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Bantus in Vodou

Frater Vameri

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When dealing with Haitian Vodou in these texts I consider Jean Price-Mars' perspective that Vodou is genuinely from Haiti. However, contrary to what it might imply this does not mean that we must eliminate any non-Haitian influence from the equation. In fact, this necessarily means that we must understand the formation of Haiti in order to understand Vodou well. The task of understanding Haiti without understanding something about Africa is likely to be fruitless.

The Africa, however, that we need to see is not the one stereotyped by the West. Africa is large, complex, varied and dynamic. Far from being a static block of land in which a people with a large number of things in common live, the African continent was and is the scene of sophisticated interactions and unique ethnicities. Therefore, understanding Africa is a Herculean task. We can then make a cut: let's understand a little bit of the Africa that contributed to the formation of Haiti. Again, we find that this is hard work.

We know that Africans brought to Haiti were for the most part slaves. Women and men forced into inhuman displacement. Among many characteristics of the slave trade, we have some that pose some problems for the study of the constitutive African portion of Haiti: there was a lot of black market; slaves were not properly identified by origin markers; and documentation are not as good as they could be. Thus, reconstituting the ethnicities of Africans who ended up in Haiti is difficult.

There is the idea within Haitian Vodou that most of Vodou's African heritage comes from the Fon. The Fon were an ethnic denomination of people who lived in Allada and Dahomy, for example. There are several reasons why this idea has perpetuated itself. One has to do with the very word Vodou - which would have come from the Vodoun of the Fon. Another has to do with the Lwas, like Damballah, whose name some think would come from Dan of Allada. However, some theories will point to the influence of other ethnic groups in the Lwa term itself. Some scholars understand that Lwa comes from the same origin as Babalao - father of the mystery or father of the secret in the language of the Yorubas.

David Geggus has done a very interesting study that may help us to understand some points. He took data from approximately 4,000 slave trafficking trips conducted by the French. Let us remember that Haiti first was the subject to Spanish colonazation and then from the French, and it is undoubtedly the French that interests us most. Geggus found that most of the slaves who were displaced to Haiti were from Central Africa - and we usually call them Bantus or "Congos".

Geggus notes that the majority of these slaves from Central Africa arrived in Haiti in the 18th century and that they would end up mainly in the coffee plantations - which were in the mountais. The age and sex of the “Congos” slaves ( Bantus ) apparently, according to what Geggus concludes, were not very favorable for the preservation of their culture, when compared to the Fon and the Yoruba. He also claims that it is possible that the Fon and the Yoruba, coming from strong African states, dominated the rest of the plantations.

Geggus also think the emphasis on ancestor worship by Bantus may have affected their culture. It is clear from this that by being displaced and losing contact with their homeland, the cult of ancestors has been severely hampered. Thus, the Fon and Yoruba spirits may have presented more appeal even to these people of Bantu origin.

However, Geggus also gives us evidence that the culture of “Congos” has not been so erased. Vodou songs that were transcribed in the colonial period are now recognized to have been in language Kikongo of the Bantus. In addition, in the mountains of Haiti, the Petwo cult is also called Lemba - which comes from the Congo region.

I also remember the book by João do Rio called “The Religions of Rio” where (forgive me if I am citing it wrongly, memories are sometimes tricky) there is the report of a person who claims that the Bantus have no culture and copy everything from other blacks. In Brazil, mainly, this notion has been perpetuated. It is true that some authorities as John Thornton understand that, in fact, the spirituality of the Bantus was somehow more plastic. However, this does not in any way mean that it was less complex or less.

I think it is essential that those interested in and practicing Haitian Vodou dedicate themselves - even if timidly - to a relationship with academic work. I think the discussion brought up by that text reveals the reason. We have seem that, in general, the Bantus´ heritage is often underestimated. Perhaps redeeming a little of that contribution is of interest to me especially as a Brazilian, since there are several influences of the Bantus here that can be seen, for example, in cults like Quimbanda. In any case, the more we try to understand about the ethnicities that made up Haiti and Vodou the better we will understand Vodou itself .

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