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#3510: Culture Vulturism: Grey comments


<< The challenge is figuring out the real from the crap and that's not always 
and easy task.I  am generally suspicious of anyone who claims to be the know 
it all of anything, espeically something as complex, esoteric, and variable 
as Vodou. >>

True!  It's hard to know when a Houngan or Mambo is genuine if you don't have 
much experience of the tradition - and even sometimes if you do, as long as 
you are not also initiated and do not know the passwords and handshake and so 
on.  This makes Americans easy marks for charlatans.  Another area in which 
it is difficult for people to sort the wheat from the chaff is that of money, 
and the payment of Houngans and Mambos.

Many people from Judeo-Christian or other traditions are surprised and even 
repelled when they discover that services in Vodou cost money! There is a 
reason for this, however, and a little bit of reflection will probably make 
this requirement more understandable.

In Vodou, we have no centralized hierarchy like the Roman Catholic Church, 
for example. We are not paid salaries by a central diocese upon our 
ordination. A Houngan or Mambo is a professional, we have spent a time of 
study, culminating in our initiation and ordination, for which we paid. Some 
of us are full-time clergypeople, but the vast majority of us hold other jobs 
or do other activities to earn money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with 
a Houngan or Mambo charging for services; and the more adept practitioners 
can often command higher prices. 

 Services for which Houngans and Mambos are paid include spells called wanga, 
ceremonies to heal people who have been made ill through magical means, 
divination (usually with cards), ceremonies for particular lwa made at the 
request of another person, and initiation ceremonies. Houngans and Mambos do 
NOT charge people admission for the privilege of attending ceremonies, the 
vast majority of which are open to the public. In cases where the ceremony is 
private and magical as opposed to religious, the person requesting the magic 
pays for the wanga, but not for the right to attend the ceremony.

Prices are variable, and largely dependant, sad to say, on what the Houngan 
or Mambo feels that the client can afford to pay. This sad truth is due to 
the economic conditions in Haiti, where 99% of the population lives in 
conditions of poverty and lack of social services inconceivable to the 
majority of Americans, and the other 1% lives in baronial splendor, with 
large houses and many servants. 

The least expensive of the skills a competent Hougan or Mambo has to offer is 
usually divination. The going rate in poor neighborhoods in Haiti is often 
the proverbial dix-sept gourdes, 17 gourdes, a gourde once having been fixed 
at the rate of five to one U.S. dollar, but now worth about a fourth of that, 
making 17 gourdes just a bit less than a U.S. dollar at the present. In the 
United States, to the best of my experience, an average fee in Vodou and 
Santeria consultation rooms is about $20. Some charge significantly less, a 
few significantly more.

Wanga can have all sorts of prices, depending on how complicated they are, 
what kind of herbs and candles and kerchiefs and ritual implements the 
Houngan or Mambo must buy, whether or not assistants must be present, and so 
on. In the United States, fees from $20 to several hundred dollars are within 
the spectrum of possibility, however let me note that the trend is toward the 
lower end of the spectrum. In Haiti the prices may range from the few gourdes 
a poor marketwoman can scrape together to rein in her unfaithful husband, to 
the huge payments made by corrupt black-marketeers who lay down bricks of 
U.S. currency.

Houngans and Mambos spend money to make dances - we have to pay the drummers 
and feed the participants.  We also spend money on sick congregation members, 
to send them to the doctor.  And we buy ritual items, sacrificial animals, 
and food and drink offerings for the lwa.  An initiation costs a Houngan or 
Mambo as much as the initiates pay for the ceremonies, there is very little 
profit in a kanzo.

Initiations can only be done in Haiti, as the required leaves, ritual 
articles, and setting can only be found there. Initiations of Haitians by 
Haitians often include non-monetary components. For example, I know one young 
man who recieved his initiation as hounsi kanzo in exchange for a promise to 
serve forever as a drummer in that Houngan's society. Some Houngans and 
Mambos initiate their spouses at the rank of sur point so that they can 
assist at most ceremonies and are not ritually excluded from any area of the 
peristyle. Non-Haitian initiates, or Haitian initiates who do not intend to 
remain in that neighborhood or continue to participate in the congregation of 
that peristyle, must bargain in cash.

