In Defense of Vodoun

By Bryan Schaaf on Monday, May 3, 2010.

“Are you a Missionary?  What is Your Religion?”  Two common enough questions when Haitians are getting to know foreigners.  Haiti is a religious country and even the smallest villages have multiple churches if not a library or a clinic.  While every imaginable denomination has a presence in Haiti, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Vodoun form an uneasy trinity.   Haitian Vodoun is a vibrant, fascinating religion.  One need not be a Vodouisant to experience it, appreciate it, and learn from it.

 

What do I think of when someone mentions Haitian Vodoun?

 

 

FI think of the waterfall in Saut d’Eau where pilgrims visit once a year, bathe in its waters, and purify themselves.  Hundreds of candles burn on and around the trees by the waterfall.  Even more multi-colored wish cords hang from their branches.  This is a sacred place and the pilgrimage is a celebration of life.  One goes to bed hearing the drums and one wakes up hearing them as well.      

 

 

 

I recall how nervous I was attending my first Vodoun ceremony when I was living in the Artibonite and how much I enjoyed them after.  No one ever judged me or tried ot change how I believed.  It was enough to just be alive and aware that there is a part of every individual’s soul that is African and can be a source of strength.  It was always highly interactive with drinking, dancing, singing, and camaraderie aplenty.  During a Vodoun ceremony, you live in the moment – a sort of Caribbean zen experience. 

 

 

I remember the many times I and other Peace Corps Volunteers watched RAM play at the Hotel Oloffson, infusing traditional Vodoun songs with rock music – creating innovative, exciting rhythms that appealed to Haitians and Americans alike.  I think of the RaRa bands that take over the footpaths and roads of Haiti at certain times of the year playing their manic, hypnotic music on homemade instruments – always stopping to pay their respects when they enter a crossroads.  Click here to see and hear a rara band play.    

 

I think as well of Bois Cayman, Boukman's heartfelt prayer for freedom which sparked the Haitian revolution, and the ripple affect it had throughout the Western Hemisphere.  You can read more about Bois Cayman and Boukman's words here

 

How did Haitian Vodoun come to be?  Vodoun is originally from West Africa and is  still widely practiced in countries such as Benin.  French slavers kidnapped West Africans and brought them to the island of Hispaniola.  They spoke different languages and were from different cultures.  Kreyol became the common tongue.  In time, Haiti became more valuable to the French than all thirteen American colonies were to Britain.  It was for many years the largest coffee producer in the world.  It was a lucrative economy built upon pain and suffering.

 

The French slavers brought Catholicism to Haiti and most would have considered themselves good Christians, as hypocritical as that strikes us today.   The one day Haitians did not have to work was on Sunday, when they would be forced to attend an obligatory Catholic mass.   Over time, the Catholic mass became a way for slaves to keep their traditional beliefs alive by drawing comparisons between Catholic saints and Vodoun spirits.

 

In some other French colonies, slaves had access to education.  In Haiti, greed and cruelty went hand in hand.  Haitians were treated horribly – families separated, women raped, men quite literally worked to death.  From time to time, small opportunities for revenge prevented themselves.  Slaves who knew which plants were poisonous were sometimes able to slip it into the food or water of slavers  This, and the slaveholders who keeled over dead for seemingly no reason, created a perception that slaves were capable of black magic. Perhaps this is where the seeds of stigma sorrounding Haitian Vodoun can first be found.

 

Other slaves tried to escape.  Those who were caught in the process were invariably tortured and killed for the attempt.  Those who did make it became an important part of the long, campaign that led to one of the greatest upsets in military history.  Haiti became the only country to have ever led a successful slave rebellion, thereby becoming the first free black republic. Haitian Vodoun has its roots in the fight against racism, slavery, and oppression.

 

Since Haiti’s earliest days, Catholicism and Vodoun blended together.  This is not to say that the two religions co-existed peacefully.  During the marine occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, the longest in U.S history, the Catholic clergy collaborated with American soldiers to eliminate Vodoun.  Together, they raided peristyles (Vodoun temples) and burned drums and other artifacts.   Needless to say, the eradication campaign did not succeed.

 

Catholicism has since evolved and learned to live with Vodoun.  This is not to say all Catholics are completely comfortable with Vodoun.  Some are not but most accept that Vodoun is part of Haiti’s history and culture.  Any proper peristyle has images of Catholic saints, who correspond with Haitian loa (spirits).  A Catholic can attend a Vodoun ceremony without having to be less of a Catholic.  The same can’t be said of many Protestant faiths.  It was the U.S. military occupation that saw various Protestant faiths really take hold in Haiti.   It is very likely that Protestants will become the majority at some point in the future. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Protestants and Vodouisants can be tense.

 

Imagine a Haiti without Vodoun.  Certainly its history, and the history of the Western Hemisphere for that matter, would be much different.  Its music, art, and dance would be less vibrant.  It would be less fun.  I would miss the ceremonies, which connect one to Haiti’s past and to its African heritage. Unfortunately, a Haiti without Vodoun is the goal of many (but not all) American missionaries whose worldview does not permit them to talk to Vodouisants, attend a ceremony, or to make a good faith effort to understand. 

 

Haitians had a strong influence on the musical and artistic culture of New Orleans.  They also brought with them Vodoun which has become a part of the city’s cultural heritage as well.   One can attend ceremonies in NYC, Boston, and Miami.  I  attended one in Silver Spring, Maryland once.  It was not the same, being indoors and rather subdued, but I appreciated that Haitians were trying to keep their traditions alive. 

 

Members of all faiths lost homes, loved ones, and livelihoods in the earthquake.  This shared suffering brought people together for a while.  I cannot remember the last time I saw Catholic Priests, Protestant Pastors, and Vodouisants addressing an audience together the way that happened after the quake.  Now many Catholics feel they are being rhetorically attacked by Evangelicals while some Vodouisants have been literally attacked.  For example, Evangelicals attacked Voduisants during a ceremony that they were holding to honor those who died in the earthquake.  This was taken as a major offense.  The importance placed upon proper burial of the deceased for Vodouisants is akin to that by Muslims.  The Vodouisants were later able to complete their ceremony  -- under the protection of a police unit which held back the Evangelicals.   What would Jesus have done?  He wouldn’t have tried to hurt anyone, that’s for sure.

 

Port au Prince is a tense city right now.  Religion can be both a source of solidarity and division. Like the United States, freedom of religion is enshrined in the Haitian Constitution.  The Haitian Constitution reads “All religions and faiths shall be freely exercised. Everyone is entitled to profess his religion and practice his faith, provided the exercise of that right does not disturb law and order.”  For Haitians to not be able to practice their faith, no matter what it is, is an affront.  When an American pressures Haitians not to practice Vodoun because it does not mesh with one's religious views, it is a disservice to both the United States and to Haiti.

 

Why don’t Vodouisants stand up for themselves? Vodoun is decentralized to the point of being disorganized – this makes it hard to influence, advocate, and effect change.  There is no bureaucracy in place for determining who can or cannot become a Vodoun priest (Houngan) or priestess (Mambo).  Their quality varies wildly.  The clear majority serve with one hand (do only good) but there are some who serve with both hands (will do good or evil.)  But is not the Catholic priest who sleeps with a member of his congregation or a Protestant pastor that steals funds from a project not serving with both hands as well?

 

Vodoun has visionary leaders and also blatant charlatans. There is no Vodoun holy book, no Vodoun University and there are no Vodoun Pope or Bishops.  Catholicism and Protestantism have hierarchies but Vodoun is as grassroots as it gets.  Max Beauvoir likes to refer to himself as “Supreme Leader” of Vodoun – but who elected or appointed him?  And while I understand his frustration with the disruption of the ceremony in Port au Prince,  what right does he have to "declare war" on evangelicals in response?  Most Vodouisants I know are anti-violence.

 

Catholics, Protestants, and Vodouisants alike can contribute individually to the emergency response and to the long-term development of the country.  Working together, they could accomplish much more.  Imagine if every Department in Haiti had a Catholic Priest, a Protestant Pastor, and a Vodouisant working together to coordinate development activities.  As the Haitian flag states, “Unity is (makes) Strength.”  Inversely, division will weaken us and challenge our ability to overcome the massive challenges facing Haiti over the shortrt, medium, and long term.

 

If you would like to learn more about Vodoun, there are a number of good books and websites available.  Wade Davis provides a good introduction to Haitian Vodoun while denouncing Pat Robertson during a National Geographic interview.  Estelle Manue's Vision of Vodoun Culture Webpage is a great place to learn about prayers, songs, dances, and veves. Elizabeth Macalister has written an excellent book on RaRa called "Vodoun, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora." Her writing on Vodoun and other topics are available here.  There is a documentary about Rara in the United States available called "The Other Side of the Water." Another way to learn about Vodoun is to hear it.  Check out a video of Azor, arguably the most famous living drummer.  RAM and Boukman Eksperyans also embrace Vodoun and their music is all the better for it.  After Carnival, Haiti XChange usually posts the best songs, much of it influenced by Vodoun. 

 

Understanding Haiti requires knowing Vodoun as well. Experience it first person if you can.  If not, check out some of the resources available online or talk to Haitians direclty about their views and experiences.  Form your own opinions.  Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Ayibobo,

Bryan

 

Note:  The photos in the blog were taken by Matt Marek.

 

 

 

Vodoun: Facts About a Misunderstood Religion (Live Science)

10/30/2014
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Voodoo (or, more correctly, voudon) is an Afro-Caribbean religion originating in Haiti. While some confuse voodoo with voudon, voodoo is best understood as a sensationalized pop-culture caricature of voudon. Voudon teaches belief in a supreme being called Bondye, an unknowable and uninvolved creator god. Voudonbelievers worship many spirits (called loa), each one of whom is responsible for a specific domain or part of life. So, for example, if you are a farmer you might give praise and offerings to the spirit of agriculture; if you are suffering from unrequited love, you would praise or leave offerings for Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love, and so on. In addition to helping (or impeding) human affairs loa can also manifest themselves by possessing the bodies of their worshipers. Leslie Desmangles, a Haitian professor at Hartford's Trinity College writing in "The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal" notes that "The use of the term 'voudon' in Haiti refers to a whole assortment of cultural elements: personal creeds and practices, including an elaborate system of folk medical practices; a system of ethics transmitted across generations [including] proverbs, stories, songs, and folklore... voudon is more than belief; it is a way of life."
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Haiti is most closely associated with voudon, though followers of the religion can be found in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere. Followers of voudon also believe in a universal energy and a soul that can leave the body during dreams and spirit possession. In Christian theology, spiritual possession is usually considered to be an act of evil, either Satan or some demonic entity trying to enter an unwilling human vessel. In voudon, however, possession by loa is desired. In a ceremony guided by a priest or priestess this possession is considered a valuable, first-hand spiritual experience and connection with the spirit world.
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Voudon originated with slaves who combined elements of their West African traditions and beliefs with the Roman Catholicism imposed upon them by their masters in a process called syncretism. A 1685 law forbade the practice of African religions and required all masters to Christianize their slaves within eight days of their arrival, and slavery was condoned by the Catholic Church as a tool for converting Africans to morally upright Christians. Slaves forced to adopt Catholic rituals thus gave them double meanings, and in the process many of their spirits became associated with Christian saints. Furthermore, Desmangles notes, "Many of the African spirits were adapted to their new milieu in the New World. Ogun, for instance, the Nigerian spirit of ironsmiths, hunting and warfare took on a new persona... He became Ogou, the military leader who has led phalanxes into battle against oppression. In Haiti today, Ogou inspires many political revolutions that oust undesirable oppressive regimes." Though Haitian slavery ended in the early 1800s, followers of voudon were often persecuted by authorities who demonized their religion. An 1889 book titled "Hayti, or the Black Republic" falsely attributed human sacrifices, cannibalism and other atrocities to voudon, further spreading fear of the religion. Many fundamentalist Christians still regard voudon and voodoo with suspicion, associating it with the occult, black magic and Satanism. Even today "voodoo" is often used as an adjective to describe something that is unknowable, mysterious, or simply unworkable (for example in 1980 George H. W. Bush famously disparaged Ronald Reagan's monetary policies as "voodoo economics").
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The more sensational aspects of voudon, such as belief in zombies and animal sacrifice, have provided fodder for countless television shows and movies in the form of voodoo. Zombies are an especially good example of how a religious element can be taken out of context and become a global phenomenon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "zombie" first appeared in English around 1810 when historian Robert Southey mentioned it in his book "History of Brazil." But this "zombi" was not the familiar brain-eating manlike monster but instead, like many voudon loa, a West African deity. The word later came to suggest the vital, human force leaving the shell of a body, and ultimately a creature human in form but lacking self-awareness, intelligence and a soul. The original Haitian zombies were not villains but victims. Haitian zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) through magical means by priests called bokors. Sometimes, the zombification was done as punishment (striking fear in those who believed that they could be abused even after death), but often the zombies were said to have been used as slave labor on the island's farms and sugarcane plantations (though no evidence of the zombie-filled farms was ever found).
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The voodoo popular in movies and fiction bears little resemblance to real voudon beliefs or practices. Voodoo has become a prominent feature of the New Orleans tourism industry, with countless shops, tours, exhibits, and museums capitalizing on that city's historic (and, some experts say, tenuous) connection to voudon. Of course, stripping sacred objects and rituals out of their original context for commercial exploitation is nothing new: witness Chinese-made Native American dream catchers for sale at dollar stores. In the end, voudon has a largely undeserved reputation as a sinister religion. Though some voudon rituals involve animal sacrifices, it is hardly unique; many other religious traditions involve animal bloodletting including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. The irony is that voudon's best-known and most sensational features — including voodoo dolls and zombies — have little to do with its actual beliefs and practices.
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Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Tracking the Chupacabra and Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

