Guest Blog: Nick Stone – “Aristide & Me”
Every Easter-time, between 1978-84, my mother and I used to go to Haiti for a month. My mother is Haitian and I was partly brought up there, having been taken to the country from England when I was a mere seven months old. I learnt to walk and talk there. I saw the first film I loved there (Peckinpah’s The Getaway – at the age of six). I had my first kiss, cigarette and drink there. And I also learnt about guns and mad dogs there too – the last experience intertwined. Haiti was a very special place to me. I never quite thought of it as home. It was more a dream place, where the sun always shone and I was among people I loved. Going there then, to me, was like one long Christmas.
The person I looked forward to seeing the most was the person I’d grown up believing was my mother – my nanny, Philomène Paul. I called her “Fofo”. She’d raised both my uncles too. I used to spend most of my time with her, talking, mostly. She was wise beyond words and I found that I could tell her anything and everything, without incurring wrath or judgement. She’d tell me when I was wrong.
In April 1984 I’d become aware of some of Haiti’s problems – the poverty for one, which had a very basic and blunt physical manifestation right outside the window of the bedroom I slept in my family’s house – the same house I’d spent three and a half years of my life in. There was a ravine right outside my window. The ravine was filled with rotting trash and animal carcasses. When a breeze blew through it, its stench would fill the room. At first it made me physically sick. Then I just got used to it. There was a thin sliver of stagnant water at the bottom of the ravine, where people stood to wash themselves. I’d watch them – men and women, old and young – standing ankle deep in that filthy sluice, soaping themselves with bars of sandy coloured soap. They’d rinse the suds off their skin and hair with buckets of yellowy water. The family bathroom, complete with a shower with running water was right next door to my bedroom. So, why, I asked myself, was my family living in comfort, when the rest of the country was living in the middle of the ravine?
I tried talking to my uncles about this, but all they could do was shrug their shoulders and say that that’s the way it had always been. When I suggested it was very wrong, they called me a “communist” (at best), or at worst told me that I simply “didn’t understand”, and what was I doing paying attention to “le peuple” (the masses) anyway?
So I talked to Fofo instead. Like my uncles, she told me it had always been that way, but, she added, that it was somehow beginning to get that little bit worse under Jean-Claude Duvalier – aka Baby Doc, the fat, moronic son of Francois Papa Doc Duvalier, the Saddam of the Caribbean.
Why, I asked her, was Baby Doc still in power? Why hadn’t the people risen up and overthrown him? I knew about Haitian history, how a former slave called Toussaint L’Ouverture had handed Napoleon his ass in 1801, before the country had gone on to become the first independent black republic. Napoleon was a military genius and commanded the most powerful army in the world. Who the fuck was Baby Doc?
“Because people are afraid,” Fofo said quietly and very quickly. Back then Haitians talked politics in hushed tones, especially when they were criticising the Duvalier regime – which they did very frequently, but always looking over their shoulders. You never knew who was listening. Baby Doc employed a (not so) secret police called the Tonton Macoutes – armed thugs in dark glasses and civilian clothes. Their brief was simple: kill all opponents to the regime, whether actual or – as was often the case – imagined. They were a very busy bunch. They’d kill on a whim. They’d kill by mistake. They’d kill because they hadn’t killed anyone in a while and didn’t want to lose their touch. The Macoutes were said to number around 250,000. The population of Haiti was then around 4.5 million. That’s one in four people who were Macoutes, or four degrees of separation between you and a bullet or a machete.
“Is everyone afraid?” I asked.
“No. Not everyone,” Fofo shook her head. “There’s a priest …”
And Fofo told me all about Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide – a Salesian priest who preached in the slums of Port-au-Prince. Baby Doc loathed him and the things he said, but everyone was afraid to kill him. Some said God had made him bulletproof. Others said even Macoutes had a line they wouldn’t cross. Most claimed that if Baby Doc killed Aristide, the slums would rise up against the government – and if that happened, the government was doomed.
“I have to meet him,” I said.
So, a week or so later, Fofo took me to her local church in Port-au-Prince, the capital. It was where Aristide preached.
We took a taptap (public transport in Haiti – cars of indeterminate vintage and road-worthiness, brightly painted with images of Catholic saints (usually) and slogans; you don’t get them to yourself – you share them with as many people as can fit in without blocking the driver) into town.
At first sight, Aristide didn’t look like much. He was a small man, frail even, with glasses. He looked like the classroom geek who always got picked on by the jocks; the guy who got great grades but never got the girl. He was the kind of guy you wind up working for. The priestly cassock made him seem even smaller. In fact, sitting there in the middle of the packed hot church, with its rudimentary benches, I actually thought an altar boy was holding mass, and that Father Aristide would appear for the sermon, all six foot nine of him, and address his congregation in a booming, stentorian voice.
Looking around the church, at the congregation – sat, stood or knelt – everyone was rapt; everyone was looking at this tiny man with something close to adoration. And there was something else too. I was the worst dressed person in the congregation. I, Nick Stone, the scion of one of Haiti’s oldest families, was in jeans and an Everlast t-shirt. Everyone around me was dressed to the nines. Fine suits, polished shoes, crisp shirts, great dresses. I couldn’t understand this. We were in a church, in one of the poorest parts of the capital city of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and everyone was dressed and groomed as if for a society wedding. But that’s one of the many many fascinating and baffling and quite moving things about Haiti. The poor may dress in disintegrating hand me downs, but it’s out of daily necessity, never choice. When they go to church, they go in style – and what style! We’re talking the most nattily dressed people I’ve ever seen; fashion sense that could split an atom. Going to church allowed them a few hours of dignity, a few hours of equality and nobility. A few hours when they could out-pizzazz the rich.
