.)
In terms of their presence in foreign wars, participation in the United States military in general among Native Americans is proportionally higher than any other ethnic group.
According to an article via indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com:
According to statistics provided from the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2010, 22,569 enlisted service members and 1,297 officers on active duty were of American Indian heritage. So while the U.S. population recorded nearly 1.4 percent American Indian, the military population was 1.7 percent Native, making it the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the United States.
Return of Lakota veterans specifically to the Pine Ridge Reservation has meant returning to a reservation beset by intense socio-economic pressures, including vast unemployment, historic instances of tribal government corruption, homelessness, alcoholism, gang activity, and domestic violence., with the Pine Ridge Reservation historically having the highest murder rate of any other U.S. reservation.
Tony Bush, who is the subject of a short film as part of a project titled Warriors from the Reservation, is both a veteran of Vietnam, and a veteran of the Wounded Knee Incident (1973), during which Oglala and the AIM held the village of Wounded Knee as part of a 71 day armed uprising protesting a corrupt tribal president and continued negligence and treaty violations by the U.S. Government.
However, he was not at Wounded Knee during the uprising as a discharged veteran--he had gone AWOL from Ft. Carson, Colorado after coming back from Vietnam-- seeing that his tribe was embroiled in a conflict against an overwhelming show of force by the very government he had just served. Suffering the effects of what is now known as PTSD from his experiences in Vietnam, he felt he had no choice but to serve in the defense of his fellow Lakota.
(According to historical records, this show of force included fifteen armored personnel carriers with .50 caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, personnel from the National Guard from five states, helicopters, and over 130,000 rounds of ammunition.)
The symbolic significance of AIM and members of the Oglala nation choosing Wounded Knee for the siege, commemorating the original Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, brought international attention. It was a French photojournalist's photograph that would eventually prove that Tony Bush had been involved in the incident, and following proceedings within the U.S. Army, Bush was eventually dishonorably discharged in 1975, officially for having gone AWOL, even with an array of service medals and the Army recognizing that the mental stresses from Vietnam had been in evidence.
Bush's case is one of many among Vietnam-era veterans who were similarly discharged with less-than-honorable status by the military for incidents directly related to what is now considered PTSD. With such a discharge status, such veterans are not often considered "veterans" and are prevented from receiving pension or disability benefits, despite often years of honorable service before PTSD-related incidents.
As with Tony Bush, it has often taken a fight to even access health benefits. Bush was only able to start receiving his health benefits from the VA this year--fully 40 years following having gone AWOL - and then only once the VA diagnosed him this year as having PTSD from his service in Vietnam.
Because PTSD has only been officially recognized as a mitigating factor in disability among the U.S. military since 1980, there has been a marked difficulty in receiving retroactive recognition of PTSD among veterans of those serving in Vietnam and other previous conflicts.
According to the VVA, quoting a 1990 medical research report, 830,000 Vietnam veterans have full-blown or partial PTSD, with only a small fraction having been later adjudicated by the VA in as having the diagnosis, despite the intense nature of warfare common during Vietnam.
This disparity has led to one notable 2012 class-action lawsuit in Federal Court: John W. Shepherd, Jr. and Vietnam Veterans of America vs. John McHugh, Secretary of the Army; Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy; and Michael Donely, Secretary of the Air Force, led by Yale Law School, in which it is argued that incidents directly related to undiagnosed PTSD resulting in less-than-honorable discharge status among Vietnam Veterans, in requesting upgrade status once having been diagnosed, have been summarily dismissed without due process in violation of both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Due Process protections of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the class action, Congress had authorized the Secretary of each branch of the military to "correct any military record necessary to correct any error or remove an injustice" which can be done via an amendment of discharge status. This they may do via boards specifically charged by each branch to process applications for discharge status upgrades.
However, records show that only 2% of applications submitted by Vietnam Veterans for upgraded discharge status with PTSD being a mitigating factor are approved; 98% of the applications have been summarily denied.