Christianity, Vodoun Mix on Haiti's Day of the Dead (11/3/2013)

AFP
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In a Port-au-Prince cemetery, Haitians gathered on Saturday to ask “the spirit of death” for any number of desires, ranging from housing to visas, during Haiti’s Day of the Dead. “It’s a tradition: on the Day of the Dead, after church, I come to greet Baron,” said Fabienne, a 28-year-old participant in the festivities, which combine elements of Christianity and voodoo practices. In the center of the downtown cemetery, where a large black cross had been installed to represent Baron Samedi, the spirit of death, Haitians presented their various needs and requests. “Baron, you must give me a business and a visa,” Fabienne said, undeterred by the noise and bustle of the crowd of worshipers. “I come, overloaded with my problems,” one man chanted. Another complained of not having a house, while a woman prayed for the sick she left at home.
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“I want to honor and pay my respects to the dead. It’s a part of our culture,” said another follower, Guerlens, 28, as he leaned against a tomb. Those who practice voodoo, which arrived on the island in the 16th and 17th centuries via African slaves, seek to engage with supernatural spirits who protect followers and bring them into contact with an invisible world. Day of the Dead coincides with All Souls’ Day, an occasion to remember the deceased and pray for the souls of those in purgatory, according to Catholic tradition. It follows on the heels of All Saints’ Day, the day before.
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Some people danced, some fell into trance-like states, still others brought floral offerings in memory of a deceased family member. Plates of food were left out for beggars who also came to the cemetery, which nearly four years ago was struck by the January 2010 earthquake that killed about 200,000 Haitians. Amid chants and incantations, the voodoo followers shared meals prepared for the day’s celebrations. Before passing around the food, the plates were placed before the cross, so as to serve the dead first. “We are all here to ask the dead to change our life,” said Maradona Thomas, 26, a young dancer preparing to head into the streets to celebrate to the sound of traditional music. “Since I was 16 I’ve practiced voodoo. It’s a tradition in my family. My father was a voodoo preacher.” At the University of Haiti’s school of ethnology in Port-au-Prince, hundreds follow the voodoo tradition. “Catholic or Protestant, we are all voodooists. The other religions were imported by colonization. What connects all Haitians is voodoo, our identity, our common culture,” student Valerie said.

Vodoun is Like a Gun (Salon -March 9th, 2013)

