Those of you who are familiar with Haitian culture and Voodoo know that Zombies are among the many cryptozoological specters that Haitians believe in, including shape-shifters, “Lougarou” (flying people that remove their skin or make themselves invisible, often compared to wear-wolves and vampires), and other “jab” (evil beings / demons). The majority of our Haitian friends have given us detailed reports of their encounters with these things, challenging our own sense of Western intellectual superiority and reminding us that the handful of contemporary western developed nations are the only cultures in all of history that have NOT believed in such things. So a few months ago when Carlin (an orphaned teen who lives with us) sat down on the couch and announced nonchalantly, “I saw a zombie for the first time today”, I anxiously wanted to go see for myself.
The Haitian Zombie is a documented phenomenon with a very rational explanation. Voudou priests have long said they could raise a person from the dead, stealing their soul and controlling their body in order to perform various labor tasks. Investigations have shown that this does actually happen, but not according to the stories offered by the Houngan or Bokor (priests). What really happens is that the priest is involved in the “death” of the would-be Zombie, poisoning the victim with near-lethal levels of powdered blow-fish venom. The victim slips into a brain-damaging coma, with breath and heartbeat slipping beyond detection. After a slow sleep in the grave, the houngan can come back within a few days and administer an anti-venom to the chemically labotomized victim, bringing them back to a regular level of respiratory and cardiac activity, but with a permanently compromised mental capacity. Investigation of this process was the theme of the popular book & movie, “The Serpent and the Rainbow.”
Because of the zombie tradition and the cost of burial plots, most Haitians do not allow their dead to stay in a graveyard for long after their burial ceremony. They have them buried for the funeral and then cremated shortly after, because they don’t want their deceased family members to be resurrected as slave monsters. What’s more tragic is that some families actually behead or stab their deceased relatives at their funeral just to make sure they are dead.
I asked a Haitian why they fear Zombies and she said, “because they’ve been dead before.” I replied, “But you aren’t afraid of Jesus and you believe he was dead before, right?” My friend agreed, but then added, “But if we saw him, we’d be afraid of him.”
Well this particular zombie, the one that Carlin took me to see, was not all that frightening. That’s him in the picture up above. He was sitting on a piece of cardboard, emaciated and looking incoherent, slightly rocking and batting at the air. He seemed to not be able to lift his head. I thought to myself, “Well if he’s dangerous, I’m not sure who he could possibly hurt.” I didn’t know what was wrong with him, but I was pretty sure he was a “moun” (person) and not a “jab”.
I told Carlin we should pray for him. Carlin looked a little nervous. There was a crowd beginning to gather. I knelt in the dirt next to him along with Kelsey Little, one of our guest volunteers from Judson College, and we prayed for him. There was a crowd around that seemed a little
confused. Why would we talk to a zombie? Why would we touch him? Why would we pray for him? They told us that prayers would not work, his soul was already gone. Kelsey lifted a bottle of water to his lips and he drank deeply, then we paused, not knowing what to do next. Then it became very clear: either we were going to leave him here in the dirt to be a spectacle, or we were going to take him home. I looked at Kelsey and said, “What do you think Shelley will say when we bring a ‘zombie’ home?” We laughed a nervous laughter and then loaded our new zombie friend into the back of the car. He did not talk and could barely move his legs to assist with our lifting him into the car. As we lifted him into the car a crippled and impoverished man wearing nothing but tattered shorts came up to us leaning on a crutch and speaking in English, “God bless you for what you are doing! My wife and I have been bathing him and feeding him, but we don’t have much to give.” These poor people had been doing their best to sustain this man with their limited resources. They had literally given him the clothes off of their backs.
When we got home I told Shelley that we had brought the “zombie” home. The Haitians at our house looked panicked, and Shelley looked shocked but a little excited. “Can we keep him?” I joked, not knowing what else to say. There was a wonderful short term team from Chicago that helped care for him, one of whom was a full time caregiver for people with special needs in the states. She helped me massage his tense, atrophied muscles and we laid him on a bed and changed his pants. He soiled the bed a couple times, but relaxed. We prayed for him for quite a while and he seemed to relax as we spent most of the night pampering him in whatever ways we could think of. He had been a monster only minutes ago, and now he was being treated like a person made in the image of God. It was beautiful and a huge privilege to serve Christ so palpably.
After a few days we didn’t really know what to call him. Many people came to our house wanting to see the zombie, and we obliged them, hoping that seeing him dressed, well fed and sitting watching kids movies and relaxing with us would help humanize him in their eyes. We didn’t let any crowds in, just individual Haitians. They all told us we were crazy and that he was going to eat our children in the middle of the night. We decided that calling him “the zombie guy” was not respectful and would only fuel the fear and alienation that he had already been subjected to, so we called him “B” instead, hoping that he would someday speak and tell us his name. In the meantime we began looking for ministries that specialized in caring for people with special needs and we tried to research his condition. After some reading online we thought that he probably had cerebral palsy. One thing was certain: he loved the shower. After I would bathe him (he soiled himself regularly) he would sit in our rocking chair and pretend to wash himself with invisible soap for about 3 hours. I’m not exaggerating. This guy REALLY liked the shower.
After a few calls around town we found that all of the homes for handicapped and mentally ill people were full and we began to feel the crunch of having 3 orphans, a street kid, our own children and a man with cerebral palsy to take care of. The short term team left for the states and we were short-handed. The stakes were raised when I was bathing B and he dropped like a ton of bricks into the bathtub, frothing at the mouth and seizing. Shelley and I prayed for him while we waited for the seizure to end. It was a frightening experience. This picture was taken only moments before:
After B’s seizure ended I quickly loaded him into the car and went to find the Sisters of Charity facility. This is the organization that Mother Theresa started, and they are famous for taking care of those with extreme needs. As I drove frantically, B was tense in the back of the car and was making grumbling sounds. I was nervous. The Sisters of Charity were difficult to find, and when I finally did find them I was told that I was in the wrong place… I had come to the house for dying infants. The gate keeper gave me cryptic instructions for finding the adult facility and I had to pick up another Haitian man to ride with me in the car to give me directions. When we arrived a nice volunteer from Boston told me “the Sisters aren’t here but we’d be glad to help. They’ll be back soon.”
We opened the back of the Forerunner and a couple of the larger men who appeared to be full time assistants for the Sisters of Charity came over to the car to help me unload “B”. One of them was visibly moved as the back hatch opened to reveal B crumpled in the back on top of some pads we had put down. I was relieved, seeing that these people were really going to love him, but I was unprepared for what happened next. The assistant, teary eyed raised his head and shouted to the others around, “It’s Ti Nikki! They have Ti Nikki!” And immediately I knew I was standing on holy ground. A miracle had taken place. Of all the places in all of Port Au Prince for me to take “B”, God had led us to the one place where he was not “B”, but had a real identity. He was known. He was loved. He had a story.
It turns out “B” was actually named “Nikki” and had been regularly cared for by the Sisters of Charity because of his cerebral palsy and his parents poverty. His parents had died a few years back and nobody knew where he was. They anxiously asked me where I had found him. When I told him that people had been throwing rocks at him and calling him a zombie, they said, “that won’t ever happen again… he’s home now,” and with smiles on their faces they wheeled him off towards a table they had prepared with a big plate of rice and beans, Ti Nikki’s favorite.