Letters From Haiti

Beyond Gadougadou

Six months after an earthquake shook Haiti to its core, our woman in Haiti seeks out what lies beneath the rubble and finds a history of violence and striking beauty.

Sans Souci. Credit: Elizabeth Kiem.

I traveled to Haiti last month. Everyone assumed it was a business trip, since I work for an aid agency. It wasn’t. Aid is the biggest business in town these days, and every other guest in my hotel came with a laptop and a “project.” But I had a different agenda.

After several days in Port-au-Prince, I had a fairly clear picture of Haiti as disaster zone: It had the face of a tent camp, the body of the beat-up road from Carrefour to Leogane, and a rear end that blew air-conditioned cool along a commandeered stretch of airport tarmac where the U.N. works on reconstruction from portable container offices.

Certainly, my week-old mental portrait of the country was a profile only, seen in silhouette and under specific lighting. I observed collapse from the passenger seat of a car; I tested the rubble with well-shod feet; and for every minute I spent among the displaced, I passed an hour on the verandah of a comfortable hotel debating security zones, agricultural investments, and the relative evils of U.S. trade policy and Wyclef for president.

But on Thursday nights, this same verandah hosted a weekly dance party, drawing a crowd of 200; locals outnumbered the foreigners—the journalists, the humanitarians, and the observers like me, by about five to one. I hold those nights, full of rhythm and drums and rum, as my internalized landscape of post-quake Port-au-Prince.

Those were the nights when the gadougadou—the onomatopoetic name bestowed upon the 10-second rumble that has come to redefine Haiti—could be heard in the favorite songs of the house band. (“It’s called the what?” I asked my companion over the noise of the rara horns, when he told me Port-au-Prince’s pet name for the January earthquake. “The gadougadou,” he answered. And when I again expressed incomprehension, he beat the tattoo out on the table. “Ga-dou-ga-dou,” went his lips, and I saw, at once, the city collapse with the slap of an underground hand.)

Post-quake Port-au-Prince was fascinating and complex. But it had become the poster child for Haiti and I wanted to meet the other Haiti … the one that, when good, was very good. The one that, when bad, wasn’t awful. So I went to the north. To Cap Haitien. The second city.


Haiti’s history begins in the north with an armed uprising. All that came before, including Columbus and his discovery, is the story of another island. One where a native people died too quickly to leave much of an imprint, making room for non-natives from France and from Africa. That island was called Hispaniola and later, Saint-Domingue, by its colonists, who were bold but cursed, and its story ends where Haiti begins.

The 20-minute flight from Port-au-Prince banked through clouds and the last range of deforested mountains, and I was looking down on the northern plain, where in 1791 the slaves who cultivated Saint-Domingue into the “Pearl of the Antilles” finally rose up and swore to pay back each of the abuses they had suffered under France. And then, for 15 bloody years, they did.

This was not the place to find a Haiti moving beyond its history of travails. But it was a good place to find a Haiti that had already relegated the gadougadou to its rightful place in history.

Down below, just a thin layer of piteously eroded soil covered the ashes of long-gone plantations where fire and butchery passed through successive hands of masters, maroons, mulattos, and martyrs.

Somewhere invisible from my seat, untethered in a prop plane, was the sacred spot of Bois de Caymans, where a voodoo priest slit the throat of a pig and then vowed to do the same to every white body in Saint-Domingue. Somewhere in that small city spreading into the sea was the central square of the colonial capital, Le Cap, where scores of rebels were hung to rot in the sun, alongside the shriveled head of the voodoo priest Boukman.

No, this was not the place to find a Haiti moving beyond its history of travails. But it was a good place to find a Haiti that had already relegated the gadougadou to its rightful place in history. A Haiti that shrugged at the phrase “disaster zone.” For it’s all relative on scorched earth.


Cap Hatien had already been razed three, or maybe four, times by men and their fire, when an earthquake destroyed it in 1842, killing more than half of its populace.

“Well, damn,” I muttered in response to this revelation as my guide shifted into third gear, dismissing dust and chickens in his wake. The gadougadou slept here, too.

We were headed for Milot, a village outside Cap Haitien and the site of the Citadelle—Haiti’s only maintained tourist attraction. This was the mountaintop fortress that Henri Christophe, the slave-turned-generalissimo, built to defend Haiti’s newfound independence. In fact, once it was completed in 1820, enemies never attacked it. Only the gadougadou.

My guide was Eddy Lubin. He wore a light blue tunic embroidered with the symbol of the voodoo goddess Erzuli, a salt-and-pepper beard, and a baseball cap. He was a former minister of culture, and as he interrupted his discourse on Haitian history and the intellectual slavery of its revolutionary republic to scat along with the Miles Davis on his CD player, I fell a little bit in love.

“In those days, the victors, the former slaves who had to create a structure of power and authority, suffered from a form of Bovaryism,” Eddy explained as he turned into another switchback that would take us halfway to the summit of the mountain where the Citadelle stands.

