This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s Vodou

After the Earthquake

by | Mar 11, 2014

Olrich Exantus, department head at Ecole Nationale des Arts, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Linda Khachaduria.

 

Julmis Pierre, the head Vodou priest of Cité Soleil, awaits clients in his 15’ by 15’ cement cube of an office on Rue Audain in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  His slight frame is partially obstructed by the heaps of crumpled newspapers, books and empty glass bottles on the table before him. Perched on top of a large mound of papers is a “Total Dream Body: Feel the Burn” DVD, featuring a white couple with ferocious smiles and skin baked to a molten caramel.  A seven-foot-long plywood coffin, pressed against a wall  that has been draped with a pink cotton cloth, takes up much of the room.

Pierre removes a pair of mirrored Ray Bans that shade his deep-set steely brown eyes, and places them on a worn leather Bible. “It is quiet today,” he announces. The exuberant melody of A-ha’s “Take on me” suddenly fills the office. Pierre’s mobile phone is ringing.  “Phff,” he hisses, then flips open the phone with a calloused thumb and pecks at the keypad until the room is silent once again. 

Pierre, who has been practicing Vodou for 27 years, begins to discuss the current obsession in the United States with the mystique surrounding Vodou, from zombies and dolls with pins to horror movies and day-of-the-dead walks in New Jersey. He says that he understands the fascination with Vodou, but doesn’t comprehend why people who have such an interest can’t be bothered to learn what it truly encompasses. 

In her book Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora, Wesleyan religion professor, Elizabeth McAlister defines Vodou as “a religion of survival, which produces meaning and protective strategies for the poor who cope, on a daily basis, with the traumas of poverty and insecurity.”  She also adds that Vodou is a “worldview” that encompasses many categories, such as philosophy, medicine and the arts, and that all of these things combine in a “cosmic scheme where the fundamental principle is that everything is spirit.”

Pierre concurs, adding that Vodou is something that is embedded deep within the Haitian culture and shapes the manner in which his countrymen both celebrate and mourn.

When a cholera epidemic hit Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, he received an influx of people suffering from the illness and seeking help.  He offered them sewom oral—an oral rehydration solution, and then urged them to get medical treatment.  When Carnival/Kanaval—the annual parade and celebration that coincides with other Mardi Gras festivities throughout the world—rolled around that year, Pierre and the other Vodou priests honored those stricken by cholera by wearing costumes that were more somber and made of “rougher” cloth. 

Several miles away, inside the dance studio of École Nationale des Arts, James Dieujuste is reflecting on the “disappointing” lack of Vodou representation in Carnival. “Any [Haitian] art will and must have the Vodou influence,” he proclaims. The twenty-something student, who has danced in two Carnivals, is stretching as he talks. He has a soft, curved face that is a startling juxtaposition to the sharp angles of his body. Dieujuste acknowledges that Vodou is predominant in the Rara processions that take place at the end of Lent, but insists that Carnival is the “regular and important” celebration on which most people focus. 

According to Jean Luc “Djaloki” Dessables, a Haitian cross-cultural consultant, interfaith minister and Vodou priest currently based in the Washington, D.C. area, the unofficial breakdown of religion in Haiti is as follows: 60% Catholic; 40% Protestant; and 100% Vodou.  He adds that Carnival is the one time during which all Haitians become united across the divides of skin color, religion, culture, language, ancestry and social classes.  “Vodou is the secret form of Ayisyen [Haitian] unity; Carnival is the open one.”

Dieujuste says that it was a privilege for him to be able to perform Vodou moves during the celebrations in previous years.  He begins to demonstrate some of his favorite Vodou dance positions.  His limbs have such a fluidity of movement that when he walks his arms ripple like waves rather than swing by his sides. One by one, he glides through the various dances: yanvalou,  petro,  mascaron,  ibo and congo.   

“I dance Vodou with all of my heart. To do so means happiness and pride in my Haitian culture.”  Dieujuste also confides that some of his favorite music to dance to comes from the popular rasin band, RAM, which melds the supple melodies of traditional Vodou-inspired lyrics with a pulsating rock and roll edge.  “It is the music of the people,” he explains.  

Richard Morse, the Haitian-American founder and lead singer of RAM—one of the most celebrated groups to perform at Carnival—is the manager of the landmark Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, as well as an initiated Vodou priest. He has large, stormy green eyes that shift in color slightly when he tilts his head. A cascade of muted black curls, interwoven with ribbons of grey and restrained with a rubber band, tumble past the shoulders of his six-and-a-half foot frame.  

Although Morse, who has a degree in anthropology from Princeton University, insists that he is primarily a musician, he still finds the time for impromptu healings, such as curing a woman, with whom he crossed paths in the countryside a few years ago, of her partial paralysis by “feeling around and touching her.” 

Several hundred feet from the majestic veranda of the Oloffson is a pool house that Morse has converted into a refuge for the spirits, where they are welcome to come and take residence in the numerous urns, scattered across several tables, that have been meticulously bundled in varying pastel hues of silk dupioni. Morse, who refers to the place as a  “sanctuary” says that he tries to visit every day when he’s in Port-au-Prince. He makes his rounds, visiting the various tableaux of spirits, holding a tapered candle in one hand, an electronic tablet in the other.  He cradles one of the bubblegum mauve urns in his hands and says: “It doesn’t feel empty.”  

When asked about Hollywood’s rendition of Vodou, Morse, who will often respond to a question with a counter-query, says, “Why do you think they do that?” before adding: “They portray Vodou as everything that is crazy, nutty, or evil.” McAlister shares some of Morse’s frustration.  “Misconceptions Americans tend to have come right out of Hollywood films—snakes and dolls with pins, and people crawling out of the cemetery,” she says.  “All of these elements are seized upon by Hollywood.”  

Africana, the iconic encyclopedia edited by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, states that: “Despite media portrayals, Vodou shares many elements with other religions. Like members of other persuasions, Voudouists believe in creating harmony, in keeping a balance, and in cultivating virtues and positive values.”

Pierre says that although he thinks dramatic, fictionalized Vodou plotlines will always be in demand, society is slowly starting to accept it as a legitimate religion. Now, he says, children of Vodou priests are allowed to attend school with Christian children—something that his offspring did not have the privilege of doing years ago. As he speaks, a man sporting sweatpants that are scrunched part way up his calves, wanders into the office and lifts the canvas bill of his baseball cap in a deferential salute. Pierre bobs his head in acknowledgement, then continues, saying that in recent years, he  has had the opportunity to travel to Brooklyn, Boston, Miami and Washington, D.C. to provide “spiritual guidance” to transplanted Haitians as well as to Americans who have sought him out. 

Dessables also thinks that things are improving, but still prefers to err on the side of caution. He points out that his ability to communicate with the invisible world isn’t something that he brings up with strangers when he’s giving his “elevator pitch.”  “I don’t want to scare people away,” he says and laughs.

Plump tears have started to fall from the sky. Through the open doorway of his office, Pierre notices a young girl dancing in the downpour. He steps outside and brings his palms together in two stern, staccato claps to get her attention, but she doesn’t notice. She is spinning with outstretched arms, catching raindrops in her hands.  

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Linda Khachadurian, a medical and educational editor, is the founder of the volunteer-run non-profit, Charitable Confections, which raises awareness and funds for educational programs in third-world countries.  She is working on a book about unsung humanitarians, entitled The Extraordinary Doings of an Ordinary Man.

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