Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Ups and Downs of Getting to Haiti

We crossed an international border illegally in the bed of a truck with supplies to build twenty latrines in the mountains of Haiti.  We knew our destination, but not the route.  We knew we would get there, but we did not know when.  We knew we would cross the border, but we had no idea where.

We’d spent the day waiting.  The plan was to leave in the morning, but morning came and we were already a day behind, so we waited.  Just when we thought that we were going to be delayed another day, our contact with Children of the Border showed up at our hotel in Pedernales in the Dominican Republic.  She came with a truck full of supplies for the latrines we were going to build in Haiti.  It was 5pm, a couple hours until dusk, and we had no idea how long the journey would be.  Still, we threw our bags into the back and jumped on after them.  We arranged ourselves on the 2x4s and headed for the border.   

Since we were not crossing at an official border crossing—no stamps for our passports—we did not know when the border was crossed.  There were a couple possibly official possibly unofficial stopping points.  Each time there was lots of discussion in rapid Spanish.  Each time one of the men would come to the back of the truck, greeted us, and shake each of our hands.  Turns out that none of these stops was the border.  The border was a dry river bed that we crossed later.  

After about an hour and a half, at dusk, we arrived.  We arrived at a building standing alone in the mountains.  It was a large rectangular concrete building with a huge cement pad in front.  It looked more like a storage facility than a home.  We unpacked all the supplies and discovered that this was just a halfway point.  Another truck was supposed to meet us and take us the rest of the way.  It had already left.  

We waited.  Our first truck left.  There was no telling when the second truck would return.  It could be an hour or five, that night or the next morning.  I leaned on the supplies piled on the concrete and watched the stars.  I saw a dozen shooting stars.  The others tried to befriend a puppy that was wondering around.  Several Haitian men met us there and they taught us some Creole words in exchange for English ones.  They built a fire and threw corn cobs directly into the flames.  When the leaves were burned they pulled them off and threw the naked cobs back in the fire.  When a cob was deemed done someone would hand it to one of us—straight from the fire it was too hot to hold.  We had to juggle them from hand to hand until they were cool enough to eat.  

After dinner we put on extra clothes to lie under the stars and go to sleep.  At 3:15am the second truck arrived.  So we packed the supplies and jumped in.  This time the road was bumpier than before.  This time the turns were sharper.  This time the hills were steeper.  This time there was no room for sitting.  This time we stood hanging on to the metal frame over the bed.  This time we dodged low branches and grabbed low hanging fruit off the vine.  

Around 5am we stopped—seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  I could see no sign of civilization except the unpaved road we were parked on.  But we disembarked.  Finally we were there.  A house emerged from the darkness as we began to unload the supplies.  The strongest among us carried the wood, zinc, and concrete into the house and yard while the rest of us lit their way with our headlamps and flashlights.  

I was ready for my bed.  But instead of my bed I was given bad news.  We were not at our house, we were at the mason’s house.  We still had to walk to our house and we were waiting for dawn to get started.  I don’t know how long we waited—I slept some in my chair at the dining room table—but we didn’t wait for dawn.  We put on our packs and started walking without any idea how far we were going or how long it would take.  Turned out our house was the 45 minutes away on the next mountain over.  We had to descend into a valley and ascend the next mountain.  By the time we got there the sun had risen.  We went to bed about 8am and slept until lunch.  

The day was long, uncomfortable, full of changed plans, and it was wonderful. 


Interfaith Lessons Learned from a Witch Camp

Kukuo, in northern Ghana, is home to a camp for alleged witches.  There women who have been accused of witchcraft come looking for safety.  They come looking because if they stay home they are in danger of beatings, torture, even death.  Often the women who arrive at Kukuo have already suffered at the hands of their neighbors, friends, and family. They come seeking safety and they find it.  

The safety comes from the local belief in the special nature of the land.  Kukuo is built on land connected to small gods that makes Kukuo a peaceful place.  This was explained to us by the chief of the village during our first meeting in Kukuo.  It was elaborated on when we met with the fetish priest who facilitates cleansing rituals for the alleged witches that neutralize their power.  One alleged witches told us she came to Kukuo—as opposed to the another camp for alleged witches—because Kukuo is a peaceful place.  

