Ever since I began doing volunteer work in the Dominican Republic in 2005, different people started suggesting that I read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. If you have not read or are not familiar with this book, it’s about the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer who is co-founder of a non-profit organization called Partners in Health which does significant health care activity in Haiti and in other developing countries. I go through stages of reading a few books and then not doing any pleasure reading for long periods of time. A few years ago a friend got me the book for Christmas but I still did not get a true hankering to read it until I heard that Dr. Farmer would be speaking at Virginia Tech, my alma mater, last year. I found the book to be very enjoyable, educational, impressive, and thought-provoking. I was especially interested in Dr. Farmer’s unique and quirky, yet nurturing upbringing that likely had a large influence on him turning out to be a very intelligent and high achieving man with a pioneer spirit.
Through reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, one can really gain an understanding of Dr. Farmer’s views regarding world poverty and health care for the poor. There were several points throughout the book where I wish I was reading it as a part of a class or a book club so that we could discuss certain points. I won’t talk about every point I would have liked to have discussed but just one main issue.
Early on in the book, the author recounts a conversation he observed between Dr. Farmer and a Haitian patient. The patient told Dr. Farmer that she believed that her health problems were caused by a magical attack done by someone that was angry with her. Dr. Farmer told the patient that magic does not exist. Through living and working with Haitians I hear continuous talk about magic. I have always heard of this magic referred to as voodoo in English but I rarely hear Haitians use the world voodoo. I have also never seen or heard reference to voodoo dolls coming from Haitians. They talk about someone going to a “boko” or a “mambo” When asked what a “boko” is they often say someone who serves Satan or who knows how to use magic. A boko is a man and a mambo is a woman. People go to a boko or a mambo for a number of reasons. In exchange for money and sometimes under certain circumstances such as certain materials provided, a boko or mambo can supposedly kill someone with magic, witness a situation or find out the true story without actually being there, make someone sick, make someone crazy, make someone receive money, make someone fall in love with the person desiring, give someone the power to disappear, heal someone from a physical or mental sickenss inflicted by magic or Satan, put someone into a state where they appear dead and then later raise them from this state, raise someone from the dead to serve as a slave, give someone the power to disappear, give people the ability to transform into certain animals, and more.
After hearing so many accounts from so many Haitians, I think that it is unwise of Dr. Farmer to conclude that magic does not exist and to state this with authority to Haitian patients. Anyone who believes in the Bible should also not ignore such accounts as such things are also recorded in the Bible. 1 Samuel 28 tells of Saul going to a spiritist and calling up the spirit of Samuel to give him insight as to what David was up to. Perhaps Dr. Farmer’s thoughts on this issue were misrepresented by the recorded conversation and he has further thoughts on this issue. I don’t know. I would be interested in talking to him about it as well as with other foreigners working in Haiti or with Haitian immigrants or refugees in another area such as we do in the Dominican Republic.
Although I have not witnessed many of the things Haitians assure me exist and they have witnessed, I have witnessed some and therefore have to conclude that magic of some sort does exist and it is Satan’s tool. It is also not a joke or a game as some might think it is. An American might hear the word magic and think of a magician pulling bunnies out of hats or making little balls disappear under cups. Haitians know nothing of this sort of magic and the word has a totally different meaning. Magic is not something that people should submit to out of fear, just as one should not submit to Satan out of fear. But it is something that should be taken seriously. 1 Peter 8 says, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil is prowling around like a lion looking for someone to devour.” I often hear bits of this verse stated in reference to mambos, bokos, and people involved in magic or witchcraft, saying that they will eat you. My husband is Haitian and has spoken seriously and firmly with me about magic ever since we met. He gets upset when friends or family have any sort of involvment in magic. People have spread rumors in the past that he used magic to make me fall in love with him. This is an accusation that has highly offended him.
