What’s in a name?: Fran Ginen

The term fran Ginen is at the center of what it means to identify oneself as an adherent of Vodou, and yet the term itself is quite difficult to define.  In part, this is because the term Ginen is so expansive and, depending on the context and the speaker, can be understood to mean quite different things.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Ginen is the name of the forested island at the bottom of the cosmic waters where the lwa, the holy spirits of Vodou, reside.  In Vodou liturgical songs, Ginen is often referred to as “they” (yo) because it is not only the place itself, but also all of the spirits who reside there–namely, both the lwa and the blessed dead.  For example, in the following some for Ayizan, Ginen is spoken of as “yo,” making it clear that Ginen is being used to describe a multitude of things–the real continent of Africa and its peoples, for which the singer longs; as well as the spiritual Ginen and the spirits that reside there.

Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan nou p ap mouri malere
Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan nou p ap mouri malere
Pechè yo di pa gen Ginen ankò
Pechè yo di pa gen Ginen ankò
Genyen youn tan n a wè yo

[Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan we won’t die poor
Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan we won’t die poor
People say they don’t have Ginen anymore
People say they don’t have Ginen anymore
There will come a time when we’ll see them again] 

What is missing from this description so far is that Ginen is also a moral principle.  One of the most common ways to slander the Vodou religion is to assert that it has no moral code (for example, according to Lawrence Harrison here).  On the contrary, Ginen is a robust code of moral principles that are informed by a sense that all things we do here are observed and judged by the spirits–especially our ancestors–in Ginen.  This is espoused in a number of songs in the Priyè Ginen, the series of sung prayers that begins all Vodou services; the Priyè Ginen contains instantiations of all the most important principles of Sèvis Ginen.  Here are two examples where it is sung that Ginen is monitoring our actions.  (These examples are only song fragments, not whole verses.)

In one song for Zoklimo, the congregation sings:

Yo vini gade si m ap fè byen si m ap fè mal pou yo pote m ale

[They come to see if I do good, if I do ill they’ll carry me away]

Later, in one of the last songs in the Priyè Ginen, the congregation sings:

Tout sa n ape fè a nan Ginen konne
Tout sa n ape di a nan Ginen tande

[Everything we do is known in Ginen
Everything we say is heard in Ginen]

These statements are both benedictions and threats, depending on how one behaves.  If one does good–that is, behaves in a way compatible with the ancestral and spiritual values of Ginen–then one knows that one’s prayers will be amplified and one’s actions supported.  On the other hand, if one does evil, it will not escape attention and correction will come swiftly.

At the heart of the moral principle of Ginen is the command that one must obey the complicated rules of intersociality.  In less obscure terms, this could be described as what it means to be part of a culture (or, in Greek, the polis) and a family.  This is not quite the same thing as the so-called Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  However, it is not far removed from that, either.  If Ginen surrounds one in a complicated web of ancestral relationships stretched back to the beginning of time, then accepting one’s place within Ginen means recognizing an equally complicated web of relationships among the living, a web that entwines us all.

Staying with the web metaphor, one’s obligations are foremost to those who are closest to one in the web, namely, one’s family and loved ones.  To these people, one is obliged to give respect and care, assistance with the challenges of daily life, protection if necessary, a share of your resources–and, above all else, loyalty.  To the extent that it is possible and one’s resources allow, one’s obligations do not end with this circle, though.  They extend out, potentially infinitely, with the bare minimum being that one should treat all people with honor and respect–hospitality, if possible.  Naturally, there are contingencies–for example, if someone gravely mistreats you, abuses you, treats you as an enemy.  In other words, if someone breaks the contract of intersociality by not reciprocating, Ginen does not ask one to idly accept such abuses; on the contrary, it empowers one to fight.

