Voodoo has to save HaitiPOSTED: 01/7/16 6:07 PM
PORT-au-PRINCE – Six years after the earthquake the donor money is nearly finished and Haiti has to continue on its own, also by leaning more on the country’s traditional nature religion, voodoo. With financial support from the Dutch Postcodeloterij (zip code lottery) Fund of Free Press Unlimited, Leendert van der Valk wrote the following report about the situation in Haiti. Trouw published it in the Netherlands. We offer our readers a translation.
At La Grande Cimetière of Port-au-Prince a woman in ecstasy empties a bottle of piman – rum with hot peppers – over her head. She washes herself with it, especially between her legs. She is a gede, a ghost that stands guard over death and fertility in the voodoo-religion. Gede are dressed in purple and black, with high hats and broken sunglasses, their faces powdered white.
Between the graves that are still in shambles six years after the devastating earthquake, Haitians offer food and drinks to the gede; they make music and burn black candles. Through the Gods they are able to communicate with the other side, as long as they put up with the morbid and at times perverse humor.
“I am not a gede,” an old woman in trance calls out to a boy who comes for advice to the cemetery in the Pétionville district. “I am an upper-gede, Bawon Samedi. If I were a gede I would put your dick in my mouth.”
It is this religion, voodoo, that must help Haiti to become independent now that the donor funding for the country’s reconstruction run out. Haiti wants to listen better once more to its own nature religion.
For that purpose, President Michel Martelly has appointed a well-known voodoo pries, 45-year old Erol Josué as director of the National Bureau for Cultural Anthropology. Almost everybody in the country acknowledges that the Haitian culture is saturated with voodoo, but that of all people a houngan, a voodoo priest, gets such a prestigious intellectual function, is revolutionary. Traditionally, the political class does not want to have anything to do with the devilish people’s religion. Churches in America, where the Haitian elite often gets its education, fuel the anti-voodoo rhetoric.
“Successive Haitian politicians have never cared about the people,” says Josué, sitting under a tree in the yard of his organization. A couple of days earlier, he opened a voodoo museum in the place with a series of concerts by voodoo musicians. He painted his short hair reddish brown and he dresses in style. “The leaders don’t care at all about what is important in life: culture, the way of dealing with life and death – everything that gives a people its values. They look down on voodoo. We are in the process of forgetting our culture.”
Josué notices this already in his youth. “I grew up in the peristil, the voodoo temple, but I went to a Catholic school,” he says. “Those schools were the best at the time. Every day I received the same warning at home: “Never say in school that your family practices voodoo.” I was not allowed to take friends back home, but I could not hide it very well. When I was doing my homework in the peristil, I was drawing vèvès in my notebook without even thinking about it.”
Vèvès are drawings that are used to call up ghosts. Elsewhere these drawings are best known from horror movies.
Josué is now considered as the most important voodoo-practitioner in the country, after the death of the national voodoo pries Max Beauvoir in September of last year. A week after his death, Josué was still in Utrecht at the Night of the Poetry and the Voodoo ToGo festival. Apart from being houngan, he is also a singer, dancer and poet with an international career. He preaches the gospel of voodoo everywhere.
According to Josué, the Catholic Church has not been the biggest threat to his culture for a long time. These days, that threat comes from the American Pentecostal churches that came into the country together with the emergency aid; and they keep coming.
While there is hardly a tourist to be found in Haiti, the planes from the United States are full every day. The passengers wear tee shirts with texts like ‘Jesus saves Haiti’ and ‘Keep calm, Jesus is coming soon.’ The more than €7 billion in emergency aid that was collected after the earthquake has been spread over thousands of non-governmental organizations and small projects, often from American churches. They bring money too: especially the Pentecostal churches are rich.
“The Pentecostal churches demand that you drop voodoo,” says Josué. “They say that voodoo is the devil and they exorcize it. It creates an enormous identity crisis among Haitians.”
It is not difficult to see the appeal of the Pentecostal church. Joining that church offers a chance for progress. “Religion pepe,” Josué calls this.
To understand what pepe is you have to go to the boulevard. It is even more crowded, hotter and dirtier there, if that were possible, than in the rest of Port-au-Prince. The exhaust fumes seem thicker in this place. The once prosperous boulevard is notorious for robberies and violence. Here you find the eternal, boothless market where women sell piles of pepe – second hand clothing. The women sell their pepe per kilo.
While in the meantime 90 percent of the earthquake victims is out of the encampments, homeless Haitians are sleeping in between the debris of cathedrals, stores and houses. Already before the earthquake that killed approximately 200,000 people, Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. According to the United Nations more than half of all Haitians live in poverty. A recent report from the national food inspectorate shows that 3 million Haitians have trouble finding enough food every day.
Increasingly there is criticism that the domestic industry cannot compete with the endless influx of almost free goods. To make things worse, almost everyone who is able to afford it leaves for the abhorred imperialistic America for their own chances. It is the fate of a country on the donor drip: cheap foreign goods in, Haitian brains out.
Josué sees the same trend in the field of cultural heritage and identity. “The Haitian culture is a mix of Taíno-indians, Africans and Europeans. You should be able to be a Christian or a voodooist here without prejudice. Sure, the loa’s, the voodoo gods, allow you to be protestant and voodooist at the same time, of course. But foreign voices tell Haitians that they have made a pact with the devil.”
Those who believe this, have an identity problem, because this so-called pact with the devil is the pride of Haiti. In 1791 the slave revolution began with a meeting whereby West African voodoo gods were called up. It resulted in independence in 1804, after a long and bloody struggle against Spanish, British and especially French armies. Haiti is proud of this history. The founding fathers are slaves who fought themselves free and who did the impossible – defeating Napoleon and abolishing slavery long before the West was ready for it.
Since that time, voodoo is anchored in the national psyche in spite, or maybe due to large international opposition and suspicion. It is said that 70 percent of Haiti is Catholic, 30 percent is protestant, and 100 percent is voodoo. Only the political elite that so badly wants to be western, traditionally avoids voodoo. As a result, the divide with the dirt poor masses is widening.
According to Josué, Haiti can only stand on its own legs if it listens better to its own nature religion. “Voodoo is a blueprint for a society. It says how you have to deal with agriculture, culture and science. Take our loa Kouzin Zaka – the minister of agriculture of the voodoo pantheon. Does he eat food from all kinds of countries? No, he eats local food.”
The rich art and history of voodoo has to bring tourists back to the country that was once called the pearl of the Caribbean. Together with the minister of tourism, Josué works on a reconstruction of important voodoo sites in the north of the country, like Bois Caiman, the forest where the first revolutionary voodoo ceremony was held. Josué visited the location to see if it was fit for the slavery museum. “For the time being we cannot do anything there. One of the protestant church communities from that region has treated the land with acid. It has affected the trees that are so important for Bois Caiman. These trees experienced the revolution.”