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  • It was my first time in the country and I wanted to get a special souvenir for my father. But not just anything would do.

    He was a well-traveled man, a former diplomat who had brought us along with him to be part of some very interesting times in modern world history, picking up memorable pieces along the way. A statue of an African king; silver napkin holders hand-picked for each of us in Belgium’s open air antique markets; Hungarian embroidered hearts and roosters to hang on our Christmas tree; a puking chicken carafe from Portugal; and, a female circumcision knife. These are among the pieces that trigger fond memories and conversational strolls at family gatherings. Well, except perhaps for the circumcision knife.

    But with memory-triggering pieces like these, his gift had to be good. And it had to be able to start its own story. This was Haiti in the mid-1990’s after all. There were lots of things going on and I, as a young penniless recent graduate still living at home, was there to research why Haitians were willing to put their lives on the line to flee in small, rickety boats across shark infested waters. I thought about a painting. The cheap stuff they sold on street corners wasn’t going to cut it and the stunning pieces in the high-end galleries were way out of my price range. No. I needed different, unusual even. And not too costly, at least by US standards.

    Somewhere in the first couple of days, I met Mika. As with many of the chronically unemployed and educated in the city, Mika was a young, enterprising guide who would invariably seek out “Blan” (non-Haitians) to offer his cultural navigation services. They were all perfectly polite and quite gifted in knowing which drivers to hire (their cousin), where to eat (their aunt, if you didn’t want to get sick), or which vendor in the market would be the least likely to rip you off (their other cousin), all for a small daily fee. My travel companions and I had quickly learned that no matter how well we spoke it, knowing French wasn’t going to get us far. We needed a local. And Mika – with his impeccable French, Spanish, English, and likely mastery of several other languages we didn’t know in addition to Creole – certainly was that.

    During lunch one day, I mentioned my quest to Mika, emphasizing the wish for something special, unique, and typically Haitian. Perhaps something Vodouesque? That might work. We set off to see if the vendors in the Marche de Fer, with its stocks of food staples, cheap goods, and supplies for Vodou services, had anything to offer. Our first stop was a stall with an assortment of sculptures fashioned from odds and ends, including lots of doll heads. Lots and lots of doll heads. It was definitely unique and special; the artist, Pierrot Barra, was an internationally recognized artist. Barra explained that many of his pieces were expressions of the Petro Loa (spirits), those within the Vodou pantheon that were “hot”, and frequently angry. I liked his work, but the idea of angry spirits and a female circumcision knife being displayed in close proximity to each other in my father’s house didn’t sound like such a good idea, even if I knew Papa would enjoy the potential for controversy. Perhaps something a little less macabre I suggested.

    Mika guided us deeper into an area where makeshift walls fashioned out of cardboard blocked the light from outside the market’s iron facade. We passed a few stalls and looked at a few items, but nothing stood out as befitting my quest. Something dawned on Mika. He asked me to wait and came back a while later with a selection of oddly shaped baubles, some with feathers coming out the top. These are Paket Kongo, he explained, representations of the energy of different Loa harnessed by a Houngan (priest) or Mambo (priestess) to help those in need. I looked them over and picked one covered in purple satin and yellow ribbon with feathers coming out the top. What’s this one, I asked. Ah, Damballah, he said. He’s the universal Loa. He is the father and creator, one of the closest to Bon Dieu (God) as he lives in the sky. That fits. Except for the close to God part, but then getting Papa something that brings him a little closer couldn’t hurt.

    As he walked me back to the hotel, Mika gave me very specific instructions. When you give this to your father, make sure he takes it and puts it somewhere only he can see it. It should never be seen by anyone else. Otherwise it will lose its power. Make sure he follows this, ok? It’s very important. Oh, and don’t show it to anyone either.

    Right. Got it. No problem.

    I followed his instruction diligently, storing it away deep in my luggage until I could get it home. When I gave it to my father, I made sure to pass on the rules. Papa opened the package, listened to Mika’s explanation, and promptly positioned the Paket Kongo for full public display next to the circumcision knife, a place of honor for new objects of note.

    Several months later, my friends Amrit and Sikander were visiting. They were newlyweds. During their wedding – an elaborate Hindu celebration with great expectations put upon them both – one of Sikander’s older family members had given Amrit a bunch of fruit, a representation of fertility. She wished a long and happy marriage with lots and lots, and lots of children upon the couple. She also told them in no uncertain terms to get busy.

    Papa asked if there was any movement in that direction.

    Not yet.

    Not to worry, Papa said. I have just the answer. As he told the story of its origin, he picked up the Paket Kongo and waived it around Amrit’s head. Make lots of babies, make lots of babies, he repeated several times. Amrit smiled. She knew my father, and his sense of humor. We continued with our conversation and our meal and didn’t think about it again.

    Less than a month later, Amrit called.

    Guess what? I’m pregnant! Great news!

    Definitely! Congratulations!

    But coming so quickly after my father’s incantation, the news made us both wonder what else might be hidden in the depths of the Marche de Fer.

    --

    (Photo credit to Tan Wee Chen, @NomadicRepublic)

    (For more on the Marche de Fer and it's importance to the rebirth of Haiti, read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/world/americas/11haiti.html?_r=1)
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