Lwa Mountain: Post-Crisis Vodou in Haiti
Haitians have been faced with some of the most horrific of experiences of a recognized “failed state” during the last decades, facing coups, despotic governments, and natural disasters, including the January 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 Haitians and left over 1.6 million homeless.
One among the 49 current Least Developed Countries (LDC) as classified by the United Nations, Haiti is the only LDC in the Western Hemisphere. It is also, according to Kathie Klarreich and Linda Polman, who wrote about Haiti’s current crises for The Nation, called by critics an “NGO Republic,” a failed state and LDC that depends almost wholly on foreign aid for its survival.
This veritable occupation — and seeming permanent entrenchment — of international NGO’s, governance, and policy contingents, and a non-functioning Haitian government, has been provably ineffective, despite the vast millions in aid pledged by the international community. The International Donors Conference “Toward a New Future for Haiti,” held only weeks after the 2010 earthquake, resulted in the creation of the Clinton Commission, or officially: the Interim Haitian Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), during which $5.3 billion was pledged to assist in Haitian recovery. This funding was to be utilized over two years.
Now in 2013, with projects begun but often left only half-finished, not started at all, or finished often to the will of donors and NGO boards rather than according to the provable needs of project beneficiaries, with little recognition of the realities in Haiti among the most vulnerable populations, or any sense of operational pragmatism on the ground, many are wondering where this money has gone, who has benefited, and who has been conducting necessary monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of programs with any real numbers depicting success rates.
In this cacophony of defensiveness, political and economic jockeying, PR, and cloying platitudes among aid, policy and governance contingents regarding the projects or funding being given to or benefited the Haitian people, and the successes and failures of both peacekeeping operations and other interventions including Humanitarian Action (HA), there have been real and very relevant questions asked about Haitian resilience, especially in light of the decades of crises that have now become the burden of more than one generation.
According to a 2012 report by Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP); Policy and Global Affairs (PGA), “resilience” is defined as: “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”
Considering the adverse events as evidenced in Haiti over the past decades, and the physical, psychological, cultural, and political aftermath of these crises and the ineffective response of the international community, it is also important, amidst the rather negative reality acting as context, to ask what means the Haitian population has had to find some degree of strength, and even empowerment.
It is often said that the foundation of a people is to what they will return when under stress, including crisis, subjugation and oppression. Many forget that Haiti was the first republic created and led by an African-heritage diaspora who gained independence in 1804 after having been led by a former slave, Toussaint Louverture, in a successful revolution against French rule in what was then known as Saint-Domingue. Those who fought and won this revolution came from both free blacks and slaves, inspired not just by leaders such as Louverture, but by a strong connection to he history and culture of African ancestors.
Among certain groups of Haitians, this foundation of independent men and women who honored their ancestors by gaining freedom from colonial rule is still felt, and still honored not just in the naming of streets and Haitian institutions, but also in a religion that many have castigated, while ignoring its role in Haitian independence, and its current relevancy among many Haitians who practice it. Its practice is not only for a sense of connection to the past, but also for comfort, strength, and self-empowerment, in asking for the help and assistance of ancestors.
Long depicted by most in popular culture in a context of horror movies (including the continued zombie phenomenon in film, from the original Bela Lugosi film White Zombie, to this year’s World War Z) voodoo dolls, or mistaking it for the Hoodoo of the United States in the Deep South (including in the new season of American Horror Story: Coven) or Santeria in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and always depicted in generalized ceremonies thought to be bizarre with frightening rituals, Vodou has been maligned for decades by those with little direct experience of it. Often the tendency of those who are uncomfortable with what they find foreign, or with something they consider a more “primitive” avatar of the Haitian culture or diaspora, have made a point to either mitigate the influence of the religion on the culture or outright demonize it; this is true not just among the international community, but also among many Haitians themselves, leading in some cases to blame for Haiti’s crises, and even violence against those who officiate over or practice the religion.
Vodou has been the one constant during varying Haitian crises, representing over 50% of the Haitian population. It is the one thing that remains distinctly Haitian, its influence and origin coming from West Africa and what is currently DRC (from such tribes as the Fon, Ewe, Yoruba, and Lemba) combined with traditions of the native American Taino tribe and the Catholicism practiced by French colonials.
According to Nicolas Vonarx in an article about his award-winning book Le Vodou Haitien: Entre Médecine, Magie et Religion (2013), the relevancy of Vodou is not just in terms of culture and religion, but even in terms of resilience in terms of medicine and illness, whether physical or psychological:
"[Vodou] exists where there is not much else to turn to,” he says of the situation in Haiti. “You can find it everywhere”… [Vodou], he explains focuses its approach not on the body, but on the patient and his or her place in the Haitian context – a context that includes family, neighbours and also ancestors… Vonarx explains that by giving a meaning to their illness, [Vodou] gives Haitians the feeling they have some control over their lives – in a country and a situation where very few people feel empowered.