By Sylvia A. Harvey
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I walk down the narrow basement stairs with ease, but before I can cross the entryway into the warm candlelit temple, the oungan, a male priest in the Haitian Vodou tradition, hands me a ceramic jar filled with water. Pointing to the entryway floor, he motions towards three spaces and asks me to drop water for Papa Legba, the Vodou spirit who grants or denies human access to communicate with any of the Vodou spirits, or lwas. I pour the water. My salute to the gatekeeper had been approved. I enter. “If the spirits aren’t happy they’ll tell me,” he says, smiling slightly. “They’ll tell me what kind of energy you have. “A lot of people come in just to see what Vodou is about,” he cautions. “The spirits can tell your intentions.” When I reach for my camera, he objects. “Spirits don’t like pictures. As a priest you don’t do anything the spirits won’t be happy with.”
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Vodou is no spectacle. That’s the primary message I received as an inquiring writer journeying into New York’s tightly-knit, yet surprisingly diverse Vodou community. The voyage began in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, at the South Oxford Space arts center, for Verite Sou Tanbou: The Truth about Haitian Vodou. It was the first installment of a three-part series of educational workshops about Vodou. That day, Oungan Dieudonné Jean-Jacques spoke calmly in his native tongue, which was translated for the racially and linguistically diverse attendees who packed the room to capacity. In the crowded hallway, between the moments of silence, attendees whispered amongst each other in Creole, French and English—even a scattering of Spanish. Benin (formerly Dahomey), a slender sliver of a country in West Africa, is widely considered the cradle of Vodou, which came to Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) in the eighteenth century. Vodouists believe there is one distant God, Bondyè, who is the creator of all things––but they serve a long list of lwas through prayer and by presenting offerings, creating devotional objects and altars, and participating in ceremonies brought to life through traditional song, dance, spirit possession and animal sacrifice. Lwas are said to speak with, guide, and offer protection to the faithful on their journey through life. While the Vodou community is constantly expanding to people of various ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, it remains a misunderstood spiritual world and a stigmatized religion. Many Vodouists find themselves constantly trying to set the record straight about a culture they respect and love. “If you consult any dictionary,” says Professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, an oungan himself, “you shall see that the definitions of ‘voodoo’—it won’t use generally the Haitian spelling of Vodou—remain static over many decades.”
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Professor Bellegarde-Smith says the widespread misrepresentation of Vodou came to the fore during the U.S. military occupation of Haiti, from 1915 to 1934, when, as he puts it, “Hollywood, as loyal Americans, come to the rescue of the U.S. state, and justified further that brutish occupation by creating the ‘voodoo’ we now know, and the zombie films that became a basic staple.” Indeed, when I Googled, “what is voodoo?” the first hit describes not an ancient religion but a black religious cult characterized by sorcery and spirit possession. Even in Haiti itself, it wasn’t until 2003 that the country’s Catholic president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, acknowledged Vodou as one of Haiti’s official religions. Recently, three New York Vodouists each shared their unique story and deeply personal relationship to the religion: a passionate Haitian-born musician, a priestess and scholar who works to educate the masses about her religion, and a young Arab priest who was unexpectedly summoned by the spirits into the foreign land of Vodou.
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Perched on an aged leather chair, Val Jeanty rests the back of one hand over her mouth while the other navigates the track pad on her laptop. Her mahogany eyes are alive and focused on the screen in front of her. As she adjusts the levels on her soundboard, the beat of drums and unidentifiable instruments pulsate throughout her Bedford-Stuyvesant nook. The rest of the world is clearly silenced for Jeanty, her focus on the music so intense it seems as if her studio has solid, soundproof walls that separate it from the rest of her spacious loft, only it doesn’t. “So how long have you been living here?” I venture. Looking up, she breaks into a wide smile and laughter explodes, her cheek bones reaching for the sky. She’s back. She lowers the music.
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Jeanty, thirty-eight, is tall and slender, casually clad in army fatigue pants and layered red and black cotton tees. Her amber-toned face is radiant and bare, tiny dark studs rest in her ears, and a black scarf hangs around her neck. Vodou was a natural part of Jeanty’s family and culture growing up in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. “You know they say, ‘Haitians are 85 percent Catholic, but 100 percent Vodouists,’” she relates, cracking a popular cultural joke. Indeed, many Haitians see no conflict in being both Catholic and Vodouists. Like other ethnic groups in the Americas, they have combined Christian beliefs with distinct traditional practices, and some believe that to be a good Vodouist, you have to be a good Christian. Jeanty’s late grandmother was a mambo. Decrying what she considers “the fancy, mystical description,” a mambo, says Jeanty, is like a shaman—someone who acts as intermediary between the natural and spiritual worlds.
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“It’s about being connected to nature,” Jeanty explains. Her grandmother communicated with the plants and could identify exactly which one was poisonous or which was meant for healing–which leaf cured a tummy ache and which could put you to sleep. Jeanty herself is a strong believer in animism, the concept that natural objects, phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls. “Everything is alive,” says Jeanty. “If I walk next to a tree I’m not going to spit on the tree, because I’m spitting on myself.” For her, “[Vodou] is more of a way of life, less of a religion.” It’s about listening to the ancestors speak to you and accepting the information they bring. “I was born in the pouch. In Vodou that kid is a special kid…they carry a heavy burden,” says Jeanty, noting that not all Haitian children are born into Vodou, but that those who are tend to stay the course.
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Jeanty says the Vodou within her was made evident by childhood experiences of unconsciously, yet systematically, rising from bed in the middle of the night and marching across her family’s land to their property gates. From this, her family knew Papa Legba would be a special lwa for her. Described as a small old man dressed in rags who walks with a cane but is particularly powerful, Legba is the chief of crossroads and gates. Jeanty’s routine walk to her family’s gates seemed to be symbolic. In Vodou, certain days of the week are dedicated to particular lwas, which each have distinct personalities and different roles. Some can be quite “feisty,” Jeanty says. “If you’re not connected to certain deities you should stay away,” she laughs. Jeanty doesn’t believe one has to systematically serve all lwas; rather, you naturally navigate towards the ones you connect to. For her, two in particular are important. Jeanty serves Papa Legba on his day, which is Monday, by pouring water at the entryway of her loft. The cleansing element of water clears Jeanty’s home and spiritual passageway so whatever needs to happen in her life can, and will.
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She also honors Erzulie Dantor on Tuesday by wearing the lwa’s favorite colors of red and black. Known as the Black Madonna for her motherly and protective quality, Erzulie Dantor represents the energy Jeanty naturally has within. Jeanty doesn’t have children but her face lights up when she speaks of her students at The Door, a local organization that serves disconnected youth, where she teaches drum classes, percussion and DJ skills. Exchanges with the lwa should happen naturally, Jeanty insists. “I don’t think about Legba, I just give him water. You don’t do it because of Legba, you do it for you. I naturally reach for red and black on Tuesday. It’s synchronicity.” Jeanty says her Afro-electronica music “is not for commercial use, it’s for the spirit”—and for exposing others to Haitian culture. “I always start with a primitive rhythmic pattern, which is definitely influenced by the Vodou culture.” From there, she improvises, channeling whatever expression she hears and mixing in high-tech digital instruments alongside the traditional Haitian drum. Jeanty’s goal is to use her unique music and positive energy to subtly expose people to Vodou. She has performed at the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and internationally at music festivals in Austria and Switzerland. In May, she’ll perform in Poland at the Planete + Doc Film Festival, which will feature The United States of Hoodoo, a documentary in which she speaks about sound and frequency and how they connect the realms of spirituality.
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While she is not an angry warrior—Jeanty emanates peace as much as the wooden Buddha that sits at the center of her shrine—she is passionate about addressing the misrepresentations of Vodou culture, and boils at the thought of it being used as a commodity. The Internet is a hotbed for Vodou commodification and, in many cases, fraud. She recoils at the fact that one can find a “love potion” or “money spell” online from an “authentic” Haitian mambo as long as you have $129.99 and a PayPal account. “When you go to the priest to get a boyfriend or girlfriend, it becomes mundane, it becomes a circus,” she says, her signature laughter buckling into the air. “You get away from the real Vodou, and it becomes a Gucci T-shirt.” Real Vodou, she says, is very subtle. “You don’t even have to talk too much. If it’s dramatic, it’s not real.”
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The alleged association with evil hexes is what most bothers Jeanty and many other Vodouists. “Dolls and pins are a creation of Hollywood, closer to German and English witchcraft than to African witchcraft,” says Professor Bellegarde-Smith. “Religions and witchcraft are not the same thing. The lwa are beyond good and evil, and since we have free will, one can ‘use’ them for both, realizing that there will be beneficent outcomes or hell to pay for what each one of us has done with her/his free will.” “It’s the person that knows little tricks,” says Jeanty. “Don’t underestimate the power of the human mind. You can brew up a spell. The people that run the government, the banks — they’re sorcerers.” The evil that exists within each of us is real, Jeanty confirms with no hesitation, the question is how individuals—vodouists or not—choose to address this energy. “Vodou is like a gun,” she says, her tone serious. “You can pick it up and save your grandmother’s life or shoot yourself.” In Vodou, there is no good or bad, she insists. “It’s just energy.”
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Dowoti Desir’s dark locks, spiraled on the ends, majestically drape beyond her shoulders. Her eyes lower as she looks at the brightly beaded ason she’d removed from her altar, a sacred rattle made from dried gourd that serves as an instrument of power for a Vodou priest. Initiates are “given the ason” to mark the end of their initiation and new title as oungan or mambo. “Vodou is my foundation and the foundation of my motherland,” says Desir, fifty-two, a mambo asogwe, the highest female member of the priesthood. “We should all know who we are and celebrate our histories, knowledge and ourselves.” Desir, who was born in Port-au-Prince, says the mere fact that she had to be initiated into Vodou speaks volumes about the way history has affected Africans in the Americas, and why it’s pertinent to preserve a tie to their traditional roots. With the soulful and commanding voice of a natural storyteller, Desir speaks about finding her met-tet—master of one’s head. The met-tet is said to be the most significant lwa to walk with a person on their journey through life. It’s generally the first lwa to possess an individual in ceremony, or the lwa that possesses that individual most often. The met-tet often has characteristics that are parallel to those of the individual. Historically, one’s met-tet was passed on through one’s lineage, but the Transatlantic slave trade ruptured that process. “The kinship ties that are there normally, you don’t have them, you don’t know what they are,” says Desir, her almond shaped eyes tightening and her voice raw with emotion. “Even the process of getting initiated or knowing that one has to be initiated is part of it, it’s a traumatic experience itself.”
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In 1791, a Vodou ceremony was the catalyst that mobilized enslaved Africans to rebel against their French colonial oppressors, sparking the Haitian Revolution, which ultimately led to the liberation of the Haitian people and the foundation of the world’s first independent black republic. Desir believes the spirit of Vodou she finds present within herself is a gift from both her African lineage and her Haitian heritage. “Some things keep appearing in your dreams, and at some point you think you’re losing your mind,” says Desir. “But it’s because the thing that is literally in your blood, the memory, the DNA that carries all of this data – it needs to manifest.” As a mambo, Desir has some clients she works with spiritually, but doesn’t solicit work or organize ceremonies. Becoming a priestess was, in her belief, a prenatal arrangement. “It’s an arrangement we made with our ancestors,” she says. “We’re all born into the world with a mission, with a crown. Some of us have heavier crowns.” A gold ring with a ruby gem sits above the serpent ring that wraps around Desir’s finger. The dual rings are tributes to her met-tet, Damballa Weddo—the powerful serpent sky god and father of all thelwa—his wife Ayida Weddo, the rainbow serpent, and Ogun, the warrior who always walks with Damballa.
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Like Jeanty, Desir laments that Vodou has been stigmatized for far too long. “These are sacred spaces that people want to dismiss as being hocus pocus or magic—something that is not real,” she says. “Some of us have been fighting the vilification.” It is this commitment to clarifying what Vodou is and is not that has made Desir both an advocate for the tradition and a vocal opponent of those who would muddle its image, particularly people who equate Vodou with devil worship. As Professor Bellegarde-Smith notes, some Protestants in both Haiti and the United States have argued that the devastating 2010 earthquake was God’s wrath against Haitians for insisting on practicing their ancestral religion—most notoriously American televangelist Pat Robertson, who attributed the disaster to the Haitian people’s “pact with the devil.” “There is a problem of straight up Afrophobia,” says Desir—a problem we must continue to work on, she adds.
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Desir is founder and president of the DDPA Watch Group, an international human rights coalition working on democratic, cultural and educational activities related to the United Nations Durban Declaration & Program of Action (DDPA)—a 2009 “moral mandate” by the UN to “end the scourge of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” The mandate declared the Transatlantic slave trade a crime against humanity, and, in Desir’s view, “leaves the door open for African descendants to pursue legal recourse in the form of reparations.” Desir’s organization pushes for public policies in support of this struggle, and advocates for financial reparations. “This political work is what makes Vodou a relevant practice in the twenty-first century,” says Desir. “We seek balance, equilibrium, justice and healing. The objectives of social justice and social change are mirrored in Vodou. For me, as a priest this is a means of maintaining that connection between communities of the living and those of the dead.”
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It has been suggested that part of the problem of Vodou’s image is that it doesn’t have a go-to “holy book” that could clarify any misconceptions or outline the principles. But “it’s not supposed to,” says Desir. “It’s an ancient religion with tenets that are passed on orally.” Vodou is not text, but experiential, she continues. “We live, and we breathe, and we dance and we engage with the world. It’s a body of knowledge. It’s not just a religion or form of spiritual practice…it’s an ethical and moral way of being in the world. Vodou is a discipline that teaches you how to respect the environment, community, and nation.” The story of Haitian Vodou is the story of the human experience, she says, concluding that “as long as we are afraid of each other, we will never be free.”
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On a recent Sunday evening when the freezing cold choked the life out of usually boisterous Flatbush Avenue, retreating to a warm subterranean space was a delight. The scent of roasting pineapple wafted by as Oungan Amer Ahmed and I sat chair-width apart to discuss his peculiar path into Haitian Vodou. Ahmed’s demeanor is welcoming, his voice calm, his smile inviting, his chestnut eyes piercing. Ahmed was exhausted – he’d just hosted a spiritual client for a full week. She had a “zombie in her body,” and he and his spiritual mother “did the work.” Being an oungan is hard work and takes a toll on the body, he says. Ahmed takes Sunday off from healing whenever possible. He is joyous and ready to talk about the entry to the spiritual world he loves. Sliding his index finger across an iPad screen, Ahmed swiped through images of the many ceremonies hosted in this converted basement, which serves as a temple. In one photo, wearing a gold trimmed teal boubou (traditional African robe), Ahmed’s youthful chai-toned skin seems to glow under the light as he watches his spirit mom—the woman who gave him his “new life” in Haitian Vodou and guides him through his journey—possessed by Erzulie Dantor. Clad in a full-length indigo dress, her tresses resting under a maroon head wrap, she lovingly serves her favorite food, griot (a fried pork dish) to a line of drummers, who open their mouths without missing a beat on the drums. In other photos, the woman appears wide-eyed while Ahmed helps her to stand up.
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As a pre-teen, Ahmed came to the United States from the Middle East (he does not wish to share which country). Initially settling in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, his family later purchased a home in Canarsie, a predominately Caribbean neighborhood also in Brooklyn. “I used to be sick,” he recalls, tying a red scarf around his head. Ahmed, now twenty-nine, was known as a child for his sporadic bouts of unconsciousness, during which he would aimlessly roam the streets for varying amounts of time. When he came to, he often had no recollection of where he was or how he’d arrived there. His parents were worried, and his behavior incited curious stares and whispers in his small Muslim hometown. “There were moments when I would talk to myself,” he said, stroking his goatee. The solo conversations were enough to disturb his parents, but more alarming was the fact that he was speaking a language they couldn’t understand. Thinking he was either using drugs or possessed by an evil spirit, they took him to the mosque for an exorcism. That exorcism didn’t seem to work, he says, although before long the bouts of unconsciousness ceased and Ahmed went back to being himself again. It would be years before he experienced such symptoms again, but the voice in his head never stopped. As Ahmed tells it, that voice was what ultimately led him to his current spiritual path. “I always heard that voice in my head,” he says, “But it was normal for me to talk back to it. I never knew it was a language until I got into junior high school.”
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It wasn’t until his school days in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he had many Haitian classmates, that Ahmed says he realized the voice in his head was speaking to him in Haitian Creole. His friends found it strange, but cool that he could speak their language, recalls Ahmed, and affectionately nicknamed him Ti Blanc – little white boy – in Creole. Four years ago, he once again experienced the same unexplained roaming of his childhood, this time accompanied by excruciating headaches. Six weeks of Ahmed’s problems with no answers was more than enough for his parents to admit him to Kings County Hospital for a three-day psychiatric evaluation. “They thought I was going psycho. They wanted to know if I [had] my mind,” says Ahmed.As part of the evaluation, the doctors asked him a series of basic questions: What is your name? Do you know what today’s date is? Do you know where you are? He answered all of the questions accurately, he says, and assured them he did not want to harm himself. Before being released from the hospital, a nurse told him, “There is nothing wrong with you. You have a spiritual problem. You need to connect to your spirit.”
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Intrigued by the nurse’s comment, Ahmed sought a spiritual reading from his friend’s godfather, who was active in Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion centered on Yoruba beliefs and traditions with Roman Catholic influences. But the man told him he couldn’t receive his initiation in Santeria. Half-asking, half-telling, the man said, “I see you speak another language.” “The ancestors of that language want you to come to them,” the man continued. Puzzled, Ahmed replied, “I speak Arabic, English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.” “That’s it—Haitian Creole,” the man affirmed. “The ancestors of that language want you to receive your initiation in Haitian Vodou.” “Oh no, I am not going to do that,” he said, shaking his head.
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Yet he was intrigued. He had to know if they could help. So Ahmed lit a candle and asked the Haitian ancestors for guidance. He didn’t hear anything the first week, but then one night, a song came to him in a dream and he saw a serpent, which spoke to him, saying: “I am Damballa Weddo.” It was only later that he connected that vision to the serpent lwa. “I’m going to show you who is going to help you,” Ahmed says Damballa told him. “This woman is going to be your mother and give you a better life.” The lwa instructed Ahmed to go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, where he would meet a lady. Ahmed acquiesced. “I wanted to meet this miracle lady,” he says, seemingly still in awe. Ahmed visited the church several times over the course of a few weeks. “On the third week, when I got up to leave, I saw this woman.” Clutching his belly, he says, “I got this butterfly feeling in my stomach.” It turned out the woman attended St. Patrick’s Cathedral and was also a Haitian Vodou priestess.Ahmed explained his dream to the mambo. He said their energies immediately clicked and they began forming a spiritual connection. She began telling him about Vodou. Ahmed entered a secretive seven-day initiation, partly in New York and partly in Haiti; oath-bound secrets prevent him from divulging exactly what happened.
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Under the tutelage of his new spirit mom, Ahmed started regleman, the process for learning the culture and practice of Vodou, including the rituals and the many lwas. “Your body, your energy travels to the ancestors. You are re-born,” he says, shaking his head intently. The ailments that plagued Ahmed prior to initiation have since dissipated. “I came to Vodou for my own healing,” he says, but insists, “I didn’t choose. The spirit chose me. Why they chose me, I’ll have to call the spirit and let you ask them,” he says, laughing. Three years after his initiation, Ahmed is an active oungan with several clients and three spiritual children (those who he initiated.) He says he’s been called to the highest level of priesthood, which is asogwe, his current title. He reads dreams, creates protections, reverses spells and provides other healings. “I love to do magic,” he confirms, noting that he particularly likes “love magic.” If you want to re-connect with an estranged family member or resurrect a flailing relationship, Ahmed says he can help, and ensures he is not one of the con artists Jeanty cautions against. “I didn’t come to Vodou to work or to make a dollar,” says Ahmed. “I could be in a bar and the spirit tells me to talk to someone. You pay the spirit, not me.”
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Ahmed says there is no go-to formula for healing. “The spirit is going to come and tell [me] what to do, what items [I] need and where [I] have to do it,” he says, adding that he cannot reveal the specifics of his methods. After all, insists Ahmed, “magic is secret.” Narratively explores a different theme each week and publishes one story a day. More stories from last week's theme "Wild Cards": "The Conjurer's Club," "A Magical Mentorship," "Miracles on 34th Street." More Sylvia A. Harvey.

