Haiti and Vodou: Two Years After the Quake

This past Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of the massive earthquake that almost completely destroyed Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands, and throwing the country into chaos. A number of mainstream news outlets have marked the occasion with retrospectives and updates on Haiti’s progress, and  various ideas of what Haiti (and the hundreds of NGOs operating in Haiti) should do to speed recovery. By all accounts building and rebuilding in Haiti has been slow, the green-lighting of new projects frustratingly intermittent, and often controlled by outside charities instead of the newly elected government. Today, over half a million Haitians still live in tents and temporary shelters, with many more living in “houses” that are quake-damaged and unsafe. Meanwhile, the subsequent cholera outbreak, which sparked a wave of religiously-motivated anti-Vodou killings in rural areas, continues to rage on at an alarming rate.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktYd59i7zDw

Many in the modern Pagan and occult communities feel a deep affinity and love for Haiti as the home of Haitian Vodou, a syncretic faith tradition that has seen a growing number of Pagans become students and initiates of its teachings. After the earthquake many Pagans reached out to help, with former COG First Officer Peter Dybing there on the ground in the immediate aftermath, providing emergency services. Dybing continues to work for the reconstruction of Haiti through a charity called “100% for Haiti,” and urges fellow Pagans to support their work.

“Out of the rubble has risen a Phoenix of compassion and hard work. Artists in Saint Croix U.S. Virgin Islands banded together and held an action to benefit the community and 100% for Haiti was born. Over the last 20 months much has improved. We have constructed a school of ply wood, purchased tables, hired teachers, built facilities, provided meals to the children and even have began to insure the kids get some medical attention. All accomplished with a pluralistic humanitarian intent.”

But what of Vodou voices on this anniversary? We know that Haitian President Michel Martelly wants to build a tourism industry around Vodou, but what other roles and initiatives are Vodouisants a part of? Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, seems to be acting as the government’s official face of Vodou, meeting with visiting dignitaries like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and giving interviews to foreign journalists, though American press outlets seem to have avoided Beauvoir lately, perhaps because of the uncomfortable things he says about Christian missionaries in Haiti. Haitian-born anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, writing on the occasion of this anniversary, bemoans the “geopolitically driven myths” about Vodou, and worries about the effects of this “spiritual uprooting” in the wake of the earthquake.

“In my early teens, in the aftermath of migration and bombarded with narrow and negative views of Haiti, I vividly recall deciding to go back there only when the political situation changed. I ended up pursuing a degree in anthropology for the same reason and in the process became too cognizant of the ways Vodou, as an African-based cultural heritage, was under siege. By the time I made my first return, missionaries proliferated and provided social services neglected by the compromised and combative state. Conversion to Protestantism was de rigueur. We were not immune.

My family’s connection to the spirits, which was always tenuous, had practically disappeared as various parcels of land had been sold off and were now inhabited by strangers or newcomers to Port-au-Prince.The diasporic ties that bind continued to fray. No one cared as the stigma had taken hold. This was most evident in the neglected peristyle or temple that was once revered as sacred space where community gathered. When a cousin boldly stated “bagay sa yo pa a la mode ankò” (or “such things are no longer in style”), he was echoing a broader sentiment. Many among the young see serving as old fashioned. The spiritual uprooting of the last three decades was exacerbated by the devastating earthquake nearly two years ago that also fractured so many temples. That was a sign of things to come. Ours eventually crumbled as the last of the stalwarts converted.”

While Vodou is facing challenges in post-earthquake Haiti, it continues to be a part of the Haitian psyche, and influences its artists as they try to make sense of what has happened to them.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etXhwnsqZe4

To get a look at Haiti’s thriving art scene, that first afternoon, photographer Ron Haviv and I turn up at a downtown art community, which is hosting its Second “Ghetto Biennial.” In its confines, a good bit of the art is under-laid in a sort of vestigial nod to West Africa by an undercurrent of animal-sacrifice religion of voodoo. It is a religion practiced by few, yet known (and feared) by many. And it makes for some striking art. The Ghetto Biennial is a high-energy visit. People are moving everywhere. Out front are tall, black-painted, angular metal sculptures with actual human skulls, also painted black, attached to their tops. “Yes, those are real,” says a man watching the sculptures when I experimentally tap one of the skulls with my index finger. “The artist gets them because his atelier is over near the graveyard.”

You can read more about post-earthquake Haitian art, here.