The main situations I have witnessed have been illnesses and the disappearance of items and money. I have witnessed several people with illnesses that are understood by Haitians to be zombies, demon possession, or a spiritual attack of some kind but will mention two cases here as examples. In 2007, a member of our program for Haitian refugee boys working and sometimes living on the streets of Puerto Plata became ill. He first started acting strange when a fight broke out and there was lots of commotion. The fight got diffused and then I thought that this boy was fighting but after observing further, saw that he was on all fours and about three or four large boys were on his back, trying to hold him down. One boy was laughing at their inability to contain him. Soon after, he laid on the ground unconcious. Staff members carried him to a hospital that was located conveniently right across the street. The doctors had him stay for a few days and diagnosed him with epilepsy. I was very busy during these few days and unable to visit him. When he was released, he continued having attacks. They did not appear to be seizures and members of a Christian Haitian church said that we were wasting our money at the hospital. These were spiritual attacks and prayer would heal him.
One evening he was having attacks and we took him to the emergency room where they gave him a strong tranquilizer injection. We assumed that he would sleep through the night but after a few hours, he was having strong attacks, biting the sheets on which he laid and attempting to bite himself and others. We held him down and prayed for him. At one point he called the name of the staff worker next to me and said, “There’s a demon walking in my head. When he finished saying that, I felt a wind come from him and turned my face to avoid taking the wind straight on. As I did this, I saw that the man next to me he had just spoken to did the same thing simultaneously with me. We continued praying throughout the night and the boy prayed some himself as well. He eventually became peaceful and slept. Before becoming sick, this boy had asked to return to his family in Haiti. I had been reluctant to send him since no one could go with him to assure that he arrived safely and it was where he should be. However, after his sickness and other mayhem that went on in the large group, I realized that the responsibility was too great and sent him back along with a few others. No one has seen or heard from him since. Therefore, we have no update on him. During the few days between the long night of prayer and the day he left he did not have any attacks. This is one of several examples I have witnessed and helped care for here.
There is another young man who walks the streets of Puerto Plata selling ice cream every day. Everyone calls him “Dyab” which means “Demon”. He apppears mentally handicapped or restricted mentally in some way although I haven’t spent a lot of time with him. Those that are from the same place as him in Haiti, including my husband, say that his father had a boko do something spiritual to him that causes him to be in this condition. They explain that as a child, he was very uncontrollable and violent. His father made the decision to mentally handicap him in order to control him. His father did this by going to a boko and paying him to use his knowledge and power to put his son in this state.
These cases would likely be understood and explained as something different by psychiatrists in the United States. However, I remember learning about medical framing in a History of Disease and Medicine class I took at Virginia Tech. Framing is basically recognizing a group of symptoms and defining them as a disease. Many illnesses diagnosed, especially mental illnesses, do not have tests that can be run to measure anything in the body to prove the presence of a specific illness. To me, this is evidence of the spiritual nature of the illness. Understanding that diseases are framed somewhat arbitrarily helps to open one’s mind to the different ways illnesses are understood across cultures. Hopefully this also helps Americans to open their minds to the possibility that Haitian understanding of such illnesses may be more accurate or at least worth considering and learning from. For more information on this topic and the use of psychiatric drugs in the US, check out this very informative documentary video made by the mother of a classmate of mine that committed suicide shortly after our high school graduation. His suicide was linked to the psychiatric drugs he was taking for depression at the time.
While spending time in Haiti, I spoke with a pastor, a judge, and other community leaders about the subject of witchcraft or supernatural acts of Satan. I did not seek out community leaders and specifically ask them questions about this but just through passing time in the community and experiencing different things that happened while I was there, such as the dealth of community members, these conversations came about. Before these conversations, the majority of the testimonies and stories I had heard had come from boys in our program in Puerto Plata, as well as Haitian staff members and neighbors. I definitely considered these accounts, but after spending more than a week with my husband’s family in a remote community in Haiti, experiencing life there, and talking with these community leaders, I reflected on Paul Farmer’s comment I read stating that magic does not exist and realized that if that is the approach taken by humanitarian efforts in Haiti then I think it is an insensitive and arrogant approach that gives no value to the testimony of millions of Haitians.
