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7383: Questions on practices in Haiti that may be related to Vodoou (fwd)

From: Guy Antoine <GuyAntoine@windowsonhaiti.com>

I am inviting some comments on the following points.  I hope that they
will provide the basis for a concrete discussion of some aspects of
Haitian religious or non-religious practices, rather than interminable
theoretical discussions about the nature of Vodou and who is entitled
to speak of it and in what terms.

1) Do houngans and mambos practice on a level playing field? 
Do gender inequalities that are prevalent in society in general also play a 
role in shaping the various opportunities that are offered to them, in both  
material and professional terms?

2) What is the difference between a houngan and a bokor?  One version
that I have heard describes the bokor as a well-versed houngan who has
decided to use his great knowledge of the creed and practice of Vodou
combined with his vast empirical knowledge of the medicinal or poisonous
properties of indigenous plants and other forms, to perform deeds that
are often malefic, in that they cause harm or death to others.  The bokor
allegedly does so in exchange for a lot of money.  In other words, he is
a "gun for hire".  Is this a fanciful way of looking at it, or an approximate
description of the reality?

3) Do champwel exist?  Do loups-garous exist?  Do zombies exist?
Or should I say what exactly is a champwel?  What is a loup-garou?  
What is a zombi?  

4) I believe that I have come within spitting distance of a zombi in Haiti 
when I was young, and I will never forget the encounter. There is also a 
fair amount  of documentation on the zombification process and the 
well-established work of a Haitian doctor (psychologist or psychiatrist?), 
(Dr. Douyon, I believe) who worked to rehabilitate some alleged zombies 
to normal life back in their former social environments.  Yet, I also 
remember a few years back Dr. Desmangles who knows infinitely more 
about Vodou than I do state that zombies do not really exist outside of 
our popular imagination.  If I misrepresent Dr. Desmangles's opinion, I 
do it without malice, and would gladly be corrected.

I don't think that it is necessary to even evoke the Hollywood's B-movie 
variety and fanciful notions of zombies.  I think that the list is much more 
sophisticated than that.  However, my own notion of a zombi, which in 
itself may be naive, is that of a person who is given to drink or eat a 
formula that slows down his/her metabolism to the point that the person 
appears dead and that no pulse can be detected even by a medical doctor 
(barring some sophisticated and unavailable equipment).  There are many 
who would argue that the person is dead, period. After this person is buried, 
some paid workers go, usually at night, to disinter him or her.  This leads to 
an interesting counter-practice which I will discuss before closing.

The next sequence of events would have the "dead person" be administered 
an antidote.  Two questions that immediately come to mind: 

a) How is the antidote administered?
b) How long can the person stay buried before the real death comes along?
Is it a matter of hours or a matter of days?

Finally, as the person "comes back to life", he has lost most of his/her mind
(probably due to the damage caused by the reduced oxygenation of the
brain cells), and therefore becomes unusually pliant to single-mindedly serve
the ends of one master.  This zombi or slave can then be made to work on
his master's land, or be traded to another master (allegedly bokors trade
their slaves, to escape detection of their practices), and generally be made
to carry various tasks without any question whatsoever.  They obey their orders.

Now a plea to the Vodou experts on our list, especially the houngans and the
mambos.  What I have described above is my limited intellectual understanding
of the facts.  I readily admit that I have no expertise on the subject.  I am not
even implying that all this has much to do with Vodou per se, though most 
people that I know believe that there is a strong connection between the religion 
(or the way of life / the Haitian identity / the essence of one's existence, etc) 
and the processes related above.  I do not mean to offend, nor do I mean to 
misinform. I am seeking some clarifications from you and will not get involved 
in any polemic on this issue.  This is definitely not my field.  Whatever part of 
my queries you feel can be discussed openly on a forum like this, I will be most
appreciative when you do.

5) I have previously mentioned the counterpractices related to the fears 
associated with zombification.  Some of those consist of actually paying 
someone to decapitate and to dismember the body to make sure that it will not 
be "re-awakened" and zombified.  I know this sounds horrific, and thank God, 
I have never witnessed this myself, but I know someone whom I trust 100%, 
and on whose authority I could speak with a lot of specificity.  She witnessed 
this behavior in a community in the South of Haiti, which I will not name 
because for all I know this practice might be widespread, and therefore not 
represent anything singular about that community.  She also knew very well 
the people who were involved.  Furthermore, it appears that this was not at
all an isolated incident.  She's only seen it once, but had heard of the practice
before and after that particular experience.  How did she come to witness it?
She actually hid behind a grave in the cemetery, when this group of men
came (she had heard family members talk of their suspicions and their desire
to prevent the zombification of their loved one by concrete and decisive
preventive action).  She also got wind of the fact that some people would
be paid off to carry this ghoulish act. (Actually, it's even more horrific when
people are cut in pieces when they are alive, I would admit -- as were the
case in some well-documented military and paramilitary acts of political
repression, the sort of which will not deserve impunity in a million years).
I am sorry for this digression, but to come back to my central question:
what do those practices and counter-practices have to do with vodou?
I am not looking for idealistic or fatalistic answers, but for answers based
on facts of absolute reality.

It's predictable that some will pounce on me just for raising those questions.
But let me say this: I respect Vodou as the religion most practiced by the
people of Haiti, and I am keenly aware of its key role in bringing about the
political independence of Haiti, nearly 200 years ago. I certainly have always
cherished the epic story of the Haitian Revolution.  It's in my blood, as it is
in the blood of all Haitians whom I have met.

However, when it comes to religions (I mean ANY RELIGION), my brain
tells me that their particular sets of beliefs contain a tremendous amount of
nonsense, as in the Saint John the Baptist revelation entertained by the 
Corbett Forum's esteemed Vodou expert, Mambo Racine Sans Bout.  
Sorry, Kathy!  I know that some of you will be furious at me for stating the
above, but on this I am perfectly willing to take my chances.
I have no intention to praise Vodou or to denigrate it, on a spiritual level.
Let's just say that I am less than a neophyte when it comes to matters of
spirituality.  I have even heard people that I do respect claim that you
cannot extricate Vodou from the Haitian, because Vodou is the "essence"
of being Haitian.  So, the next thing I will hear is that I am not even Haitian,
unless I AM, BUT am unable to recognize the Vodou in myself.  If such a
conclusion is reached, there is absolutely nothing that I can say to
counteract it, except to ask the following question: "Are foreigners to
Haiti who embrace Vodou more Haitian than Haitians who do not embrace
this particular religion? (or any other)

Well, I was going to end on this note, but my brain cells will not let me
(which lwa has possessed me tonight, Kathy?)  I have once met a Haitian
free mason or rosicrucian, who claimed to be a devout Christian, a 
Vodouisant, and as if this was not enough, he also ardently believed
in numerology and unless I am mistaken, other mythologies as well.  Is
this really possible?  Just thinking about all of this makes my head spin...

I must be so underdeveloped spiritually, but all the same I am hoping to 
be Haitian (just kidding.... I KNOW I AM!)

Guy S. Antoine
Windows on Haiti