I watched the Haitian Vodou episode of Believer with Reza Aslan on CNN last week. While most of the segment was interesting and informative, there were some things I have issues with. As someone who grew up Haiti, I don’t believe that Haiti is primarily a Vodou country and some Evangelical missionaries can at times be intolerant and self-serving.
First, let’s give credit to Believer on CNN. If you haven’t watch it yet, you definitely should. The show provides valuable insights into Haitian Vodou. The Saut D’eau waterfalls piece is astonishing, the Vodou ceremony in the latter part of the show is authentic and the segment tries to give equal time to both sides of the story, Christians and Vodou priests.
Prepare for what I believe is the BEST episode of #Believer on Sunday with this video: What is Vodou? CNN Original Series
Vodou (also called voodoo), which can be seen in most areas of Haiti, isn’t nearly as practiced in Haiti as outsiders would love to think. Most Haitians who have spent time in Haiti are very likely to have seen Vodou rituals at some point. But, the actual number of fervent Vodou practitioners is relatively low, compared to country’s population.
I grew up in Haiti, and for a short time, I lived a 5-minute walk from the historic site of Bois Caiman, where the slaves met, danced Vodou, sacrificed a pig and planned the Haitian revolution. They eventually defeated the Napoleon French Army, at the time the most powerful army in the world, and Haiti became the first independent black country in the world. Bois Caiman is an important landmark in Haiti’s history.
While it’s common to hear Vodou music and celebrations near the Bois Caiman site, and throughout Haiti, many people attend these rituals by curiosity or because Haitians love music and dancing.
Vodou isn’t necessarily seen by most Haitians as a stand-alone religion, at times Haitians associate Vodou with the Catholic religion. That means some people consider themselves Catholic but practice Vodou on the side. In the Catholic Church, there is a heavy presence of saints. Vodou has some similar traits, the saints and madonnas are considered spirits. So, the saying that Haiti is 70% catholic, 30% protestant, 100% Vodou is inexplicably inaccurate.
The vast majority of Haitians believe that the spirits, called “lwa” in creole, do exist. Some believe the spirits are bad, some believe they are good. But, the majority of people don’t necessarily practice it regularly or just observe from a distance.
Personally, I have observed Vodou ceremony from afar, and I remember very well some of the rituals that took place at my great grandparents’ farm as a kid. I never had any contact direct with Vodou. If merely thinking or believing that the Vodou spirits exist make one a practitioner then anyone who does yoga would be considered Buddhist or Hindu.
As I mentioned earlier, Haitians love to party, that allows them to forget their problems. There are festivities called “Fèt Chanpèt”, which is a pilgrimage to a specific municipality on the same date each year to celebrate a certain Vodou spirit (lwa) or saint, for example, Saint Jacques in Plaine du Nord near Cap-Haitien (See video below).
Vaudou Dance "Okap -Limonade Fèt Champèt"
Posted by Haiti Visuelle on Wednesday, August 19, 2015
There are many of these festivities on different dates throughout Haiti. These activities usually have huge crowds and they are very festive. On the surface, they look like Vodou gatherings but it’s a mix of Vodou, music and food festival.
The Role of the Missionaries in Haiti
American missionaries, especially Evangelical missionaries, are usually very conservative. Some of them who go to Haiti are as determined to help the needy as to make sure that people convert to their faith. Haiti is a Christian country. I’m Christian. I grew up protestant regularly attending a Baptist church while attending an all-boys catholic school in Cap-Haitien. My parents would require me to go a protestant church on Sundays, right after I attended the required Sunday mess at my catholic school. I spent half of every Sunday morning at two different churches. Growing up I remember very well one missionary at my protestant church who was from New Zealand, Miss Robin. She was a very a caring and compassionate person.
I have a great understanding of the missionaries’ work in Haiti. Haiti needs all the help it can get, and most of the missionaries are doing good work there, but it’s wrong for some of them to think that everything that is wrong with Haiti is because the country made a pact with satan while it was being emancipated. This thinking can be clearly seen on Believer with Reza Aslan on CNN in the interview with James Glynn, an Evangelical pastor. He refers to Vodou as the work of demons and said the slaves asked Satan for help to defeat the French, in return the slaves promised Haiti to Satan. You know what else has been called demonic by some pastors? Yoga.
Mr. Glynn went on to say that slaves in America converted to Christianism and when there were liberated it was a blessing because they had God’s help. In Haiti, it wasn’t so much a blessing. This statement is simply not true.
First, many slaves in America converted to Christianism because they saw it as a path to freedom. Second, a big chunk of the slave population in the U.S. didn’t completely abandon their religion, like Mr. Glynn seems to suggest, even after converting to Christianity. Third, it’s unfortunate for him and other Evangelical missionaries to not think of Haiti’s independence as a blessing just because it wasn’t a Christian emancipation. That’s intolerance, to put it mildly. This line of thinking has been going for a while.
The PBS segment titled Slavery and The Making of America explains: “Missionaries working in the South were especially displeased with slave retention of African practices such as polygamy and what they called idolatrous dancing. In fact, even blacks who embraced Christianity in America did not completely abandon Old World religion. Instead, they engaged in syncretism, blending Christian influences with traditional African rites and beliefs.” Vodou became a fusion of African spirituality and Christianity, they were not mutually exclusive among the slave population.
A bit of Haitian History
Besides, it seems like some of these missionaries there need a lesson on Haiti’s history. Let me explain. When Haiti got its independence in 1803, the French threatened to invade the country again. After long and bloody battles, the Haitian army was thin and didn’t want to engage in another war.
The Haitian soldiers at the time decided to build the Citadelle Laferriere, which is the largest fortress in the Americas, to fight the French if they ever come back.
In exchange for not invading Haiti again, France requested that the Caribbean country pays them. Haiti, wanting peace of mind, spent 144 years paying that exorbitant fee of 90 million francs to France. This fee is estimated to be over $20 billion today. Let that sink in.
Meanwhile, the U.S. refused at first to recognize Haiti’s independence and didn’t do so until almost 60 years later. Haiti was marginalized for having the audacity to gain independence. These events, along with the greediness and corruption of numerous Haitian leaders over the years, natural disasters, and political upheavals have contributed to making Haiti what it is today. To say it’s all because of a pact with Satan that Haiti is poor is to ignoring some obvious factors. By the way, I’m not saying all missionaries in Haiti share this view.
Vodou isn’t at the basis of Haiti’s woes, Vodou is part of Haiti’s cultural identity. Some missionaries in Haiti are currently trying (in vain) to strip Haiti of an important part of its identity and history, all in the name of Jesus. That’s simply wrong and very self-serving.
UpCultured highlights unique cultural heritage and traditions. We are also providing customized group adventures tours to Haiti to help more people experience the real and authenticate Haiti. These trips include tours of Bois Caiman and the Citadelle that are mentioned in this article. Visit UpCultured.com for more information.