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9077: Zombification and Mental Illness in Vodou, for Anja Vaskinn (fwd)

From: Racine125@aol.com

Anja Vaskinn <anjav@start.no> writes:
<<... yesterday a documentary on Haiti (forcusing on zombification) was shown on Norwegian television. ...DNAs could not verify a genetic connection to alleged relatives. The hypothesis on
the zombie phenomenon in the documentary is as follows: people with mental retardation or psyciatric problems wander around, get lost and are then "recognized" as a formerly dead family member by grieving families in another part of the country.>>

Well, maybe this does happen, although those "greiving family members" sound rather credulous to me - how come they don't see that the person doesn't look like their dear departed?  Anyway, in the Sanpwel we also inflict *real* zombification on people, as a punishment.  Wade Davis reported very accurately what he learned of the process.  It is very rare, however, and much more
commonly people parade phoney "zombis" around, who are indeed often mentally ill, in the hopes of making money.

I wrote a long post on mental illness in Vodou, here it is again:

Mental Illness in Haitian Vodou

In the wake of a few recent incidents I have decided to start a discussion of the issues involved in treating mentally ill clients.  I actually have several people who are in contact with me who I consider to belong in that category.

In Vodou we treat mental illness, and we believe that mental ilness can be inflicted by magic.  There is, for example, in my neighborhood in Haiti a young woman whom I will call Rose.  Rose wanders the streets and trails dressed in rather bizarre outfits, she talks out loud to herself cursing at her enemies... and yet Rose used to be a perfectly normal young woman, a mother, a wife.

The skinny on Rose is that her "matelot", which is to say another domestic partner of her common law husband (no, she did not agree to her man taking another woman, the man just inflicted this on her as Haitian men are able to do since women are so socially and economically
disempowered), that her matelot worked a wanga on her to make her nuts, so the man wouldn't want her any more.  I don't know if this is true.

No Houngan or Mambo has attempted to treat Rose, because the man involved won't cough up the money for treatment - to him, Rose's mental illness is a blessed convenience which allows him to divest himself of her and cease to support her in any way, since she can not cook for him or keep house, and is considered undesirable as a producer of babies.  I've thought about trying to treat her, but I don't know Rose's family.  It's painful to me, because even more so than in the USA mentally retarded or deranged women in Haiti are targets of sexual abuse or rape, they are considered "fair game" because they can't effectively stick up for themselves and even if they do no one will believe them.  So I imagine Rose's life is just hell, and I'd like to at least protect her if possible.

I have another person here in the USA who would like to be my client.  She does have some genuine issues and I was willing to work with her - but then she started sending me seventeen incoherent emails a day, and sent the same incoherent emails to kwakwa man Alex Myrville
because his page is linked to mine, and the same incoherent emails to the Rendez-Vous Hotel because that page is linked to mine, and emails from some man's screen name who has no idea in hell how this person was able to access his account!

I discussed the case on the telephone with Alex Myrville and we both agreed that although we are willing to work with this person, we will not do so unless and until she gets into therapy, since that option is available to her in the United States.  It's just like if we have a client with diabetes - we may do treatment with leaves and invoke ancestors or lwa to help the person regain health and strength, BUT we ALSO send them to the doctor, and if the person is a member of my congregation and if they can't pay (which is almost always the case) then I pay for them.

Vodouisants in Haiti obtain treatment for mental illness from Houngans and Mambos, just as for physical illness.  Thus a Houngan or Mambo, in addition to being a spiritual leader and a traditional physician, is sometimes cast in the role of therapist, although our approach differs from that of phychiatrists and pshychologists.  Different Houngans and Mambos specialize in different things - some love to do herbal medicine and are quite good at it, others are magical specialists, still others primarily function as "head of household" and as religious leaders.

