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Whose Vodou?

Haitian Vodou is a religion created by the descendents of Africans brought as slaves to the French colony of St. Domingue.  It combines components of multiple west and west central African religious complexes (notably Fon/Ewe, Kongo, and Yorùbá) with European and Native American cultural and religious elements to create a religion entirely unique to Haiti and her diaspora.  Outsiders have tended to fixate on only one facet of this mingling, namely the “syncretism” of Vodou–that is, how it uses Catholic elements, notably saint images and Catholic prayers, to supposedly disguise African spirits and worship practices.  However, this view that Christianity is purely a form of subterfuge misses that, for many Vodouisants, the identification as Christians is neither superficial or disingenuous.

It is helpful, even necessary, to keep in mind that west central Africans were introduced to Christianity by the Portuguese as early as the 15th century, and in most cases had extensive control over how they chose to practice the new religion.  Many converted but continued to practice their traditional religion alongside Christianity.  During the Haitian Revolution, fully half of the people living in present-day Haiti had been born in west central Africa, and many probably practiced some elements of Christianity.  As Jerry and Yvrose Gilles have demonstrated in their book Remembrance, many of the most popular elements of Catholic piety in Haiti to this day are elements that were also popular in 17th and 18th century west central Africa–for example, devotion to Ss. Anthony and James the Greater (Sen Jak Majè/Santiago Matamoros).  Therefore, to dismiss Christianity as purely a mask–or dispense with all Christian elements, as some Vodouisants wish to do–risks forsaking the contributions of these ancestors.

It is also known that many west Africans who were enslaved in St. Domingue were either Muslims or had extensive exposure to Islam.  West Africans were some of the earliest adopters of Islam and among its most fervent proselytes.  The great Mali Empire, for example, began officially to convert to Islam in the early 14th century, under the rule of Mansa Musa.  Extensive ancedotal evidence suggests that a number of leaders of slave rebellions in Haiti practiced at least some elements of Islam.  Although Islam did not end up enduring as a distinct practice in Haiti, there remain elements of it and Arabic ritual speech that have been incorporated into Vodou, more in some areas of the country than in others.

Haitian Vodou is the religion of millions of Haitians, though precisely how many is difficult to say.  It is equally difficult to say what Haitian Vodou is, since it is, in reality, an umbrella term for a variety of religious practices that often—though not always—share common assumptions about the world, as well as a common Afro-Haitian genesis.  Even the term itself, Vodou, is not a term that Vodouisants until very recently tended to use to describe their religious practices, preferring instead to say simply that they served Ginen.

Most scholarship about Haitian Vodou has, in fact, been about the Afro-Haitian religious practices of the Haitian south—generally speaking, from the area below the Plateau Central.  This encompasses, most importantly, the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where urban, temple-based (and therefore transportable) Vodou was largely generated.  It also includes the important southern cities of Léogane, Jacmel, Les Cayes (Okay), and Jérémie, as well as their surrounding environs.  This region broadly represents one dominant style of Vodou, based largely around temples (peristyl) that utilize the initiation called kanzo which grants the ason (beaded rattle and bell) to initiates.  Questions around exactly where and when these ason lineages began is difficult to say, and can become extremely contentious.  To the present day, the ason is little known in the north of Haiti, and is most especially almost absent in the central region.  Karen Richman has argued in her book Migration and Vodou that the practice of using kanzo to confer the ason began in the early 20th century in Léogane.  According to her timeline, the ason then spread from there to Port-au-Prince, and from there to the rest of the south, quickly supplanting traditional, family-based practices that did not use the ason.  This theory certainly seems to explain the process by which the ason and its accompanying style of Vodou became so popular and widespread within the past one hundred years.  However, it is unlikely to account entirely for the use of the ason and the practice of kanzo, as their roots seem to lie quietly much further back in time.

