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#3141: New recognition of Vodou's role in Haitian culture (fwd)


New recognition of Vodou's role in Haitian culture
Kathie Klarreich Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI __A young man, forlorn about his love life, stands
in his shorts in front of the cross of Bawon Samdi, who in Vodou
tradition heads the family of spirits of the cemetery. A Vodou priest,
using herbal mixtures and chicken feathers, performs a ritual to cleanse
the man's body and spirit. When the service is complete, the young
man changes clothes, pays the priest, and heads home.For many in the
West and in upper Haitian society, voodoo, or Vodou, evokes a Hollywood
stereotype of black magic and dolls stuck with pins.But for Vodou
supporters, what was once an underground practice dating back to slave
days is finally being acknowledged as a bona fide religion and
recognized for its role in defining Haitian culture. Vodou, which has no
written scriptural text, is an amalgam of the mixed African, native, and
Anglo-Saxon cultures of colonial Haiti.The Roman Catholic and Protestant
churches in Haiti have a long history of trying to discourage
Vodou, seeing aspects of the faith as incompatible with their basic
tenets. These include the worship of many spiritual beings, or
lwa; a belief in possession; the use spells and incantations for good
and, in some cases, for evil; and the use of animal sacrifices for some

Culture Minister Jean Robert Vaval is among those working to improve
Vodou's image. He recently helped arrange an exhibit of sequined
Vodou banners and mock altars at the Musée d'Art Haitien in the capital,
Port-au-Prince."We have maintained our heritage through Vodou," Mr.
Vaval said. "We were brought over here from Africa, from tribes that no
longer exist.We got all mixed up into one people. From that point on we
created, and a great source of our inspiration has been Vodou."
The Culture Ministry's float for this year's Carnival paid homage to a
1794 Vodou ceremony that led to the country's independence
from France 10 years later in a rebellion led by a former slave.

For practitioners, or Vodouisans, Vodou rituals are part of a philosophy
that ties individuals to society, their community, and the environment.
Although there are no official statistics, the conventional wisdom is
that the country is 80 percent Roman Catholic, 15 percent Protestant,
and 100 percent Vodou."Vodou provides, like all world religions, a
profound spirituality,"says Leslie Desmangles, professor of religion at
Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "It is a very strong, cohesive social
force within the community, and the community extends beyond the visual
community to include the spiritual world."In a country overwhelmed by
poverty, political instability, and poor health care, oungans and mambos
- Vodou priests and priestesses - are consulted on everything from
fertility to serious illness to property disputes and even politics.

"There has never been a Haitian president who hasn't used Vodou
to promote his program on the Haitian people," says Professor
Desmangles. "Every president has used it to maintain power through
theological language."Former dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier,
president from 1957 until his death in 1971, was notorious for his use
of Vodou.Loyal clergy reputedly performed rituals to protect his
personal paramilitary force, the Tonton Macoutes, from retribution as
they terrorized the Haitian populace.
In contrast, former President Jean Bertrand Aristide was the first
Haitian president to formally invite Vodou oungans and mambos to the
National Palace during his 1991-95 administration, recognizing the role
they play in shaping Haitian society."Vodou is a manifestation of our
lives," says musician Wilfrid "Tido" Lavaud. "It is part of our culture,
and influences everything - from the way we talk, to how we eat, to the
colors we use in our paintings and the rhythms we include in our songs."

Vodou is so entwined in Haiti's culture that it is practically
impossible to separate the two, say supporters. Traditional Haitian
dancers in bright costumes often are accompanied by drummers
who pound out African-style rhythms to honor ancestors and
specific spirits. Walking down the street, one sees veves, traditional
designs meant to invoke a Vodou spirit, in buildings and windows.

In Haitian painting, green is often a tribute to Simbi, patron spirit of
rain and drinking water, while pink is a reference to Erzulie, the
patron of love."We are a people with a tremendous amount of
imagination," says Pradel Henriquez, the Culture Ministry's director of
artistic and literary creation. "Haitians are not profoundly happy, but
they want to live their lives to the fullest."