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Date: Sun, 4 May 2003 12:55:38 -0500 (CDT)
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Vodou’s Veil

By Jaqueline Charles,, posted on Saturday 03 May 2003

Word-of-mouth leads you to Clotaire Bazile’s mission-style house on a nondescript corner in Little Haiti, somewhere off Northeast Miami Avenue.

The door swings open, and for a split second, the living room resembles a blessed sanctuary. Flowers, flaming candles and various depictions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary adorn an altar. A child-size statue of St. Lazarus greets you at the threshold.

As you stare at St. Lazarus, a kindly old man with crutches, something catches your eye. Just below the table bearing the Catholic saint, lies an oversized Smirnoff bottle, partly shrouded in a flaming red rag. Inside is the Haitian moonshine, kleren (cane liquor), steeped with weeks-old red-hot peppers.

It’s food for the spirit, Bazile, 52, says of the concoction. The spirit, he is referring to, is Papa Gede, the shameless trickster and cemetery guardian who is sometimes invoked in Haitian vodou ceremonies for his healing powers.

With his bald head, bubbly personality and big brown eyes, Bazile looks like your average couch potato. From the outside, his modest home is plain and unsuspecting. But step inside, and you’re in the complex, mystic world of Haitian folklore where vodou spirits masquerade as Catholic saints. Here the spiritual secrets of the African ancestors are called upon in ceremonial ritual to console troubled souls—those searching for answers to marital woes, unexplained illnesses and financial distress.

They come to me for everything they go to church for. Spanish, Jamaican, African American. They all come, Bazile, a vodou priest since age 11, says just as his third client for the day, a young, distraught-looking black woman, walks through the front door.

Even ministers come asking for their churches to work better, to get more members. They come through the front door and leave out the back.


It’s newly decreed ‘an essential element of national identity’

In much the same fashion vodou was born in Haiti among African slaves, it is practiced here in South Florida: Shrouded in a veil of secrecy in hidden-away temples that double as private homes, and storefront religious stores known as botanicas.

Sensationalized by Hollywood, dissed by American presidents (remember Ronald Reagan’s voodoo economics) and demonized by religious leaders, vodou only recently got sanctioned as a religion in Haiti.

Last month, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, issued an executive decree recognizing vodou as an ancestral religion and an essential element of national identity among Haiti’s eight million people. Aristide invited vodou chiefs and temple officials to register with the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs to perform legally-binding marriages, baptisms and funerals.

Although many question Aristide’s motives at a time when Haiti is experiencing political turmoil, both the president’s foes and supporters say, he is simply stating the obvious in a country where vodou is still the most popular religion. It is a gesture, some say, that should have come long before Europe’s hostility, fueled by Haiti’s successful independence in 1804, led to an anti-vodou bias in the country. And long before Christian missionaries, in cooperation with the Haitian government, led an anti-superstitious crusade in Haiti in the 1940s, destroying temples and religious objects and imprisoning vodou priests.

Locally, Aristide’s measure will have little impact, and opinions vary about its practical effect in Haiti, where most Haitians have little or no contact with the state. Nevertheless, Haitians and scholars alike say it’s a symbolically wonderful measure that will help lend a sense of legitimacy to vodou and perhaps help erase its negative stereotype as black magic, where animals are killed and sacrificed, and humans are turned into zombies, the walking dead.

Terry Rey, an assistant professor of African and Caribbean Religions at Florida International University, says it’s impossible to know with any precision the percentages of Haitians in Haiti or here in South Florida who practice vodou.

Nonetheless, if we take as a measure—initiates who regularly carry out devotional services to spirits and/or ancestors—my estimation is that in Haiti such believers comprise the majority of the population, but no more than two-thirds. The figure is certainly much lower among Haitians in Miami, some of whom convert to Protestantism once here, says Rey, who has studied vodou among Haitians and believes many have no knowledge of the practice.


Practice is blasted as Satan worship in some quarters of U.S.

When it comes to Haitians and vodou, the question is not whether one believes. Rather, does one practice.