Further, according to the suit, "race discrimination in the military discharge system was so pervasive in the Vietnam Era that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concluded that an employer could not lawfully apply the requirements that job applicants who had served in the armed forces have an honorable discharge."
According to Diane Zephier, Tony Bush's attorney, also of the Oglala nation and an advocate for Lakota veterans, further damning is the Presidential Amnesty awarded by President Carter via the Presidential Proclamation of January 21, 1977 to Vietnam-era draft dodgers--if amnesty was awarded to those who didn't serve--in violation of the Military Selective Service Act--those who did serve honorably for years, with service medals and commendations before PTSD-related incidents, should indeed receive some kind of dispensation for those years of actual service, in which the very harrowing conditions of their service in theater created the very condition that has made them in many cases permanently disabled.
At this point, outside of perhaps attempting to join the class action, Zephier hopes that perhaps Vietnam veterans like Tony Bush might receive a Presidential pardon--for it would seem they perhaps might deserve it just as much, if not more, than those who intentionally violated the Selective Service Act.
Despite this, Tony Bush has led a life of service, even after Vietnam, in returning to his roots as a Lakota, participating in ceremony such as inipi (sweat lodge) and the sundance--often in the process praying or doing ceremony for others. In addition, he has gone to veteran's pow-wows, watching others receiving the respect afforded the Lakota warrior, which despite his discharge status, and even the beliefs of some of his fellow Lakota who believe that he is not truly a veteran because of his discharge status, is a code he continues to live by.
One can only hope that Bush, and those like him, whether Lakota or otherwise, will finally be given some justice, both for their war experience and the aftermath they have been forced to face without recognition.
"[The military] all say Native Americans are natural-born fighters," says Bush. "No, bullshit--we bleed too, just like you guys do."
The film trailer above is part of a larger project, Warriors from the Reservation produced by the author, K.J. Wetherholt, photojournalists Svetlana Bachevanova and Anthony Karen, and filmmaker Pamela...
Breaking News: Robin Hammond was awarded this year's W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography Wednesday, a $30,000 prize, in support of his long-term project on mental illness in Africa. The article about his book of his photographs, Condemned, published by FotoEvidence for its annual FotoEvidence Book Award depicting this subject, is below.
"Everywhere I went I found an entire section of society in chains."
-- Robin Hammond during an interview with FotoEvidence
During a trip to Juba, South Sudan to cover the referendum for independence, photojournalist Robin Hammond came across a story he had never seen adequately depicted, when he saw, as he tells FotoEvidence, a mentally ill girl begging at the side of the road. He asked the driver of the car what the treatment for the mentally disabled is in Juba, and he received the following answer: they were put in prison.
This began the journey for Hammond that would culminate in a book of photographs titled Condemned, published by FotoEvidence as the winner of the organization's 2013's Book Award.
Hammond, 38, from Wellington, New Zealand, was originally inspired by the work of W. Eugene Smith when as a student of photography, he first saw Smith's book Minamata.
According to the New York Times photo blog, Lens, the impact of the book was profound:
"I had no idea that a photo or a series of photos could move me like that... I didn't know that a photo could make me feel a connection with people I had never met. From that day on, I knew the sort of work that I wanted to pursue -- human rights and development issues."
Since then, he has contributed to international newspapers and magazines including National Geographic, Time Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, and Polka Magazine, has exhibited at Visa Pour L'Image, and has been a four-time winner of the Amnesty International award for Human Rights journalism, among other international recognition and awards for his work.
Condemned is an extraordinary culmination of what has become an important passion for Hammond, who believes that the media rarely depicts, as he says in the FotoEvidence interview, "the long-term impacts of war, famine, and displacement."
These crises will inherently contribute to conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among other mental illness, which crisis- and war-torn countries are not politically, socially, or economically equipped with the capacities to treat. Instead, treatment, Hammond says, is often relegated to confinement in prisons, or being placed in the care of spiritual healers by families for whom such illness is considered a spiritual problem. That, or they are ignored by society, left to find whatever means they can to survive.