 Initiation as asogwe, the highests rank, is the most expensive. Three 
thousand Haitian dollars (roughly $1000 U. S. at the time) was a standard in 
the year 1995 in the city of Port-au-Prince. Sur point initiations ranged 
from an equivalent of U.S $250 - 750, and initiations as hounsi kanzo usually 
cost less than an equivalent of U. S. $200. It is worth bearing in mind, 
though, that groups of people are initiated together - often ten hounsis, 
four or five sur points, and two or three asogwes will crowd into the djevo, 
and larger numbers are not unheard of. A single hounsi could never expect to 
have all of the required ceremonies for the same cost as when a group is 
initiated together. The peristyle is quite frequently the scene of some 
mighty brisk bargaining between client and clergy, especially when it comes 
to initiation fees.

Currently, in our house, which is an international house, the fees are as 
follows - hounsi kanzo, $750 U.S.; sur point, $1,500; and asogwe, $2,500.  
This does NOT mean that anyone who shows up with X dollars automatically gets 
X grade, however.  Divination is done to ascertain the correct grade and 
spiritual patronage of the candidate, and sometimes individuals are offered a 
higher grade than the one they requested.  In my experience I have rejected 
only two candidates, both for what appeared to me to be serious mental 

Houngans and Mambos consider it their first lesson that "Houngan (ou Mambo) 
pa travay pou granmesi", a Houngan or Mambo does not work for "big thankyou", 
literally, for free. We do it all the time, though, for close friends and 
family members. Towards those who come to the peristyle as clients, however, 
a Houngan or Mambo is under no such constraint, and it is perfectly normal to 
require payment.

BUT - first, the service rendered must be correct, appropriate, and 
LEGITIMATE; that is, it must be conducted in a manner validated by the 
tradition, and recognizably authentic to the members of the tradition. Bogus 
initiations are sinful, and leave the duped person helpless in a bad 
situation, as they will surely proclaim themselves to be something that they 
are not, and then be humiliated at best or tied to the poteau mitan 
(centerpost of the peristyle, or temple) at worst! Bogus spells defraud the 
petitioner and endanger the phony practitioner, as he or she has been paid 
money to carry away the problem - and carry it away he or she will, resolved 
or unresolved!

Secondly, the price requested for the service must be the same, or nearly the 
same, for everyone. It was pointed out by someone on my Guestbook, for 
example, that if it cost $4,500 U.S. dollars to become a hounsi kanzo, as was 
demanded by a certain wannabeMambo recently under discussion on this list, 
not a hounsi would ever be made in Haiti, because the vast majority of the 
population down there doesn't see that amount of money in a lifetime! This is 
sadly but literally true. To be fair, however, Haitian Houngans and Mambos, 
who have families to feed, are also apt to charge what they think the 
individual can afford.

 And this brings me to my third point - feeding the family. The fees earned 
by a Houngan or Mambo can be used as personal discretionary funds, it is 
true, but a Houngan or Mambo has specific responsibilities to his or her 
"family" - the brothers and sisters who are initiates of the same "parent", 
the Houngan's or Mambo's own initiates and their initiates in turn. A Houngan 
or a Mambo is a father or mother to the Children of Africa, meaning all their 
initiates and by extension the entire human population. The more money the 
Mambo earns, the better the hounsis should eat! The more money the Houngan 
earns, the better should be the furnishings of the peristyle. A Mambo does 
not drive around in a Mercedes-Benz while her hounsis sleep on the floor. The 
only time that deprivation is required of the Children of Africa is when we 
enter into the djevo for our secret time of seclusion and consecration, and 
this time begins on a Tuesday and ends on a Sunday - mercifully short! In 
fact, Houngans and Mambos in Haiti jokingly complain that money merely passes 
through their hands, and they have it hard to hold on to even a little bit of 

Peace and love,

Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen

"Se bon ki ra", 
     Good is rare - Haitian Proverb

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