Haiti Carnival a blaze of glory that transcends dire poverty

Carnival in Jacmel is famed for being the most creative and spectacular celebration in Haiti


It takes four hours by bus over mountain roads to traverse the 80km from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to the coastal town of Jacmel.

Nestled on the southern part of the island, Jacmel is a beautiful, dilapidated, peaceful town founded in 1698. Its history evident everywhere in the crumbling colonial 19th century buildings, this town has not changed much in over 100 years.

Large archaic wooden doors have signs bearing witness to the old export industry of coffee and sugar. Tall palm trees lean out over the expansive new boardwalk. At night the wall is lined with people reading and studying, availing of the use of street light.

Jacmel is famous for its resourceful papier-mâché mask makers, painters and artisan shops. Dancers rehearse inside the colonial buildings. With trees growing out through roofs, and old rubber tyres hanging from trees transformed into elaborate tropical birds, this town is a hive of creativity.

Carnival in Jacmel – this year’s event concluded yesterday – is famed for being the most creative, spectacular celebration in Haiti.

Stages and balconies were built throughout the main street, in anticipation of the thousands performing at the event.

As Carnival begins, the back streets are laid out with hundreds of masks, from lion heads and voodoo-inspired macabre devils to women with fruit on their heads. It is endless and overwhelming in its colour, simplicity and wild, raw beauty.

The costumes are not only masks but also in the RaRa tradition of body paint; using satire they depict current and past political issues, ancestors, mythologies and voodoo.

Carnival has a tradition of overturning cultural norms. In colonial times, it was the day on which the gentry mixed with the poor, the poor dressed as the rich, men became women and rivals withheld their feuds.

Many of the artists involved, from mask makers to dancers, are living in extreme poverty.

They gather cardboard boxes in the dump to recycle into masks, and dancers rehearse although they have not eaten that day, all working towards this annual celebration.

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