Haitians Hail the 'President of Voodoo'

Times Staff Writer

In a dark, airless temple decorated with paper flags and moldering food, voodoo houngan Adnor Adely takes on the look of one possessed.

His eyes shut tight. His shoulders hunch. His hands leap up as if to ward off danger, and his slim body begins to quiver.

It is not only the rapture of the spirit world that energizes Adely. He is excited by the recent government decree giving the centuries-old practice of voodoo the status of an officially recognized religion. Voodoo priests -- houngans -- like him will soon be authorized to perform any civil service a Roman Catholic priest can, officiating at births, marriages and funerals.

"Voodoo has done everything for Haiti. It gave us our independence, while the imported religions held us by the throat," says Adely, wearing a T-shirt bearing the portrait of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a baseball cap bequeathed by Christian missionaries from Southern Methodist University.

"We owe this to Aristide. He can be considered the president of voodoo," Adely continues, growing more insistent and animated with each adoring word.

"Aristide is the only president in our history who has done something for us. We will stay with him forever and perform every ceremony necessary to keep him in power. We will not negotiate with any country on this, no matter how much pressure they put on us. We will eat rocks if we have to, as long as we can keep him in power."

Legitimizing voodoo has strengthened Aristide's image as a man of the people and has probably enhanced popular support for the rumored bid by the former Roman Catholic priest to amend the constitution so he can seek a now-prohibited third term as president.

Voodoo is deeply intertwined in the two strands that have shaped Haiti: African slavery and French Christian colonization.

Practitioners meet to invoke spirits -- called loa or lwas in Creole -- who give advice through the often frenzied voices of their worshipers. It is a religion based on prayer, music, dancing and sacrifice, often bloody.

Voodoo followers have been able to throw off the secrecy and shackles since Aristide's proclamation that as an ancestral legacy, "voodoo is an essential part of national identity."

The religion and its rituals and herbal cures have been legal since voodoo's recognition under the 1987 constitution. But decades of persecution within the country and vilification by Christian missionaries from abroad compelled most adherents to stay in the shadows or to shield their beliefs with attendance at Roman Catholic or Protestant churches.

"Voodoo has always been practiced clandestinely, first by the slaves brought here from Africa, but even after independence, because Catholicism became the official religion in Haiti in 1860," says Jules Anantua, head of the Ministry of Cults (Religions). "In order for voodoo to survive, it had to borrow symbols from the officially recognized religion. Most voodoo spirits have their counterparts in Christian saints."

Attending services of the Catholic Church and praying to St. Patrick for luck or the Virgin Mary for love were means of addressing the relevant voodoo loa. Individual spirits govern separate realms, from fertility to war to ocean travel, each with its own symbol, favorite colors and preferred offerings.

Anantua's office is overseeing a council of religious, health and education members charged with drafting uniform standards for voodoo practitioners to conduct documented civil ceremonies such as marriages and baptisms.

Voodoo has no formal structure, no hierarchy or geographic center. At least half its houngans and mambos (priestesses) can't read or write, Anantua notes, since they come predominantly from poor, rural areas in a country with 55% illiteracy. To allow voodoo practitioners to officiate at civil rituals, the houngans and mambos must be able to read and write well enough to sign the legal documentation. Because it is the religion of the poor and downtrodden, voodoo has a special power for Aristide, who has the same political base.

By bestowing legitimacy on the African-origin religion, which is embraced by the vast majority of Haiti's 8.1 million residents, the beleaguered president of this poorest of Western countries has signaled to his people that they should be proud of their African heritage, not forced to subvert it under the religious practices of the European Christians who once repressed them.

Bestowing of official sanction has also had positive social consequences, according to some outside of political circles. A recent international development conference on combating the spread of AIDS included delegates from the emerging voodoo community, which has a more open and tolerant view of homosexuality than does the Haitian public at large.

"Voodoo is the only environment in which Haitian gays feel accepted and free to talk about issues," says Laurence Magloire, who last year produced a documentary film on voodoo and its embrace of sexual outcasts. "We live in a country where homosexuality is taboo."