Islam's inroads in land of Voodoo and Christianity (10/10/12)

Associated Press
By TRENTON DANIEL
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — School teacher Darlene Derosier lost her home in the 2010 earthquake that devastated her country. Her husband died a month later after suffering what she said was emotional trauma from the quake. She and her two daughters now live in tents outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, surrounded by thousands of others made homeless and desperate by the disaster. What's helped pull her through all the grief, she said, has been her faith, but not of the Catholic, Protestant or even Voodoo variety that have predominated in this island country. Instead, she's converted to a new religion here, Islam, and built a small neighborhood mosque out of cinderblocks and plywood, where some 60 Muslims pray daily. Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished country, especially after the catastrophe two years ago that killed some 300,000 people and left millions more homeless. A capital where church attendance is so prevalent that the streets echo with Christian hymns on Sundays now has at least five mosques, a Muslim parliament member and a nightly local television program devoted to Islam.
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The disaster drew in aid groups from around the world, including Islamic Relief USA, which built 200 shelters and a secondary school with 20 classrooms. "After the earthquake we had a lot of people join," said Robert Dupuy, an imam or Islamic spiritual leader in the capital. "We were organized. We had space in the mosques to receive people and food to feed them." Derosier said she was drawn to the religion's preaching of self-discipline, emphasis on education and attention to cleanliness. The constant washing, she said, helps her and other Muslims avoid cholera, the waterborne illness that health officials say has sickened nearly 600,000 people and killed more than 7,500 others since surfacing after the quake. "This is a victory for me," the 43-year-old woman said about her post-quake conversion. The former Protestant spoke in the tent-filled courtyard of her home, her face framed by a clean, black head scarf. "It's a victory that I received peace and found guidance." In part, the Muslim community's growth can be attributed to the return of expatriates who adopted the faith in the U.S., said Kishner Billy, owner of the island's Telemax TV station and host of the nightly program "Haiti Islam."
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Billy and some others believe that Islam's Haitian past goes back before the country's independence in 1804, and that a Jamaican slave and Voodoo priest named Boukman who led the slave revolt that ousted French colonizers was actually a Muslim. "Islam is coming back to Haiti to stay," said Billy, who says he converted from Christianity 20 years ago. "Future generations, my sons and daughters, will speak about Islam." There are no firm statistics on the number of Muslims in Haiti, just as there are no reliable figures for many things in the country, including Port-au-Prince's exact population. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center on the world's Muslim population estimated that Haiti had about 2,000 devotees. Islamic leaders in the country insist the figure is much higher and growing. Islam is hardly unknown in the Caribbean; countries such as Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname and Guyana have significant Muslim populations. Many of those nations have strong roots in countries such as India and Indonesia where Islam is widespread.
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The ancestors of Haitians, by contrast, were brought largely from non-Muslim areas of Africa. Haiti's French colonial rulers also imported their Christian beliefs. The recent growth of Islam, as well as other new religions, shows Haiti is modernizing and becoming more pluralistic, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Inroads made by Islam (and by extension, by Mormonism and Rastafarianism) tell me that Haiti is very much a product of this century, subject to all winds, ill-winds and otherwise, that blow over the Caribbean nation-states," Bellegarde-Smith wrote in an email. Rosedany Bazille, a 39-year-old teacher who converted several months after the earthquake, said she had felt rudderless before embracing the religion and was looking for a way forward. "Islam can put people on the right path and show them who's God," she said. Some Haitian Muslims belong to the Nation of Islam, a U.S.-based branch of the religion that preaches black self-determination. Some local members converted while serving time in U.S. prisons before being deported back to Haiti. The group's leader, Louis Farrakhan, visited the country for the first time last year.
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The decision to convert has made some targets of discrimination. The Haitian government doesn't recognize Islam as an official religion, nor does it honor Muslim marriages. Wearing the skullcaps or flowing head scarves typical of the religion can draw stares and finger-pointing. Derosier said her neighbors gossip that she's evil. Voodoo, a blend of West African religions created by slaves during the colonial period, has long been a popular faith in the country, with elements followed even by some of the 85 percent of the population who claim Christian beliefs. Voodoo was once so commonly embraced that the notorious dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier used it to terrify and control the masses. Most Christian Haitians identify themselves as Roman Catholics. A priest, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in 1990 by opposing the hereditary dictatorship that continued with Francois' son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
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With so much still wrong in Haiti, the need for Islam couldn't be greater, said Billy. Two months ago, he launched his live talk show to educate his compatriots about his adopted faith. "Haiti has gone astray. It can't produce anything," said Billy. "Right now Haitians just want a visa to go the United States, to Canada. They don't want to stay in Haiti." With a tapestry of Mecca and praying crowds as a backdrop to his TV show one recent evening, Billy and his co-host Ruben Caries invited watchers to send questions about Islam via text messages. Billy's BlackBerry buzzed with missives, including this one in Creole: "M vle vini Muslim" - "I want to be a Muslim."

Haiti's Fractured Temples: Vodoun Two Years After the Quake

1/12/2012
Tikkun Daily Blog
By Gina Athena Ulysse
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Vodun practitioners from all over the African Diaspora traveled to Benin (formerly Dahomey), the birthplace of the religion, this week to participate in what is known as International Voodoo Day. This January 10 festival of prayers, libations, sacrifices and other rituals is the most important Vodun gathering in the world. As a Haitian-American, I can’t help reflect on this most African part of our heritage in the New World especially as it is continually maligned by those whose knowledge is restricted to popular images that favor the macabre. Those of us who recognize and respect Vodou’s complexity know we must defend it because the religion remains trapped in stereotypes making it extremely difficult to dispel geopolitically driven myths too entrenched in the spectacular. Growing up as a child in Haiti, I had no concept of what is referred to as “Voodoo” in the U.S. In fact, the more appropriate word, Vodou, was not part of my vocabulary. The tradition that some members of my family followed was known as “serving the spirits.” Even that phrase was not something we actively used, since our actual engagement was rooted more in daily practice than naming. Serving meant living in a world where the sacred and secular were blurred. So it was commonplace to see adults pour libations of water and coffee three times onto the ground upon awakening in the morning before even speaking to one another. Or sometimes they rushed to the outhouse, I would learn later, to expunge bad dreams that should not be spoken in order to deflect their mal-intention and prevent entry into the home. These and other very conscious acts of psychic repulsion taught me that serving the spirits was foremost about communion and protection.
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In times of trouble, spirits made appearances to offer counseling. It’s not surprising then that granmoun and zanset, the Kréyol words for elders and ancestors, are also interchangeably used for lwas, or spirits. They are called upon to administer healing only when all other approaches have been exhausted. Their very presence often ordered a chaotic situation because out of respect, adults must defer to spirits. And when they did not, there were consequences. In that sense, sèvitès, those who turned to the spirits, did so with a sense of surrender akin perhaps to encounters between dwarves and giants, or Lilliputians among the Brobdingnags. To be sure, like any other religion, Vodou has its extremities. There are secret societies that have their own system of governance with ritual practices and sacrifices that border the surreal. To me, the spirit world was always one full of wonder. I have my personal favorites. Ogou, the spirit of the warrior — represented by lithographs of Saint Jacques — brandishes a machete or a sword like an expert marksman. If someone needs a bodyguard, they can count on Ogou. He rules over power. Some say he can even reverse poison. He loves women. We can honor him by wearing red and offering rice with beans, or yams. Gédé is the spirit of life and death, the ultimate trickster who makes adults blush with his chorus of expletives too worldly for schoolgirl ears. Ironically or not, he’s the protector of all children. Rum and hot peppers are two of his favorites. Ezili Freda is the pretty one. She prefers lace, perfumes and gold. Her specialty is affairs of the heart. She’s honored with cleanliness, fresh linens, rich foods and white or pink clothes and accessories. Dantò, her counterpart, is pictured as The Black Madonna of Częstochowa and bears two scars on her right cheek. She cannot speak because her tongue had been cut off to discipline her. She has an affinity for knives and her favorite colors are red and blue.
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The deference to the power that spirits have over mortals comes from the simple fact that to serve is to respond to a call to carry on a legacy, because one’s relationship to the spirit world is also part of familial inheritance. Along with the land on which they reside in natural resting places, or repozwas, spirits are conveyed from generation to generation. Through oral history, family members share the songs, rituals and knowledge of their spirits’ particular likes and dislikes. One family member is selected to take charge of spiritual obligations. Not just anyone is chosen because spirits are quite finicky. They require a steady force in their intermediary, someone capable of humility and willing to be of service. The select do not always oblige for all sorts of reasons: outward rejection of what is often an enormous social and financial responsibility, migration that defrays the personal ties, or perhaps religious conversion. Among the ones who do serve, some choose the path of initiation and others do not. To serve is to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the lwa in which demands can be made that will be reciprocated with promises. In return for their work, spirits expect recognition with visible acts of acknowledgment like depositing a favorite item on the altar, feedings and pilgrimages.
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Annually, many sèvitès commit to making long treks to sacred sites all across the country to pay debts, strengthen their faith or ask for favors. Whether it is under the waterfall of Saut D’eau in Mirebalais or a clearing in a venerable forest, spirits visit the offering devotees and bestow benediction in moments of rapture. In my early teens, in the aftermath of migration and bombarded with narrow and negative views of Haiti, I vividly recall deciding to go back there only when the political situation changed. I ended up pursuing a degree in anthropology for the same reason and in the process became too cognizant of the ways Vodou, as an African-based cultural heritage, was under siege. By the time I made my first return, missionaries proliferated and provided social services neglected by the compromised and combative state. Conversion to Protestantism was de rigueur. We were not immune. My family’s connection to the spirits, which was always tenuous, had practically disappeared as various parcels of land had been sold off and were now inhabited by strangers or newcomers to Port-au-Prince. The diasporic ties that bind continued to fray. No one cared as the stigma had taken hold. This was most evident in the neglected peristyle or temple that was once revered as sacred space where community gathered. When a cousin boldly stated “bagay sa yo pa a la mode ankò” (or “such things are no longer in style”), he was echoing a broader sentiment. Many among the young see serving as old fashioned. The spiritual uprooting of the last three decades was exacerbated by the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago that also fractured so many temples. That was a sign of things to come. Ours eventually crumbled as the last of the stalwarts converted. As Haiti returns to the mainstream media today to mark the second anniversary of the earthquake, let’s remember the spirits.
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Gina Athena Ulysse is Associate Professor of Anthropology, African- American Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. A poet/performance/multimedia artist, as well as anthropologist, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1999. She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). Follow Gina on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ginaathena.

Voodoo, An Anchor, Rises Again (4/8/2011)