But back to Aristide. I’d grown up in Catholic school. I had to sit through mass twice a week. And on Sunday. He was just another priest to me. Ok, so the service was in Kreyol (the patois – roughly Afro-French) as opposed to English or Latin, which leant it a certain edge, made those careworn devotions far more powerful. I found myself listening to Aristide’s voice. It wasn’t deep or hectoring or particularly dramatic. It wasn’t out to make much of an impression. It was a familiar, friendly voice. It had warmth. It drew you in, made you listen, made you want to hear more. It broke down barriers and gained your trust. And he was just reading from The Bible.
Then came the sermon. Sermons were when I usually zoned out in mass. Sermons were boring to me, always the same, just one word really, over and over again. “Don’t”. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, smoke, drink, look at porn, jerk off, lust after girls, listen to Heavy Metal, punk, or disco. I was, frankly, expecting more of the same.
Aristide started with a question:
“Does anyone here know what liposuction is?”
I’d never heard of this, and neither had anyone else. I thought it was going to be Latin for “Don’t”.
Aristide explained what it was. He said it was what fat people did when they were too lazy to diet. The congregation exchanged mystified looks. They were all thin. Some very thin indeed. They’d never known fat in their lives.
He then told the following story. Whenever he had to receive visiting foreign dignitaries, or had a new girlfriend or boyfriend, Baby Doc went to a Swiss clinic and had liposuction. This cost him the – then, to everyone there, and to me – astronomical sum of $10,000. That’s without the airfare – about $3,000 (first class, obviously) – and the cost of the clinic itself – $1,000 a day. Baby Doc stayed there for at least a week. So, a round $20,000 for Baby Doc to look less round.
Baby Doc’s fragrant wife, Michelle Duvalier (née Bennett) – de facto ruler of Haiti, along with her cocaine (and dead Haitian) smuggling father, Ernest – told her husband that most of his high ranking army officers were too fat and really needed some liposuction. She said they were a disgrace, sitting behind him, looking eight months pregnant with twins in their uniforms. She probably didn’t mention – but Aristide did – that she was having affairs with some of them – whether simultaneously or not, he didn’t mention (we were, after all, still in church).
So Baby Doc, who never said “No” to his wife, packed his top brass off to Switzerland to get the fat vacuumed out of them.
The congregation, on hearing this, were mouth agape shocked.
Aristide then itemised the bill, in human cost, for the benefit of the congregation. The $140,000 dollars the mass liposuction cost Baby Doc, could have paid for a house for each and every member of the congregation. It could have built a school for their children. It could have bought essential medical supplies. It could have bought food. It could have gone some way towards a public hospital.
“C’est kob ou l’ap gaspillé,” Aristide said. “It’s your money he’s wasting”.
Well, it wasn’t my money. I was English. But I was pissed off.
From that moment on, I was transformed, radicalised. I used to get that way before a boxing match, when my trainer would come into the dressing room and give me a “Do or Die” speech. But this was way different. As a boxer, I was fighting for myself. Now I wanted to fight for something, for someone else. I wanted to get a gun and cap Baby Doc and his wife myself. I was ready to fight for Haiti’s freedom from tyranny. I was ready to follow Aristide. I was up on my feet with everyone else. Fofo was sat there smiling to herself. Indulgently.
After the service she introduced me to Father Aristide. He was stood outside the church, talking and laughing with his congregation. He was on first name terms with everyone. He was everyone’s friend.
He shook my hand.
I started talking to him in an excited rattle, about how I could help overthrow Baby Doc and kill those liposucked generals.
“I know you,” Aristide said to me, looking through his spectacles, even smaller and frailer close up than from a distance. His cassock billowed off him like a parachute fit for an elephant. But boy did he have presence. “Philomène’s told me all about you! You’re the boxer, right?”
“Oh, I love boxing!” he said. Then, before I could say anything, he started asking me about what I thought of the second Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight – the infamous night when Duran had quit on his stool and said “No Mas”. Did I think it was fixed? Who had I supported?
Aristide was disappointed when I said I was a Leonard supporter. He was a Duran man. He told me the fight was a fix, that the US had “got” to Duran. He sounded so convinced and convincing that I started hearing myself agreeing with him. Even though it was rubbish. Leonard had trash-talked Duran into frustration and then submission.
“I love boxing!” Aristide repeated. “Love it!” And, to my astonishment, in full priestly robes, he started shadow-boxing on the spot – bobbing and weaving, throwing fast combinations – jab! hook!! right-cross!!! uppercut!!!!. He was fast and nimble, a natural fighter.
I never saw him again, not in person. But I supported him when he was running as Haiti’s first, democratically elected President. And I shed a good few tears of joy when he got in with a 98% majority in Haiti’s first and free elections. I thought it was the beginning of something great for Haiti, a whole new era of painful but ultimately positive change.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Nick Stone – author of Mr Clarinet (set predominantly in Haiti in 1996) and King of Swords (set in Miami between 1980-82)