We can now attempt a definition of what it means to be fran Ginen.  The Kreyòl word fran is challenging to translate directly into English because its meaning is slightly vague.  However, the word fran always conveys notions of realness, so that fran Ginen would mean something like “real Ginen,” “totally Ginen,” “faithful to Ginen,” “correctly Ginen.”  The closest translation may be the colloquial “straight-up Ginen.”  All of these translations are an attempt to convey the sense that someone who is fran Ginen is someone who obeys the moral precepts of Ginen, who serves the spirits and treats other people with care and dignity.  In their extraordinary book Remembrance: Roots, Rituals, and Reverence in Vodou, Jerry and Yvrose Gilles define fran Ginen as follows:

In Haiti, it is the people and the territory that was inhabited by our Ancestors that are honorably referred to as Ginen.  Occasionally, a Haitian person wishing to be treated with the same respect accorded to the Ancestors would refer to himself or herself as a Fran Ginen.  When used in this way, Ginen refers to a person who is morally upright.  The term implies that moral fortitude is a gift from our foreparents.  Those who are corrupt, unscrupulous, and disruptive to the community are said to be people without ancestry, San Manman [Without Mother] or San Ginen [Without Ginen]. (30)

Later, they add,

The Rada Lwa are often called Lwa Ginen and the people who serve them are proudly called Fran Ginen.  The term implies that one is calm, levelheaded, self-assured, and generous. (82)

The definition in this first excerpt is the definition of fran Ginen embraced by Boukman Eksperyans in their song “Kalfou Danjere.”

The chorus of the song declares the central message of what it means to be fran Ginen.

Touye nou p ap touye
Jwe nou p ap jwe la
Touye nou p ap touye
Gine pa Bizango

[We don’t kill
This isn’t a game
We don’t kill
Gine is not Bizango] 

The singers define Ginen by way of saying what it is not:  Namely, Ginen is not Bizango.  Bizango is here used as a stand-in for all secret societies and witches (lougawou) who behave antisocially, using all manner of power–occult, social, political, psychological–purely for their own benefit and usually at the cost of others.  The song lists many of the behaviors that fran Ginen don’t do, such as murder, lie, cheat, steal, gossip, and sow discord.  The central image of the song is the crossroads, a nexus of spiritual power that the singers claim in the name of the Kongo spirits and and all fran Ginen.  This “dangerous crossroads” is portrayed as a place through which fran Ginen, accompanied by their lwa, can parade with impunity because they are morally upright.  However, it is in this same dangerous crossroads that those who do evil will have to face justice–in the words of the song, “ou chaje ak pwoblèm nan kafou, kafou nèg Kongo” (“you are in serious trouble in the crossroads, the crossroads of the Kongo people”).  Later, for good measure, the singer adds, “Si w konnen ou pa fran Ginen, pa ret’ nan kafou o” (“If you know you aren’t fran Ginen, don’t stay in the crossroads”).

It is interesting to note that, for Boukman Eksperyans, service to Kongo, spirits of the Petwo rite, is central to their sense of what it means to be fran Ginen.  This is consistent with the first definition of fran Ginen offered by the Gilleses, but not with the second definition, in which fran Ginen is tied to the Rada rite and qualities of coolness prized in that rite.  The slipperiness of this definition can in part be attributed to the way that Vodou often mingles moral and aesthetic categories, so that matters of style–hot v. cool, fire v. water, fast v. slow–are seen as inextricably linked to moral valences–inherited v. made/bought, volunteered v. coerced, ethical v. mercenary.  Trying to tease apart some of these differences, I wrote in the Journal of Haitian Studies,

As in Yorùbá religion, Vodou champions things which are cool, slow, relaxed, calm, light, fresh, gentle, sweet, at ease, stoic, and dignified.  All of these qualities are glossed as “cool” and as “Gine.”  Cool, likened to water, is the ideal resting state.  Rada is cool and watery.  However, Vodou seeks to use and control states that are hot, fast, tense, nervous, obscure, sweaty, hard, salty, over-worked, hyper-responsive, and uncouth.  These qualities are glossed as “hot.”  Hot, likened to fire, is the ideal working state.  Petwo is hot and fiery.  However, Petwo is not the opposite of Gine.  There is no opposite of Gine.  Petwo simply function out of an aesthetic modality which is less Gine.  For that matter, Rada is not Gine—it is more Gine.  Strictly speaking, only Gine is Gine.

