by Jonathan C. Bergman, guest contributor
Haiti subscribes to two major religions — Voodoo and Catholicism — with born again Christians making great inroads in the past decade. The success of Haitian religious leaders in this time frame has spurred a series of “crusades” to aggressively minister and convert both non-believers and former Voodoo practitioners, especially after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. American and international religious groups working with their Haitian counterparts have watched a population attempting to reconnect with its spirituality. The Baptist Press reports 18,000 conversions to Christianity and 60,000 professions of faith in the past year alone.
Conversions, crusades, and outreach extend beyond Christianity with Voodoo experiencing a marked resurgence as well. Immediately after the earthquake struck, “1,000 members of the National Convention of Voodoo Priests” held a special meeting to determine a strategy for Haiti’s practical relief and psychic restoration. While some cast off Voodoo, others reflexively went back to Haiti’s “original” faith seeking a cure for the harm brought about by the disaster. Voodoo also has great allure since it is linked to Haitian nationalism and the peculiar cultural forms of the island nation.
The disaster has the unfortunate effect of exposing fissures in Haiti’s religious landscape. Even as religion has served to heal the psychic and spiritual harm in the wake of disaster a contest has emerged between Christianity and a mélange of Voodoo and animistic beliefs. This contest is bound up in the very formation of Haiti itself — the only successful slave rebellion in colonial history. Some argue that the price of nationhood via the Revolution of 1791-1804 was purchased with a “devil’s pact” binding Haiti in misery and the falsity of the Voodoo religion. According to this perspective, then, the earthquake was not a natural occurrence but divine retribution. This view embodies earlier and more superstitious explanations of disaster when extreme physical events were looked at as “harbingers of doom” of “bad stars” (the literal translation of the Latin dis | astrum).
The earthquake is only one in a series of ills which have befallen the nation since independence with endemic poverty, repressive regimes, and rampant crime all too common. This has led to protests against Voodoo, further complicating the post-disaster environment. Christianity is therefore seen as more than a spiritual alternative but a way to shake off the presumed curse. The danger exists with the most vulnerable of Haiti’s population pinning their hopes to guaranteed recovery via religion. What happens if and when their fortunes do not turn around in the fold of Christianity?
None of this is to suggest that Haiti is doomed to conflict and a failed period of renewal, though it is an indication of the problems and possibilities which exist in the meeting ground between religion and disaster. Given the efforts of Haitian nationals and international religious groups, the prospects for success seem promising. And with the majority of rebuilding still ahead, the practical and spiritual dimensions of disaster continue to unfold.
Barbara Denman, “In Haiti, Faith and Churches Continue to Sprout,” Baptist Press, March 25, 2010.
Michael Martin, “In Earthquake Aftermath, Haitians Cling to Voodoo, Faith,” National Public Radio, January 22, 2010.
Guy Nicholson, “Haiti: Suffering and Spirituality,” The Globe and Mail, January 10, 2011.
Garry Pierre-Pierre, “Haitian earthquake unleashes animosity against Voodoo,” The Haitian Times, March 3, 2010.
Kim Sengupta, “Voodoo: The Old Religion Rises from the Rubble in Haiti,” The Independent, February 1, 2010.
Jonathan C. Bergman is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University–Commerce. He holds a J.D. in Criminal Law from Touro Law School and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American Political History from the University at Buffalo. His research interests include disaster and the relief process and the meeting ground between culture and calamity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.Comments
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, whom we first interviewed for our program "Living Vodou," grew up in Haiti, a member of the country’s aristocratic elite of African descent. He studied political science in the U.S. and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. Unlike his well-known grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith was first drawn to his homeland’s indigenous religion as a way to understand his cultural identity, and later became a oungan.
The professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee responds to our questions about Haiti’s history, the mass media’s reporting, and Vodou’s role in recovery:
I find myself wanting to hear about the context and perspective that only you can bring to the way Haiti is being viewed and discussed while the earthquake spotlight is on it. What are your thoughts?
I am running on adrenaline at this moment, often unthinking, unfeeling, “zombie-like.” I didn’t sleep for the first several days. A Haitian baby girl, 15 days old, was found alive and well after seven days. Half her life! What stamina shown by the buried, the undead, after one week after the cataclysm.
The UN says that it is the worst disaster it has faced, presumably in terms of actual death and refugees in a single country. It is the worst earthquake in Haitian history, in a country and in a geographic/geologic area that was literally created from fault lines and tectonic plates and volcanoes. When earthquakes occurred in the 19th century, Haiti picked itself up and rebuilt itself, without assistance from the outside world. We do acknowledge that we need it this time, and hope that Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, at the direction of Haitian governments, with all that Haiti has in terms of a reservoir of talent both inside and outside the country.