This style of Vodou can be distinguished from the Vodou of the center and north of Haiti, where the ason is largely unknown and religious practice is centered around lakou (compounds) that typically honor only one particular nanchon (lit. “nation”, a pantheon of spirits perceived to share an ethnic origin), as opposed to the composite temples found in the south that honor many nations.  This central and northern style of Vodou has often been called makout or tcha-tcha, but has recently begun to organize itself around the name Deka as a descriptor of its style.  The term makout refers to the straw bag that these religious experts use to transport their sacred items.  Tcha-tcha references the rattle they use when serving the spirits, much as the ason is used in the south.  The word Deka is of unclear origin and may or may not be antique.  Its use has been popularized recently by the organization ZANTRAY (lit. “guts,” which stands for Zanfan Tradisyon Ayisyèn [Children of Haitian Traditions]).  ZANTRAY was founded in 1987 as an emergency response to the dechoukaj by Vodou leaders in the north and central regions.  Dechoukaj (lit. “uprooting”) is the name given to the murders of Vodou clergy and the destruction of Vodou temples that followed the ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.  Many of the most famous Vodou temples in Haiti–such as Souvenans, Soukri, and Badjo–fall under this category.  They do not use the ason, do not practice kanzo, and honor only one nanchon of spirits (Rada/Daome, Kongo, and Nago, respectively).  Tensions persists between these lineages and the ason lineages of the south of the country, with both periodically trading jabs about which is better or more authentic.  However, the history suggests that they are probably best thought of as sister religions that have different points of origin but underwent parallel evolutions.

Additionally, neither ason nor Deka satisfactorily describe the family-based styles of Vodou that persist in compounds to this day.  In these cases, religious practice propitiates a limited number of inherited spirits, and services are directed by an elderly member of the family who functions as the family’s spiritual leader.  Many of these lakou preserve priceless elements of Haiti’s (and Africa’s) spiritual heritage and history, but because they tend to be isolated and private, their stories are rarely heard.

Furthermore, there are numerous secret societies in Haiti that may or may not be part of Vodou, depending on whom you ask.  These secret societies (such as Chanpwèl, Makandal, and Bizango) often trace their origins to maroon and revolutionary groups (as well as west and west central African secret societies), and tend to practice mercenary, morally ambiguous forms of magic.  Many other Vodouisants regard them as outright evil.  Whether or not they are, they certainly functional out of a distinct moral-aesthetic modality that is largely inimical to fran Ginen practices–exemplified by expressions like “Gine pa Bizango” [“Gine is not Bizango”] and “Gine pa mele” [“Gine doesn’t mix”].  In other words, they are mutually exclusive.  One cannot be both.

Finally, there are numerous Masonic and pseudo-Masonic fraternal organizations in Haiti that operate under modalities informed deeply by Vodou, although they are not religious bodies, per se.

Scholarship about Vodou has been written almost exclusively in reference to the southern, ason-based variety of Vodou, with few exceptions.  Problematically, this scholarship has tended to make it seem (whether by accident or unawares) as though this is the only kind of Vodou that there is.  While I admit that I contribute to this by writing mostly about what I know best–namely, ason-based Vodou–I hope that other voices will be heard that begin to correct this representative imbalance.

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In memoriam

This week, a woman in our spiritual family died.  Reflecting on grief, I was reminded of the opening remarks I’d make when our house, Sosyete Nago, hosted a memorial service and fundraiser after Goudougoudou, the earthquake of January 2010.  I thought I’d share them here.

By way of introduction, I’ll add that the memorial service was a tremendous display of people being their best selves.  Over 100 people from the community, many with no direct connection to Vodou or Haiti, came to learn about Vodou and support the people of Haiti.  We raised $2,876, every penny of which was donated to Partners in Health’s work in Haiti.  If you feel moved reading this, please consider making a donation of any amount to Partners in Health’s continued work in Haiti (and make sure to specify that it is for work in Haiti).

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Adapted from opening remarks made at “A Ceremony for the Dead: A Haitian Vodou memorial service and fundraiser for Partners in Health” on March 5, 2010 at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts

When planning this evening’s events, my initiatory mother, Manbo Maude, asked if I would be willing to say something about my grief following the Haitian earthquake.  There is, indeed, a certain visual irony to my experience:  I do not look like someone who would be immediately and intimately affected by events unfolding in Haiti.  Certainly, I do not look like the Hollywood version of a Vodou priest.  For hundreds of years, Vodou practitioners have been portrayed consistently as fanatical retrograde yokels who foolishly cling to outdated superstitions.  Every bit to the contrary of this barbaric vision, I was initiated by people who were enormously cosmopolitan and sophisticated—enough so to overcome the fact that they had many legitimate reasons to distrust me.

