By Elizabeth McAlister
Associate Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University
Vodouists in the Haitian diaspora are praying on their knees today, just as Catholics and Protestants are. Why did this devastating earthquake have to happen in Haiti, a country already so vulnerable that people live on a dollar a day, where on a good day, the government cannot employ or educate or provide health care for the majority? In Port-au-Prince, they are coping by searching and rescuing, sharing resources, crying, and praying. In Vodou most ritual is about finding balance, putting yourself into equilibrium with the spirits, with your family, and with yourself. In Haiti things are way out of balance. We might say that spirits of death have launched a coup d’état.
My friend and colleague, the artist, educator, and priest of the spirits, Erol Josué, has been praying and crying in Brooklyn. Through Twitter, Facebook, and his cell phone he has learned of at least twenty dead friends in several Port-au-Prince congregations. He told me today that for him, as a spirit-worker, this event is both scientific and symbolic. This is indeed a natural disaster for Josué. But the land in Haiti is a person, he said. We consider it a woman, our mother. “Haïti Chérie,” as the well-known ballad goes. She wants to know, ‘who will make me beautiful, put clothes on me, and take care of my children?’ When you mistreat her, and uproot her trees, when you give her too much responsibility, she is like a woman with cancer. The tumor metastasizes, and explodes.
For Erol Josué, the earthquake was mother nature, the land of Haiti, rising up to defend herself against the erosion, deforestation, and environmental devastation that have been ongoing for the last few decades. “Everybody was smashed to the ground,” said Erol. “Rich and poor. But look how symbolic this is. The Palace is smashed, the legislative building, the tax office, and the Cathedral. The country is crushed. We are all on our knees.” This Vodou priest is not speaking about divine retribution, as has Pat Robertson. God is not punishing us for disobedience. Erol is speaking about a giant natural rebalancing act, a reaction against human dealings with the ecosystem.
For the last 25 years I have had the privilege of studying and writing about the Afro-Creole religion in Haiti, the traditions known as Vodou (Anglicized as voodoo). It is a worldview that encompasses philosophy, medicine, justice, and the arts, in a cosmic scheme where the fundamental principle is that everything is spirit. Said the famous painter and Vodou priest André Pierre, “The first magician is God who created people with his own hands from the dust of the earth. No one lives of the flesh. Everyone lives of the spirit.” We humans live in the material world, and other spirits–called lwa, or mystères, “mysteries”–dwell in the unseen realm. God created the spirits to help govern humanity and the natural world. The ancestors and the recently dead are with them. Unfortunately, there are far too many recently dead crossing over to join the spirits this week.
When you cut a tree, in Vodou, you are supposed to ask the tree first, and leave a small payment for the spirit of the tree. For years nobody has asked, or listened, or paid the land when making policies or laws in Haiti. Farmers have given up since imported rice undercut their local prices. Whole villages left the provinces, and migrated to the capital, leaving the land behind and swelling the capital city to bursting. The people running the country–from within and from without–have abused Our Mother. She is doing what is natural, like a horse throwing a rough rider.
This interpretation, this theology, is the poignant parable of an exhausted and grieving spiritualist. Others, who may read this and disagree with great force, will not necessarily share it. But Vodou works through spiritual revelation, and this is the revelation Erol gives me today. Vodou has no single spokesperson and no inerrant text. It has God, the angels, and the spirits in the unseen realm. And now there are thousands and thousands of souls, who are being carried, each by a spirit of the dead, into Guinea, the world of the ancestors. It seems fitting to close with the first and last lines of the poem “Guinea” by Jacques Roumain:
It’s the long road to Guinea
Death takes you down
Here are the boughs, the trees, the forest
Listen to the sound of the wind in its long hair
Of eternal night . . .
There, there awaits you beside the water a quiet village,
And the hut of your fathers, and the hard ancestral stone
Where your head will rest at last.
(Translation by Langston Hughes, 1958)
Elizabeth McAlister is author of “Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Learn more about Afro-Creole religion in Haiti at Patheos.com.