To Understand the Haitian Vodou

Frater Vameri


Toussaint Louverture depicted in a scene of the Haitian revolution.


The Haitian Vodou dares. It dares to be a spirituality practiced by black people. It dares to come from the poorest country in the West. It dares to challenge prejudices and dares to bring the invisible world into this visible world. Of course, by daring like that, it suffers. It is the target of incomprehension, shallow judgments, persecution and fear. It is frequently portrayed in an absurd way.


Dolls spiked by pins. An evil wizard laughing as he wanders through macabre graveyards in search of recent bodies to revive. Demons taking the flesh of men in order to placate their immoral needs. These are the most frequent representations associated to Haitian Vodou when you look around and as it is not difficult to conclude when we use a little criticism: they are all untrue.


Discussing Haitian Vodou without understanding Haiti in the slightest is an empty task. Vodou is intrinsically linked to the history and customs of this country in so often ignored, that many Brazilians do not even suspect that is a Caribbean country. Of course, Haiti is not on international routes for exclusive beaches and trendy all- inclusive hotels. And this is so because it is a poor country that lives in frequent political instability and is predominantly of black population.


Haiti shares the territory of São Domingos Island with the Dominican Republic. Its best known feature, unfortunately, is the marked poverty. It is the least economically favored country in the west. As there are several Latin American countries in a delicate situation in terms of economic power and quality of life, it is possible to imagine the consequences of this harsh situation in which Haiti finds itself. Interestingly, in its past, the country presented a very different situation.


In the XVIII centuty, the French colony that would become Haiti was rich. Or rather, it generated a lot of money, that , of course, was taken over by France and by the settlers who resided on the island. The great machine that made this fortune revolve was the mass of African slaves who worked forcibly and without financial reward on the island. In fact, at that time, approximately 90% of the population of the colony of São Domingos was formed by slaves. In other words, the colony was literally a "company". Used only to generate wealth. So it has earned the nickname of "Pearl of the Antilles", which of course only made sense for the French. For slaves, it would have been more appropriate to call the colony “Purgatory of the Antilles ” (to paraphrase GILLES & GILLES, 2009) .


These slaves were brought in from different locations in Africa. However, it is sort of a consensus (or more of a generalization) that it is possible to identify three main branches of African descent among them. These branches would represent the African ethnicities that would have supplied the largest number of slaves and, therefore, their cultural inheritances would have persisted more clearly. These ethnic groups would be: those of the Fon speakers (mainly from the region now known as Benin); the Yoruba (what today would be Nigeria); and the people of Kongo. Thus, it is in these three branches that many of the cultural traits that ended up forming the Haitian Vodou are found.


Patrick Bellegarde -Smith calls attention to what the life of slaves in this colony should have been like. The number of slaves was absolutely much higher than the settlers, owners of farms, foremen and of free men (among them, there were of course, those who were not directly involved with slavery, for example, shoemakers , blacksmiths etc ). This difference certainly generated a palpable tension. The colonists inevitably had to be constantly concerned with a possible scenario of revolt. The solution, according to Bellegarde-Smith, must have been a regime of cruel repression like almost no other. The "owners" of the slaves would have guaranteed the maintenance of that order through physical strength, fear and barbarity.


In fact, the fear of colonists and plantation owners was not unfounded. Many revolts have occurred. Escaped slaves ran to the mountains, where, together with natives and even whites, formed communities of so-called Maroons, something similar to the Brazilian quilombos. Amid so many revolts, the slaves finally managed to defeat their “owners” and take the colony for themselves. Haiti was the first independent country in Latin America and the only one that reached its autonomy through the armed struggle of slaves.


This should be enough to guarantee Haiti a unique status in world history. The country should be celebrated and be subject of study in schools, at least in Latin America. However, I am not aware, at least in Brazil, of any school curriculum that minimally covers Haitian history. Yet, even at universities, apparently, the situation is no different. The reason for that? Many. It is known that the Haitian revolution spread fear in the Brazilian elite society Brazilian at the time . After all, if it had happened in Haiti, it could well happen here as well. Of course, the story must have been suppressed ideologically. In addition, the reality is that if the country is not an important player in the world economic scenario, it is often ignored by the others.


