Beyond a Religion: Vodou Connects Haitians to their African Roots

An altar at a Haitian Vodou ceremony in Passaic, New Jersey. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

An altar at a Haitian Vodou ceremony in Passaic, New Jersey. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

On a Saturday night around thirty people gather in the basement of a suburban New Jersey home. Friends and family greet each other and the scent of grilled fish lingers in the musty air.

This is not your typical weekend barbeque. It’s Fèt Gede, a ceremony to honor the Haitian Vodou spiritual force or Lwa, named Gede. An altar in the center of the room is laden with gifts for the Lwa including libation bottles filled with the Lwa’s favorite drinks and covered in colorful sequins.  There are baskets of sweets, musical instruments, perfume, candles, and raw goat meat.

Everyone is wearing black and purple, colors associated with the dead and with Gede.

“Much like how Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, on Fèt Gede, we connect with those ancestors who have passed,” explains Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe, or female high priest in Haitian Vodou who has come to lead the ceremony.

At one end of the room a group of drummers begins warming up with intermittent rhythmic tapping of their congas, sometimes adding a playful, yet startling bang to wake up the crowd.

Haitian drummers at a Vodou ceremony. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

Drummers at a Vodou ceremony. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

“Vodou integrates all the senses,” explains Désir.  “The scents, rhythm and vibrations of the songs and drums all connect to help call down the spirits.”

Désir is a passionate advocate of Vodou and dedicates much of her time to fostering a greater understanding of Vodou’s religious and cultural practices.  Her work aims to dispel the myths that plague the Vodou religion including the Hollywood-invented stereotypes of zombies and ‘pins in dolls’ that were popularized throughout the twentieth century.

Haitian Vodou is a monotheistic religion, with origins in West Africa. Like other Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions it was brought to Haiti with the transatlantic slave trade, or as Désir refers to it, the Maafa, meaning ‘the great suffering.” It’s an agrarian based tradition that is deeply tied to the land and its natural cycles.

One key tenet of the religion is honoring and respecting not just the living, but also ancestors who have passed.

“Part of Vodou’s covenant is the community’s relationship with those of us on this plane and the communities that preceded us, so we honor and respect those who are among us and visible and those who have come before us.”

By around 11:00 p.m., the ceremony gets underway. Dressed in a long black cotton dress and black cotton head wrap, Désir joins her fellow priests to form a small circle to the side of the altar.  The priests sing and clap rhythmically in conversation with the drums.

“The singing allows a certain kind of vibration to enter into the universe and allows divine energy to transmit itself,” Désir explains.

“Vodou integrates all the senses,” explains Désir. “The scents, rhythm and vibrations of the songs and drums all connect to help call down the spirits.”

“Each drum rhythm represents a specific Lwa or a specific song for a Lwa … because of the polyphonic nature of African sensibility, the drums themselves are singing, they’re talking. They’re going, they’re repeating, they’re paraphrasing what we are singing; they are a form of prayer. Our dance is a form of prayer.  There’s also specific dances for specific musical rhythms that accompany specific Lwa.”

Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe in Haitian Vodou. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe in Haitian Vodou. Photo: Rachael Bongiorno

Désir points to the legacy of colonization as the reason for the vilification of Vodou  by France and  the U.S. During the U.S military occupation of Haiti from 1915-1943, she says, Hollywood worked to perpetuate some of the racist mythologies that were used to justify the occupation. Even in Haiti today Vodou’s legal status is ambiguous. A 2012 change to Haiti’s Constitution removed protections for those who practice the religion.

But for many Haitian people, Vodou is beyond a religion — it is a widespread cultural practice that is a way to hold onto their African heritage, an avenue for freedom and a spiritual mechanism for healing.  It was a Vodou ceremony that united the slaves and sparked the Haitian Revolution that led to Haiti’s creation as the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world.

“It’s a symbol of resistance,” Désir said.

Despite her work as an advocate and human rights activist, Désir says her title, Manbo Asogwe means keeper of the medicinal packet, and first and foremost, Désir sees her role as a healer.

“Our role as priests is multifold, it’s no different from a rabbi or a pastor or a Father in any other tradition. Our role as priests is to help people heal. It isn’t about preaching and converting them.  But it’s definitely about healing, about spiritual and social healing; as well as physical healing when people are ill.”

Désir was raised by her grandparents in Haiti, before joining her parents and two sisters as a young teenager in New York City.

“I was raised a little bit differently from my sisters, not only because I spoke a different language as they, I also had different cultural sensibilities about me, like how early I got up in the morning, what I was used to eating, that sort of thing. It was very different from what my sisters had, so I was living in two worlds that way.”

With a devout Catholic mother and an atheist father who gave her books on Marx, Lenin, and Malcolm X from a young age, Désir has always considered the philosophical questions of life and searched for knowledge systems, which made sense to her.

But it was the opportunity to politically organize with the New York Haitian community in the wake of the violent police attack on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in 1997 that Désir came to better understand Vodou.

“A group of Vodouyizan (practitioners of Vodou) were organizing a forum on economic development, on social change politics, and I thought, what? Vodouyizan are doing that? Because one is taught that people who practice Vodou are illiterate, they’re poor, they’re dangerous, there’s all these terrible stereotypes.”

“Our role as priests is multifold, it’s no different from a rabbi or a pastor or a Father in any other tradition. Our role as priests is to help people heal.”

“And yet, here was a group of people who were spiritually aligned in a very particular way, and their sensibilities seem to embrace everything I had been taught that I thought were important. So I went to their meeting, and I quickly became the president of the New York chapter that they had established, became initiated as a priest and it’s just been history from there.”

Since then Désir has dedicated much of her life to connect people of African descent with their spiritual traditions as well as engage in interfaith dialogue.

“It’s important to encourage people to understand that it is ok to be an African descendent and to embrace your Africanness.” Désir says with an emphatic smile.

Désir sees her role as a Manbo Asogwe as less about “creating love potions” and more about helping to reconnect with African culture, collective memory and the healing of communities.

“Because we live in a world with the legacy of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, in some way we can describe the experience of the African decedents, particularly in the Afro-Atlantic world, in the Americas, as one that has been about anomic erasure.  It’s been about erasing our culture, erasing our memory, erasing our sense of self. And I see my role as a human rights activist and as a Manbo Asogwe as one to help heal that and to repair that gap, to help to literally conjure memory, so that our sense of self and sense of place is restored.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.

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