Sunday, November 1, 2015

Voodoo engrained in Haitian culture and life

By: Erin Davoran
Edited by: Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Legend has it that when Haitians revolted against the French at the end of the 18th century, they were able to win because they sold their souls and the country to Voodoo deities: Satan, to some.

Frednel Isma, a Haitian who was raised to fear Voodoo but recently chose to learn about it from a sociological perspective, doubts the legend.

“I don’t think Satan was buying,” Isma said.

Myths abound about the practice of Voodoo, which was recognized as an official religion in Haiti in 2003, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

HaitianVoodoo originated in the Caribbean in the 17th century when African slaves forced to the region had to suppress their religions and conform to Christianity, much like African slaves brought to the United States.

Voodoo emerged, masked behind Catholicism. For example, Isma said many voodoo deities are disguised as Catholic saints, so voodooists could worship in public without drawing the eyes of the country’s Catholic leaders.

To this day, many Haitians identify as Christian or Catholic and still practice Voodoo.

Questions surround validity of Voodoo
Jacques Alexis, who at age 12 was forced to practice Voodoo by his uncle, does not believe people can be Christian and practice what he calls “black magic.”

“I’ve never heard of a genuine Christian doing that,” Alexis said.

Born in Haiti, Alexis said when he and his sister, were initiated into Voodoo, they were made to sign a contract in blood to serve the devil for the rest of their lives.

“I think it’s very sacrificial, especially for children who don’t have a choice,” said Lauren Neal, orphanage director at Jesus in Haiti Ministries, just north of the capital of Haiti, Port-Au-Prince.

Neal said she has experienced Voodoo during church services when voodooists become possessed.

A voodoo ceremony in Jacmel, Haiti. (via Wikimedia)
“This probably sounds so crazy but with the practice of Voodoo, people cast evil spirits into the individual and so usually those spirits are subdued, but whenever the individual is around the spirit of God, of Christ, that’s when the evil spirits are aroused,” she said.

Elizabeth McAlister, an associate professor of religion at Wesleyan University and author of “Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora,” wrote in Encyclopedia Britannica that spirit possession plays an important role in the religion, as it does in other religions as well.

Isma has doubts about the validity of possessions.

“People keep telling me its possible. Why? What happened?” said Isma, who thinks medical experts are needed to talk about the so-called possessions, which he said people claim happen in Christianity also.

Isma sees Voodoo as more poison and publicity than black magic.

“Those guys are doing nothing different than anybody can do with poison,” he said.

As to supernatural power Voodoo priests might have: “I’ve seen them running when people come to kill them,” he said.

“When they say they can kill you, they can, but it’s like saying they can shoot you. That’s the same thing,” he said.

Though Neal and Isma both say Voodoo is practiced more openly now, getting those in the practice to speak about it candidly to people outside the religion can be tricky.

“Getting information about Vodou and being protected by someone trust(worthy) is not easy to find,” Nora Chavenet, a friend of Isma’s who lives in Haiti, said in an email. “There are also a lot of informations that are transmitted… that nobody knows if you do not initiate or know someone you trust that is an initiate.”

Voodoo is spelled Vodou in Haiti.

Beliefs and practices
So what exactly is it?

According to the Haitian Consulate in Chicago, voodooists believe there is one god, the “Bondyè” or Good God, the creator of all, who is distant from creation. Therefore voodooists pray to the Bonyè’s spirits.

McAlister wrote that Voodoo “is a worldview encompassing philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion. Its fundamental principle is that everything is spirit.”

Isma has problems with how the religion is established.

“It doesn’t look like a myth, but it looks like, those people didn’t have anything as gospel or Quran…they just go in nature and start calling things god,” he said.

Haitian Vodou altar created during a festival for the Guede
spirits, Boston, M.A. Top right area is offerings to Rada
spirits; top left to Petwo spirits; bottom to Gede.
(via Calvin Hennick for WBUR Boston)
According to the consulate, Voodoo rituals involve preparation of an altar and food at a Voodoo house, Catholic prayers, a lot of singing, litany and verses to the spirits honored by the house, and visits by the spirits by way of possessions.

Men and women can be Voodoo priests, called Houngans and Manbos, respectively.

“In Haitian Vodou the sexual orientation or gender identity and expression of a practitioner is of no concern in a ritual setting. It is seen as just the way God made a person,” according to the consulate.

Voodoo's impact on Haitian culture
Voodoo ceremonies are a big draw for tourists. Even Bill and Hillary attended aceremony on their first trip to the country in 1975, according to The Washington Post.

As fascinating as the practice may be to some, others are against it. Neal and Alexis believe Voodoo is pure satanism.

“I think it’s totally satanic. The goal is death,” Neal said.

“There was never a way it wasn’t satanic,” Alexis said. He got out of the practice and into Christianity at age 15. He moved to the United States in 1996 and now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is in the seminary studying divinity.

“If (people) don’t know the Lord, anything goes,” he said.

But how prevalent is the practice of Voodoo?

“They say Haiti is 80 percent Catholic, 100 percent Voodooists,” Isma said.

Though Haiti is actually about 50 percent Catholic now according to the World Factbook, Isma still thinks the saying is valid.

Isma said that while he and many others are not practicing Voodoo, when they see people who are “you stay away from it. That means you believe it has power.

Whether supernatural or not, Voodoo no doubt has influenced the Caribbean country.

“If you see the culture, there’s no way you can miss it. It’s Voodoo,” Isma said. “Whether we’re aware of it or not, the inheritance of Voodoo in the culture is very strong.”

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