It’s always hard to bury a friend – and it’s even harder to bury a friendship.
Almost all young men in Cite Soleil are part of a baz, a group of guys who hangs out in the same place every day and who are responsible for a piece of the neighborhood. The baz have gotten bad name because many of them are linked to politics or local gangs, but not all of them are. At their core, they are a band of brothers, friends who will defend each other against the many dangers that come with being a young man in Cite Soleil. If you got arrested, they would come to get you out of jail. If someone threatened you, they would close ranks to protect you. If you were hungry, they would share their food with you. When disasters hit – natural or not, earthquake or coup d’etat – they were the ones you turned to for survival.
Robi grew up looking up to the Bo Deny baz, who hung out by the school in his neighborhood of Ti Ayiti. They were a bit older than him, were involved with the school, and never messed around with guns. One of the most popular guys was Jacinthe ‘Ti Ga’ Louigemps , who they called ‘Gagot’ because he liked to share and spend money on what he didn’t have. As he became a rising rapper in Cite Soleil, Gagot became his stage name, and then it became the name everyone knew him by. Gagot was like a king – he rode around on his motorcycle, working on his music videos, hanging out all over the block. He got into trouble, got out of trouble, but had this easy smile that made people forgive him even when he would get drunk and throw bottles at the end of street parties. But he stayed above the real violence going on around him – even after his brother was shot down by a local gangster, he never entered into the local gangs.
By the time Robi became a part of Bo Deny, Gagot had moved further down the street to set up his own baz. But he and Robi became close through volunteering for the Konbit Soley Leve movement, and Gagot began writing more social hip-hop. He wrote a song called Nou Bouke (we’re exhausted) about how tired the people of Cite Soleil were with blackouts, violence, dying early in hospitals. Robi loved this song so much he would play it nonstop for days on end, and when Gagot got the chance to perform in front of tens of thousands of Soleyans for the anniversary of the Soley Leve movement, he shared that song.
But the baz were breaking up – petty politics and jealousy had caused many of the baz in the area, including the original Bo Deny, to splinter off into sub-groups. Robi stopped being able to keep track of who was fighting with who, who was hanging out with who. It saddened him – these guys were ready to die for each other during the bad years of 2004, 2005. They had survived gang wars, police raids, and earthquakes – and now jealousy, unemployment, and boredom were tearing them apart. Robi tried to stay friends with everyone, but things were not the same.
During this time, people started to notice Gagot getting skinnier. He broke out in strange rashes, and became weak. He went to the local clinics, but he said they couldn’t diagnose him with anything. People close to him thought it was AIDS, but if it was, Gagot stayed silent. So when he came home, the rumors started flying: maji. Magic. Dark magic. Someone was paying a voudou priest to make Gagot sick.
This is not uncommon: because few people can afford to go to hospitals, because diagnostic capacities at many health centers are so weak, and because there is great stigma around certain diseases, the cause of many deaths remains unknown to friends and family. If someone dies from something other than a gunshot wound, I’ve stopped asking what they died from – because when I do ask, there is inevitably a shrug of the shoulders, a sigh, and the word maji. And the thing about maji is that it doesn’t come from nature – someone had to send the magic. There seems to be no death from natural causes in most of Haiti. If a physical object (a gun, a car, a machete) isn’t responsible for a death, than a magic spell is. And the magic spell had to come from someone.
So the rumors started flying about who was after Gagot, and inevitably the fingers started pointing to the old Bo Deny guys who he was no longer friends with. This caused rounds of counter-accusations to other parties – this sparked a conflict that grew stronger and stronger as Gagot grew weaker and weaker.
For a while Gagot, seemed to have stabilized, and then last week, he died. The accusations flared as grieved friends and family searched for a reason for his early death. How could such a rising local star have fallen so quickly? It must have been jealous friends, they said. And the grief mixed with anger, which mixed with fear and resentment.
By the time the funeral came, many of Robi’s old friends weren’t speaking to each other. He showed up at the funeral, wanting to mourn his friend. He wanted to use the time to reflect on how his friend had survived so much violence to have died so quietly (almost all of the funerals Robi has been to for the past year have been from shooting deaths), how he could keep Gagot’s memory and music alive. But this was interrupted by the rumors and accusations that were still flying around, even at the cemetery. Even more disturbing was the absence of many of the men from Bo Deny, men Robi had grown up respecting, men who would have taken a bullet for Gagot ten years ago. But the rumors and resentment kept them away. Robi could imagine them, sitting on the street near the school, playing dominoes – while across town, a man slapped wet plaster on the bricks of their friend’s tomb.
This saddened Robi more than the death of his friend – because it was the death of a friendship. And those are much harder to bury.