New York Times
By DAN BILEFSKY
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IT was past 3 a.m. in a dim basement in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Jack Laroche, a Haitian-American computer engineer, nervously awaited his bride: a voodoo spirit named Ezili Freda who believers say has the power to lavish love and wealth and render wayward spouses impotent. As four drummers pounded rhythmically, voodoo priestesses in bright-colored dresses danced in ecstatic circles, dousing the floor with rum and chanting, “Ayibobo!” — the voodoo “amen.” The bride’s dramatic entrance was signaled when a priestess in a shimmering pink silk dress started trembling violently, her eyes rolling toward the back of her head before she fainted. When she came to, apparently possessed by Ezili Freda, she took Mr. Laroche’s hand and nibbled on his ear coquettishly before the happy couple exchanged vows in French. Long misunderstood and maligned in Western popular culture, voodoo has become a spiritual anchor in New York City’s vast Haitian community and in Haitian enclaves across the country as practitioners look for comfort after the devastating earthquake in the impoverished Caribbean nation last year.
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In New York, where there are roughly 300,000 people who were born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent — the largest concentration in the United States — richly painted basement voodoo temples are sprinkled around Harlem and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Mambos, or voodoo priestesses, say they can barely keep up with “demann,” or prayer requests; spiritual love recipes to lure recalcitrant lovers are the most popular. Voodoo prayer circles in which practitioners meet to commiserate have also proliferated, with a notable intensity in the months since the earthquake. But the world of voodoo has fallen under an unwelcome spotlight in recent weeks as a result of two episodes in which the authorities say voodoo played a central role — a fatal five-alarm fire in Brooklyn and the coming trial in Queens of a woman accused of severely burning her daughter.
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The fire, in a building in Flatbush in February, was ignited by candles surrounding a bed during a ceremony in the apartment of a voodoo priest who the authorities said was hired by a woman to chase away evil spirits. The fire killed a 64-year-old woman in another apartment and left dozens of tenants homeless. In Queens, a Haitian immigrant, Marie Lauradin, 29, is to go on trial this summer because prosecutors say she performed a voodoo exorcism ritual two years ago during which she lighted a flammable liquid in the form of a circle on a floor and placed her 6-year-old daughter, Frantzcia, within it, engulfing her in flames. Ms. Lauradin is charged with assault and endangering the welfare of a child. The child’s grandmother Sylvenie Thessier, 72, whom prosecutors accused of doing nothing while her granddaughter was burned, was sentenced last week to one to three years in prison after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment.
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The episodes have shaken the tight-knit and largely secretive voodoo community in New York, and practitioners say they were aberrant acts perpetrated by ignorant people who were abusing the religion. Dowoti Desir, a Haitian-American voodoo scholar who has a temple in her home in Harlem, said the episodes were contributing to the demonization of voodoo and forcing people to practice it underground. “Voodoo practitioners are in the closet for fear of being hounded or suffering reprisals,” she said. “The truth is that voodoo has been a source of empowerment for generations of Haitians.” (Many practitioners and scholars prefer alternate renderings of the word “voodoo,” like “voudou” or “vodun,” which they say more accurately reflect its origins.) Some people are turning to voodoo in response to financial hardships caused by the recession. And among younger Haitian-Americans, voodoo is a means to reconnect with their roots.
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Mr. Laroche, 35, nattily dressed for his marriage ceremony, said he had decided to exchange vows with his spirit bride in search of cultural affirmation, career advancement and protection from affliction, financial or otherwise. “There is a misconception that if you practice voodoo you can turn your friends into goats,” Mr. Laroche said. “But voodoo is about getting back in touch with the past.” In voodoo, a healing-based religion that was brought to Haiti by slaves from Western and Central Africa, followers commune with one God — Gran Met — by worshiping potent and sometimes temperamental lwas, or spirits, believed to hold sway over love, morality, reproduction and death. According to scholars, up to half of all Haitians practice some form of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism, which intermingled with the belief systems of enslaved West Africans when Haiti was a French colony. Yet because the religion is often practiced furtively in basement temples, and because of its emphasis on spirits, spells and animal sacrifices, it has been stigmatized as primitive.
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But scholars stress that voodoo has played a central role in Haitian history, sustaining people who have endured oppressive governments, grinding poverty and natural calamities. Ms. Desir, a former professor in the Africana studies department at Brooklyn College, says voodoo has been vilified by Western culture going back to 1791, when a voodoo ceremony helped inspire slaves to rebel against their French colonial oppressors, sparking the Haitian Revolution. Voodoo’s reputation inside and outside Haiti also suffered during the regime of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971 and whose ruthless security force, the Tonton Macoutes, misused the religion as a means of repression. Mr. Duvalier even modeled himself after the Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit of death, affecting a low nasal voice and wearing dark sunglasses to hide his eyes and instill fear and devotion.
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After last year’s earthquake, some evangelical preachers, including Pat Robertson in the United States, said the catastrophe was related to Haiti’s “pact with the devil.” There is no evidence that voodoo ceremonies have contributed in any notable way to fire trends in New York, according to the Fire Department. But Jim Long, a department spokesman, said it was worrisome when alcoholic substances were used for purposes like lighting fires. In many ceremonies, practitioners use rum or a flammable, lemon-scented perfume that can be bought for about $10. Much as clergy members in other religions accept payments to perform rituals like marriages and baptisms, voodoo priests and priestesses typically charge for their services, in part to help pay for the expensive tastes of spirits like Freda, who favors offerings like pink Champagne, believers say. Prices can range from $300 for a recipe to infatuate a wary lover to $5,000 for a full-fledged exorcism in which evil spirits are transferred from humans to other animals, like pigs.
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Mr. Laroche said he paid $10,000 for his marriage ceremony, a price he said was more than justified by the benefits the good will of the spirits would bring. Ms. Desir said that aspiring voodoo priestesses and priests typically apprenticed with an experienced mentor and that it could take up to five years to master the botany, healing and drumming rituals of voodoo. In the absence of a governing body to regulate the religion, she said, profiteering by an unscrupulous few has made it vulnerable to fraud. Edeline St. Armand, a mambo who built a voodoo temple in her basement in Canarsie, Brooklyn, said that when she arrived in the neighborhood more than 20 years ago, an Italian family living next door moved away after a few days. “They were afraid and thought that Haitians are witches,” Ms. St. Armand said.
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Ms. St. Armand said voodoo rituals at her temple, Société La Belle Venus II, were attracting hundreds of people from across the city, including Wall Street bankers seeking spells to guard against falling share prices and homemakers aggrieved about wayward husbands. She said that because the religion was focused on curing people physically and spiritually, some misguided people were turning to voodoo with the wrong intentions. “I would never use voodoo to do harm or to kill a merger-and-acquisition deal,” Ms. St. Armand said. “I try and only use it to do good.” She said she had recently helped a repentant convict seeking to overturn his drug-possession conviction, but immediately threw out someone who asked her for a spell to allow him to have unprotected sex.
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For many practitioners, voodoo is a matter of cultural identity. Ms. Desir, 50, recalled that her Catholic mother had been aghast when, as a rebellious young adult living in Queens and studying anthropology at Barnard College, she also decided to study to become a mambo. “I personally don’t hide the fact that I am a voodoo priestess; it is a crown that I wear proudly,” Ms. Desir said. “My role is not to create love potions but to help reconnect with African culture.” For Mr. Laroche, who came to New York when he was 5, voodoo is a tie to his family’s home in Port-au-Prince. He sees no contradiction between wielding an iPhone and marrying a voodoo bride. During the marriage ceremony, Mr. Laroche said he planned to celebrate his nuptials with his girlfriend, who he said had little reason to be jealous. She had already married Ogou, a virile, cigar-smoking spirit who is said to provide strength and protection.

Haiti's Hallowed Hotel (With References to Vodoun)

3/1/2011
The Economist
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IT’S a cliché to say that the Oloffson is the iconic hotel of the Caribbean and of Haiti. But it’s been said so often for a reason. The rickety 19th-century building, immortalised by Graham Greene in his 1966 novel The Comedians under the fictional name The Trianon, is still open, and at the moment pretty full. It is also amazingly unchanged, given its location in a country that has seen so much turmoil and destruction. Arrive at the hotel and you are greeted by a statue of the top-hatted Baron Samedi, the Vodou (Voodoo) spirit of sex, death and resurrection. Richard Morse, an American and the current proprietor, is a Vodou priest known as an Houngan. Refresh yourself in the pool where Brown, Mr Morse’s fictional predecessor in The Comedians, recalls watching a girl making love—and where he finds a corpse when he returns from New York after failing to sell the hotel. On the hotel’s famous shady terrace foreign and local journalists mingle with aid workers, politicians and purveyors of analysis and high-class gossip. Every now and then Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, the gleaming-headed singer-turned-presidential-candidate, and a cousin of Mr Morse’s, dashes in and out with his entourage. A slow waiter creeps up and down occasionally serving rum sours, while characters that Greene might have invented hold court.
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The building was first put up by the Sam family, which has given two presidents to Haiti. During the 1915-34 American occupation of Haiti, the American army used it as a hospital, and their extension to the property is still called the “maternity wing”. It became a hotel in 1935 when Werner Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, took over the lease. It then passed to Roger Coster, a French photographer, and again in 1960 to Al Seitz, an American. Under them the Oloffson enjoyed a golden era, when guests included Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sir John Gielgud. A modern-day devotee of the hotel is Jorgen Leth, a Danish filmmaker who has spent a lot of time in Haiti over the last thirty years. He narrowly escaped death last year when the earthquake that devastated the island levelled his house in Jacmel on the coast. Mr Leth first came to the Oloffson in 1982 to make a film, called Haiti Express in English, about a foreign correspondent. “I liked the Graham Greene fantasy of a banana republic, sensual women and Vodou,” he says. According to Mr Leth, Mr Seitz accompanied Greene on his visits to nearby brothels, which the novelist would later describe in print. Mr Leth says the character of Brown, the proprietor, was based on Mr Seitz, and that Petit Pierre, a journalist in the book, was a fictional version of a real reporter called Aubain Jolicoeur, whose photo has pride of place behind the Oloffson’s reception desk. “He was not as evil as Greene portrayed him,” Mr Leth recalls. In 1987, after a short period when the hotel was closed and fell into disrepair, it was taken over by Mr Morse, a musician born to an American professor of Latin American studies and a famous Haitian dancer. Although the murderous dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier had ended the year before, violent instability followed his departure. “From my room I heard the noise of the coup of 7 January 1991,” Mr Leth remembers. “People were in the streets at four in the morning beating telegraph poles with spoons. It is the traditional call to rebellion.”
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The coup failed, but its bloody aftermath reached the hotel’s doorstep. “A tall, strong, black man comes up. Everyone knew he was a Tonton Macoute,” says Mr Leth, referring to Mr Duvalier’s paramilitary death squads. “He was scared. They were putting tyres around their necks and burning them in the street [a practice called ‘necklacing’]. The staff would not approach him. The hotel was full of tourists.” “We understood the situation,” he continues. “Richard [Morse] said he had to go. He was a killer. He was pleading. He took out crumpled dollar bills. Richard took him to the gate. I thought, when he gets on the street he will have minutes left to live. We don’t know what happened. They were killing people, necklacing them and burning homes. It was the classic moral dilemma. The tourists did not even notice.” Mr Morse does not remember this specific incident, but does recall when a mob thought he was hiding someone they were after and, jerry cans to hand, were at the point of torching the hotel. “When there is political trouble and someone shows up sweating with no luggage,” he says, “I say the hotel is full.”
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Once the country calmed down, chaos gave way to boredom. Because the UN stabilisation force in Haiti has often designated the hotel’s neighbourhood an insecure “red zone”, the Oloffson has spent much of the last ten years off-limits to UN employees, diplomats and many other visiting foreigners. Mr Morse calls the last decade “awful”. “There were periods when there was nobody here,” says Mr Leth. “It was dead.” During the earthquake of last year, which flattened much of Port-au-Prince, the capital, the wooden Oloffson came off virtually unscathed. Fittingly, Mr Morse was in the Graham Greene room. (All rooms are named after one or more famous guests.) While the hotel did not fall down, “it sure danced,” he says. Right behind the Oloffson, on a steep hill, are the remains of the eight-story Hotel Castel Haiti. It was dilapidated at the time but packed with squatters, dozens of whom died when the building collapsed. On being a Vodou priest, the 53-year old hotelier says that Vodou is a much-misunderstood “prayer system”, that is not so different from Catholicism or Protestantism. It is, he says, about “praying to God, the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, all the male saints in heaven as on earth and all the female saints in heaven as on earth.” Catholics too have a Day of the Dead, he notes, and “we have a Vodou-type celebration in the States, which is Thanksgiving.” Haitians are a special people, says Mr Morse, and now they are living through “biblical moments” in their turbulent history. And, with that, he withdraws to tweet. You can follow him at @RAMhaiti.

