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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

He explained that people visit the temple for protection -- not only to seek predictions, good luck and warnings against impending accidents, but also for counsel on such practical matters as how to obtain a U.S. visa, or family and health problems. If one person has a problem, even a financial one, the temple bands together like a cooperative to take care of the person and perhaps lend money at a small interest rate.

"Before [the] society, more children died in the neighborhood," Mr. Cine said, referring to how the community banded together to help those in need.

The slaves who were brought to Haiti by the French colonists came from various regions of Africa and practiced a variety of religions. Voodoo unified them.

In 1934, the practice of voodoo was outlawed, and the 1940s saw periods of persecution, aided by the Catholic Church, in which houses of voodoo worship were destroyed.

When Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier assumed power in 1957, he proclaimed himself a follower of voodoo, although many felt he perverted the faith and personified its evil side.

An estimated 90 percent of Haiti's 6 million people practice voodoo, while at least 80 percent are also Catholic.

Mambo Angela Novanyon, an African-American voodoo priestess practicing in North Philadelphia who was initiated in Haiti, said the recent open attitude toward voodoo seemed to signal that "perhaps the struggle between voodoo and Catholic Church has subsided."

She stresses, as many voodoo followers do, that many people practice both voodoo and Catholicism, and that the two religions share saints and other religious figures.

Near the village of Lillavois, a half-hour's drive out of Port-au-Prince, a Coleman lantern illuminated a clearing between a hamlet of small buildings recently. Under a nearly full moon, about 100 people danced and milled around happily. It was the final night of an 18-day voodoo ceremony, and the gathering looked like a Saturday night hoedown: There was food and beer and soda, and music provided by six drummers. One person struck two pieces of iron together to make a cowbell sort of sound.

Most of the women were dressed in satin, many with head scarves in red, which symbolizes blood and energy in voodoo.

"This festivity is performed for the well-being of the country. It brings power to those who believe in it," said Mambo Lolotte, the priestess overseeing the service.

Dressed in a smart Panama hat, gold earrings, gold cross, red shirt, jeans and sneakers, she looked the part of a modern and prosperous businesswoman. People come to her, she said, for "sentimental problems, problems with business, people who want to ensure their position."

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