In the interior of Haiti, miles and hours away from the coast and any major city, up in the mountains, the more rural populations face a vastly different reality than those in a more urban environment. Here, there are not the overwhelming presences of air and noise pollution, traffic, dense populations, miles of makeshift shanties, SUV’s of the UN and aid agencies with security and bullet-proof glass. White faces of Americans and Europeans are rare. The land is lush and green, livestock grazes tied to stakes to keep them from wandering, roads are rocky, uneven and unpaved, streams at times flowing across them, people gathering to wash clothing, bathe, or carry water over distances.
This is where prior to Haitian independence, much of the resistance to French rule began, and to the mountains of the north, also being the location of Bwa Kayiman, where on August 14, 1791, an historic Vodou ceremony took place during the first major slave insurrection of the Haitian Revolution.
Every summer, hundreds of Vodou practitioners, or Vodouisants, take a journey to a sacred mountain in Haiti’s interior to honor Bondyè (Creator God). Groups accompanied by the high priests (houngans) and priestesses (mambos) come to a series of caves on the mountain as sèvitè, or “servants of the spirits”. Inside the caves, Vodouisants move to different stations, each station representing a Vodou spirit (mistè or Lwa) acting as a parallel to a Catholic saint, where prayers and offerings are given, and ceremonies performed. Some sèvitè during the course of the ceremonies, are entered by Lwa, as entities that empower them through possession. Certain ritual sacrifices are performed, animals such as chickens, goats, and cattle being thought to give signs as to their willingness to participate in the sacrifice for the good of those present, with every part of the animals’ bodies used later to feed those who have accompanied it. Vodouisants also give thanks for prayers answered in the previous year, make requests for the upcoming year or attempt to reconnect with lost loved ones or ancestors (konesans), some going to various stations, others writing notes and letters or drawing symbols on pieces of paper that they place on certain walls of the caves. Practitioners are spiritually cleansed using various herbs mixed with water, rum and sometimes smoke.. Candles are brought in and at times left in certain locations, illuminating the faces of Vodouisants as they pray, perform rituals and sacrifices, and give and receive blessings.
Because of its intensity, and with the dire circumstances most Haitians currently face, this is considered one of the most intensely religious, important and evocative Vodou experiences among this isolated group of Vodouisants. The beauty, ritual, and profundity of the pilgrimage and its ceremony in the mountain caves is as evocative of any religion in which those truly seek the wisdom of ancestors, offer prayers, and seek closure or guidance from loved ones or from the spirits representing the Divine.
The sacrifices are sometimes brutal, and difficult, but for those in pain or great need, they need to be. Heard from one mambo: "The more the pain or need, the stronger [more intense] the ceremony."
Unlike the religion depicted by popular culture, this is a deeply spiritual experience, reverent to a greater cause, inclusive of individual, family, community, and ancestors, deeply tied to nature and its rhythms, and in service to a supreme being, from whom guidance is sought through intermediaries who are closer to humanity and aware of its day-to-day realities.
This is not to say that Vodou, like any religion, also does not have its dark side; certain houngans are also bokors, who practice sorcery on behalf of others, or seek to enslave souls who have crossed an unacceptable line within a family or community. Some, in their desperation or pain, seek a path of power, including over others or for control over some life situation that seems uncontrollable, or otherwise seek some kind of distinct, and sometimes not so benevolent control used for personal gain. Historically, many think of such a quest for power in going back only a few decades to the rule of the Duvaliers in Haiti (François “Papa Doc” and his son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc” 1957-1986), and their use of paramilitary forces, Tontons Macoutes, later named the Milice de Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale (MVSN), utilizing Vodou in its terror tactics to maintain Duvalier control over the Haitian population in some of the most extreme and horrific acts of physical and psychological torture and mass violence. The Duvaliers, and certain among other Haitian leaders before and since, recognized, as many leaders have among faiths historically in all parts of the world, that a population’s religion could be twisted for useful political, economic, and despotic purposes which could easily subsume more earnestly spiritual ones. This also did nothing for the reputation of Vodou in the outside world, categorized as “barbaric” because of despotic forces’ malignant manipulation of the religion, even one to which they may have been devout, for their own gain.
However for many, the ceremonies and spirituality of Vodou are an inherent recognition of the interplay between light and dark, and one can feel that the soul of the original revolutionaries still exists in the ancestry and memory of the Haitian people, whether from those solely remembering the proud history of a revolution, to the individuals in Haiti’s interior, those Vodouisants making the yearly pilgrimages to the mountain caves, and from whose ancestors, back in the 1700’s, the quest for independence originally drew its first breath.
And perhaps in seeking the wisdom of history, tradition, and in its own quest as a people rediscovering its capacities with the strength of both modern sensibilities and ancestral memory, including the inherent pride in their unique original history of true self-determination, Haiti might one day regain its independence, this time from world powers who, for all intents and purposes, seem once again to have temporarily gained control over its destiny during Haiti’s deepest crises.