The religion, which is closely entwined with nature, also offers some hope of halting the rapacious harvesting of trees for making charcoal -- a desperate means of making a meager living that has shorn Haiti of most of its forests.

"If the country adhered to voodoo principles, we wouldn't have the crisis we are now facing," says Evonie Auguste, a mambo from the Carrefour suburb of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. "For us, trees are living things that God put here to be respected. Nature is the place where the spirits live."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic.

Haiti's Catholic clergy has reacted with alarm at the moves to empower voodoo practitioners to conduct rituals with legal significance, especially baptisms, which the church contends are an exclusively Christian domain. The bishop of Port-au-Prince, Msgr. Joseph Lafontant, issued a statement shortly after the government decree deeming the status accorded voodoo "excessive" and its application to civil ceremonies "an obvious mistake."

The Roman Catholic Church has for years been losing its once omnipotent hold over Haitians in the face of Protestant and other missionaries who flood Haiti to proselytize while conducting development work. None of the more established churches regard voodoo as a legitimate religion, but they have been more circumspect in their opposition since the constitutional recognition accorded 16 years ago. From the cultural perspective, academics believe that the move to bestow official sanction on voodoo is a rite of acceptance that should free Haitians to practice their beliefs without fear of repression or censure.

"The elite have always regarded voodoo as superstition, as a form of magic or mysticism," says Jean Yves Blot, head of the National Bureau of Ethnology, a state academic office in the capital. But he regards it as the more natural faith of Haitians, as the European religions were imposed by colonial occupiers and fostered by missionaries. Slaves brought from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries believed their spirit world followed them across the ocean and helped them throw off the chains.

"Voodoo was at the root of our independence and as such has an important place in our cultural identity," says Blot, referring to the Bois Cayman ritual staged on the eve of the 1791 slave uprising. The ceremony that found its place in revolutionary lore was credited with inspiring the slaves to find the courage and stamina to fight French forces for the next 12 years and for eventual success in wresting Haiti's independence from France.

Much of the Christian world's fear of voodoo is thought to stem from those revolutionary rituals, as the war for independence entailed a degree of savagery and bloodletting never before directed at colonial masters. The religion's adherents, though, contend that voodoo has been miscast as evil or subversive, mainly due to exaggerated images presented by entertainment media.

Rituals do entail efforts to commune with spirits, which possess or "mount" those seeking guidance or favor. Sacrificial offerings of slaughtered fowl, leaves, baked goods or beverages are brought to the ceremonies to help summon the desired spirits.

At Adely's temple in this seaside village an hour west of Port-au-Prince, candle wax encrusts bottles, a loaf of bread and leaves left behind after a recent ritual. Pigeons, which are also kept around for certain sacrifices, peck at the food offerings strewn on the temple floor. In his "secret society" enclave, a coffin-like box stands at the front of the room like an altar, a red shroud showing the contours of the human skull and crossed bones that it covers. Deep in the tropical tangle of chest-high weeds and banana trees, the temple is the spiritual center of a traditional farming village known as a lakou.

A few miles closer to Carrefour, a more urbanized temple serves those who stream in from the capital for seasonal ceremonies. Here, too, voodoo community leaders applaud the political changes allowing them to take what they see as their rightful place in daily life.

"Voodoo is a social action that we've been forced to conduct in shadows," says Elie Duverger, a houngan who practices with his sister at a converted bar on a back road. "This decree allows us to emancipate our culture, to practice in the open."

Duverger's temple, or perestil, fills a cavernous building flanked with small chapels for private offerings to the spirits. The walls are adorned with bas-relief images of Christian saints and their partner voodoo symbols, a legacy of the years when Haitians' embrace of their African spiritual roots had to be cloaked in the more accepted icons of the Catholic religion.

Like many voodoo practitioners, Duverger regards the absence of formal doctrine as an asset, a simplicity that allows the religion to conform to local needs and interests.

"There are no laws or rules, only a kind of lore that is passed from one generation to another through the calling of the spirits," says the houngan. "Voodoo is more flexible than other religions because it is whatever its believers want to make it."

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