Years after the purge, voodoo continues to be a vital force in Haiti VTC

March 22, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Voodoo culture -- which ironically moved more into the open with the election of a Catholic priest as president -- continues to enjoy a renaissance here despite TC coup that toppled the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Voodoo was brought to French colonial Haiti from Africa by slaves, and its practice was widespread. But it was not in the open; in 1934, voodoo was banned. In 1986, with the fall of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, there was a voodoo purge, and more than 100 -- some say several hundred -- voodoo priests and priestesses were hacked, burned or otherwise put to death by mobs.

Some Catholic and other Christian clergy proclaimed an end to the widely practiced religion.

It didn't happen.

Instead, voodoo and the "roots" music movement have become ways to honor Haiti's African past.

A new constitution adopted in 1987 eliminated the 53-year-old ban against the practice of voodoo. And Father Aristide, the democratically elected president who is now in exile, openly acknowledged voodoo as a national tradition. At his inaugural ceremony in February 1991, a "mambo," or voodoo priestess, draped a ceremonial banner over the new president's shoulders.

"Aristide gave voodoo a legitimacy it didn't have before," said Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun Jr., 35, the lead singer of the roots music group Boukman Eksperyans, named after the voodoo priest who led a slave revolt in 1791. The group's recent album, "Vodou Adjae," or voodoo dance music, has focused attention on Haitian music as never before. The group's particular blend of religious drumming and high-energy contemporary music, called rara, is also drawing attention.

During Father Aristide's eight months in office before the Sept. 30 coup, there were frequent roots music concerts. On Aug. 15, more than a dozen such roots groups played outside the National Palace and were visited by Father Aristide.

Although Mr. Beaubrun says that in the past his group had received threats to repress its music, there have been no such phone calls or intimidating visits by armed men since the coup, and the music continues to be played openly on the radio.

"In the old days, voodoo was in hiding," said Madame Ghislaine Olivier, also known as Mambo Lolotte, a high priestess practicing outside Port-au-Prince. "But because the constitution now recognizes voodoo as a religion, voodoo is getting more respect."

Voodoo temples are easily found in Haiti, and although some voodoo ceremonies and priests are money-grabbing tourist traps, other services and ceremonies are open and less commercial. Some services are even broadcast on local television stations.

Voodoo practitioners, such as Aboudja, a filmmaker, voodoo drummer and priest who has taken on the task of public relations for voodoo, emphasize that it is about discovering positive forces in life and oneself. Devil worship and ceremonies with dolls and pins, he and others say, are mostly a Hollywood-created view.

Instead, in Haiti, voodoo seems to serve as a holistic spiritual practice, and is often the glue that holds the community together.

"It deals with all the problems of the people," said George Ware, a member of a Philadelphia voodoo temple who has traveled to Haiti. "So a priest or priestess of an area is a sort of leader of people of the community. If they have health problems, or spiritual, or mental, or family, or money problems, the first person they go to see is the houngan of the community."

Most of the houngans, or voodoo priests, are herbalists, schooled in the use of herbs and leaves to treat medical problems. In Haiti, where there are more than 70,000 people for every doctor. "What is keeping these people alive is traditional medicine, treatment with leaves and herbs," Aboudja said.

In the Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Boston, the Gran Dra Society -- gran dra means "big sheet that covers and protects" -- operates much like a combination church, social club and medical outpost.

On a recent visit, George Cine, 30, the president of the society, greeted guests in a room called the peristyle, where dances take place. The room is decorated with plastic beach balls hanging from the ceiling, and the walls are gaily painted with a cross as well as representations of the loas, the gods or spirits of voodoo.

In the adjacent room, the treatment room, the walls are covered with pictures of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and several Catholic saints.

There are 57 members of this society, who get together for ceremonies Tuesdays, Saturdays and on the 23rd of each month. A typewritten schedule of meetings is posted on the wall.

"Voodoo has become very strong," Mr. Cine said. "During this period when the country is under such strain, it helps everybody in the neighborhood through the situation."

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