We were told that Kukuo is 80% Muslim and 20% traditional religion.  But belief in witchcraft crosses the spectrum.  All the women we talked to all believed in the validity of witchcraft even as they professed their innocence of practicing it.  Many of them also easily talked about God—with Islamic language.  

Kukuo's fetish priestKukuo's fetish priest.

The fetish priest equally had no problem with the beliefs of his Islamic neighbors.  They are quite compatible with his.  As he explained his beliefs, there are small gods and oracles.  The small gods are like aspects of Almighty God and the oracles are like messengers of the small gods.  The small gods are connected to the place.  We had learned earlier from the chief that an important power, maybe the most important power, in respect to the alleged witches, is that the small gods will not allow malice in the hearts of anyone who comes to the camp.  The chief told us that if he had had bad thoughts about us as we walked in he would not have survived our meeting.  He would have died—if not physically, spiritually.  And the same was true for us, if we had bad thoughts about anyone in the camp.  This is part of why the women are safe there.  The other residents literally cannot have bad intentions toward the alleged witches.  

The resistants of Kukuo cannot harbor ill will toward the alleged witches once they step foot on the land.  Once the alleged witches undergo a cleansing ritual at the local shrine they become full members of the community.  The ritual begins with slaughtering a chicken—if it dies face up she is innocent, face down she is guilty.  But no one but the priest and the alleged witch—and occasionally her family—know the outcome.  The priest told us he cannot tell.  No one can tell.  If you tell you die.  Just like if you have malicious thoughts.  Every woman, whether she is guilty or innocent, takes a concoction.  If she was a witch the concoction strips her of her powers.  She is “born again.”  But she must confess.  If she is witch and does not admit it the concoction will cause her diarrhea and she will die within three months.  If she was innocent it harmlessly cleanses her. 

The priest told us that only 20% of his community are of his traditional religion.  Yet, everyone believes in the purification ritual.  This is not true, however.  The local mullah was clear—witchcraft beliefs are not compatible with Islam.  The mullah told us that he has nothing to do with the alleged witches before they complete the purification ritual.  Only the chief and the fetish priest do.  The mullah told us he does not believe in it.  Not in the ritual, not in witchcraft, not in power coming from anyone or anything other than God.  Belief in witchcraft is simply not compatible with Islam.  The priest told us that traditional religion and Islam are compatible because Almighty God and Allah are really the same.  Islam and traditional religion just have different ways of relating to God.  The mullah disagreed.  He said that all power comes from God.  Witches can’t use that power.  Witches don’t exist.  A true Muslim does not believe in witchcraft and a true Muslim would not willingly submit to a purification ritual.  

At the beginning of our visit, it seemed we had found a place where two belief systems had actually managed to live together in peace.  But leaving our meeting with the mullah it became clear that it is not so simple.  The mullah’s point of view is strongly opposed to the ease with with others conflate Islamic and and witchcraft beliefs.  The priest happily folds Islamic belief into his world view.  The alleged witches, most of whom are Islamic, still believe in validity of witchcraft.  Despite the mullah’s adamant stance that no good Muslim can.  

Kukuo mosque with a witch's hut in the foreground.Kukuo's mosque with an alleged witch's hut in the foreground.

The mullah is fundamentally at odds with the priest and the chief where beliefs are concerned.  He does not support their cleansing ritual nor any reinforcement of beliefs in witchcraft.  Their beliefs are at odds but as members of the Kukuo community they are not at odds with each other.  Their actions are perfectly in line.  The mullah said much the same thing that the chief had told us.  If your faith is strong then you won’t think bad things about others.  The mullah counsels forgiveness.  He welcomes alleged witches to his congregation.  He helps the women acquire appropriate clothing for prayers and helps facilitate the building of their huts in Kukuo.  He worries about their food and water supply, even as he can do little to relieve these burdens.  He works toward reconciliation between the women and their home communities.  

The mullah actively works to better the lives of these women.  He helps make Kukuo a place safe from violence and fear.  He helps them set up new lives there.  And he tries, if possible, to get them safely home.  So does the chief.  So does the priest.  We were told time and time again that it does not matter if these women ever had the power or not—it does not even matter if one believes witchcraft is real—they are victims of human rights abuses.  The priest and mullah’s beliefs might be at odds, but they can live together in peace because their problems, goals, and actions are not. 

This post was originally published at State of Formation.