Associated Press, July 26, 2003
MICHAEL NORTON, Associated Press
PLAINE DU NORD, Haiti – Carrying candles and a heavy spiritual debt, Josephine Derulien walked for 17 hours to reach this small farming town, swollen by thousands of people during an annual four-day pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage, one of the most important in the Voodoo religion, began Wednesday with rituals to Ogou, the god of war, and ended Saturday with rites to the goddess of love, Erzuli. This year’s crowd of more than 10,000 was half the turnout of last year.
“I swore I would make this pilgrimage,” said Derulien, 30, wearing a blue dress with a red kerchief, the traditional colors of Ogou. “I had a problem and it was solved. Now I’m here to pay my debt.”
Although millions still practice Voodoo – now a state-sanctioned religion in Haiti – some are turning their backs on the religion brought from Africa, testing other faiths as their Caribbean nation grapples with growing instability and poverty.
An estimated 70 percent of Haiti’s 8.8 million people practice Voodoo to some extent, including many who claim to be Catholic or another religion.
But a growing number, estimated at 30 percent, identify themselves as Protestant, said Andre Corten, a Canadian sociologist. This smaller group adamantly oppose Voodoo, which is spelled Vodou in the French and Creole spoken in Haiti.’
Voodoo requires sometimes pricey offerings to a pantheon of gods. In a country where most people survive on less than $1 a day and where the government hasn’t managed to improve conditions, the draw of a cheaper religion is powerful.
Thousands of missionaries – many American – can be seen everyday in Haiti proselytizing and trying to draw people away from Voodoo. Many flock to evangelical Christian churches instead of Voodoo temples.
“The economic stagnation has cast a shadow over Voodoo,” said musician and Voodoo priest Ronald “Aboudja” Derenencourt, 48.
One young girl selling bananas along the pilgrimage route, about 6 miles south Cap-Haitien on the north coast, pleaded with pilgrims to reject Voodoo.
“Voodoo is no good,” said Rose Jean, 12, whose family of six are evangelical Christians. “They don’t recognize Jesus.”
The Catholic Church in the 1940’s waged a campaign to eradicate Voodoo. Although unsuccessful, the religion was driven underground for years and disparaged by foreigners as a hodge-podge of beliefs.
In April, however, the Haitian government officially sanctioned it, allowing priests for the first time to legally perform marriages.
Many Voodoo practitioners have been wary of the step, fearful it was taken to woo them to the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose popularity is waning with hard times.
“Here we pray to everybody. Some pray to St. James, others to Ogou,” said Jean Joseph, 45, a farmer who made the pilgrimage but prayed at the town’s Catholic church. “You serve God or the Devil as you like.”
Not far from the church where Joseph and other others prayed, men and women stripped down to their shorts, and plunged into a shallow mud basin. They emerged in a trance and said they were transformed.
“When I come out of the basin, I tremble. I feel the might of Ogou, who empowers me all year long,” said Voodoo priest Harvey Dorvil, 31.
Around the basin, Voodoo priests, priestesses, and witchdoctors congregate, on the lookout for patients, whose ills they claim they can cure with spells and herbal remedies.
Merchants sold everything from radios and clothing to straw hats and religious items like candles, perfumes, amulets, and images of the saints.
Most seek help for money or love troubles. Derulien, like many, wouldn’t say what she had asked Ogou for.
“Voodoo is our family faith,” said Roseline Pierre, a 25-year-old student nurse from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was born in Haiti. “Its spirituality is powerful. You just have to dig deep enough.”