When you say that you hope Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, what do you mean? Are there certain examples you’re thinking of?
Haitian models abound in all fields, areas, and systems of life. The culture provides with indigenous models of development, as well as indigenous patterns of housing development, some predating European colonization of the island of Haiti (Hispaniola), e.g. Amerindian sources. The “Miami model” now found throughout the Caribbean insists on low houses, flat cement cement roofs, and the like, which do not accord with the environment.
Other more “settled cultures” have improvised upon their legacy, while Haiti has opted for a pale imitation of American standards all too often. In the same way that our art is distinctive and derived from our religion, our housing and our cities can also be creative and innovative within our own traditions and foundations. Hence, my call for all architects and engineers to come together to rebuild Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince had eathquakes in the 1860s and 1950s. It was rebuilt. The second city of 500,000 inhabitants, Cap-Haïtien, was destroyed in 1842. It was rebuilt.
There’s been so much non-stop coverage of Haiti since the first earthquake devastated the country where you grew up. I saw a series of reports on one news channel and its website that featured a reporter standing outside of a Catholic church…
Haiti has always been “defined” as 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, but 100 percent Vodou. This recognizes that the national religion is part of a worldview that belongs to all Haitians, and for which all Haitians should be proud. Typically, we can and do worship in churches, temples, and ounfos, realizing that it’s all about “spirit” and that all spiritual disciplines have access to the spiritual world.
Vodou is merely the culturally Haitian form of such worship. Haitian music, painting, oral literature — all systems inherently found in all cultures — have a Vodou foundation at its base. Much the same as the Judeo-Christian ethos suffuses all that is American, even those millions of Americans who are atheists.
…and the report would cut away to shots of Haitians worshiping while the correspondent continued to talk somewhat off-the-cuff. I thought, “Why aren’t they speaking to more people and featuring their voices on camera — even if they need interpreters?” What’s been missed in U.S. coverage of Haiti and its cultural/religious/spiritual moorings?
Much is missing from the American reportage by media. American media, all together now, refuse to mention that the first responders were more than 400 Cuban doctors doing good work in Haiti for several years. American media are not reporting that Venezuelan and Cuban help is being resisted by the U.S. when Cuba and Venezuela are very significant allies of Haiti for the past 200 years — for the past 100 years, depending on when these countries achieved independence.
The emphasis was not on water or food, but on landing 12,000 American soldiers in Haiti. Why so many soldiers? Please explain. Haitians are refusing to oblige American reporters who insist that Haiti will have “riots” and that Haitians “loot.” Is it because Haitians are black? The same arguments were made about New Orleans during Katrina. Racism always remains true to itself. When will that stop, coming from people who are genuine in their desire to help, but remain racist nonetheless. Please stop!
I have lost nine members of my extended family. Cousins of my generation have all survived, but their five homes have collapsed. One cousin in her mid-60s is sleeping in her car with her gravely ill husband. I have yet, as of today, been unable to call. News is intermittent. I am distressed and distraught.
I remember Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s and 1950s — une ville jardin, a garden city with abundant greenery and water, a small population of 150,000. I am well-born and come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death — and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought.
That sentiment — “the dead are not dead” — reminds me of a line from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: “The future stems from the past, so life and death become one in the same.” Could you say more about the Vodou understanding of spirit and energy and not wasting the wisdom of one’s ancestors? And how might this Vodou worldview inform a Haitian approach to rebuilding the country?
The Gede family of spirits protect the cemetery, and also protect new life in a never-ending chain. The Gede love children, reminiscent of the relationship one often finds between grandparents and grandchildren. One’s past predicts tendencies for certain outcomes, yet, through the exercise of free will, one can transcend one’s limits.
In traditional African thought, as in most spiritual systems, reincarnation is taken for granted, though attenuated in Haiti by the impact of Christianity. Hence the lack of a heaven and a hell, yet alone a purgatory or, in pre-John Paul II times, a limbo. Souls are nearer than we realize, and their interaction with the “living,” generally beneficent. No energy goes a-wasting in a close universe!
The way one interacts with fellow beings on the planet is far more significant (and rewarding) than the way one might interact with the spirit world or with God for that matter. At critical points in our lives’ journeys, God shall not ask about our beliefs or treatment of “It,” but how we have managed our relationships with humans and other facets of nature alike.
In what ways are you seeing your local community and, perhaps, larger Haitian-American community coming together during these times?
Haiti was in the process of reinventing itself politically, socially, culturally. Now Haiti has to reinvent itself physically as well. Out of tremendous pain, rays of hope. We rebuilt after past earthquakes, after hurricanes. We are spared the scourge of volcanic eruptions; our sister English and French colonies in the Caribbean, Monserrat and Martinique, did not escape volcanoes that are at the foundations of our countries.
