Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti

by Amy Wilentz

Hardcover, 2013




New York : Simon & Schuster, 2013.


Describes the author's long and painful relationship with Haiti before and after the 2010 earthquake, tracing the country's turbulent history and its status as a symbol of human rights activism and social transformation.

User reviews

LibraryThing member slavenrm
As always seems to be the case, I received this book courtesy of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration my candid thoughts reside comfortably below.

The first thing to make absolutely clear about this book is that I was rather surprised to find it in the 'Travel Guides' section of Amazon. I imagine a travel guide as a book that suggests "you absolutely MUST see X but don't go to Y or you won't come back" but that's clearly not the focus of this book. There are no lavish photographs of tourist attractions or lists of grand local restaurants. This is a book about the heart, soul and sometimes viscera of a country in turmoil from the viewpoint of someone who has spent quite a bit of time there. The author's view of the nation of Haiti is one you get after years there, not the one you see in a two-week vacation.

Through our author's eyes we see the nuts and bolts history of the country, some of its people and a peek into its future. The writing is superb and enthralling and paints a wonderfully vivid picture. Highly recommended for those who want to know more about a little-known part of the world. Expertly and eruditely constructed it's a biography of the country written around the memoir of the author.
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LibraryThing member bluepigeon
I had started Farewell, Fred Voodoo before the trip, so it was the only book I took with me in physical book format.

I finished it shortly after we landed, despite having watched a stupid Hollywood film on the plane, a long-standing flight policy of mine that goes something like this: I will never pay to watch this horrendous film that has nothing to do with reality and has molded some "true" story under the iron hammer of Hollywood formula into a hollow nothing, unless I am on a plane and it is right there and it's free. Clearly, it is a policy that I need to quit, but, alas, not this time.

The flight, being a February flight taking off in the middle of a snow storm at JFK to the Caribbean, was full of well-to-do white people, except, of course, one of the flight attendants, who had an accent that placed her somewhere in the Caribbean, but not exactly our destination. So there we were, on an almost-all-white flight with a super-large carbon footprint (the de-icing took an hour, and I do not even want to try to calculate the amount of environment we murdered during that time, let alone the flight, the stay, and the flight back) headed for a tropical paradise with a poor, mostly black population, of whom over 80% depend on tourism for their livelihood... A very good time to read Amy Wilentz's masochistic farewell to Fred Voodoo.

Incidentally, the film I chose to watch on our way to the islands was Captain Philips, whose commercial ship gets taken hostage by Somalian pirates, and who is eventually rescued by the brave US Navy. But, Captain Philips is a conscientious man, and he lets us understand some things during his painful stay with the Somalian criminals. (I will paraphrase the dialog based on notes I took on the plane, on the cardboard box of the Beef Up meal JetBlue was offering at a price equal to what a villager would earn in a month in the islands, I wager):

Philips: We're taking food to starving people in Africa... including some Somalians.
(an "Ah!" moment)

Inevitably, I am thinking of the Crisis Caravan and the foreign aid groups and religious missions...

Later, we learn something about why the pirates might be doing what they are doing:
Somalian pirate: I'm a fisherman. They came and took all our fish. What is left for us to fish?
(an "Aha!" moment)

Inevitably, I am thinking of Miami rice that flooded the Haitian market, and inadvertently took away the income of rice farmers in Haiti.

The crew of the captured vessel lay out a trap for one of the pirates, who cuts his foot on the glass shards they had hoped he would step on. Later, good Captain Philips bandages the pirate's foot. A bandaid solution, but a well intentioned one nevertheless, for a wound caused by the ship's crew, though one can easily argue the pirate brought it upon himself.

Meanwhile, the Somalian Pirate keep reassuring Captain Philips: "Everything will be OK." He smiles. I think, this would make a good shot for the photojournalists.

And he reveals his dream, of going to America, to New York.

Inevitably, I am thinking of Amy Wilentz's acquaintances, the Aristide boys, who now and then describe their dreams for the future, of which the most incredulous one is going to America.