Haitians are very ambivalent about talking about vodou, says Archdiocese of Miami Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenski, who served as pastor of Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, 130 NE 62nd St., one of Miami’s first Catholic churches in Little Haiti.

You get some intellectuals who see it as national folklore. But then you get people, especially from the fundamentalist Protestant sect, and some older Catholics, who see it as Satan worship. But basically it is another religion and alternative belief system, says Wenski.

A system that, Wenski concedes, die-hard Haitian Catholics sometimes lapse into, especially in times of crisis, which is the prevailing reason someone visits a vodou priest (oungan) or priestess (manbo) whose job is to interpret the spirits’ message.

Case in point: An informal survey done in February by Little Haiti’s Sant La Community Center found there were at least a dozen botanicas or religious stores located between North Miami and Northeast Second avenues and 54th and 84th streets.

For Haitians who felt their ills were more than physical, the botanicas were the first stop for consultations, surveyors found. Though botanicas are a Latin concept, they’ve been adopted by the Haitian community here and in Haiti. With no countryside to go to in search of herbs or other vodou paraphernalia, Haitians now travel to the botanica where they will find religious relics, ritual canes, a perfumed-type cleansing potion known as Florida Water, love potions, even machetes.

All Haitians have a vodou spirit, says Marie Joseph, 48, Bazile’s sister, who notes she is as much a believer in the power of the spirits as she is in the Catholic faith. Don’t let them fool you.

While some Haitians may debate Joseph’s statement, it’s a fact that vodou is ingrained in Haitian culture. It influences everything from music and song to literature, to even Haitians’ world view.

Vodou is more than just a religion. It’s a way of life, says Jude Thegenus, 38, the owner of Miami’s Jakmel Art Gallery, 2301 Biscayne Blvd., who opens his art exhibitions with a vodou ceremony in his gallery’s colorful, vodou-inspired backyard.

Thegenus is more than just a painter and mixed media artist. He is also an oungan and has the gift, he says, to see things.

We’ve been brainwashed and tortured mentally, says Thegenus, who bears the name Papa Loko, the spirit who teaches the secrets to those called into the vodou priesthood. Vodou is not evil.

In vodou, individuals like Thegenus believe there is a supreme, but distant God. The spirits—African tribal gods often identified by worshipers under the cover of Roman Catholic saints or symbolic drawings called vv—serve as a bridge between humans and the divine. One summons a spirit with offerings—a favorite drum rhythm, a libation, a color.

One of the more controversial offerings involves sacrificing goats, chickens and cows to the spirits. Vodou worshipers say the animals are not killed in vain—they feed the flock during ceremonies. A 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizes animal sacrifice as a religious sacrament, though the law forbids cruelty to animals.

We don’t kill animals for sacrifice, says Carol de Lynch, a Miami vodou priestess. When we kill the animals, it’s an offering we make for energy and we make food for the people with the animal.

The spirits are grouped into families or nations, divided by different rituals, and take on various manifestations. Each ritual carries its own dances, ceremonies, rhythms and offerings. A spirit announces its arrival by possessing a worshiper, briefly using the believer’s body to express itself.

The use of Catholic saints within vodou, and other derivations of African religions such as Cuba’s Santeria, is the result of enslaved Africans trying to avoid persecution by slave masters, who forbade them to practice their ancestral religion. Though many vodouists today continue to use the saints, others have shunned them. But make no mistake, when vodouists look at an icon of the Virgin Mary, it’s not the mother of Jesus they see, but rather a manifestation of the female vodou goddess Ezili.

Such syncretism—the marriage of two beliefs in ways that seem mutually exclusive—is neither accepted nor approved of by the Roman Catholic Church. But the Church has been more tolerant, recognizing that certain aspects of Haitian culture must be infused within the church service, such as the drum, an instrument used in vodou ceremonies.


You can’t tell the `enemy where you are located’

Yet vodouists say they cannot completely come out of hiding in South Florida.