The Haitian diaspora, more than a million strong, will come to the rescue. This signal event forces us to come into action. “L’Union Fait la Force" ("Union Makes Strength"), the national motto of Haiti must be practiced or else the international community will dictate the terms of Haiti’s "recovery." And worse will follow!
As a Vodou priest, how has the spirit world been present during the aftermath?
Haiti needs all its ancestral spirits, now more than ever. Praise the Lwa.
You began this interview by sharing the remarkable story of a 15-day-old baby surviving the quake. How do stories like this inform your notions of the human spirit? Of what Haiti’s future might hold and look like?
Her spirit is strong, and I would hope that she was spared to produce great things in her lifetime. This is one of many miracles we have been fortunate to witness over the last 12 days! That girl, name unknown, has proven as resilient as Haiti herself.
Who might have predicted that Haiti would have survived 206 years when faced by the opprobrium of the Western powers? In defiance, we cry out, “nou met led me nou la (we may be ugly, but we are here)!”Comments
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Sending around news articles is a regular part of workaday life here at Speaking of Faith. This AP story includes a quote from Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who was featured in our program on Haitian Vodou:
Brazil army officials issued a statement saying many followers of the Voodoo religion would not accept the dead being touched until all of their rituals were concluded. Some experts on the faith validated the claim while others rejected it.
Voodoo, a mix of African religions and Roman Catholicism, is central to Haitian life and is widely observed in some form. The religion often has been wrongly associated with black magic or sorcery, leaving a lingering stereotype against its followers.
But suggestions that survivors are stacking corpses outside Port-au-Prince hospitals because they are waiting for a Voodoo ceremony is inaccurate, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, an expert on Haitian Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, in the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"None of what the Brazilian authorities say makes any sense," Bellegarde-Smith said in a Thursday e-mail. "They are absolutely wrong! Most Haitians, though they believe in Vodou, are devoted Catholics or Protestants."
With the earthquake in Haiti on everyone’s minds, Trent blogged about our show on the morality of nature with geologist Jelle de Boer. His post sparked a spirited exchange on our Facebook page. Krista also cited Jelle de Boer in her conversation from this past year with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon. Le Pichon’s perspective is sobering:
Ms. Tippett: When something like that happens that was so catastrophic, so many people died, you know, this question is raised of this magnitude of suffering and this “where is God?” question. And somehow this Jelle de Boer, he talked about how with a long view of time and nature, that plate tectonics are what restore life over time. He said life is directly dependent on these geological processes, that we don’t know that other planets have this type of plate tectonics or these extensive oceans and that’s probably why there may not be life there. He said here we are, lucky. “We’re lucky because of these processes where the plates separate and crack and where they run over each and crack and as a consequence of that magmas form at deep levels in the earth. They are brought to the surface and they bring not only nutrients but also water and that is the essence of life.” I mean, it’s this long view of life.
Mr. Le Pichon: Yes. This is perfectly true, but if, for example, I look at controversy between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire immediately after the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire said, “How can that be a good God that is letting these hundreds of thousands of people being killed by the earthquake?” and so on. And the answer of Rousseau was, “Look, God created them as people living in the forest and so on and if they had still been living in the forest instead of building huge buildings in which they lived, there would have been barely anybody killed.”
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: So it’s the way man has chosen to live that is creating that. At the present time we have, for example, half of the mega-poles, there’s more than 10 million people who are close to plate boundaries. And we have chosen to put them there. When I was an associate professor in Tokyo University, it was at the time of the Kobe earthquake. They had a big discussion about should we move Tokyo? You know, it’s a very dangerous place.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: It was a very serious discussion. Should we move it to the west? It’s true, they put it in one of the most dangerous places that is. That is the challenge of humanity. We are now 6 billion and a half people, and clearly without science and technology we cannot live anymore. I mean, science and technology is essential. But at the same time, we have chosen certain ways of life in which we did not have time yet to test our reaction to the environment, and we have this problem to deal with — how are we going to tackle the problem of completely new implementations which are not environment tested? That’s one of the big challenges of the future.
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
While in New York over Thanksgiving, I saw Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones — a new musical on Broadway that celebrates the life and legacy of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian-born musician who pioneered a new form of music called Afrobeat in the 1970s. Fela frequently used his music to condemn the corrupt military regime that held power in his country.
One of the musical’s most stirring scenes happens in the second act in “Dance of the Orisas” when Fela seeks guidance from his deceased mother (a political firebrand in her own right) who was murdered by the government when she was thrown from window at Fela’s home. Fela prepares himself for this journey by dressing all in white, and he’s guided to his mother by two orisas, or spirits, in the Yoruba-based spiritual tradition.
