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The Spirit of the Land

Frater Vameri

Painting depicting natives from the Caribbean.

The professor Patrick Bellegarde- Smith taught me a few things by his essays and also chatting via Facebook, all of which are important. Among these, one of the most interesting is the idea that the land of Haiti still belongs to its original inhabitants (the Tainos, Arawaks and Caribs) and that the Haitians, when they die, go to Ginen - to mythical Africa, returning to their home and leaving the home of their “hosts”. This notion holds important lessons of identity and reveals the open wounds not only of the diaspora, but also of genocide. I would like to explore a little this issue in this article.

First, I would like to talk about people who live in a foreign land and how this dynamic goes, of course, from the perspective of Vodou, but not necessarily from the Haitian perspective only. Some will be surprised now, because I often reinforce how important it is to understand Haiti in order to understand Vodou, but I guarantee that I will not betray this motto.

The forced displacement of Africans to the New World was brutal. There is no way to define it in any other way and it is always good - in times of relativization and dangerous historical revisions - to remember this. In general, we can consider that the different African religions (and also the way of life, as a result) that ended up in the Americas had very strong elements of connection to the natural world. Thus, when they arrived here and when they started to reorganize their spiritual practices, these people found themselves confronted with the personality of the land.

And what does it mean? In practical terms, we can imagine that certain materials with which they were used did not exist here - such as certain plants species. This called for adaptations. From a more subtle point of view, the spirits of the land began to introduce themselves and these people had to learn to deal with them. In addition, the spirits who came with them also found themselves in a new location and perhaps with certain slightly different qualities.

The land, here, we know, was not vacated. In Brazil, the Indians were still present. In Haiti, the Tainos, Caribs and Arawaks had already been practically exterminated when the Africans arrived, but their presence could still be felt. Again, it is Bellegarde- Smith who understands that Haitian Vodou received an influx of spiritual influence from these natives. Bellegarde- Smith believes that the face-to-face exchange between the natives of São Domingos and the Africans was almost nonexistent, because when the Africans arrived, almost all the Indians had been eliminated.

However, the land seems to hold memory. The land itself, not just us, people. The rivers, the fields, the lagoons, the mountains, all have spirit, are inhabited by spirits and preserve memory. So, even if man leaves, the places and their spiritual inhabitants remain. I particularly remember Marcello Martins of “Sangue do Vale” online lecture talking about his Asatru practice in Rio de Janeiro. In this lecture he states that it was inevitable for him and his peers to greet the local spirits (like caboclos d´água – water “caboclos”) with things they like (coffee and tobacco etc ). You can watch his talk here:

If the land is a repository of memories and spirits, it makes sense that whoever is in this land, native or not, and who works on this connection, wil feel the strength of that memory and the presence of these spirits. So it seems clear that any spirituality that is practiced away from his homeland will experience changes. Yet, as much as one tries to rescue some spiritual practice in distant lands, the character of the new land will be imposed in some way.

We have now reached an important point. We see that in the Vodou community, there are people who protect the relationship of this spirituality with Haiti with great vigor. This happens in such a way, that they defend that certain initiations of Vodou can only occur in Haiti. As I said, I agree that the relationship is fundamental, but I do not necessarily agree with everything that this group defends. It is clear that it is necessary to respect the varied opinions and we need to understand that this protection about Vodou can also be born from the history of oppression that marks the trajectory of Haiti.

In any case, Haitian Vodou is now spread in many countries. The Haitians' diaspora is significant. Many Haitians seek shelter in foreign countries and with that they take Vodou and set up communities and temples that, of course, attracts the local community. Now, the lwas are present and appearing in foreign lands. The question is how this happens. Is Vodou practiced outside Haiti necessarily the same as the one practiced in Haiti? Well, considering that Vodou is extremely heterogeneous even within its country of origin and that it varies from house to house, it seems clear that differences will arise in Vodou practiced outside Haiti. Now it remains to be seen whether in these differences there will be some that come from a foreign land. Does the Haitian Vodou practiced in Brazil have any Brazilian character? From experience I would say that yes, it does.

Going back to a point raised earlier in this text and starting to close this short article, we see that in the formation of New World religions we have two cruel faces: the slaughter and slavery of natives and the slavery and violent displacement of Africans. We have oppressed, displaced populations that had their lives and their freedom shattered. They also have other similarities. For example, these populations cultivate important connections with nature. Thus, we see that a lot of elements may mix but we must keep in mind that some differences remain.

This is found in the idea that Bellegarde- Smith teaches about Haiti belonging to the Tainos, Caribs and Arawaks and about contemporary Haitians going to their land in the afterlife, Africa (a mythical Africa, of course). Thus, they leave the land for their hosts – in a demonstration of respect. This is a notion laden with sadness. It is a lament for those who were removed from their homes and a lament for those who were brutally murdered in their own land. In the midst of all this sadness, there is this fundamental respect for the character of each one of those parties and this is essential when it comes to recognizing how much we have in common.

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