To be scientifically clear, I have not personally listened to the testimony of millions of Haitians but I have listened to at least 100 testimonies in Puerto Plata from people representing various regions of Haiti and at least thirty testimonies from a community outside of Cap Haitian. All have spoken affirmative to the existence of the magical works I mentioend earlier and no one has yet spoken in the negative. These testimonies have come from Haitians of all ages, varying educational levels, and varying levels of personal involovement with magic.
One boy who has been in and out of our program told me about growing up in a household that worships Satan and the sun. I was confused when he told me that they would leave offerings to Satan such as plates of food and Satan would eat them. After asking for further explanation, he told me that Satan could eat the food in different ways. After leaving the food, you could go away and come back to find it gone, not knowing exactly what had happened. Or a force could come over you and you yourself could eat the food or throw it somewhere before coming back to total consciousness. After regaining awareness you are unclear as to what happened.
I also mentioned that I have experienced the disappearance of items, especially money. Before this began happening, I had been told several times that there were people who could disappear, go and steal without anyone seeing. I had also heard of people just having to get near you in order to somehow steal your money without ever touching it. Lots of people that go to a boko go and make some sort of an effort to get money. While Dominicans generally look down upon Haitians, some make trips to Haiti in order to seek out bokos, usually with the ambition of getting rich. A teacher with Project Esperanza used to work as a guide in this area, leading visiting Dominicans to bokos in Haiti. He then became a Jehovah’s witness and quit doing this.
I have experienced several occasions where money has mysteriously disappeared. At first, I accused those nearby and got upset but after a few times, I learned to keep my cool as I realized that accusing people and getting upset only seemed to make things worse and wrongly turn me against others. Yes, people have been responsible for taking money before but there have been several times when that possibility was completely ruled out.
One example is when I ate at a cafeteria and had a zipper wallet in my hand. It had a 500 peso bill and a 200 peso bill. I checked intentionally before eating and saw this. I held the wallet in my hand the whole time and no one touched me. After eating, I opened the wallet to pay and the 500 peso bill was missing. I am 100% sure that the bill was securely in the wallet before and that no one touched the wallet.
Another example happened this past summer when Project Esperanza co-founder Kristin Preve was visiting, along with the Tulane Medical student group. I was on the soccer field at soccer practice. I pulled a zip lock baggy from my purse that was full of change and sent someone to buy water. I then put it back in my purse. Kristin then showed up at the door at other end of the field. I yelled over to her, asking her to bring the guagua (van) full of volunteers over to the other door so that I could pay the guagua driver without having to walk across the field. After a few minutes, the guagua sat outside of the door I was near. I went over and stood by the driver window to pay him for the day’s services. I gave him some money from my pocket but then needed to complete with money from the change bag. I searched all through my purse and couldn’t find it. I went back to the soccer field where I just was and couldn’t find it. I asked the boys on the soccer team that stood around and they searched. I then had to tell the guagua driver that I would finish paying him tomorrow and he took the volunteers back to the hotel. Kristin never got out of the guagua as I paid the driver. The only time she got out was when she appeared at the other end of the field, about 100 yards away. We never were in contact with each other. Additionally, no one that was outside of the guagua got in the gaugua at this point. I just went to the window and paid the driver. Later that evening, Kristin found my bag of change in her purse which she had with her in the guagua. We confirmed that it was the same bag. How the heck did it end up there? This sort of thing has happened on too many occasions. Luckily we found the money this time but on several occasions I have not.
It is probable that Dr. Farmer told his patient that magic does not exist because he did not want the patient to engage in continued conflict with the person she believed had sent an illness upon her with magic. He also likely believed that the case could be solved with modern medicine. That is very reasonable and I think it’s important to try to lessen conflict in such situations. However, there is value in exploring the spiritual realm as well when considering the health of individuals and communities. I think that this is an area that Haitians specialize in.