“They had to out-French the French,” clarified my other companion from the backseat.

Elisabeth Vieux wore a band of thick beads around her neck and held a cigarette in her right hand. She worked for the Ministry of Tourism and talked politics in the shade with a groundskeeper as Eddy and I explored the battlements of the Citadelle. She was tired, she apologized, because the previous day she had driven the width of the country—from Port-au-Prince to Le Cap. I asked her why she hadn’t flown. “Because then I wouldn’t have been able to swim in the mountaintop wadi of Erzuli,” she explained as she lit another smoke. I was a little in love with Elisabeth as well.

From the slanted decks above the cisterns and armories of the Citadelle, we could see range upon range of mountains upon mountains. Whispers of smoke dotted the horizon where persistent peasants cleared another patch of the already barren mountains to grow beans or cassava. I lamented the lost forests, historically blamed on the Haitian dependence on charcoal. Eddy offered another explanation.

“The Protestants burned the trees,” he said quietly, referring to the American missionaries who have been installing Jesus in the hearts of Haitians, for better or for worse, for all of Eddy’s lifetime. “Because the trees are home to the loa, the voodoo spirits.”

I stepped to the edge of the wall, and challenged vertigo. Eddy was describing an existential shift in Henri Christophe’s demands of the coastal defense line—the new fortifications were built to protect the island’s newest and most vulnerable product.

“Not sugar,” said Eddy, his fingers clasped around an invisible gem, but “freedom.”

“But he had made himself emperor and created a peerage system and ordered the peasants back into servitude, en effet,” I clarified, though only the “en effet” part sounded like correct French.

Exactement!” enthused Eddy. I had learned the ironies of Bovaryism.


Henri Christophe built a magnificent palace at the foot of the mountain on which his Citadelle is perched. The palace would house his newly created court and would rival the splendor of Versailles. He called it Sans Souci—No Worries—but in fact the emperor had many: A rival autocrat in the south had designs on his throne; his troops were mutinous; and his “court” was of dubious support—his constituents were resentful of his enforced labor system.

By 1820, Henri Christophe, a former slave who had ridden alongside Toussaint L’Ouverture to defeat Napoleon’s forces and alter the course of a hemisphere’s history, was in frail health and wary of a coup. So he closed the door of one of his chambers and shot himself. Le Cap slipped. The north ceded prominence to Port-au-Prince and other generals-turned-autocrats ready for their turn.

At once warm and cold, sepulchral and alive, the ruins of Sans Souci convey more than the sense of what might have been if Haiti had defended its wealth as well as its liberty.

The earthquake, 22 years later, ruined a palace neglected.

We descended back down the mountain, along the well-maintained cobblestone switchbacks, passing naked children and women stringing beads to sell the tourists. And we passed the tourists, too, as they trudged like pilgrims up the steep path. They stepped to the side to let Eddy’s car pass. I did a poor job explaining to Eddy and Elisabeth that I was surprised that all of these visitors in their wide straw hats were Haitian.

“In Port-au-Prince, there’s no time for sightseeing,” I explained, lamely, but accurately.

Miles Davis was still our soundtrack when the palace came into view, magnificent and some kind of blue on its terraced verdant stage. At once warm and cold, sepulchral and alive, the ruins of Sans Souci convey more than the sense of what might have been if Haiti had defended its wealth as well as its liberty.

Arcades run along the front and the back of the walls, still standing three stories high, fused together with a mix of cane syrup, cow blood, cow skin, and sand. The bust of an 18th-century grand dame watches an impromptu soccer game being played by tall, limber boys, shoeless and unhurried. Their goalposts are the petrified topiaries of a history they may or may not know any better than I.


Eddy has finished talking by the time we drive out of the village of Milot, leaving its impossibly cinematic landmarks behind us. He ejects Miles from the stereo and digs through his glove compartment, spilling broken plastic CD cases on the floor. He promises me something uniquely Haitian. Something I will have never heard.

He is right. A chanteuse is singing love songs to the loa—to Erzuli and Legba. But there is no low possession in her voice—there are no African drums or seduction and no rhythm to speak of. This is nothing like the rara and racine beats of Port-au-Prince. What we are listening to is operatic. We are listening to a classically trained soprano singing creole traditionals. We are listening to voodoo lieder. I have never heard anything like it.

Elisabeth sighs and lights another cigarette. “Oh, mon cheri,” she says. “Tomorrow, the beach.”

And all the road back to Le Cap, the sleepy coastal town that was the seat of cataclysm a century ago, but today is a vacation from the earthquake zone, I try to remember the blazing white helplessness of the National Palace, slumped and broken under the harsh noon of downtown Port-au-Prince. But I can only see the splendid cinematic ruin in the rearview mirror, as Eddy raises the volume of the haunting music.

The gadougadou…but in dulcet tones.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem