Haiti's Vodoun Followers

How faith transforms the devout and unites a country of believers


| May-June 1999



Haiti is saturated with cliché: the poverty, the tortured landscape, the sprawling muddle of Port-au-Prince, the agonizing succession of abominable political leaders who disregard the welfare of their people. But find a quiet place—perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a sacred mapou tree, or on a hotel veranda at dawn—where you can forget all that you have heard about this turbulent country. Breathe deeply and listen to the rhythm of the land, and you will hear voices speaking of another Haiti whose beauty and magic make it unique in all the Americas.

Today, evidence of its African heritage is everywhere in rural Haiti. In the fields, long lines of men wield hoes to the rhythm of small drums; just beyond them sit steaming pots of millet and yams ready for the harvest feast. Near the center of a roadside settlement, or lakou, a wizened old man holds court. Markets sprout up at every crossroads, and like magnets they pull the women out of the hills; one sees them on the trails, girls beneath baskets of rice, a stubborn matron dragging a half-dozen donkeys laden with eggplant. There are sounds as well: the echo of distant songs, the din of the market, and the cadence of the creole language, each word truncated to fit the meter of West African speech. All these disparate images translate into a few closely related themes: the value of collective labor, communal land holdings, the authority of the patriarch, the dominant role of women in the market economy. And these themes, in turn, are clues to a complex social world.

Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed. In this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, the Vodoun religion provides the essential bond. Vodoun is a word from the Fon people of Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa that simply means "spirit" or "God." It is not a black magic cult; it is a system of profound religious beliefs about the relationships among man, nature, and the supernatural forces of the universe. Like all religions, it fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible.

Vodoun not only embodies a set of spiritual concepts, it also prescribes a way of life, a philosophy, and a code of ethics that regulate social behavior. Within a Vodoun society, as in a Christian or an Islamic society, one finds completeness—a distinct language; a complex system of traditional medicine, art, and music inspired by African antecedents; education based on oral transmission of songs and folklore; a system of justice derived from indigenous principles of conduct and morality. The religion cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community.

Vodoun is not an animistic religion. Believers do not endow natural objects with souls; they serve the loa, multiple expressions of God. There is Agwe, the spiritual sovereign of the sea; and there is Ogoun, the spirit of fire, war, and the metallurgical elements. But there are also Erzulie, the goddess of love; Guede, the spirit of the dead; Legba, the spirit of communication between all spheres. The Vodounists, in fact, honor hundreds of loa because they recognize all life, all material objects, and even abstract processes as sacred expressions of God. Though God is the supreme force at the apex of the pantheon, he is distant; it is with the loa that Haitians interact on a daily basis.

The ease with which Haitians walk in and out of their spirit world is a consequence of the remarkable dialogue between human beings and the spirits. The loa are powerful and if they are offended can do great harm; but they are also predictable, and if they are properly served will reward men and women with good fortune. But just as humans must honor the spirits, so the loa are dependent on people. They arrive in response to the invocation of songs, riding the rhythm of the drums. Once believers are possessed, they lose all consciousness and sense of self; they become the spirit, taking on its persona and powers.