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7235: Vodou and Scholars - Desmangles replies (fwd)

From: "Desmangles, Leslie" <Leslie.Desmangles@trincoll.edu>

Sometime ago, someone on this list questioned the work of scholars of Vodou.
She noted that the scholarly work done on Vodou is often of no benefit to
the poor people of Haiti. She also wondered if these scholars' philosophical
conjectures about Haitian culture merely provided personal satisfaction to
them -- a means through which they could look at their own navels, as it
were  (these are my own words, not the writers'). It is to these question
that I would like to direct my comments.

Why do alpinists climb Mount Everest, or why did we travel to the moon some
years ago, we often ask? The answer is simply because they are there. Many
of us study Vodou because it exists. Not all academic enterprises merit
practical applications all the time, at least not in the direct and
immediate sense. The scholarly study of Vodou or Haitian culture may not be
"flashy", or may not be visible to the Haitian community, but is very
important nevertheless to Haiti in many subtle ways.

First, the academic study of Vodou sheds light on the understanding of
Haitian culture, and that's very quite important for Haiti. It allows
non-Haitians to understand an important aspect of Haitian culture, and helps
explain the worldview, the political, as well as the social motivations of
the Haitian people. There is also an applied side to such a study that is
not evident at all and may not have any direct connections to solving the
problems of poverty in Haiti. As a student of Vodou and Haitian culture, I
have often been asked to serve as a consultant in a number of occasions that
range from foreign companies that are trying to understand Haitian society
with the intent of doing business with Haiti, to matters related to
socio-economic issues concerning the country, or to the work of
philanthropic organizations (both secular and religious) undertaking work in
Haiti. For instance, I led a series of seminars on Vodou recently for a
group of dedicated medical doctors and dentists from Connecticut who were
organizing a philanthropic trip to serve the people in parts of the south of

Second, the scholarly study of Haitian culture bears some relations to
historical and international studies. Vodou is a way of life that presents
some fascinating aspects that are non-different from those observed among so
many other peoples of the world. For me in particular, I find that the
historical, social and economic forces that help shape Vodou as a way of
life in Haiti shed light on the forces that helped shape what we often
identify as the major religious traditions and practices of the world,
including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism to name a few.
fHence, the study of Haitian Vodou has a global dimension. It can shed
on many scholarly endeavors related to the cultures of other peoples of the

Finally, from a purely scientific point of view, the academic study of Vodou
as a scholarly enterprise, as with many other such enterprises, need not
have any immediate benefit to any group of people, at least not in the short
run.  If a people's  spiritual way of life is an expression of their groping
for answers to many of the most profound existential and spiritual questions
of life, then the scholarly study of Vodou helps advance our understanding
of the nature of humanity, and helps to identify many of these existential
and spiritual concerns of religious people in the 21rst century. Why
shouldn't Haiti, its people and its culture help scholars understand many of
the ultimate dimensions of contemporary life? 

Leslie G. Desmangles
Trinity College
Department of Religion and
International Studies Program
Hartford, CT 06106
(860) 297-2407 desk
(860) 297-5358 fax