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Haiti's Voodoo Faithful Pray

By Paisley Dodds, AP, Tuesday 17 July 2001, 1:30 PM ET

SAUT D'EAU, Haiti (AP) - Wearing red satin scarves and lugging rum and palm-thatch mats on their heads, tens of thousands trekked to sacred waterfalls Tuesday in a voodoo pilgrimage to pray for everything from good crops to an end to Haiti's political impasse.

The weeklong Saut d'Eau pilgrimage came as President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the opposition and foreign mediators struggled to end a yearlong deadlock stalling aid to the Caribbean nation.

I think the gods will help me faster than Aristide, said 23-year-old farmer Joel Poince, sitting under a tree studded with burning white candles and calabash rinds filled with rum and sugar water. Everyone here is looking for change.

Legend has it that in the mid-1800s an image of the Virgin Mary appeared near the waterfalls of Saut d'Eau. Today, most pilgrims pay homage to the goddess of love - Erzulie - the equivalent of the Virgin Mary in Vodou, the Creole word for voodoo.

For some pilgrims, the journey can take days on the back of a truck, donkey, horse, or on foot - the road into the mountains is pocked with craters five feet deep. Even in an all-terrain vehicle, the 40-mile trip from Port-au-Prince takes five hours.

Most pilgrims sleep in the open or pay to stay in local houses. Some dance to the drumming all night long. Saut d'Eau is a lot like Mecca to Muslims, said Ronald Derenoncourt, 47, a houngan or priest. No matter how much it costs, no matter how long it takes, if you serve the spirits you need to make the pilgrimage at least once.

Most make the final four miles on foot, crossing caverns filled with brackish water up to their waists and crawling up steep cliffs. After they reach the 100-foot tall falls, the rituals begin.

Pilgrims strip and submerge themselves in the water, bathing with soap and aromatic leaves like mint. Some stand under the cascade with arms stretched wide, and ask Erzulie for favors. Some begin shaking and believe they are possessed.

The ritual involves leaving one's old clothes behind in the water.

Then pilgrims visit priests and priestesses for guidance. Others join in drumming while cows and goats are sacrificed. This year, I asked Erzulie for more trees, said Phillipe Jean, a 40-year-old carpenter referring to the land stripped bare by centuries of deforestation. It's hard to get work without access to wood.

Even for Haitians living abroad, Saut d'Eau is important. I've been coming since 1989, said 22-year-old Chantalle Obas, a Haitian-American from New York City who set up a makeshift restaurant. I come to go to the waterfalls but also to do a little business.

Vodou evolved in the 17th century from African slaves. French colonizers forced them to practice Roman Catholicism but many remained loyal to their African religions in secret by adopting Catholic saints to coincide with African spirits. The Virgin Mary became Erzulie, St. Jacques became Ogun, a warrior spirit. Voodoo followers believe in a supreme God and a world of powerful spirits who link the human with the divine.

Vodou has kept oppressed people going for decades, said Michelle Karshan, a government spokeswoman on the pilgrimage. Aristide was a Catholic priest but he does believe in the power of love and Erzulie represents that.

After talks mediated by the Organization of American States, Aristide's governing Lavalas party and the opposition said Monday they had agreed on new elections, but would continue to discuss dates. Many countries froze aid to Haiti amid the political crisis, and the OAS has agreed to help restore it if the political parties reach agreement.

The spirits with Aristide are more powerful than those with the opposition, said priestess Dianese Pierre, 28, smoking a cigarette and dishing out advice to pilgrims. Aristide admires the spirit and that's why he's succeeded. The spirits say he will go far.