Mother of Haiti

A conversation with Carole Demesmin is like a fugue. Themes run in, out, over and under, and just when your ears start to tire and your eyes start to wander, Demesmin gets to a point that, as often as not, is poignant and insightful. It's quickly apparent that careful listening pays off and asides constitute a meandering path to enlightenment rather than a straight one. But isn't the journey supposed to be as important as the destination anyway?

She is a striking woman with flashing eyes, who brushes away bothersome journalistic questions like "How old are you?" with a mystic, vodou-inflected world view. "That I never say," she says in reference to the age question. "My belief is in what we call eternity," she says. "In mythology, for black people, what we call eternity is not, 'go and die and live in heaven.' Eternity is the blood my mother and grandmother gave to me. We reproduce ourselves in another generation with the same soul, the same love we carry."

In corporeal terms, let's put her in her early fifties.

She is polite and patient, willing to slow down and spell things out for someone who has trouble with her heavily inflected English. She's also enigmatic. Spending time with her makes you realize there's always something you don't yet know about her, something more than what she's telling you. People who've known her for years will say as much. "You never get enough of her," says Patric Lacroix, a Haitian artist living in Massachusetts. "There is always more there."

She's a Haitian first, an American second. That's the way it is for many of her countrymen, she notes. "With the Haitian it is just incredible," she says, "because their heart is with Haiti. They may work here to make money and to build a little place for them to go and die there. To build their grave. In the Haitian there is something that never leaves the land."

Demesmin herself has never really left the island. She still has a home in Port-au-Prince, where she returns several times a year to perform vodou ceremonies, to take care of family matters, or to help friends. What have never left her are a tinge of bitterness about Haiti's troubles and a desire to do something to improve the situation. As difficult as that may be.

Demesmin was born in Léogâne, about 30 miles west of Port-au-Prince. As a young child, she went to school in Port-au-Prince and would come home for summer vacations to what she describes as a lush paradise. "We used to go up the mountain at 6 a.m. to go look at the sun rise," she recalls. "The hills were full of wild fruits, mangoes, avocados, breadfruit. They were there because God put them there."

She left Haiti at the age of 15 at the behest of her mother, who believed the political climate at the end of the Duvalier regime in the '60s and early '70s had become too unsteady. Demesmin finished high school in Boston. Though all of her nine brothers and sisters also eventually left, Demesmin's father stayed behind. "He is the type who would come to see us in the U.S., spend two weeks, and want to go home," she says. "He could not live in an apartment on the sixth floor. He is the kind who likes his spring water, fresh water in clay jars."

After high school she earned a degree as a voice major at Berklee College of Music in Boston and tried to get a singing career off the ground. While performing at a college with a band in Washington, D.C., she met the ambassador of the African nation of Benin. Upon learning Demesmin was from Haiti, the ambassador asked her what she knew of vodou. She replied that she didn't know much. No one in her family practiced vodou. The ambassador, however, knew a lot about vodou and about Haiti, she says. "This is when I realized I was not Haitian," she says. "I was a foreign girl who was born there, but I was not from there. I did not know about it."

Over the strong objections of her family, Demesmin returned to her native land at the age of 25 to study Haitian history and culture with the intent of becoming a mambo, or vodou priestess. She studied with a spiritual father, a priest by the name of Max Beauvoir, and with dozens of other houngan (male priests) and mambo throughout the country. "I was like a child coming back to them," she says.

Her coursework involved herbal remedies, folklore, and mysticism. She had to know the thousands of divinities, called lwa, in the vodou pantheon and how to call them down from the astral plane with an intricate drawing, a vèvè, made in cornmeal on the ground. She spent 13 years traveling the country and learning her craft before being initiated as a mambo.

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Bob Whitby