Hatian Montrealers Embrace Voodoo Spirits of Community

2/19/2011
The Montreal Gazette
By LORRAINE MALLINDER
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Voodoo practitioner Nirva Cherasard in her temple in Repentigny: Many of the superstitious, she says, are "victims of themselves."Photograph by: Pierre Obendrauf, Montreal GazetteEveryone hugged the phallus. Not a real specimen, but an alabaster post extending from floor to ceiling in the basement of a suburban house in Repentigny. It was January 2010, just a couple of weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, and Montreal’s voodoo community had gathered to reflect. One by one, they embraced the poto mitan, the phallic link between the voodoo worlds of the living and the dead. The room resounded to repeated incantations of “Ay bobo!”, the voodoo amen. Shortly afterward, the white rum and white-bread sandwiches came out and the ceremony got started. The subterranean location of the ounfò, or temple, seemed apt. Nirva Cherasard, the mambo (priestess) who had welcomed the faithful to her home, estimates that around 50 per cent of Montreal’s Haitian community are voodooists, many practising the religion alongside Catholicism, “but some people will keep it a secret to the death.” Voodoo may be part of everyday life for much of the Haitian diaspora, bringing people together and keeping them connected to their motherland, yet it remains an underground affair.
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Mention voodoo and the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is an image of someone sticking pins into a doll. These dolls do indeed exist, although they are said to be derived from the poppets of European folk magic, later adopted by Louisiana voodooists. Mambo Cherasard notes that curses only work on the weak. “The weaker the person, the more they will be vulnerable to negative forces.” Many of the superstitious, she says, are “victims of themselves.” So, how can she tell if a curse is real? “It’s like going into a room and feeling bad vibes,” she says. In cases where possession is involved, exorcism can be a long and painful process. “The person can go mad,” she says. In extreme cases, the exorcist will transfer the spirit from the mind of the possessed to that of an animal, usually a goat or a chicken. Originally brought to Haiti by West African slaves, the religion has one god – Gran Mèt – with whom followers connect through a host of spirits known as the loa. Ever since the beginning of the 19th century, when runaway slaves secured Haiti’s independence, the folk religion has been systematically stamped on by the elite mulatto ruling class and church and state officials, who feared its people power potential. Throw in a freaky doll stabbed with pins, some gory animal sacrifice and a head-spinning demonic trance, all imagery straight from Hollywood schlock horror of the 1930s-’60s, and you have all the makings of a pariah religion. Haiti’s recent woes have not improved matters. High-profile evangelist leader Pat Robertson blamed last year’s earthquake on a voodoo pact with the devil. A year later, as a deadly outbreak of cholera marches through the country and with over a million people living in makeshift camps, voodoo is still under attack.
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In Port-au-Prince, anthropologist and leading voodooist Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique speaks of “hyped-up small pastors delivering excited sermons that stir people up.” Following the earthquake, there had been a lot of mixed-faith commemorations, bringing voodooists and Christians together, but the gains were soon wiped out. In December, Reuters reported that at least 45 male and female voodoo priests, scapegoated for the cholera epidemic, had been lynched or hacked to death with machetes. Yet, the practice of voodoo had become more open in Haiti since the adoption of a constitution guaranteeing religious freedom in 1987. This was reinforced in 2003, when former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared voodoo an official religion and “an essential part of national identity.” But, with no official structures, the religion has remained in the shadows. As in Montreal, many Haitians are unofficially voodooists, but officially Catholic. “People still say they are Catholic when registering children at schools, the same for funerals and baptisms, to avoid discrimination,” says Beauvoir-Dominique. Long-established Haitian immigrant communities in New York and Montreal tend to be particularly wary about sticking their colours to the mast, perhaps mindful not only of historical anti-superstition campaigns, but also of the horrors of the Duvalier era, when the religion was co-opted and corrupted by former dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier in a perverse strategy aimed at both rallying and brutalizing the population. The recent return of his son and successor, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, has prompted a new rash of negative publicity for voodoo, with the terms “voodoo tyrant” and “voodoo politics” featuring in many a headline.
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Former Montreal pastor Jean Fils-Aimé believes that Haitians at home and abroad are in the midst of an identity crisis that can be overcome only by embracing their voodooist roots. He believes that voodoo is so entrenched in the everyday lives of Haitians, not only as a religion, but also as a “culture and civilization,” that “every Haitian is a voodooist.” “Voodoo was a refuge for slaves. It is a culture, a way of inhabiting this world,” says Fils-Aimé, who was forced to resign as pastor to a local Haitian congregation because of his openness to voodoo. Voodoo does play an important community role. In Haiti, Beauvoir-Dominique works with a voodoo foundation called Ayivan Velekete, which helps to preserve local traditions and create self-sustaining development projects. And, in Montreal, Cherasard says that big ceremonies are also attended by non-initiates, who come for the sense of togetherness, “to have a good time, to eat and drink, to be among their friends.” Local voodooist Raymond Romulus says he has nothing to hide. “Voodoo is about maintaining links with Haiti, about being together. It’s social, moral and cultural. It’s about knowing your own conscience, being aware of your actions toward others,” he says. He adds that it’s a religion “without slaves,” a democratic faith allowing followers direct access to Gran Mèt through the phenomenon of spiritual possession. “I want to see an official temple for voodoo in Montreal, just like other religions have,” he says.

The Roots of Vodoun's Acceptance of Gays (2/11/2011)

By Irene Monroe
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In celebrating Black History Month this year I want our West African ancestral religious contributions to also be lifted up. One of them for me, as a lesbian, is the contribution of Voodoo. Why? Because of its spiritual tenets of acceptance of all people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions. As one of the religions brought to the New World by the African Diaspora, there is no religion that frightens and fascinates the world over as Voodoo. Misconstrued by racist images of zombies rising from graves, jungle drums, orgiastic ceremonies ritualizing malevolent powers of black magic and engaging in cannibalism, and by today's popular culture images courtesy of Hollywood and New Orleans' tourism industries, Voodoo is a persecuted religion.
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But Haitian Voodoo is an ancestral folk religion whose tenets have always been queer-friendly.
Ironically, homosexuality has been legal in Haiti since 1986. But few protections and provisions come with it. For example, same-sex marriage, and civil unions are not recognized. It's unclear whether LGBTQ couples can adopt children or have custody of their own children. LGBTQ Haitians don't openly serve in the military. They don't have anti-hate crime bill that specifically addresses discrimination and harassment LGBTQ Haitians face on the basis due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Minimally, LGBTQ Haitians are protected under its Constitution as stated in Article 35-2 that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on, "sex, beliefs, opinions and marital status." And the United Nation's International Bill of Human Rights mainly protects LGBTQ Haitians. With no queer enclaves in Port-au-Prince and other big cities throughout Haiti, many LGBTQ Haitians are left puzzled by what it means that homosexuality is legal in their country. However, as in all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBTQ people have always found ways to express and to live out their true authentic lives. In Haiti, how openly queer you are depends not only on your class, profession and skin complexion, but also your religious affiliation. In a country that is predominately Roman Catholic, homosexuality is condemned. But among Haiti's LGBTQ middle and profession classes they find ways to socialize out of the public "gaydar" and with impunity.
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For example, in Petionville, an upscale suburb of Port-au-Prince of mostly American and European whites and multiracial Haitians, is where many LGBTQ people will informally gather for dinner parties, at restaurants and beaches. The well-known 4-star tourist hotel, the Hotel Montana, in the hills of Petionville that was recently destroyed by the quake is one of the hot spots. And these queers hold positions as government officials, business people, NGO and UN aid workers. For the poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians, however, who live, work and socialize in one of the densely populated and improvised city like the capitol city of Port-au-Prince, discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender expressions is commonplace. For example, the 2002 documentary Des Hommes et Dieux (Of Men and Gods), by anthropologist Anne Lescot, exposed the daily struggles of Haitian transwomen, one of whom said, "When people insult me because I wear a dress I am not ashamed of how I am. Masisis (gay males) can't walk down the street in a wig and dress." But with the ancestral religious belief that behavior is guided by a spirit (loa), gay males in Haitian Voodoo are under the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love. And as a feminine sprit, gay males are allowed to imitate and worship her. And lesbians (madivins) are considered to be under the patronage of Erzulie Dantor, a fierce protector of women and children experiencing domestic violence. Erzulie Dantor is bisexual, but she prefers the company of women.
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As a monotheistic religion, Voodoo believes in one God, but many spirits called "lwas" that have both dark and light sides. The lwas are the varied expressions of God in the world, and these spirits oversee all human activities by forming connections between the material world people live in and the spiritual world they derive from. Two different forms of Voodoo exist. While it is true that Voodoo evolved in New Orleans at the same time it was taking shape in Haiti, New Orleans' Voodoo, known as the Voodoo capital of the U.S., was not suppressed and allowed to flourish between both its black and white citizens. Haiti's, however, was not. And, hiding itself behind the trappings of Catholicism, Voodoo in Haiti was unofficial and largely practiced in secret until recently.
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Why Voodoo as a religion many people ask? Voodoo enables Haitians to connect and preserve their West African heritage, to link to their ancestral spirits who affect everyday events of their lives, and to bond with their local communities. And poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians have at least two ways to openly express and celebrate who they are: in Voodoo and in Rara festivals. At Rara Festivals, a yearly festival that begins following Carnival belongs to the peasant and urban poor of Haiti. The Rara bands come out of Voodoo societies that have gay congregations where gay men are permitted to cross-dress with impunity.

"A Year And A Day" (New Yorker - January 2011)

By Edwidge Danticat
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In the Haitian vodou tradition, it is believed by some that the souls of the newly dead slip into rivers and streams and remain there, under the water, for a year and a day. Then, lured by ritual prayer and song, the souls emerge from the water and the spirits are reborn. These reincarnated spirits go on to occupy trees, and, if you listen closely, you may hear their hushed whispers in the wind. The spirits can also hover over mountain ranges, or in grottoes, or caves, where familiar voices echo our own when we call out their names. The year-and-a-day commemoration is seen, in families that believe in it and practice it, as a tremendous obligation, an honorable duty, in part because it assures a transcendental continuity of the kind that has kept us Haitians, no matter where we live, linked to our ancestors for generations.
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By this interpretation of death, one of many in Haiti, more than two hundred thousand souls went anba dlo—under the water—after the earthquake last January 12th. Their bodies, however, were elsewhere. Many were never removed from the rubble of their homes, schools, offices, churches, or beauty parlors. Many were picked up by earthmovers on roadsides and dumped into mass graves. Many were burned, like kindling, in bonfires, for fear that they might infect the living. “In Haiti, people never really die,” my grandmothers said when I was a child, which seemed strange, because in Haiti people were always dying. They died in disasters both natural and man-made. They died from political violence. They died of infections that would have been easily treated elsewhere. They even died of chagrin, of broken hearts. But what I didn’t fully understand was that in Haiti people’s spirits never really die. This has been proved true in the stories we have seen and read during the past year, of boundless suffering endured with grace and dignity: mothers have spent nights standing knee-deep in mud, cradling their babies in their arms, while rain pounded the tarpaulin above their heads; amputees have learned to walk, and even dance, on their new prostheses within hours of getting them; rape victims have created organizations to protect other rape victims; people have tried, in any way they could, to reclaim a shadow of their past lives.
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My grandmothers were also talking about souls, which never really die, even when the visual and verbal manifestations of their transition—the tombstones and mausoleums, the elaborate wakes and church services, the desounen prayers that encourage the body to surrender the spirit, the mourning rituals of all religions—become a luxury, like so much else in Haiti, like a home, like bread, like clean water. In the year since the earthquake, Haiti has lost some thirty-five hundred people to cholera, an epidemic that is born out of water. The epidemic could potentially take more lives than the earthquake itself. And with the contagion of cholera comes a stigma that follows one even in death. People cannot touch a loved one who has died of cholera. No ritual bath is possible, no last dressing of the body. There are only more mass graves. In the emerging lore and reality of cholera, water, this fragile veil between life and death for so many Haitians, has become a feared poison. Even as the election stalemate lingers, the rice farmers in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley—the country’s breadbasket—are refusing to step into the bacteria-infected waters of their paddies, setting the stage for potential food shortages and more possible death ahead, this time from hunger. In the precarious dance for survival, in which we long to honor the dead while still harboring the fear of joining them, will our rivers and streams even be trusted to shelter and then return souls?
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A year ago, watching the crumbled buildings and crushed bodies that were shown around the clock on American television, I thought that I was witnessing the darkest moment in the history of the country where I was born and where most of my family members still live. Then I heard one of the survivors say, either on radio or on television, that during the earthquake it was as if the earth had become liquid, like water. That’s when I began to imagine them, all these thousands and thousands of souls, slipping into the country’s rivers and streams, then waiting out their year and a day before reëmerging and reclaiming their places among us. And, briefly, I was hopeful. My hope came not only from the possibility of their and our communal rebirth but from the extra day that would follow the close of what has certainly been a terrible year. That extra day guarantees nothing, except that it will lead us into the following year, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Excellent Website for Learning About Vodoun

Day of Dead revives painful memories for Haitians (11/2/2010)

Miami Herald
By JACQUELINE CHARLES
jcharles@MiamiHerald.com
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PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The bereaved arrived before dawn, carrying sweet coffee in plastic gallons, Haitian moonshine and Florida Water for the makeshift altars. Dressed in white and purple, they pushed through the gate of the main cemetery to honor their dead. As some celebrated All Saints Day by honoring the spirits of their dead with church services and visits to cemeteries, the day took on a heightened significance in this broken capital as Haitians remembered those lost in the Jan. 12 earthquake. ``This is a very difficult moment. The people have problems. Their homes are destroyed. They are living underneath tents, and they can't even celebrate how they would like to,'' said Bacherlot Jeudy, one of several ``pere savane,'' performing services Monday inside the crowded, yet festive, Port-au-Prine cemetery. The pere savane is the symbolic representation of a Catholic priest in Vodou services.
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``You see them here, but they had to muster up the strength just to come.'' Nearly 10 months after the disaster, Haitians are still grieving even as thousands spent the day attempting to celebrate life with dancing and song as they called on the spirits. No official registry of the deceased exists. No memorial has been dedicated. And it was just days ago that authorities poured fresh concrete over a massive grave site inside the main cemetery where thousands were buried. Even the numbers remain a matter of dispute, with some believing that far less than the 300,000 the government estimated died in the quake, and others saying it is way more. ``There are still bodies buried underneath buildings,'' said Fritzner Durandisse, 43, a father of three who came to grieve the eight friends killed in the quake. ``It's really hard to bear.''
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Like many, he didn't know exactly where their bodies were put to their final resting place. So he came to the Universal Tomb, an oversized gray and white concrete structure that long symbolized those who had died violent deaths under army rule. Now it is also symbolic of those killed in the quake as survivors placed flowers, beeswax candles and meals around it, pouring the coffee and perfumed Florida Water on the altar. As each approached the tomb, they knocked its walls with their open palms as if to announce their presence. ``Sweetheart, I didn't bring any cigarette or rum, but I am here,'' said one man.
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As he spoke, Jeudy and another ``priest'' officiated over brief ceremonies at the request of family members. They prayed and sang, then recited the hand-scripted names of the dead off a piece of paper offered up by the family. Elsewhere in the cemetery, thousands participated in Gede as some became possessed by spirits and others paid homage to Baron Samedi, the Vodou guardian of the cemetery. In the days following the quake, officials broke open dozens of tombs inside the cemetery and stuffed them with bodies in plastic bags. Standing across from a tomb, David Jean says he has no idea where 18 family members, including three of his six children he lost during the quake, are buried. He, his wife and three other children survived, he said, because they were in the streets and not at his home in the Fontamara neighborhood of Carrefour when his house collapsed. Since the quake, Jean said, life has gotten worse. ``I don't work, I don't have any money, my children can't go to school,'' he said. ``I am living in the streets.''