Instead of adequately treating illness, in many cases, these "solutions" only exacerbate the problem via abuse, discrimination, and neglect, if not even torture in those suffering being treated like criminals.
In discussing what he saw in Juba, in which mentally ill were incarcerated, he said, "Many didn't see their treatment of people with mental disability as abusive. It is, in a way, even more disturbing that they considered their treatment as normal and in no way cruel."
Especially hard is seeing the impact of mental illness on children. This included seeing a child tied to a stick in a refugee camp in Somalia "for 11 of his 13 years," or a child locked in a cell among "dangerously insane men" in Nigeria, a girl who had escaped from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) whom he met in DR Congo, or child soldiers in Liberia, who were forced to commit atrocities while in service to their adult captors.
In terms of help available from the international community, in which immediate disaster or crisis response during war or famine often does not extend adequately to mental illness, if at all, such lack of attention is then also ignored as a priority in terms of African nations' post-crisis development efforts.
"African countries that have been through disasters often rely on the assistance of outside agencies. If international non-governmental organizations and other donors are not going to acknowledge mental health as an integral part of primary health care and give it the attention it has to other important issues such as HIV, TB, Malaria then it is unlikely African governments will give mental health any significant attention."
Further, "in disaster, education is also weakened, which results in a lack of knowledge about mental health. It also drives away mental health professionals who would otherwise be able to provide care and teach their societies about it."
Where there are advocates for mental illness or limited resources: "everywhere they are under resourced and struggling."
"Mental health is a human rights issue," Hammond says, in being asked how he hopes his work will influence policy. "Making people aware is the first step. Having an audience connect to the issue is the next. I hope the stories of the people in the photos and the images themselves will stimulate the connection. From that, I hope action will follow."
The FotoEvidence interview referenced here and photographs from Condemned will next be appearing in the 2013 Print/Digital edition of the MIPJ on Climate Change, Resource Conflict, the Environment and Human Security to be published in November/December 2013....
"I think WARM is a great vehicle for tomorrow built on honoring and understanding what happened in the past." -- Gary Knight, VII Photo Agency Co-Founder; Founder...
Photos courtesy of project producer/photojournalist Anthony Karen
In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep.
- Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution (1743-1803), who died as a prisoner in France before Haitian independence in 1804.
Haitians have been faced with some of the most horrific of experiences of a recognized "failed state" during the last decades, facing coups, despotic governments, and natural disasters, including the January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 Haitians and left more than 1.6 million homeless.
One among the 49 current Least Developed Countries (LDC), as classified by the United Nations, Haiti is the only LDC in the Western Hemisphere. It is also, according to Kathie Klarreich and Linda Polman, who wrote about Haiti's current crises for The Nation, called by critics an "NGO Republic," a failed state and LDC that depends almost wholly on foreign aid for its survival.
This veritable occupation -- and seeming permanent entrenchment -- of international NGO's, governance, and policy contingents, and a non-functioning Haitian government, has been provably ineffective, despite the vast millions in aid pledged by the international community.
It is often said that the foundation of a people is to what they will return when under stress, including crisis, subjugation and oppression. Many forget that Haiti was the first republic created and led by an African-heritage diaspora who gained independence in 1804 after having been led by a former slave, Toussaint Louverture, in a successful revolution against French rule in what was then known as Saint-Domingue. Those who fought and won this revolution came from both free blacks and slaves, inspired not just by leaders such as Louverture, but by a strong connection to he history and culture of African ancestors.
Among certain groups of Haitians, this foundation of independent men and women who honored their ancestors by gaining freedom from colonial rule is still honored in a religion that many have castigated, while ignoring its role in Haitian independence and its current relevancy among many Haitians who practice it. Its practice is not only for a sense of connection to the past, but also for comfort, strength, and self-empowerment, in asking for the help and assistance of ancestors, and especially in light of Haiti's current crises.