Haitian Vodou, like Haiti itself, seems to be at a crossroads. More and more people outside of Haiti are drawn to Vodou, but the faith faces grave challenges both structural and spiritual. As Haiti’s slow reconstruction moves forward, will Vodou manage to thrive in its home, or will it be changed irrevocably by the pressures of this chaotic time? There are no easy answers, but those of us invested in Haiti, Haitian culture, and Haitian Vodou, must remain vigilant to their ongoing struggles and challenges. Haiti must not be lost down the memory hole as new tragedies or events spring up.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Ecstaticlght

    Mesi anpil for posting about the Ghetto Biennial! Haitian artists in the city of Jakmel are known for working to retain their spiritual culture and in places like Croix de Bouquet where the amazing metal work is produced. If you are passing by an artist’s store or stall, you will receive a call to buy their wares and the story you will get about the piece will most likely be a bit more mainstream for the general tourist, involving a Christian explanation. I learned that when I looked the artist in the eye and simply said, “tell me the story”, I got the most amazing lesson in the history of the ancestors, their dream work and their prayers. The young are indeed losing sight, but through the artists it remains. I’d also invite anyone that wants to see amazing things happening to find out more about the projects happening in Cite Soleil. Viv Lavi Ayiti! Live life.

  • RivaWitch

    Anti-Vodou killings! What does that tell you about Christianity?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

      It’s not surprising for reasons other than religion. Voodou was very much a part of the Duvalier dictatorships and is thus much resented by a large part of the population. How many of the killings are part of decades-old desires for revenge is hard to say but no doubt it plays a role.

  • anonda

    reconstruction of indonesia after the tsunami wasnt this pathetic…
    well, maybe if haiti was islam or oil?
    or who knows? haiti: poor and black…

    what can i say, it almost seems as if when crap happens in latin america and africa…not as many western gov. care..why is that?

    • anonda

      correction:
      maybe if haiti *had* islam or oil
      referencing to the fact that indonesia is a muslim-majority country.

      so many countries pledged to donate to haiti, money is not coming, money is getting lost…
      ive read some comments on yahoo about this, and people straight up jump into race and very prejudiced comments…
      *well, you know how it is with blacks, they never help themselves*
      *look at africa, that’s the way it is with these people*

      makes me wonder if race mixed with poverty is a factor?

      had haiti never gained its independence and continued sucking up to the french…would the perception toward haiti be different nowadays?

      anyways,
      best wishes to haiti and haitians….

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

        Well, Indonesia is huge. It could swallow Haiti and not even belch so you really can’t make a comparison between them. But the notion of what would have happened if France had continued to own Haiti is interesting because if that had been the case, Haiti would have been fully integrated into the French economy and probably would not be the basket case it was before the earthquake.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Haiti was a slave society with a thin layer of French overseers, and its independence was a successful slave revolt. Success earned it the hostility of France and other slaveholding countries, including the US, and that bent its development in a way other freed colonies were not. I don’t think it’s fruitful to speculate on what its future would have been had that revolt been crushed, wlhich is what staying within the French Empire would have meant.

        • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

          I don’t really think there would be much of a difference; France is still extorting Haiti for its ‘lost revenue’ due to the slave uprising. France is still exacting its brutality on Haiti; it’s just doing it by other means.

      • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

        No lobbyists. Seriously. Haiti and its causes need some. Native Americans have rights groups that speak to Congress; perhaps Haitian immigrants must do the same to gain a political voice.

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    This is an extremely well-done article.

  • Isabel

    I have worked for a Dutch NGO working in Haiti. One of the problems with the slow rebuild is that the land registers were largely lost in the earthquake, so lot of time is wasted by sorting out which plot belongs to whom. Many of the newly homeless were living in the slums illegally, so they wouldn´t have a claim either way. The government seemed to have an agenda to use this fact to get rid of the slum population altogether, and get them out of Port-au-Prince. Also, border officials were not prepared for the enormous influx of emergency goods and building materials, and lots of it have been stuck at the port and airport literally for months. And I could go on and on. No easy answers, alas.

    As for Voudoun, from a society building perspective it has both advantages and drawbacks. As with any religion, it has a cohesive and comforting effect. On the other hand it tends to make people quick to blame others for their problems, since any setback or illness is often supposed to be the work of someone with a grudge. In the present circumstances people are even more easily suspicious of each other. Instead of sorting their lives out (which admittedly has not gotten any easier), they spend money to get some counter-spell going. Aside from many sincere houngans, there are a lot of bogus ones with only money on their minds. Another big problem is the enormous amounts of money that people spend on keeping the dead happy. People amass huge debts to pay for lavish funerals, out of fear the spirits of the dead will harm them.

    So my hope would be that the influential houngans would find a way to slowly rid their religion of these ills, and make this disaster a turning point both spiritually and socially.


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