(photo: Monique Carboni)
Today, I listened to our program "Living Vodou" with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith to learn more about Yoruba-derived religious systems that migrated from West Africa to the Caribbean and South America with the slave trade including Vodou, Santeria, and Candomble. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith explains how some slaves continued their traditional spirituality in disguise by matching orisas to Christian saints so that slaves could “cover up what it is that you did, literally cover it up when a slave owner was approaching.”
What’s interesting to me about Fela’s example is that he did not disguise his reproach of corrupt, powerful institutions; rather, he sang out his protests with direct and galvanizing musicality. His actions didn’t go unpunished, though. According to my playbill, he was arrested over 200 times and suffered devastating beatings at the hands of the government.Comments
Colleen Scheck, Producer
The Religion Dispatches article "Rum and Gunpowder: How to Take Out a Vodou Doll" caught my eye this week. Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a religious studies professor, writes about the journey of a Vodou doll that “wreaked havoc” among her colleagues at the University of Miami.
She touches on the irrational supersition evoked by the pop-culture mythology surrounding Voodoo dolls, but also proposes an interesting origin to that mythology from her knowledge of Afro-Cuban religion. And, of course, I’m reminded of our program, Living Vodou, that I appreciate for taking me beyond the mystery and myth of this religion and its symbols.Comments
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
The germ of an idea for our show on Vodou varies greatly from how our program on play originated. We receive thousands of e-mails from listeners who want to hear more on a topic they’re curious about. Many of these gentle recommendations we add to our supersecret *wink* “big list” of potential programs. Vodou was one of them.
About two years ago, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith wrote us a brief e-mail asking if we had produced shows on “African and African-derived traditional religions” and recommended several volumes that he’d edited on Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble, and Umbanda.
Our former associate producer Jessica Nordell called him asking for suggestions for people that he thought could speak about Vodou intimately. He was forthcoming and recommended many voices, including Claudine Michel. But we quickly realized that he was that voice — a Haitian aristocrat who was not only a scholar of the tradition but a practitioner who discovered Vodou in his early adulthood. We found his personal story about rediscovering his heritage and the spirit of the people of his country utterly captivating.
Once Krista interviewed him, we knew it was a show. Production of some shows are liberating when all the pieces fall into place. "Living Vodou" was one of them.
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith sent us Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti, which was a homerun for music elements. The compilation was appropriate, Mitch reminded me, because it piggybacked on his story about playing Haitian music on a radio station in Benin. It also captured the ears of our senior producer for its pure, percussive rhythms, whereas Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe's beautiful melodies blended themes of rural life and Vodou. In the spirit of Vodou ceremonies, Mitch chose “Legba non baye-a” to usher in the program. Legba is the first lwa to be saluted at a ceremony and serves as a gatekeeper, a conduit to the spirit world.
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Se ou ki pote drapo
Se ou k ap pare soley pou lwa-yo
Legba is at the gate
Legba is at the gate
Legba is at the gate
It is you who carreis the flag
It is you who shields the spirits from the sun
My challenge was to find a photograph that would capture the vibrant culture and complex system of beliefs that Bellegarde-Smith described — as it is lived in the United States today. A few hours later, I was left hopeless thinking that I may not get an image that would do our show justice. Maya Deren’s book and film set me on the right course.
I began searching Flickr and other sites for variant spellings of Haitian spirits and concepts — everything from Voodoo to Vodun, from Gede to Ghede, from lwa to loa, from veves to vévé. Then I discovered this image:
The photo captures so much: the poto mitan, a painting of a Catholic saint, a fashionably dressed priest shooting vaporized rum from his mouth, a small boy in a humid basement, a lady in white garb, a festive atmosphere, movement.
Here was a photographer who was personally invested in her subjects — at least my intuition said so — and not just documenting them. When I contacted Stephanie Keith for permission to use a few photographs, I asked her why she got started on this project — a Vodou priest at a Buddhist peace rally invited her to learn more about his religion at a “party.” That was enough for me. The result: "Vodou Brooklyn," a narrated slide show of her images and story mixed in with songs from Angels in the Mirror.
Several months later, Current TV contacted us after watching the video wondering if we did film projects. Unfortunately, we can’t do much right now. And, the Brooklyn Historical Society invited Stephanie to submit our documentary for the Brooklyn Arts & Film Festival. It’s exciting to see our material find paths into different communities, and we can only hope it furthers our public radio mission to “enrich the spirit and nourish the soul.”
UPDATE 8.18.08: And, as unexpected bloggers talk about this show (e.g., The Wild Hunt), perhaps we’ll be part of a larger dialogue in niche communities we weren’t involved in before.Comments