Peace be with you my friends! Thank you once again for stopping by my blog. I would like to bring my series of articles of Haitian Vodou to a close with a brief discussion of the prominence of Vodou in every facet of life in Haiti even to the level of national politics.
Vodou justice has always existed in Haiti.
In Haiti, it is not unheard of for an unscrupulous Hougan or Bokor to intimidate individuals with threats of bewitchment or zombification in an attempt to extort money or gain power, and zombification is often a form of capital punishment in rural Haiti. Several secret societies operate in rural Haiti where the complete absence of any law enforcement often gives carte blanche to criminals to act as they please and the presence of such organizations serves as somewhat of a deterrent. Both Rada and Makaya priests, both male and female, are members of these groups, and if they hear of a person who has committed a serious crime, such as rape, murder or even desecrating a Vodou temple, that person will be put on trial in absentia and if found guilty, will face an acceptable punishment. This can range from a “coup de l’air”, which is a weak curse meant to bring bad luck or mild illness, to the ultimate penalty of zombification. The exact process of zombification is a well guarded secret, but it is know to involve the abduction of the condemned individual and the administering of a special paste made from ground roots and various ingredients extracted from leaves and animal parts. The condemned in then buried underground for one whole day, and miraculously does not die from lack of oxygen but remains in a completely paralyzed state. The following evening, he is then revived and set to work for determined amount of time, after which he is somehow restored to normal thinking capacity and returned to his family. This is the official statement from the hougans regarding zombification, although it is doubtful that zombies are truly deprived of oxygen for so long, and it is logical to assume that the zombies are given regular doses of poison to keep them in that mindless state. There have been few official studies conducted by western scientists on the process of zombification and there is much that we don’t know, except that it is a very real phenomenon.
Vodou justice has always existed in Haiti even in the early days of the Saint Domingue colony when it served as the only refuge for slaves discontent with their masters. A particularly abusive master might one day find a dead chicken and a string of beads on his front porch and then the whole family would fall mysteriously ill. Vodou was also no doubt a driving force behind the uprising that made Haiti the first Caribbean colony to gain its independence from European powers and indeed the first independent black nation in the world. This brings us to the concept of Vodou as unifying force in Haitian culture. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than during the reign of the dictators François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier who both exploited the general population’s fear of Vodou to solidify their draconian rule over the island, but in the end Baby Doc underestimated the quality of Vodou to rouse and empower the people and it was one the leading factors that lead to the downfall of the Duvalier dynasty in a popular revolution that started in the churches and Vodou temples of Haiti.
A native of Port-au-Prince, François Duvalier first rose to fame during the 1940’s as a physician when, through an extensive inoculation program, he nearly eradicated typhus and yaws (a bacterial infection much like leprosy) from the general population. He was a national hero and was appointed minister of health in 1949. During the 1950’s he continued to secure his power by gaining the loyalty of the Haitian army. Duvalier won the 1957 presidential election; some say by means of fraud and intimidation, but most likely because he was the first black politician of any importance since the American occupation of Haiti had left the government in the hands of the white and mulatto elite and people saw him as a figure of black pride and power. After winning the presidency, to consolidate his power, he ordered the deaths all the members of the army that had opposed him during his rise to power. He formed a personal militia called the “Tonton Macoutes”, named after a boogey-man type figure from Haitian folklore, which would terrorize the general population and weed out anybody disloyal to the Duvalier regime. In 1964, he declared himself “President for Life.” One of the most effective methods employed to strengthen his grasp of the Haitian people was to play into their deep seeded beliefs and superstitions. He began to exploit their fear of the dark side of Vodou.
Duvalier bore a striking resemblance to the lwa Baron Samedi, and he claimed to be a hougan and often imitated the mannerisms of Baron and talked with the nasality typical of the ghédé lwa. People feared Duvalier as he claimed to rule with the blessings of the lwa and that all those who opposed him would incur the wrath of the spirit world. Duvalier succeeded in perverting the most profound beliefs of the people and turning their strong faith into a cause for fear and oppression. Before his death in 1971, Duvalier succeed in infiltrating almost every Vodou house in Haiti and the demacoutization of Vodou would not occur until the early 1980’s when Haitians once again drew strength from spirituality and planned and overthrow Jean Claude “Baby Doc” who succeeded to Haitian presidency at age nineteen after the death of his father.
Baby Doc did not possess the same charisma as his father and was infamous for financial corruption. By the early 1980’s, it was clear that he was losing his hold on power, partly due to the fact that he failed to master his father’s brutal techniques of intimidation and subjugation. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made a visit to the island and was disgusted by the state of affairs and his departing words spoken from the airplane door were, “things must change here!” Following the papal visit, the Roman Catholic clergy began an underground literacy program which had as its focus the education of the lower classes of the city slums and countryside in matters such as voter registration and the importance of free speech. The Vodou community, which includes many devout Catholics, also took part in this popular revolution and began the demacoutization of Vodou and many prominent hougans and mambos publicly denounced members of the Tonton Macoutes operating in their houses. In late 1985, the protesters took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and demanded the abdication of Jean Claude Duvalier, often invoking the name of Papa Legba, Damballah and all the lwa and saints in the name of freedom and democracy, much like their ancestors had done in colonial times. In early 1986, Duvalier left office and took refuge with his mother Simone “Mama Doc” Duvalier in France, where he lived for many years until recently returning to Haiti after which he was promptly arrested and put of trial for his crimes against the Haitian people.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about the practices and importance of Vodou in Haitian history, culture and politics. It is important to explore the roots of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa to better understand how the practice evolved in New Orleans. I thank you for taking the time to read my blog as always I wish you peace and the sweetest of blessings.