Long depicted by most in popular culture in a context of horror movies (including the continued zombie phenomenon in film, from the original Bela Lugosi film White Zombie, to this year's World War Z), voodoo dolls, or mistaking it for the Hoodoo of the United States in the Deep South (including in the new season of American Horror Story: Coven) or Santeria in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and always depicted in generalized ceremonies thought to be bizarre with frightening rituals, Vodou has been maligned for decades by those with little direct experience of it. Often the tendency of those who are uncomfortable with what they find foreign, or with something they consider a more "primitive" avatar of the Haitian culture or diaspora, have made a point to either mitigate the influence of the religion on the culture or outright demonize it; this is true not just among the international community, but also among many Haitians themselves, leading in some cases to blame for Haiti's crises, and even violence against those who officiate over or practice the religion.
However, Vodou has been the one constant during varying Haitian crises, representing more than 50 percent of the Haitian population. It is the one thing that remains distinctly Haitian, its influence and origin coming from West Africa and what is currently DRC (from such tribes as the Fon, Ewe, Yoruba, and Lemba) combined with traditions of the native American Taino tribe and the Catholicism practiced by French colonials.
In the interior of Haiti, miles and hours away from the coast and any major city, up in the mountains, the more rural populations face a vastly different reality than those in a more urban environment. Here, there are not the overwhelming presences of air and noise pollution, traffic, dense populations, miles of makeshift shanties, SUV's of the UN and aid agencies with security and bullet-proof glass. White faces of Americans and Europeans are rare. The land is lush and green, livestock grazes tied to stakes to keep them from wandering, roads are rocky, uneven and unpaved, streams at times flowing across them, people gathering to wash clothing, bathe, or carry water over distances.
This is where prior to Haitian independence, much of the resistance to French rule began, and to the mountains of the north, also being the location of Bwa Kayiman, where on August 14, 1791, an historic Vodou ceremony took place during the first major slave insurrection of the Haitian Revolution.
Every summer, hundreds of Vodou practitioners, or Vodouisants, take a journey to a sacred mountain in Haiti's interior to honor Bondyè (Creator God). Groups accompanied by the high priests (houngans) and priestesses (mambos) come to a series of caves on the mountain as sèvitè, or "servants of the spirits." Inside the caves, Vodouisants move to different stations, each station representing a Vodou spirit (mistè or Lwa) acting as a parallel to a Catholic saint, where prayers and offerings are given, and ceremonies performed. Some sèvitè during the course of the ceremonies, are entered by Lwa, as entities that empower them through possession. Certain ritual sacrifices are performed, animals such as chickens, goats, and cattle being thought to give signs as to their willingness to participate in the sacrifice for the good of those present, with every part of the animals' bodies used later to feed those who have accompanied it. Vodouisants also give thanks for prayers answered in the previous year, make requests for the upcoming year or attempt to reconnect with lost loved ones or ancestors (konesans), some going to various stations, others writing notes and letters or drawing symbols on pieces of paper that they place on certain walls of the caves. Practitioners are spiritually cleansed using various herbs mixed with water, rum and sometimes smoke. Candles are brought in and at times left in certain locations, illuminating the faces of Vodouisants as they pray, perform rituals and sacrifices, and give and receive blessings.
Unlike the religion depicted by popular culture, this is a deeply spiritual experience, reverent to a greater cause, inclusive of individual, family, community, and ancestors, deeply tied to nature and its rhythms, and in service to a supreme being, from whom guidance is sought through intermediaries who are closer to humanity and aware of its day-to-day realities.
For many, the soul of the original revolutionaries still exists in the ancestry and memory of these individuals in Haiti's interior, those Vodouisants making the yearly pilgrimages to the mountain caves, and from whose ancestors, back in the 1700s, the quest for independence originally drew its first breath.
This article is a shorter version of the one which will appear in the first of the MIPJ's 2013 editions on Climate Change, Resource Conflict, the Environment, and Human Security, and is part of a larger media project produced by photojournalist Anthony Karen, MIPJ Executive Editor/writer K.J. Wetherholt, and documentary cinematographer Jan Wellmann....
Photo Courtesy of Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
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