Karen Richman makes much of these aesthetic/moral differences between Rada and Petwo, portraying them as a conflict in her book Migration and Vodou.  According to Richman, Petwo spirits (seen as synonymous with Maji [Magic])  are seen as morally dubious because they are bought—that is to say, acquired—instead of inherited through the family line.  Although venerable, Rada (called “Gine” throughout her book) is said to not have much power on its own, and requires the (morally questionable) vitality of Petwo to continue functioning.  Richman summarizes, “‘Authentic Guinea’ [her translation of fran Ginen] exists only insofar as it can eclipse—and exploit—another way-of-being-in-the-world” (Richman 151).  For Richman, the tension between Gine and Maji mirrors the tension between the bourgeoisie and peasantry, an exploitative relationship in which the first, invested with the appearance of power, depends on the alienated labor of the latter in order to survive.

Shelving for now the extent to which Richman’s Marxist characterizations of Rada and Petwo are quite foreign to my experiences of Vodou, what I think this most lacks is a sense of the individual human–the fran Ginen–as the relevant moral agent and base unit of analysis.  The formula found in the Priyè Ginen, for example, does not order us to wait on Ginen to tell us what is right or wrong.  Rather, as kretyèn vivan–people alive in this world–we must decide in each circumstance how best to abide by the moral precepts of the ancestors.  By extension, good or evil will be measured less on the basis of our actions than on their outcomes.  Rada and Petwo–even Ginen, for that matter–are themselves absent of moral valence because the moral principle of fran Ginen is about choices and actions of humans, not spirits.  This flexibility to act according to the principles of Ginen as fits each unique circumstance is at the heart of the moral genius of Sèvis Ginen.  It is notably quite different from the emphasis in other religions on fixed, written moral codes that inevitably fail to account for the complexities of day-to-day life.

The above definitions of fran Ginen prioritize moral and aesthetic dimensions, but there is another view of fran Ginen that sees it as defined by genetic and cultural inheritence.  For many Haitians, fran Ginen has the much more straightforward meaning of someone who is literally descended from Ginen, from ancestral Africa.  While this definition is not separate, per se, from the moral component of fran Ginen, it does significantly limit who might be called a fran Ginen.  While it is possible to think quite expansively about what it means to be descended from Ginen (arguably all human beings are), this particular way of defining Ginen tends to accompany a larger nationalist view of fran Ginen that sees Sèvis Ginen as a cultural heritage intended specifically for Haitians, and which only Haitians can claim as an identity.

Since the focus of some of my scholarship is on non-Haitian practitioners of Vodou–and being one myself–I find this to be an especially provocative topic for consideration.  While I could consider myself fran Ginen in the moral and aesthetic senses outlined above, it is obvious that I cannot be fran Ginen in the nationalist sense.  However, it seems there is a great deal of gray area that exists where these various definitions of fran Ginen do not overlap perfectly.  Legal and spiritual adoption, for example, blur the boundaries of the genetic and cultural definition.  One could likewise claim that Bizango is a legitimate, inherited Ginen heritage, in the sense that Bizango practices derive from the secret societies of the Bissango region of west Africa, and yet from a moral perspective, Bizango is explicitly not fran Ginen.  As described above, some see Petwo as not really quite fran Ginen, whereas many others do–especially since Petwo/Kongo is an important ancestral heritage that must be honored as part of one’s obligation to Ginen–that is to say, in partial fulfillment of what it means to be fran Ginen.

For the same reasons that these ambiguities have been known to generate heated disagreements over who gets to be called what, it is unlikely that their meanings could ever be clarified to everyone’s satisfaction.  Discussions over their meanings, however, reveals something about the processes by which Vodou works on itself to generate theological depth, while at the same time helping individual lineages to clarify their own thinking on the matter.

2 Comments

Filed under Vodou

2 responses to “What’s in a name?: Fran Ginen

  1. Bonnie Devlin

    Who is the author of these posts in ‘Dreams of Ginen’. Your scholarship and experience is exceptional! Also – will all of these writings become a book – who are you my friend? Thanks, Bonnie Devlin (Mambo Respekte Sa)

    • Thanks, Mambo! I’m so happy to have you reading. I’m Adam McGee; you can learn about me from the About section of the site. Also, I’m on Facebook, where I believe we are friends. As for whether the site will be turned into a book–some of it will certainly end up in my doctoral dissertation, but what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

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