Happy (Haitian) Halloween (Heritage Kompa - 10/31/2010)

By Scheeler & Rene Devis
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November is considered an important month in the Vodou religious calendar, including the celebration of Guede, meaning guardian of the dead. This week article features the Haitian voodoo spirit, Guede, as well as certain aspects of the Voodoo Religion. Vodou ( not Voodoo) is a spiritual African word, meaning "force" and "mystery". Anthropologists estimate the religion to be between 6-10,000 years old, but followers in Benin, the epicenter of Vodou, located in West Africa, believe that the religion pre-dates Christianity. According to an History Channel documentary, "Vodou Secret ", 60 million people practice the religion world wide. Vodou exists in different forms and variations. It is practiced throughout the Caribbean, Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico, and many other countries in Latin America. Whether it is referred to as Obeah, Santeria, Regla de Ocha, Umbada, Lukumi, Candomble, La Regla Lucum or Orisha, it is still Vodou.
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Vodou spirits or gods (if you prefer) are represented by different symbols; Guede, the lord of the dead, is represented by the cross, Damballah ( God Of Wisdom ) is represented by the iconography of St Patrick; the loa associated with water and love, Erzulie, is represented by the iconography of the Virgin Mary; loa Legba, who holds the keys to the gate between the worlds is represented by the iconography of St Peter. Western Civilizations do not regard Vodoo as a religion. While Vodou is no different than any other organized religion, its practitioners believe in GOD who manifests himself or herself in different spirits and form of energy. Indeed, imperialist ideologies, the church, Hollywood, and some scholars have purposely maligned Vodou.
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Humans have come a long way in the course of evolution, however many of us still retain our beastlike like nature. A small percentage of Vodouists do practice medieval black magic, but the religion itself is not a system of harmful magic nor does it involve the worship of the devil as many uneducated westerners believe. All religions have a dark side, whether it is Judaism, Christianity, Buddhist, Muslum, or the free mason. This World has experienced two World Wars, many religious crusades, plague and widespread diseases, and other unspeakable terrors and today the World continues to darken around us, but it is certainly not because of Vodou.
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Vodou is feared because it is not well understood and remains a mystery to scholars; so it therefore must be bad according to Western standards. Vodou has always been associated with the Haitian Revolution. After Haiti became the first Independent Black nation in the Western Hemisphere in 1803, Vodou became an even more fearful entity. The French and other powerful colonial powers had a vital interest in suppressing the growth of Vodou. They did not want Haiti and its Vodou religion to become an instrumental tool of deliberation for slaves across the Atlantic. For more than 300 years, colonial institutions have devised a successful public campaign to satanize the religion. It was feared that Vodou could be used as a powerful tool to deter the slave trade. The top 20 percent of the World's richest countries could hardly afford to have those able bodies from Africa not work the plantation right before the industrial revolution.
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Vodou has its roots in African traditions and culture. Just like many religions, Vodou is based on faith and its practitioners believe that GOD doest not work directly with humans. They believe GOD manifests himself or herself through spirits in a capacity similar to angels or saints in Christian beliefs. In Vodou the spirits are often referred to as loa, a popular word in the Haitian language, Creole. Many of the Vodou loas' names and famous Haitian dances have their roots in African dialect, tribe, and or cities. For example – Ginen, a beloved loa in the Vodou religion, refers to the ancestral spirit in Africa from the country Guinea; Ibo is another common Vodou dance, the word itself refers to a tribe in Nigeria. In fact most of the Haitian Vodou spirits (Loa) are ancestrally in natural, e.g. Guede, and many others are referring to older beings from Africa (e.g. Rada). Vodou Ceremony by Michel RoanezThe Vodou religion involves many rituals and it is practiced in family plantations and at home with altars, candles and incense. Vodouists often make offerings, pray, and sing and dance in the honor of a specific spirit. Vodou spirits connect with its servants through possession or trance, usually induced by ritual singing and dancing and the complex rhythms of the accompanying drums.
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Vodou has long been entrenched in Haiti with the arrival of African slaves in the Island of Hispaniola in the sixteen century. Despite centuries of oppression, today millions of Haitians continue to practice the religion in Haiti. In the Voodou religion, its practitioners believe that the soul departed from the physical body, where upon judgment, the soul will either go to heaven or hell. Vodouists believe the departed soul crosses the flame of purgatory waiting for purification before entering the so-called heaven. Vodouists also believe the same soul can be re-incarnated at least seven times depending on the mission of that particular soul. At the final stage of re-incarnation, that soul upon purification, will become an eternal spirit and manifest its presence in human beings usually in the form of Guede.
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Guede, meaning, "Guardian of the dead" is one of the major spirits in the Vodou religion. In the Haitian culture, Guede is celebrated throughout the month of November, the season of the dead and rebirth. Today many of us still do not fully understand the fundamentals of Vodou as a religion or Guede as a spirit within Voodou and continue to ask many essential questions. What is "Loa"? What is Guede? What does Vodou represent to Haitians, West Indians, and other people of African descendants? These questions will be addressed through a series of research articles on Heritagekonpa Magazine. If you have a moment and can keep an open mind, we will attempt to bring some clarification and perhaps some enlightenment to the subject. We begin with the Guede spirits.
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"The loa Ghede are often quite rowdy and raunchy, sprinkling their conversation with profanities and sexual innuendo. Haitian culture is generally very conservative and does not normally reward such behaviors, but the loa Ghede can commit such social transgressions without impunity - being dead, they are beyond punishment, and they seem to feel that shocking people is perfectly reasonable. They typically do not use profanity in an abusive manner, but prefer to make people laugh at their over-the-top behavior. Predominantly male, and praised with raucous songs and enthusiastic dances, the loa Ghede are the ancestors who bridge the gap between 'Guinea' (Africa) and the living of Haiti. The Ghede's names all end in La Croix in honor of Baron and Maman Brigitte who reclaim the souls of the ancestors and make them into loa; both Baron and Maman Brigitte's symbol is the cross. "Vodouisants possessed by the Ghede often dance suggestively (though without desire - it is a paradox that the Ghede represent both eroticism and death), drink strong spirits, and behave outrageously…" wrote an English Scholar.
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In Guede ceremony, vodou practitioners usually offer a large feast to the Guede spirits in November. The feast is accompanied by a 30 minute to an hour long prayer, followed by ritual chants, drumming and dances associated with Vodou, Haitian folklore music. During the ceremony the spirit is offered alcohol, food, grains, and other natural products. This is regarded as an invitation to the spirits to come celebrate life after death. Upon manifestation, the Guede spirit reacts foolishly and engages in explicit sexual conversation with the Vodou priests and the audience in the ceremony. Shortly thereafter, Guede regains its true form and focuses on human healing and problem solving. It is said that the loa Guede acts foolishly sometimes to ridicule death. For death no longer has power over its existence.
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According to Vodou practitioners, "Baron Samedi", also known as "Papa Baron" and "Gran Brigitte", represent Guede's parental lineage. Guede's parents are considered the lord of death. Baron is the spirit who presides over the dead; the loa decides the faith of all human beings on earth after death. It is relevant to note that in the Vodou religion, there exists several Gods, in addition to the Creator of the universe; whom Vodouists refer to as THE GREAT and ULTIMATE FATHER, who are responsible for a different element of life such as the sun, wind, water, earth, air, dead, fire etc. All of these deities are believed (including Jesus the son of Jehovah) to be the holy sons and daughters of the Great and Ultimate Father.
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Vodou is a very complex subject to understand if one is not part of the trusted circle of the religion. Religious Vodou priest known as "Hougan" (male priest) and Manbo (female priests) have their beliefs and secrets which cannot be revealed to the world. Don't think for a moment that Christian priests, Rabbis, Free masons, and other religious leaders do not have their own secrets which they do not reveal to their followers. To the Vodouists, Guede controls the crossroads at which every human must traverse some day to meet their faith in the afterlife. In the Haitian culture, Vodou Hougan and Mambo believe that no single individual can communicate with the dead without first obtaining permission from Papa Baron. In every major cemetery in Haiti, Papa Baron "lord of the dead" is represented by a black cross mounted on a small tomb. Guede, the keeper of the cemetery, is the primary contact with the dead. In the event that a person wishes to petition or contact the dead, he or she must first appeal to Guede/Baron Samedi to make the connection with ancestral spirits.
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Guede is generally a good and generous spirit; both Papa Baron and Gran Brigitte have healing power. According to Vodou priests, Guede can decide the fate of a person near death by allowing him or her to recover or make the transition to the afterlife. They are particularly fond of young children and protect them from harm. Unless it is THE ULTIMATE CREATORS' will, Guede spirits do not allow children to die before they have completed the cycle of life. It is our hope that with this insight into the spirits of Voodou and the truths about how it is practiced as a religion that we will be able to dispel some of the misconceptions that have heretofore been propagated. As we continue our series, our next discussion topic will be on the spirit of Maragas.

Haitian diaspora spreading the gospel of voodoo (9/27/2010)

Globe and Mail
By Ingrid Peritz
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The stairs leading to Rolanda Delerme’s basement open onto a dazzling tableau: Pink and green feathers in jars, sequined bottles, a life-sized mannequin holding a knife, altars packed with Catholic saints. “Welcome,” the voodoo priestess says, dressed in a headdress and flowing white robes. Voodoo temples such as this are said to have thrived for years in the homes of Haitian émigrés in Montreal, hidden from the judging eyes of outsiders. But now devotees have started a movement to bring voodoo and its rituals out of the shadows. “I want to open my door. I want to tell people: We exist. We are not devil worshippers,” said Ms. Delerme, a fourth-generation voodoo priestess, or mambo, who was born in Haiti but lived in the U.S. before settling in Montreal.
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“We want to defend our culture and traditions,” she said in her home on an ordinary suburban street in Montreal’s West Island. “Voodoo is still being stigmatized.” Ms. Delerme, 34, has taken on a daunting task – pulling back the veil to try to demystify one of the most secretive and misunderstood religions in the world. This month, she and a group of “voodooists” took the unusual step of holding a press conference in Montreal to announce a Canadian “national voodooist confederation.” The group has rented a tiny office in Montreal’s multiethnic Park Extension district, printed up business cards and let the news media into their once off-limit temples.
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There’s no shortage of work to do. Even as their devastated homeland struggled in the wreckage of last January’s earthquake, voodoo came under attack. U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson blamed Haiti’s suffering on its onetime slaves who “swore a pact [with] the devil.” They have been cursed ever since, he said. His words reverberated as far as Montreal and the voodoo temple in Nirva Chérasard’s home in Repentigny, northeast of Montreal. She held a funeral wake for the earthquake’s victims. “This is yet more negative propaganda,” said Ms. Chérasard, who also works as an employment adviser in Montreal. “It pushed us to feel we have to organize even more. We have the right to defend ourselves when we’re attacked for no reason.”
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It was, followers say, typical of the misconceptions about voodoo, which is still popularly associated with zombies and pin-incrusted dolls (said to be an American pop-culture creation dating to horror movies like White Zombie in 1932). Ms. Delerme said people come to her for everything from financial and health woes to marital trouble. She said she can do ritual baths, love spells or remove bad spirits. Voodoo is a centuries-old belief that combines African religions with Western Catholicism; in Haiti, its public rehabilitation began after it was officially recognized as a religion in 2003. In Montreal, it’s impossible to know the number of followers because of voodoo’s covert nature. One expert said he’s heard estimates ranging from 30 to 80 per cent of Haitian Canadians, overwhelmingly concentrated in Quebec.
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Despite the move to go mainstream, voodoo has long been taboo in the 100,000-strong Haitian diaspora. The religion was the focus of “anti-superstition” efforts by the Catholic church in Haiti that began in the late 19th century, which pushed voodoo underground even as some Haitians clung to its practises. “Haitians are ambivalent about voodoo,” said Emerson Douyon, a retired psychology professor from the University of Montreal who studied voodoo in Haiti for his PhD. “On the one hand, they’re very proud of their ancestors’ religion and their African roots. Voodoo is part of who they are.” “But Haitians know Canadians don’t necessarily approve of these kinds of practises. They worry about being considered primitive. That’s why it’s kept hidden.”
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That could change for good, when the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau puts on an exhibit on voodoo in 2012. It will combine artifacts collected from Haitian-Canadians along with a touring exhibit of Haitian voodoo that is currently being shown in Europe. “Voodoo has suffered a lot from very stereotyped images,” said Mauro Peressini, an anthropologist and curator at the museum who is working on the 2012 exhibit. “It’s a religious practise and, contrary to stereotypes, black magic and zombies are a very exceptional and marginal part of it.” He said voodoo is now in “transition” as Haitian Canadians organize and speak about it more openly. “No doubt it’s still a great mystery to many people,” he said.
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VOODOO MYTHS DISPELLED
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Myth: It's all about sticking pins in dolls to hurt your enemies.
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Reality: Not so much. The idea of “voodoo dolls” was popularized in early 20th-century Hollywood fiction. But you'll find few ill-omened pincushions lying around the house of a real voodoo priestess.
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Myth: Voodoo is big on zombies.
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Reality: Although practices surrounding death, the afterlife and ancestors are a big deal in voodoo theology, it's no more zombie-centric than the traditional roots of Christianity's All Hallows Eve.
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Myth: It's a separate religion, incompatible with strict Christian theology
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Reality: Many practitioners or believers of voodoo are also ardent Roman Catholics, especially in Haiti, where religion is omnipresent. Catholic saints play a key role in voodoo mythology.
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Myth: It's polytheistic.
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Reality:
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Not really. According to voodoo tradition there's only one supreme deity. But practitioners communicate with God through multiple spirits that act as intermediaries.