And the semi-naive Captain Philips, like the missionaries and do-gooders in Wilentz's book, eventually realizes, and allows himself to pass a judgement on his captors: "You're not just a fisherman." He repeats this twice, unable to process, perhaps, how he had missed this fact in the beginning. He understands, truly understands, that he was their "white man." And the Captain seems to arrive at the conclusion that there is something wrong with the Somali pirate, something wrong beyond the fact that the is a jobless fisherman, rendered impotent by the colonial powers that be.

Inevitably, I am thinking of the foreign aid that is promised to Haiti, none of which is directly trusted in the hands of the Haitian government or Haitians, because, well, there is something wrong with them, isn't there? We want to help them, but all they want is to take take take and waste and never improve. This is, I presume, is how Captain Philips must be feeling.

Before Philips is rescued, he tries to understand and reason: "There's gotta be a better way than being a fisherman or kidnapping people."
Somalian pirate: "Maybe in America."

And the Somalian pirate does, in the end, go to America. He is told he will go to jail in America. And we now understand that the only way for him to really have gone to America was like this. What other way could there be for this unskilled ex-fisherman, who wasn't really a well-trained fisherman to begin with? We are left shaking our heads and feeling sorry for Captain Philips, and maybe, a little for the pirate, though rationally, we do not think he deserves much of our sympathy.

When we landed in our tropical paradise, we are very white. And everyone who is servicing us, cabbies, restaurant people, policemen... are black locals. The hotel owners are white, though they grew up on the islands, we are told. And we hire local businessmen for our excursions, all of whom were born and grew up on the very island we are vacationing away from the annoying crowds on the main island. For the most part, the locals we deal with are well educated. Some have worked in the US before. We do not feel out of place much, because we know, as racial as the divide seems, it is very much a class divide, the same class divide that we find vacationing in Turkey, where everyone is Caucasian to some degree, but those who serve and those who vacation clearly belong to different socioeconomic classes.

There is one incident that puts me right back into Amy Wilentz's book: I usually over-tip when on vacation in places like this, aware that this is very much appreciated by the people who work there. I tip the local guide who takes us around the caves more than 50%. I know, he is also getting 66% of the tour price to himself, the remaining portion goes to the island, presumably, for the maintenance of the protected area. But this is not enough; he asks me to pay the cab driver, too. Our hotel owners are very detailed in their directions and they have never mentioned this fee, and I know, I just know because I have been in similar situations before, that I am now officially the tour guide's "white man." I pay and smile. I sincerely hope he enjoys his earnings. But I can easily see how this can become a source of resentment very quickly.

When we are flying back, I count the number of non-white people in the airport (not just our flight, but a good 8 flights!): Four. We are at the airport for over 4 hours, and a total of four black people are among the ocean of white people with pink children are flying today.

In Farewell, Fred Voodoo Amy Wilentz reports not only the state of Haiti and its people, but on the complicated and often contradictory state of foreignness in this seemingly cursed, yet beautiful land. Wilentz's observations and experiences, which she dissects with relentless self-criticism and journalistic vigor, are very much the blueprint of the experiences of the privileged and lucky in the world, who may intend to help struggling nations and peoples, who may vacation in places that suffer from chronic poverty, who may do business in such developing countries.

Wilentz sets out to answer many questions, but one is very difficult to pin down an answer for: Why does she keep coming to Haiti? Why is she still there? What is she doing there? And the answer seems to be: to be useful. But even this is unsatisfactory, as she questions just how useful she is, or her book is, or how selfless, as she will put it on her resume, and earn something from the book sales, just like the doctors who rush to disaster areas and become celebrities based on their sacrifices, and the religious missions, who are, undoubtedly, doing good to be good in their God's eyes.

We met a couple during vacation. I told them about the book. The woman said she had been to Haiti several years ago. On a mission trip. I recommended she read Farewell, Fred Voodoo. I tried not to smile too widely.
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LibraryThing member annbury
Interesting and worthwhile, if a bit repetitive. The author does not like most outsiders to Haiti, including herself, and does not really know why. Her descriptions of the efforts to help Haiti after its recent earthquake are wonderful, especially the US aid efforts, which mostly go to themselves. Her idea that most aid organizations live to perpetuate themselves is right on.… (more)



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