Voodoo rites mark Haiti strife

Hundreds drawn to sacrificial ceremonies

SOUVENANCE, Haiti – Haitians celebrated one of the year’s most important voodoo pilgrimages on Sunday, an event marked by drumming, sacrifices and discussion of whether Haiti’s new government can heal a country still reeling from a bloody rebellion.

Carrying a heavy political significance this year, the pilgrimage drew hundreds to Souvenance, a village 145 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince, where followers made animal sacrifices to the West African warrior spirit Ogoun and danced to dizzying drum beats.

Founded by former slaves from the kingdom of Dahomey – now Benin – this dusty village fringed by cactus trees holds the ceremony each year during the Rara carnival, when bands of costumed drummers and dancers roam the countryside.

Wrapped in white satin scarves, initiates to the sect chant and dance throughout the night to beckon spirits as onlookers gather. Rum, cane liquor and herbs are offered to appease a pantheon of spirits.

On Sunday, the faithful sacrificed goats and held them overhead, the goats’ blood dripping onto their heads and staining their white clothes.

Voodoo is one of Haiti’s three constitutionally recognized religions, along with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the government sanctioned voodoo marriages, baptisms and other rites. Two-thirds of Haiti’s eight million people are said to practise voodoo, which worships one Creator and many spirits, or loas.

“Voodoo is all about unity,” said George Fernand, 63, a voodoo houngan, or priest. “We’re hoping the new government will help bring us unity.”

Some of the rebels who staged the revolt that ousted Aristide on Feb. 29 held voodoo ceremonies at the launch of their insurgency.

An offering to the voodoo god of war burned in Gonaives, the site of Haiti’s declaration of independence from France 200 years ago and where the latest revolt began.

On Saturday night, initiates gyrated in front of Wilfred Ferdinand, a rebel leader known as Little Wil, and a houngan gave him a special blessing.

“Voodoo allowed us to accomplish a lot,” said Ferdinand, guzzling beers as he watched the trancelike dancing in the dirt-floor voodoo temple. “I’ve come to pay my respects and see it all happen.”

The rebels have close ties to Haiti’s impoverished masses, while the nation’s new U.S.-backed interim government is composed of technocrats, many of whom spent years abroad.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue says the government will hold elections in 2005.

At least 300 people were killed in the rebellion. Some parts of the country are still without police and international peacekeepers.

“The country needs security and it needs leaders who can help stop the hunger that so many of us have,” said Roget Biename, 54, a resident of Souvenance, which like most villages in Haiti is plagued with malnutrition and lack of clean water. “If the government wants to earn our trust they will have to work on all these things.”

Voodoo rituals date back more than 400 years and have roots among the Yoruba tribe of Togo, Benin and parts of Nigeria.

The religion was banned by French colonial authorities, forcing slaves to hide their faith by adopting Catholic saints to correspond to African deities.

Several presidents also outlawed voodoo, but it surged under dictator Francois Duvalier, or Papa Doc, who with his top hat and glasses resembled Baron Samedi, the voodoo guardian of the dead.

Because of deepening poverty, voodoo – which often requires pricey offerings of alcohol and food to the spirits – has lost some followers. But most practise the religion.


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Associated Press, USA
Apr. 12, 2004
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 13, 2004.
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