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8739: Voodoo Pilgrimage (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>


   SAUT D'EAU, Haiti, July 17 (AP) -- Wearing red satin scarves and lugging
rum and palm-thatch mats on their heads, tens of thousands trekked to
sacred waterfalls Tuesday in a voodoo pilgrimage to pray for everything
from good crops to an end to Haiti's political impasse.
   The weeklong Saut d'Eau pilgrimage came as President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, the opposition and foreign mediators struggled to end a yearlong
deadlock stalling aid to the Caribbean nation.
   "I think the gods will help me faster than Aristide," said 23-year-old
farmer Joel Poince, sitting under a tree studded with burning white candles
and calabash rinds filled with rum and sugar water. "Everyone here is
looking for change."
   Legend has it that in the mid-1800s an image of the Virgin Mary appeared
near the waterfalls of Saut d'Eau. Today, most pilgrims pay homage to the
goddess of love -- Erzulie -- the equivalent of the Virgin Mary in Vodou,
the Creole word for voodoo.
   For some pilgrims, the journey can take days on the back of a truck,
donkey, horse, or on foot -- the road into the mountains is pocked with
craters five feet deep. Even in an all-terrain vehicle, the 40-mile trip
from Port-au-Prince takes five hours.
   Most pilgrims sleep in the open or pay to stay in local houses. Some
dance to the drumming all night long.
   "Saut d'Eau is a lot like Mecca to Muslims," said Ronald Derenoncourt,
47, a houngan or priest. "No matter how much it costs, no matter how long
it takes, if you serve the spirits you need to make the pilgrimage at least
   Most make the final four miles on foot, crossing caverns filled with
brackish water up to their waists and crawling up steep cliffs. After they
reach the 100-foot tall falls, the rituals begin.
   Pilgrims strip and submerge themselves in the water, bathing with soap
and aromatic leaves like mint. Some stand under the cascade with arms
stretched wide, and ask Erzulie for favors. Some begin shaking and believe
they are possessed.
   The ritual involves leaving one's old clothes behind in the water.
   Then pilgrims visit priests and priestesses for guidance. Others join in
drumming while cows and goats are sacrificed.
   "This year, I asked Erzulie for more trees," said Phillipe Jean, a
40-year-old carpenter referring to the land stripped bare by centuries of
deforestation. "It's hard to get work without access to wood."
   Even for Haitians living abroad, Saut d'Eau is important.
   "I've been coming since 1989," said 22-year-old Chantalle Obas, a
Haitian-American from New York City who set up a makeshift restaurant. "I
come to go to the waterfalls but also to do a little business."
   Vodou evolved in the 17th century from African slaves. French colonizers
forced them to practice Roman Catholicism but many remained loyal to their
African religions in secret by adopting Catholic saints to coincide with
African spirits. The Virgin Mary became Erzulie, St. Jacques became Ogun, a
warrior spirit. Voodoo followers believe in a supreme God and a world of
powerful spirits who link the human with the divine.
   "Vodou has kept oppressed people going for decades," said Michelle
Karshan, a government spokeswoman on the pilgrimage. "Aristide was a
Catholic priest but he does believe in the power of love and Erzulie
represents that."
   After talks mediated by the Organization of American States, Aristide's
governing Lavalas party and the opposition said Monday they had agreed on
new elections, but would continue to discuss dates. Many countries froze
aid to Haiti amid the political crisis, and the OAS has agreed to help
restore it if the political parties reach agreement.
   "The spirits with Aristide are more powerful than those with the
opposition," said priestess Dianese Pierre, 28, smoking a cigarette and
dishing out advice to pilgrims. "Aristide admires the spirit and that's why
he's succeeded. The spirits say he will go far."