What is now known as the "Revolution Haitian" was a succession of bloody battles that began in 1791 and ended in 1804. In those battles, several national and prominent heroes were made. However, there is an actor involved that interests us more here: Haitian Vodou.


History tells that in 1791, more precisely on 14 August, some slaves gathered at the place known as Bois Caiman. The ceremony was said to have been conducted by a Vodou priest called Duty Boukman. This Hougan was also an important leader among the slaves. This meeting, therefore, had a political as well as a spiritual character. During the meeting, Boukman conducted a Vodou ceremony, in which the slaves would have appealed to the spirits for assistance. Of course, they could no longer endure the cruelty and ills of that life. It is said that a Mambo, Cécile Fatiman , would have offered a black pig to one of the spirits of Vodou (called Lwa ). This Lwa , Erzilie Dantor, a mother who does everything to protect her children, would have accepted the sacrifice (along with Ogou) and with other Lwa instigated the revolution. It is known that from this day forward, the fight began and the smoke from burning farms covered the skies of São Domingos.


Whether the above story is true or whether it occurred as described, matters not in the context of this essay. It is interesting to understand that this populates the Haitian imagination and creates an inseparable connection between the birth of the nation and Vodou.


Today, many years after the end of the revolution, Haiti has already been an empire, it became a republic, it was taken over by dictators, it has already been the target of international interventions and it often suffers from very serious socio-economic problems. The country was officially Catholic, now recognizes Vodou, but it is still predominantly Catholic, with a growing proportion of Protestants. At least if we are to believe in the the official data. In reality, everyone who studies Haiti agrees that despite all the official statements and statistics, virtually the entire population of the country has a connection to Vodou.


This short presentation of the history of Haiti is certainly very unfair to all the richness and complexity of events that led to the formation of the country and that explain its current condition. Other important events and relevant names were omitted, such as Pope Doc Duvalier , a dictator who used Vodou's imaginary to rule by force and who, conspiracy theorists say, was responsible for the assassination of John Kennedy.


In addition, the post-revolution scenario that contributed to the current state in which Haiti was not properly discussed here. Despite this, it is worth mentioning that with the separation with France, the entire commercial scheme of the country started to stop making sense. It was necessary to reinvent itself, which is never easy. The international community did not accept a country of ex-slaves so well, also. In addition, France demanded a millionaire “compensation” for the loss of the colony, earning the newly formed country an immense debt.


Despite the limited scope this explanation should suffice to establish that Haitian Vodou is not merely a religion, it is one of the elements of the formation of the nation.


References:


ACKERMANN, GAUTIER & MOMPLASIR. Les Esprits du Vodou Haitien. 2011. Educa Vision Inc.

BELLEGARDE-SMITH, P. Haiti: the breached citadel. 2004. Canadian Scholar´s Press Inc.

BELLEGARDE-SMITH, P. & MICHEL, C. Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture. 2006. Palgrave Macmillian.

BROWN, K. M. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. 2011. University of California Press.

DEREN, M. Divine Horsemen: The living gods of Haiti. 1983. McPherson.

FERRETTI, S. Repensando o sincretismo. 2013. Arché Editora.

FILAN, K. The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa. 2006. Destiny Books.

GILLES, J. & GILLES, Y. Remembrance; Roots, Rituals and Reverence in Vodou. 2009.

LAMENFO, Mambo V. Z. K. Serving the Spirits. 2011. Patricia D. Sheu.

MOREL, M. Além do medo. http://www.historia.uff.br/impressoesrebeldes/?temas=alem-do-medo. Acesso em 19/10/2019.

REY, T. & RICHMAN, K. The Somatics of Syncretism: Tying Body and Soul in Haitian Religion. 2010. Studies in Religion. 39 (3): 379-403.

RIGAUD, M. Secrets of Voodoo. 1969. City Light Publishers.

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