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Shunned for centuries, Vodou grows powerful as Haitians seek solace from unrelenting gang violence

By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press
Published: May 12, 2024, 6:05am

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The Vodou faithful sing, their voices rising above the gunfire erupting miles away as frantic drumbeats drown out their troubles.

They pause to swig rum out of small brown bottles, twirling in unison as they sing in Haitian Creole: “We don’t care if they hate us, because they can’t bury us.”

Shunned publicly by politicians and intellectuals for centuries, Vodou is transforming into a more powerful and accepted religion across Haiti, where its believers were once persecuted. Increasingly, they seek solace and protection from violent gangs that have killed, raped and kidnapped thousands in recent years.

The violence has left more than 360,000 people homeless, largely shut down Haiti’s biggest seaport and closed the main international airport two months ago. Basic goods including food and life-saving medication are dwindling; nearly 2 million Haitians are on the verge of famine.

From January to March alone, more than 2,500 Haitians were killed or injured, up more than 50% from the same period last year, according to the U.N.

Amid the spiraling chaos, numerous Haitians are praying more or visiting Vodou priests known as “oungans” for urgent requests ranging from locating loved ones who were kidnapped to finding critical medication needed to keep someone alive.

“The spirits help you. They’re always around,” said Sherly Norzéus, who is initiated to become a “mambo,” or Vodou priestess.

In February, she invoked Papa Ogou, god of war and iron, when 20 armed men surrounded her car as she tried to flee the community of Bon Repos.

Her three children and the two children of her sister, who died during childbirth, sat next to her.

“We are going to burn you alive!” she recalled the gunmen yelling.

Gangs had invaded their neighborhood before dawn, setting fire to homes amid relentless gunfire.

“I prayed to Papa Ogou. He helped me get out of the situation,” Norzéus said.

When she opened her eyes, the gunmen signaled that she was free to leave.

Vodou was at the root of the revolution that led Haiti to become the world’s first free Black republic in 1804, a religion born in West Africa and brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people.

The syncretic religion that melds Catholicism with animist beliefs has no official leader or creeds. It has a single God known as “Bondye,” Creole for “Good God,” and more than 1,000 spirits known as the lwa — some that aren’t always benevolent.

During Vodou ceremonies, lwa are offered treats ranging from papayas and coffee to popcorn, lollipops and cheese puffs. A ceremony is considered successful if a Vodouist is possessed by an lwa.

Some experts consider it a religion of the exploited.

“Vodou is the system that Haitians have developed to deal with the suffering of this life, a system whose object is to minimize pain, avoid disaster, soften losses, and strengthen the survivors as much as the survival instinct,” Haitian sociologist Laënnec Hurbon wrote in a recent essay.

Vodou began to take shape in the French colony of Saint-Domingue during funeral rituals for enslaved people and dances called “calendas” that they organized on Sunday evenings. It also was practiced by slaves known as Maroons who escaped to remote mountains and were led by François Mackandal, a Vodou priest.

In August 1791, some 200 slaves gathered at night in Bois-Caiman in northern Haiti for a Vodou ceremony organized by Dutty Boukman, a renowned enslaved leader and Vodou priest. They sacrificed a pig, drank its blood and swore to keep secret an imminent revolt against slavery, according to a surgeon present at the ceremony.

After a 13-year revolution, Haiti became independent, but Vodou remained oppressed.

The country’s new leaders condemned Vodou worship, as did the Catholic Church.

Catholic leaders demanded parishioners take an oath renouncing Vodou in 1941.

Thousands of Vodou followers were lynched and hundreds of symbolic spaces destroyed in what became the most violent attack in Haiti’s history against the religion, according to journalist Herbert Nerette.

But Vodou persisted. When François Duvalier became president in 1957, he politicized the religion during his dictatorship, appointing certain oungans as its representatives, Hurbon wrote.

By 2003, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Salesian priest who became Haiti’s first democratically elected president, recognized Vodou as one of Haiti’s official religions.

Despite the formal recognition, Vodou remains shunned by some Haitians.

“When you say you are a Vodouist, they stigmatize you,” said Kadel Bazile, a 42-year-old civil engineer.

Until recently, Bazile was a practicing Catholic. But when he lost his job and his wife left him nearly two years ago, a friend suggested he try Vodou.

“What I find here is spirituality and fraternity. Being here is like being with family,” he said while attending a May 1 ceremony to honor Kouzen Zaka, the lwa of harvest.

He identifies the most with Erzulie Dantor, the divinity of love represented by a Black Madonna with scars on her right cheek.

“That is the spirit who lives in me,” he said. “She is going to protect me.”

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As the ceremony started, Bazile smiled and moved to the beat of the drums while dancers twirled nearby, their long earrings swaying to the rhythm.

Vodou is attracting more believers given the surge in gang violence and government inaction, said Cecil Elien Isac, a 4th-generation oungan.

“Whenever the community has a big problem, they come here, because there is no justice in Haiti. You find it in the ancestral spirits,” he said.

When Isac opened his temple years ago in Port-au-Prince, about eight families in the area became members. Now he counts more than 4,000, in Haiti and abroad.

“We have a group of intellectuals who have joined,” he said. “Before, it was people who couldn’t read or write. Now it has more visibility.”

Credited with that turnaround are thinkers like Jean Price-Mars, whose 1928 book, “Thus Spoke the Uncle,” visualized Vodou as a religion, “without making the Haitian elites blush,” wrote sociologist Lewis Ampidu Clorméus.

“Until the 1920s, Haitian Vodou was generally regarded as a string of superstitions, witchcraft and ritual cannibalism,” Clorméus wrote. “Talking about Vodou constituted a shame for Haitian intellectuals.”

Vodou has since become a key ingredient in Haiti’s rich cultural scene, inspiring music, art, writing and dance.

It’s unknown how many people currently practice Vodou in Haiti, but there’s a popular saying: “Haiti is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% Vodou.”

Vodou also has countless lwas, although Ogou Je Wouj — the god of red eyes — has grown more significant to Haitians given the lack of security in the country, said Erol Josué, a singer, oungan and director of Haiti’s National Bureau of Ethnology.

Ogou Je Wouj is a manifestation of the god of war and is believed to wield a machete.

“They want power in their body and in their mind,” Josué said of those who seek the god.

While spirits infuse believers with energy and hope, Vodou priests warn they don’t perform miracles.

“We’re praying, but we’re also taking precautions,” Isac said. “There are a lot of lwas to protect you from kidnapping, but if you walk through certain areas, no lwa is going to protect you.”

On a recent afternoon, hundreds of Haitians gathered on a steep hill and squeezed into a small church to celebrate St. George, a Christian martyr believed to be a Roman soldier revered by Catholics and Vodouists alike.

They offered him money and prayers in hopes they would make it through Haiti’s deepening crisis.

“It’s very important to be here,” said Hervé Hyppolite, a chef who practices Christianity and Vodou. “You find force, courage and also protection.”

Surrounding him was a sea of people clad in khaki and red, the saint’s colors. Some held candles as a handful of women danced nearby,

“St. George!” the priest leading the celebration yelled. The crowd shouted in response, “We need you!”

Josué, the singer and oungan, noted that some young people becoming Vodouists are trying to change traditional prayers or certain practices, but he said oungans and mambos are not embracing the push.

“We make them understand that those spirits are a symbol of resistance of the Haitian nation,” he said. “There’s a lot of substance in Vodou that can lead to a renaissance of Haiti.”

Associated Press reporter Evens Sanon contributed to this report.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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