PORT-AU-PRINCE – When Pat Robertson made his now infamous comments about Haiti, it ignited a controversy in the United States and immediately triggered a Facebook page denouncing him.
Robertson, a televangelist and host of the show The 700 Club, took to the airwaves on his show and said that Haiti has been “cursed by one thing after another” since they “swore a pact to the devil.”
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about,” Robertson added. “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘Ok it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.”
Unbeknownst to many, people in Haiti have been espousing such sentiments and in the last few months, the issue has surfaced in the open as Haitians began discussing whether indeed, their independence from France was not born out of pact with the devil.
In the month or so since the earthquake destroyed most of this capital city with a death toll of more than 230,000 people reported by Haitian authorities, Haitians from all walks of life have been saying that they need to have a new way of thinking and acting.
Chief among new consciousness is the country’s faith in Vodou, a mixture of African and Roman Catholicism worshipped by slaves in Haiti and has become the defacto belief of all Haitians. It is commonly said that Haiti is 80 percent Catholic country and 100 percent Vodou.
During the Jan. 12 earthquake, there were few cries of ayibobo, the Vodou calling of the gods. Instead, everyone yelled for Jesus, according to many people interviewed.
“You know one thing that was funny, as much as we like to say ayibobo, we didn’t we all cried for God,” remarked Luke Rimpel, a businessman in Port-au-Prince whose home and business were destroyed. “We have to really think about where we want to go as a nation.”
Animosities aim at Vodou worshippers took a violent tone last week as a ceremony in Cite Soleil was disrupted. According to Max Beauvoir, a prominent Vodou priest, or hougan, a group of about 50 worshippers had gathered at a temple in the infamous slum, ostensibly to honor the dead from the earthquake. He said about 100 protestors armed with rocks began cursing at them and hurling the rocks at the Vodou practitioners.
Beauvoir said that all of the artifacts were destroyed under the watchful eyes of the area’s mayor and chief of police.
“This is stupid, Beauvoir said. “If there is a moment for it, this not the moment to start a religious war.”
Despite the attack, Beauvoir vowed to remain undeterred and called the attacks, “a violence of conscience and human rights violations.”
In addition, there have been reports that food aid has been denied to prominent Vodou worshippers in various neighborhoods.
Haiti began its successful war of independence from France in 1791, when an escaped slave named Boukman gathered thousands of followers in the forests of northern Haiti. Known as the ceremony of Bwa Kayiman, the throngs sacrificed a wild boar and pledged that with the spirits’ help, he would liberate his people and free Haiti.
After 10 years of fighting, slavery ended and Haiti became the world’s first black republic, making Boukman a hero and giving special prominence to Vodou.
Still, Vodou worshippers have been persecuted. A church-led campaign in the 1940s led to the destruction of temples and sacred objects. Hollywood films sensationalizing the religion and legends of the undead pushed the practice further underground. Vodou was recognized as a formal religion in Haiti only in 1987, under a new constitution that recognizes the rights of all religions.
Many missionaries who have flocked to the country since the earthquake say their goals in Haiti are strictly humanitarian.
“We’re not here to practice our religion,” said Chris Hermensen, a Mormon nurse who came after the quake to help treat patients in several hospitals told the Associated Press. “We tell people what are beliefs are but we treat everyone the same. We’re here to help right now.”
In the past, few would have been bold enough to disrupt a Vodou ceremony because of fear of retaliation of the Vodou Gods. The fact that people felt empowered to do so signal a significant change in thinking as Haitians decide how they interact with each other since the calamities of the earthquake.
Vodou has been an integral part of Haitian psyche. But some claim that Vodou is as misunderstood in Haiti as it is outside with many people confusing it with witchcraft. Vodou practitioners say that such attitude is born out of ignorance and people who are miseducated and influenced by detrimental colonial mentality.
“It all has to do with the brainwashing from the colonialists making you doubting of your ancestors’ belief and faith,” said Yoleine Gateau-Esposito, a Brooklyn educator who described herself as a Vodou/Catholic believer. “Of course when in doubt you choose the less popular one to blame although deep inside it is the unconscious mind that is at play.”
Gateau-Esposito, who is from Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake, returned recently there to organize a prayer to pay homage to the dead. During the entire time, she took pains to let those gathering on her large property that this was not a Vodou ceremony and that anyone wishing to leave could do so.
“I specify that I was not doing a ceremony because I didn’t want people to feel obligated to attend the memorial just because they are living on my land,” Gateau-Esposito said. “I wanted them to understand that my faith had nothing to do with the gathering. I was simply coming as a person leaving my belief aside.”