We are at war with the missionaries, the people who want to keep us in mental slavery, says Thegenus, who now-and-again will treat the public to an unusually open part of a vodou ceremony, like the drumming procession he held down South Beach’s Ocean Drive on Good Friday.

When you are at war, you cannot say to the enemy where you are located, he says.

And where they are located here in South Florida, is often right before the eyes.

During recent Easter services at Little Haiti’s Notre Dame, a self-described boko—a vodou priest who works in the supernatural—stood up in church to declare that he had found God. The gentleman testified that despite earning between $2,000 and $4,000 a day working treatments for people, he was not happy, because he was doing the devil’s work.

You see how this church is full tonight, he said to the crowd. My house was also full like this.

In fact, the gentleman, named Ronald, said many of the church’s congregants were regular visitors to his home, singing Hail Mary in the morning and calling on Papa Gede, in the evening.

This irony is not lost on many Haitians and the Christian religious community, which preaches conversion and rejection of vodou to Haitians.

Instead of focusing on the good in vodou as individuals like Thegenus would like, they often point to the negative side, telling how vodou is nothing more than a quick fix, often imploring secretive folk medicine, trances and spells on behalf of selfish motivations that sometimes lead to bodily harm.

This is the image that de Lynch, 52, desperately wants to change. A manbo, or vodou priestess since 18, de Lynch preaches about the good in vodou every chance she gets, and was among those in Haiti who fought for its recognition.

De Lynch has turned her front yard into a Lakou, the vodou terminology describing a family compound. To the untrained eye, it resembles a botanical courtyard with large, overhanging trees and three oversized crayon-colored dollhouses. But the trained vodou eyes immediately sees that the houses are shrines to the spirits, distinguished by their favorite food and libations that sit on an altar, decorated with each spirit’s individual colors and objects.

De Lynch, who has attempted to reconstruct what one would find in a traditional vodou community in Haiti, even has a peristil, where the temple oungans and manbos perform rituals.

Besides calling upon the spirits, vodou chiefs also have traditional medicinal knowledge that has been passed down to them. It’s this secret knowledge of certain plants, often used to cure illnesses in the midst of ritual, that is sometimes viewed as mysticism to the outside world.

Every religion has their magic, says de Lynch, who charges $40 for a card reading, more for dealing with more intense problems.

But it’s up to the individual priests and priestesses, say vodouists, to decide how they will use it. Like in all faiths, there are those who do good, and those who do bad. There are those who work with their right hand and there are those who work with their left. These individuals mix sorcery or black magic and traditional vodou teachings.

Black magic is not from Africa; it’s from Europe, says de Lynch, echoing the findings of some anthropologists who traced the practice, as it is done in Haiti, to 17th century Europe.

Although he refers to himself as a boko—the name most often associated with those who work with their left hand and specialize in the supernatural often for destructive purposes—Bazile says he works only with his right hand, for the purpose of good.

He charges $37—plus $1 for candles—for an initial consultation and reading. Special treatments cost more, he says. These treatments aren’t done in Bazile’s living room, where the statue of St. Lazarus—or in this case, Papa Legba, the one who holds the key to the spirit world and must first be called upon in all vodou ceremonies—sits.

Bazile’s treatment room, is a dark space at the back of the house. There, you will find burning candles floating in aluminum bowls, and others resting on a makeshift altar next to vodou dolls. The dolls are many. They are mostly black, but there is at least one white one. There is a saintly icon—the black Madonna holding what appears to be the Christ child. She is Ezili Danto and the child is one of her offsprings.

Hanging overhead in the odorless room are various unidentifiable objects, which serve as charms. They are tightly wound with string and concealed in plastic bags. Others are shrouded in colorful rags in a spirit’s favorite color. Bottles of Barbancourt rum rest by a door, while three dead fish sit in a pink plastic bowl as shafts of light crack into the dark room. On a table sits an ason, the sacred ritual rattle.

A few steps outside the door, Bazile’s latest client awaits his intervention: A teenage Haitian girl, who has arrived with her mother, seeking the boko’s help.