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7667: Guy Antoine's questions about Vodou, from Mambo Racine (fwd)

From: Racine125@aol.com

Hi, Guy!  How are you?  It's good to hear from you again.  You write:

<<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.>>

Good idea!

<<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?>>

Here are my observations - there is no difference, in the ceremonial context, between the functions of Houngans and Mambos.  That is to say, there is no role or ritual that can be fulfilled by one but not by the other.  Houngans and Mambos are both asogwe, or sur point, and both men and women can become hounsi kanzo.

Secular Haitian society strongly devalues women, so this is reflected in the fact that many peristyles are
constructed around a "strong man" as Houngan asogwe, with many female hounsis or Mambos sur point, more than one of whom may be a sexual partner of the Houngan.  In rural peristyles membership frequently follows family lines as well.  Thus there are fewer independant Mambos with large peristyles and active societies than there are Houngans of similar description, there are more men than women leading Rara bands, and so on.  But those that exist function in the same way as our male counterparts.

<<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?>>

I wouldn't say so.  All Houngans and Mambos work for money, we do not have a central diocese paying our salaries.  And most of us undertake magical work intended to favor one person at the expense of another.  I believe the word bokor has two meanings:

1) Bokor - the head of a Makaya congregation.  Makaya is another denomination of Haitian traditional religion.  It is different from Vodou in the way that the Baptist church differs from the Roman Catholic
church - they have the same vocabulary and serve many of the same entities, but they differ in the way they conduct their services and in some of the finer points of their philosophy.  When Makaya Bokors attend Vodou services by invitation, we politely call them "Gangan" or "Houngan djakout". 

The Bokor is able to invoke possession by lwa, work magic, and do many (though not all) of the things a Houngan or Mambo can do, but is not kanzo and does not have the asson.  Sadly, Bokors are almost always men, and I say "almost" only because I have not met every single Bokor - I mean to say that I have never yet met a woman Bokor, or seen a Makaya congregation headed by a woman.

2) bokor - a specialist in aggressive magic, usually not initiated.  This is the person a client goes to see
when he wants to kill or cripple someone.  These bokors can indeed kill, but they usually do so by sneaking some poison into the intended victim's food, and often with the complicity of a family member bribed for money (part of the money the client pays).  That is why it is said, "If someone wants to kill you with a wanga and your family is not a part of the plot, you can not be harmed."

(Interestingly, and I digress, in Jamaica I have heard exactly the same sentence with regard to obeah, "If dem a go kill you and fam'bly hand no in-a it, you nah go dead.")

In addition, in some geographical areas, the term bokor is used generically and respectfully to indicate any notable servant of Guinea, including Houngans.  On the other hand Protestants almost always refer to Vodou clergy incorrectly as "bokor", which they intend pejoratively. 

<<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? >>

The Sanpwel is a secular organization which at best functions like a police department, and enforces social norms.  Sanpwel members, especially at the higher ranks, are usually Houngans, Mambos, or Bokors.  Zombification is the worst punishment that can be imposed by the Sanpwel.

Without going into a great deal more detail, there is information on the Sanpwel at http://members.aol.com/racine125/sanpwel.html

Peace and love,

Mambo Racine Sans Bout

The VODOU Page - http://members.aol.com/racine125/index.html