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Haitians Hail the 'President of Voodoo'

By legitimizing the religion, Aristide has energized believers and his popular support.

August 03, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GRESSIER, Haiti — In a dark, airless temple decorated with paper flags and moldering food, voodoo houngan Adnor Adely takes on the look of one possessed.

His eyes shut tight. His shoulders hunch. His hands leap up as if to ward off danger, and his slim body begins to quiver.

It is not only the rapture of the spirit world that energizes Adely. He is excited by the recent government decree giving the centuries-old practice of voodoo the status of an officially recognized religion. Voodoo priests -- houngans -- like him will soon be authorized to perform any civil service a Roman Catholic priest can, officiating at births, marriages and funerals.

"Voodoo has done everything for Haiti. It gave us our independence, while the imported religions held us by the throat," says Adely, wearing a T-shirt bearing the portrait of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a baseball cap bequeathed by Christian missionaries from Southern Methodist University.

"We owe this to Aristide. He can be considered the president of voodoo," Adely continues, growing more insistent and animated with each adoring word.

"Aristide is the only president in our history who has done something for us. We will stay with him forever and perform every ceremony necessary to keep him in power. We will not negotiate with any country on this, no matter how much pressure they put on us. We will eat rocks if we have to, as long as we can keep him in power."

Legitimizing voodoo has strengthened Aristide's image as a man of the people and has probably enhanced popular support for the rumored bid by the former Roman Catholic priest to amend the constitution so he can seek a now-prohibited third term as president.

Voodoo is deeply intertwined in the two strands that have shaped Haiti: African slavery and French Christian colonization.

Practitioners meet to invoke spirits -- called loa or lwas in Creole -- who give advice through the often frenzied voices of their worshipers. It is a religion based on prayer, music, dancing and sacrifice, often bloody.

Voodoo followers have been able to throw off the secrecy and shackles since Aristide's proclamation that as an ancestral legacy, "voodoo is an essential part of national identity."

The religion and its rituals and herbal cures have been legal since voodoo's recognition under the 1987 constitution. But decades of persecution within the country and vilification by Christian missionaries from abroad compelled most adherents to stay in the shadows or to shield their beliefs with attendance at Roman Catholic or Protestant churches.

"Voodoo has always been practiced clandestinely, first by the slaves brought here from Africa, but even after independence, because Catholicism became the official religion in Haiti in 1860," says Jules Anantua, head of the Ministry of Cults (Religions). "In order for voodoo to survive, it had to borrow symbols from the officially recognized religion. Most voodoo spirits have their counterparts in Christian saints."

Attending services of the Catholic Church and praying to St. Patrick for luck or the Virgin Mary for love were means of addressing the relevant voodoo loa. Individual spirits govern separate realms, from fertility to war to ocean travel, each with its own symbol, favorite colors and preferred offerings.

Anantua's office is overseeing a council of religious, health and education members charged with drafting uniform standards for voodoo practitioners to conduct documented civil ceremonies such as marriages and baptisms.

Voodoo has no formal structure, no hierarchy or geographic center. At least half its houngans and mambos (priestesses) can't read or write, Anantua notes, since they come predominantly from poor, rural areas in a country with 55% illiteracy. To allow voodoo practitioners to officiate at civil rituals, the houngans and mambos must be able to read and write well enough to sign the legal documentation. Because it is the religion of the poor and downtrodden, voodoo has a special power for Aristide, who has the same political base.

By bestowing legitimacy on the African-origin religion, which is embraced by the vast majority of Haiti's 8.1 million residents, the beleaguered president of this poorest of Western countries has signaled to his people that they should be proud of their African heritage, not forced to subvert it under the religious practices of the European Christians who once repressed them.

Bestowing of official sanction has also had positive social consequences, according to some outside of political circles. A recent international development conference on combating the spread of AIDS included delegates from the emerging voodoo community, which has a more open and tolerant view of homosexuality than does the Haitian public at large.

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