By Emmanuel Alexandre Jr.
Emmanuel Alexandre Jr. is a Haitian-American filmmaker and instructor living in New York City.He earned a bachelors degree in media studies from Hunter College and a MFA in cinematography and documentary directing from The City College of New York. He was awarded a Bert Saperstein Grant, which allowed him to direct his first documentary film “Welcome to Batey 6.”
The word “Vodoun” or Vodou has always had a negative connotation for me. As a boy I was taught to fear the word. I would never speak about it aloud. I felt it was shameful. Ask a Haitians about Vodou and you get a sense that the person wants to run for the hills. We’ve been taught to fear “Hougan” and “Manbo”. They’re seen as sorcerers who deal in the occult and “black magic” for their own personal gain.
I’ve always wondered why?
We Haitians wish to disassociate ourselves from that word. We feverishly make the “sign of the cross” – we raise our hands to the sky in praise of the Lord – and beg Him to save us.
We would comically use French words like “pardon” or “bien sur” to signal that our social status and education level put us “above” such superstition. Those feelings ran contradictory to what we were living and experiencing as a people.
I was told tales of “Simbi nan dlo” – the water protector or La Sirene, a character who lures men or children into the water.
The sounds of drums from miles away would vibrate deeply into our souls.
All Haitians know the feeling. Men, women, children and elders alike would drop everything and run to cheer the incoming march of a “RaRa” band. Our bodies moved in unison. We smiled freely in exalted happiness. It was an intense, personal feeling.
The Haitian culture that I know is filled with mystical incantations. My mother had rituals that could soothe her son’s nightmares.
Anyone from the corner shoe shine man to the local police officer could tell you in a heartbeat of effective cures for the body’s ailments.
Detaching ourselves from cultural practices that has been passed down from generations is practically impossible. It’s virtually etched and embedded into our DNA. The cognitive dissonance in our psyche is not easily reconciled.
When I moved to the States that feeling of rejection was intensified. We could no longer hide behind that religious or social mask. We’re all Haitians – that name Haitian, however along with that word – Vodou carried a whole new meaning when spoken in our new world. Each can often imply something unspoken – something that is “unclean” or to be feared.
I’ve always wondered – why?
Haitians in America are moved to, not only, reject our African roots – but also to fear them. Too often, when we should be proud of our strength and accomplishments, we “buckle under” criticism and perceptions that others have about us. Words hurt. Sometimes they sting so much that we start to believe them.
Vodou is a very old and complex religion. It defies description in sound bytes or academic jargon. It carries the romance of our ancestral African heritage. It contains fragments of our interwoven belief systems. These, sometimes, took on new and different shapes as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. The religion is believed to have its roots as far back as Ancient Egypt.
In Haiti, the religion was forbidden by the colonial masters fearing that its “mystical powers” would invigorate the slaves to retaliate against them. In 1935 the religion was once again outlawed and forced underground. In 1987, that ban was lifted with the drafting of the new constitution after the departure of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier from Haiti in 1986.
In 2003, then Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic Priest, finally recognized Vodou as an official religion in Haiti. However, that distinction was short-lived. After the horrific earthquake in 2010, Hogan and Mambo were persecuted and the religion was partly blamed for the disaster.
Vodou never really had a chance to right the wrong perceptions projected onto it. In America the word Vodou became “Voodoo”, which is synonymous to witchcraft. “Voodoo dolls” and “zombies” were too often the plots in many Hollywood movies. What was religious and cultural expressions back home is perceived as a cult. Its practitioners are painted as primitive people at best, often as blind followers stuck in rituals of the past.
In reality, the religion is further from these preconceived notions. Vodou is largely based on the principle of family and the relationship with the ancestors. These ancestors are family members that have passed on – over time they are “canonized” much like in Catholicism and become the “Lwa”. These are the spirits that we know of today. The practitioners refer to each other as family and they pay great respect to the elders of that family because of their wisdom, guidance and their position.
Another misconstrued aspect of Vodoun is the reverence to nature. In fact, each Lwa or spirit has a reference to the natural elements – for example “Simbi,” refers to water, “Ogou,” refers to fire, “Ayida-Weddo,” refers to the wind and so on. Manbo and Hougan are skillful herbalists, part of their role is to be a conduit between the Lwa and practitioner to offer cures for comment ailments.
By far, the most romanced aspect of Vodou is the idea of the possession. The Vodou religion is largely based on the belief of the interconnection between the living and the dead or “life continuous“. Practitioners believe that the spirits exist amongst us and the Lwa can be summoned or appear within the living through a practitioner or a priest. Once a believer is possessed or “mounted” the Lwa uses him or her to communicate and navigate through the living. For this reason the religion often engages in great celebrations with lavish offerings. It is not as a symbolism but an offering to pay respect to a guest of honor.
When I arrived at Souvenance, Haiti in 2014 , I was immediately overwhelmed with awe at the sheer beauty of it all. It was a stark contrast to the Vodou that we’ve been taught to fear. The celebration was inviting, the women were glowing with their beautiful white dresses and bright smiles.
The music was entrancing, you can almost be overtaken to another world. The sun was shining bright, children played in the moist dirt and devotees frolicked around in the rich brown water, hoping to cleanse their bodies and souls of all negativity. That experience brought me back to the Haiti that I knew growing up and yet I wondered why this was hidden for all the years.
In Djawento, We’re hoping to initiate the work of changing widely held negative perception of Vodou by presenting an honest look at the religion from the inside. We present to the world images and concepts that continue to inspire us to create. We wish to shatter these antiquated stereotypes about Haiti. We’re trying to reintroduce these visual and sensory concepts, hopefully in a way to invoke curiosity and discussion.
I’d like to see more Haitians at home and Haitians around the world embrace their African roots and culture. I believe that would solve a lot of problems in our society.