There may be a wide ranges

There may be a wide ranges of deities in Vodou but practitioners believe in One God. They are not idol worshippers as westerners make them out to be.
Also, there is no one set method to conduct a vodou service since each ceremony has its regional, sectarian flavors and influences. Additionally, there is not one set of prayer for every service. What takes place at a service may depend on purpose, time of month, availability of resources; also Traditions vary and have been handed down verbally.

Plus, just like you have catholics, episcopalian, baptist and other rites, vodou has its rada, ibo, petro, and other rites. In fact one can go to 2 baptist churches, for instance, and their ceremonies and atmosphere will be different.
Moreover, it's always been a suppressed and oppressed culture that has had to thrive underground at times because of various "witchhunts, inquisitions, and persecutions, and killings" staged by various churces, the wealthy, or even Haitian lawmakers.

The good thing about not having rigid structures ways at most ceremonies is the atmosphere of tolerance and diversity that vodou itself fosters. And speaking of tolerance - unlike many religions, there is no prejudice, sexist, or racism in vodou. Practitioners or participants may have their own biases, but the vodou way of life itself fosters an atmosphere of acceptance.

Close-Up: Voodoo in Florida's Little Haiti (5/15/2010)

This BBC News series focuses on aspects of life in countries and cities around the world. What may seem ordinary and familiar to the people who live there can be surprising to those who do not. Voodoo is a word that can conjure up all sorts of images in people's minds. If Hollywood had its way then we would think of spirits rising from the dead, pins in dolls and perhaps even zombies wondering through graveyards.
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But to those more familiar with its real roots, Voodoo is a religion that predates Christianity and for millions is an important part of everyday life. Our Miami correspondent Andy Gallacher takes a look at its role among the large Haitian community of Florida.
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http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8682605.stm

Response to Victor (5/7/2010)

Victor, thank you for this discussion, which I am finding very interesting. To me, Vodoun is not a culture in and of itself. However, it is a factor that has influenced history and culture. I dont think Christianity and Vodoun are irreconcilable as an interventionist God is at the center of each.
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I agree with you completely that Vodoun differs greatly by region and is very decentralized. As you mention, there are charlatans in Haitian Vodoun. I dont believe they are the majority, but there are definitely some. Let's face it though, every religion has clergy who have taken advantage of others. I can think of numerous examples.
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Every religion has divisions. The Catholicism of the Vatican is different than the Catholicism practiced in many countries of the Western Hemisphere. While both Protestants and Catholics are Christians, there can be tension between them. In Islam, there is a sunni/shia split which has had profound historical consequences. Within Buddhism, there are different divisions - Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Religion differes by region in the United States as well. Go to a Southern Baptist service and then one in the northeast and you will notice a huge difference. Diaspora as well often practice their religions differently than their home countries.
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In terms of unity, perhaps it is unrealistic to hold Vodoun to a standard other religions haven't attained. I am in defense of Haitian Vodoun as a religion that people have the right to choose/not choose to practice. It should remain an individual choice. But I think all of us can learn from and appreciate the music, art, ceremonies, and traditions that have sprung forth from it.

How Haitian Vodou will find UNITY with the other religions?

The evidences and facts that you present “In defense of Vodoun” are primarily of historical and culture significance. Are you attempting to defend Vodoun as a culture or as a religion?
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I mentioned in a previous comment that Christianity is a monism religion with one God, while Voodoo is both a pluralism and pantheism religion. Christianity and Voodoo are two immiscible religions.
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Haitian Vodou is very diverse and complex within itself. Vodou has lost its originality from what it was back in Africa. Because of a wide range of deities, and of absence of a central authority (i.e. a Pope); Haitian Vodou differs immensely in forms and expressions from one zone in Haiti to another and all the way to the Haitian Diaspora.
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For Example, in Thomonde, Plateau Central (Thomonde.com), one Vodou priest (Houngan) or the priestess (Mambo) ritually leads the Vodouisants to light the candles and say the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”. In another part of the Haiti, the emphasis is made on the veneration of Haitian ancestors and the dead with the assistance of the “spirits” or “Lwa”. Elsewhere, high priests and priestesses exploit their followers by asking large sums of money, animal and human sacrifices for work that brings no result.
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Therefore, without trying to diminish the historical and cultural importance of Haitian Vodou, may I add that there is an absence of harmony and unity inside Vodou itself.
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Are you “in defense of Vodoun” as a culture or as a religion?
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AS a religion, how Haitian Vodou - that does not have unity within itself - will find unity with the other religions?

Response to V.I Local (5/5/2010)

Victor, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and provide your perspectives. Being Haitian, you are more expert in this area than I. The vast majority of Haitians are indeed Christian. The majority are Catholic. I did not mean to generalize the actions of the French slavers across all Catholics. Just to point out that the French brought Catholicism with them to Haiti and saw no contradiction between between their religion and owning slaves. Many of the founding fathers in the U.S.A were both very religious and owned slaves as well. Today we look back on that and feel ashamed because society has progressed. Haiti is stronger when united I agree. The Catholics, Protestants, and Vodouisants of Haiti all believe in God. On these grounds, I hope the different faiths can respect each other, have a dialogue, and work together for the development of Haiti. We need solidarity. Thank you very much for your post, Victor. I appreciate your perspectives.

Haitians should not abandon their monism faith for pluralism

Dear Bryan: I - and many others at Thomonde - remember you as a good man – a man of good character. That’s one other reason; I spent the time to respond and to comment on your post. Otherwise, I could have ignored it. I was moved by your post because I perceive your intent to contribute in the strength of that Haitian unity that we all are hoping for. Your intention is noble.
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Christianity has not yet been directly attacked in Haiti for two reasons – among others: 1) The Haitian is very religious and 2) a very significant majority of Haitians are practicing Christians. I think we both agree to that. The Haitian History is proven evidence that people always move from faith to courage to freedom and to prosperity. I believe Haiti is somewhere in that sequence. I pray God to help them to carry on.
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To me, your post remains essentially valuable and instructive.
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However, in my humble opinion, I think it was unnecessary to recall the atrocities of the slavers while painting them as Catholics. Even though your facts are correct, but you bring them in an inappropriate context. Because a football player rapes a girl does not make football a bad sport. That’s why I think that a Christian (Catholic or Protestant) who is reading your post may reasonably question your motivation, intent or your knowledge of the subject – even when your intent is noble in essence.
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At the Proclamation of Independence of Haiti, our forefathers and founders of the new nation boldly, publicly and forever renounce and take a stand against slavery, France and all form of foreign oppressions.
Did they also reject Christianity –as religion? No!
Did they reject French – as language? No!
That because, the wickedness of the slavers were an attribute of their own moral characters rather than of Catholicism. That’s what I meant to add!
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Bryan, you touched a very important Haitian issue - that probably you and I may not alone have the right answer. The profoundness of the differences that divine the Haitian people in matters of religion seems insurmountable. But, if we can find common grounds on which we can talk, we will overcome.
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Nevertheless, is it up to us to determine our “ways to honor the same God”, or should we unite to “honor the same God” in the “ways” that He pre-determined?
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You seem to propose “freedom of religion” and the “coexistence of different faiths” as an alternative. If it is the case, I think you therefore suggest to the Haitian to abandon their monism faith in favor of religious pluralism. It is a trade-off that is doomed to create more diversity at the cost of unity. Haiti has always been stronger in unity.

Response to V.I. Lokal (5/4/2010)

My intent is not to diminish Catholicism or Protestantism. But some of my frustration probably comes through in this blog. When was the last time Catholics or Protestants were physically attacked for their religious services? One rarely hears people talking about the need to eradicate Catholicism or Protestantism - one hears that all too often about Vodoun which to me is an integral part of Haiti's diverse cultural and religious heritage.
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Freedom of religion is the best defense. If members of these three faiths can agree there are different ways to honor the same God, then unity across the faith communities will be possibile - and Haiti will be stronger for it.

Avoid to unjustly diminish 1 religion to strengthen another

The Haitian is very religious. That is the fundamental reason why Haitians must judge foreigners by their belief system to know if they can be trusted. But, their own existing profound religious divide – “an uneasy trinity” – makes it somewhat difficult for the Haitians to find unity, to coexist peacefully and to prosper together. Is unity therefore possible?

Before even considering the above question, may I mention this to you? In your elaboration of the historical and cultural importance of religion in Haiti, you forgot to note that many of our (Haitian) forefathers: (Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, etc …) were profoundly devoted Catholics. I mention this to highlight the equal historical and cultural significance of all these three religions in Haiti. Furthermore, many sources – including the CIA World Factbook – report that - I believe accurately - more than 95% of Haitians are Christians and significant minorities are Voodooists.

Voodoo is a polytheistic and pantheistic religion where the voodooist can worship multiple deities, called gods and/or goddesses. It is notable that Voodooism has a known and respected hierarchy or leadership system similar to Catholicism. For this reason, one can easily but unjustly associate or confuse the Voodoo “Lwa” with the Catholic Saints. On one hand, a Christian (Catholic or Protestant) may participate in a Voodoo ceremony or adopt certain Voodoo practices in the hope to find quick answers to life problems, but most often will remain essentially a Christian. On the other hand, a Voodooist may convert to Catholicism or to Protestantism to seek refuge from persecutions and attacks from the god or goddess and the “Lwa” and the priests (Bokor or Hougan) of his enemies.

The argument that slavers and oppressors were Catholics or ‘good Christians’ is far than enough to diminish Christianity or to strengthen Voodoo. This argument has utterly failed for the simple reason that after 200+ years Haitians know the reality of both. Even in Africa, itself where Voodoo is supposedly originated, Africans know the reality of Voodoo and of other religions they have adopted.

I am sure that the debate over these three dominant religions in Haiti will certainly continue for some times. But, if the ultimate purpose is to find unity, then may I caution the courageous debater to avoid falling into the trap of trying unjustly to diminish one religion in the hope to strengthen another. Such strategy only infuriates the opponent, carves up more divides and therefore present further barriers to unity.

You could do well to stand “In Defense of Vodoun”. But, by attacking the other dominant religions in Haiti of equal historical and cultural significance, you let the reader question the honesty of your intention, even your motivation, or perhaps, your knowledge of the issue.
V. I. Lokal

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