As a Vodou priest, I am vigilant about not “playing Haitian.”  I am not Haitian, and I never will be.  However, I am a Vodouisant, and the two cannot and should not ever be disentangled.  Through the mystical process of initiation, I was reborn upon the soil of Haiti.  I owe my life to my Vodou family, and I cannot know that they are suffering without suffering as well.  The fact that so many of you are here tonight speaks moreover to an innate capacity to empathize with others:  We do not have to be intimates to know when someone is in pain.  At our best, our experience of common humanity calls upon us to uplift those who are suffering, regardless of who they are.  As Christ instructs in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one is a neighbor to someone when one acts neighborly.  It is a choice.

Grief, it seems, is often a night-blooming flower:  Like the jasmine of Haiti, it perfumes the sleep.  During the days following the earthquake, Maude and I spoke repeatedly of how our grief was inaccessible.   We could not cry or even accurately assess the magnitude of our pain.  Yet in sleep, the events replayed themselves.  In my dreams, the dead walked like cranes, long-legged birds whose every step is tentative, first testing the strength of the ground.  It seemed the dead had lost faith in the ability of the earth to uphold them.  Again and again, I dreamt of performing funerals and would awake feeling as though I had labored for most of the night.

The commitment to having a public memorial service arose from a desire to do something that would be of benefit both to the living and to the dead.  In Vodou, the dead continue to be an integral part of the community.   They continue to care for us, love us, guide us and teach us.  As immortal spirits incarnated but briefly in flesh, death is the beginning of the vaster portion of our lives.  Upon physical death, the spirit plunges into the ancestral waters, to be cleansed and tempered.  A year later, the spirit rejoins the community as an ancestor.  To pray for the newly dead—especially those who died under sudden, tragic or violent circumstances—is an important religious obligation.  Vodouisants receive elaborate funerals because they are still present, and require the love and strength of the community to ease their transition to a new state of existence.  While it is impossible for us to provide individual funerals for every one of the hundreds of thousands who died, tonight we will join together to assure the dead that we are commited to helping them find peace.

Additionally, those who survived the earthquake are in mortal need.  Millions in the south of Haiti have lost everything that they had, and are now living in the streets with no way to acquire even the most basic of needs, like food, safe drinking water, and adequate shelter from the elements.  The need of the Haitian people for help will not end in weeks or months.  It will not end in years.  We chose, for tonight’s event, to support Partners in Health because it is a rare case of an international aid organization that actually works—helping people in a big way, and with astonishingly small administrative overhead.

In planning this event, we wished to share with the public a glimpse of our religion—its beauty, integrity and complexity.  We believe that, in many ways, what people think about Vodou is also what they think about Haitians.  If people believe that Vodou is benighted, encouraging waste and discouraging development, they will use this as a convenient excuse to not help Haiti.   Some have even suggested that Vodou was the cause of the Haitian earthquake.  On the contrary, Vodou is integral to the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people.  It summons bravery and strength in the face of adversity.  We hope that this ceremony will shed light on the Vodou tradition and allow you to appreciate its beauty.

The ceremony tonight is divided into two parts.  The first part, the Priyè Ginen, is the traditional beginning to any Vodou service.  It is a sung liturgy, combining Catholic prayers in French and Kreyòl, as well as uniquely Vodou prayers in Kreyòl and langaj, an untranslatable dialect, spoken by the spirits, with roots in African languages.

In the second part of the ceremony, we will sing songs from the bohoun tradition of Vodou funeral music.  These songs focus on images of departure, and often speak with the voice of the dead as they announce that they are leaving.  Even if you don’t speak Kreyòl, we encourage you to try to sing along, even if its just to hum.  Singing is an important part of Vodou because it conveys intent and power.  When we sing the song, “Nibo se,” we will process around the room and then salute the altar.