Non-Vodouisant families have fewer options in Haiti. Mental illness especially among the upper class is heavily stigmatized, as are mental retardation and congenital mental defects.  Upper class families with a child who has Down's syndrome, for example, frequently put the child in a room in the house where the child then grows up and spends his or her entire life without ever being allowed outside.  Down's syndrome and similar conditions are regarded as being a punishment
from God or a lwa.  Even though most upper class families are not Vodouisant they often pay to work magic against business competitors or for other reasons, and may have some old djab hanging around back since Grandpa made a wanga to kill the guy who had the other car dealership, you see?  Or it may be a punishment for something the parents did - since upper class families in Hait are often enough involved in a lot of bad, vicious stuff, drug dealing, political
killings, business killings and so on, they have guilty consciences and are willing to believe that God has reason to punish them.

In Vodou mentally retarded people are not so stigmatized, although they may be teased and of
course are not considered potential mates.  I know one young man with Down's syndrome near Jacmel, who works his land like any other young man, attends Vodou services, and has a powerful lwa in his head who possesses him at Vodou dances sometimes.  He is never shunned or mistreated, although he is unlikely to find a woman willing to bear a child for him.

We treat mental illness in several ways.  First, we either call a lwa or do divination to discover the
cause - is it a wanga?  Is it a "zombi", a dead spirit sent against the person (also called "anvwa mo", a sending of the dead)?  Is it an angry lwa which has been insulted by the person?   Is it problems related to childbearing or nursing?  Is it abuse by the common-law husband?  Abuse and trauma cause a condition called "sezisman", literally "seized-up-ness", like a seized up engine.  A person with sezisman usually becomes uncommunicative, refuses to speak, falls to the ground, weeps or acts catatonic. 

Assuming the illness has a natural cause, that is to say abuse, lactation problems (believed to be
extremely likely to cause psychotic breaks), things like that, we treat with herbal medicine, and with massage and food and rest, and we also call a lwa into someone's head or an ancestor in a govi to advise us on the problem.  If the cause is related to an abusive husband the husband is usually required to make some service to the abused woman's lwa, thereby affirming her value (and thereby paying the consequence of his act by having to withstand some financial penalty.)

If the illness has a supernatural cause, a wanga or an anvwa mo or an angry lwa, treatment is different.  If it is an angry lwa, that lwa must be called to the head of the sick person, so it can make known the reasons why it is angry and what the person can do to pacify it.

If it is an anvwa mo, the same ceremony used to send the dead against the person is repeated to send the dead right back where it came from, either to the cemetery if the sick person is feeling forgiving or to the person who sent it in the first place if the sick person wants revenge!  This is a strenuous ceremony, involving some real physical activity.  Sometimes more than one dead is sent against the person - I witnessed one case of a woman who actually had seven zombis in her
body.  By the time the Houngan was done treating her he was drenched in sweat - and THEN he had to call Baron to make sure everything was ok.

If it is a wanga, the wanga has to be undone.   Sometimes a lwa is called into the head of the sick
person or the Houngan or Mambo to reveal where malevolent power objects are buried so that they can be dug up and undone.  Sometimes the lwa on whose point the wanga is done is identified, called into the head of the Houngan or Mambo, and bribed with a bigger payment than that which was made by the person who did the wanga in the first place - three chickens instead of
one, a pig instead of a goat, something like that.  Sometimes another lwa is called to fight against
the original lwa and the person who made the wanga!  That is where the expressions come from, "Fer koupe fer", iron cuts iron, and "Neg fe, neg defe", what one black man does, another black man undoes.

Generally in these cases the mentally ill person recovers, but they are usually very weak, because their true self has been absent for so long, hasn't been getting the benefit of the food they ate or the social interactions they would normally have had.  So the person is often given a "gad" (from the French "garde, a protective spell, see http://mamboracine.tripod.com/gad.html  ) to prevent
the same thing from happening to them again.

As with allopathic medicine and psychiatry, sometimes we are successful and sometimes not.  Very often people with chronic mental illness will remain associated with a peristyle because it is a safe place for them, and sometimes they will even be given the rank of hounsi kanzo in an effort to heal and protect them.

Much more investigation of traditional treatment for mental illness should be done by the psychiatric community, as I am certain it would yeild results both enlightening and positive for both Vodouisants and non-Vodouisants.

Peace and love,

Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen

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

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

(Posting from Jacmel, Haiti)