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Voodoo seeks a role in a democratic Haiti

By Kathie Klarreich, The Christian Science Monitor, 25 July 1995

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - PART of a voyage that has lasted more than 300 years, today's Haitians who practice the ancient religion of voodoo are hoping that they will be given the recognition they say they deserve. Democracy has presented them with a chance to overturn years of misrepresentation and undo decades of manipulation at the hands of dictators.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide received nearly 500 voodoo priests (houngan) and priestesses (mambo) at the National Palace this week. Sporting traditional white robes or hand-crafted garb of brightly colored African fabric, the visitors sang, chanted, and saluted the former Roman Catholic priest. And they passionately presented him with a wish list. We want a national peristyle, said representative Jean-Saurel Francillon, referring to a voodoo temple. We want to participate in national decisions. We want a school for our children and training for our midwives and ... doctors.

Voodooists represent the largest sector of the Haitian population - there's a saying here that Haitians are 90 percent Catholic, 100 percent voodoo - but they have no legal rights. Voodoo baptisms and marriages are not recognized by the state. Voodooists are not allowed to hold a funeral in a Catholic church.

We need our own temple so we can take care of ourselves, said Marie Magdala Brandel, a practicing mambo of 15 years. While waiting to meet the president she spoke in a quiet but firm voice, denouncing the inequities afforded voodooism versus other religions. She was particularly enraged over the invasion by evangelical churches that she says ostracize the mother religion of her country. Haitian voodoo (spelled vodou in Haiti) was born of the needs of slaves brought from Africa's west coast in the 1700s. The often-illiterate workers had to find a way to communicate between themselves and worship collectively while respecting their individual heritages.

On the plantations, there was no freedom at all. Although slaves were forced to speak a certain way, bear European names, and submit to baptism, they never forgot their culture, says Ronald (Aboudja) Derenencourt, a houngan who has done extensive research on voodoo. Inside the slave quarters, late at night, a voodoo was developed that was disguised with Catholic symbols to fool the masters. It has survived 300 years of domination, he explains.

After coming to power in 1804, Haiti's first emperor outlawed voodoo in his constitution. President Stenio Vincent's government issued a decree banning the practice in 1935. In 1942 the Catholic church, with the help of the Haitian Army, launched a vast campaign against voodoo. Houngans and mambos were forced underground. When Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier came to power in 1957, he managed to coerce many of the voodoo priests and priestesses to join his paramilitary force, the Tonton Macoutes. He used the voodoo structure to keep a tight control on the population and ward off potential revolts.

The past government's plots against voodoo - that's finished, finished, finished completely, President Aristide says. If Haiti hasn't disappeared over the last 200 years, it's because of you.

Aristide promised to satisfy the requests laid before him, starting with the donation of land for a national temple. He asked the voodoo leaders to help spread peace and democracy, rather than use voodoo as a tool of repression.

Voodoo is often associated with black magic. It is represented by zombies or dolls that are pricked with pins. But for Haitians, voodoo is a way of life.