Nibo se, Nibo mache n a wè yo, Nibo se.
Nibo se, Nibo mache n a wè yo, Nibo se.
Di Jakomèl nou prale Minao,
Minao nou prale Gelefwe la.
Nibo se, Nibo mache n a wè yo, Nibo se.

[Loose translation:]
They are newly dead, we will walk to see them, the newly dead.
They are newly dead, we will walk to see them, the newly dead.
From Jacmel, we are going to Minao,
From Minao, we will go to Gelefwe.
They are newly dead, we will walk to see them, the newly dead. 

This song encourages the dead to take leave of the world and seek their rest in Gelefwe, the land of the dead.  After we are done saluting, we will invite anyone who wishes to come to the altar and salute, at which time you can light a candle if you brought one and leave it on the altar.  The sixth song we will sing, “Pèp Ayisyen,” is a new song written by Manbo Maude for this occasion.

 Pèp ayisyen, ann nou met’ tèt ansanm o.
Pitit peyi nou malad, epi yo mouri.
Pèp ayisyen, ann nou met’ tèt ansanm o.
Pitit peyi nou malad, epi yo mouri.
Se pa kriye ki leve lamò,
Pawol anpil p ap leve lamò atò!
Mare vant nou, mare ren nou
Pou nou ka wè ki sa n ap fè pou yo.

People of Haiti, let us put our heads together.
Our countrymen are sick, they are dying.
People of Haiti, let us put our heads together.
Our countrymen are sick, they are dying.
Crying won’t raise the dead,
A lot of talking won’t raise the dead at all!
Get ready to work [lit. “Tie our stomachs and backs”]
So we can figure out how to help them.

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“Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann” continued

I just found this video and it goes so well with today’s post that I had to share it!  Check out Samba Zao improvising with friends (including a kalimba player) around the theme of “Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann.”

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Introduction

Nan Ginen, nan Ginen o, nan Ginen!
Si w pa rele Ginen, solèy a pa leve. . .

(In Ginen, in Ginen o, in Ginen!
If you don’t call Ginen, the sun won’t rise. . .)

 In Vodou, all things begin and end with song, so it seems fitting to start like this.  These lines are from a song that speaks of Ginen, the home of the lwa, the holy spirits of Vodou.  Here, the singer announces that the ancestral and divine power of Ginen is so necessary for life that, without it, nature will abandon its course and the sun will fail to rise.

I felt urged to start this blog because, while my job is to produce information about Haitian Vodou, the requirements of the Academy–ranging from the kind of language one uses, to the places one publishes–make that work nearly inaccessible to Vodouisants themselves.  This blog is an attempt to make my work broadly available both to Vodouisants and to well-meaning others who may wish to know more about this faith tradition.  In the process, I hope that it will inspire robust conversations among Vodouisants about the issues I am raising.  At the same time, this blog is an attempt to be accountable to Vodouisants for representing their religious lives in a way that is honest, recognizable, and sensitive to anxieties that have arisen from a long history of being misrepresented.

As a scholar, I write about a wide range of topics relating to Haitian Vodou.  My work especially focuses on the way that Ginen–a mystical place with deep ties to ancestral Africa–figures centrally in the lives of Vodou practitioners.  I also write about the importance of dreams in Vodou, and the damaging effects of pop culture images of “voodoo.”

In addition to being a scholar of Vodou, I am also an initiated priest.  In 2007, I was made oungan asogwe by Manbo Marie Maude Charles Evans, lineage head of Sosyete Nago.  When this happened, I became the adopted bearer of a remarkable and long tradition of Vodou that Manbo Maude received from both her mother and father–as well as from her initiatory mother, the celebrated diviner Selide Bo Manbo (Mme. Maurice Sixto, Miracea Zephyr).

Some of the first entries in this blog will explore what it means to be both a scholar and a practitioner of Haitian Vodou, as well as a convert to the tradition.  I hope that, through comments and emails, this will turn into a conversation about what is gained by not taking such identities for granted–including what it even means to call the religion “Haitian Vodou.”

Thank you for sharing your time with me, and I hope that you will continue to read and comment on this blog.

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