THE VODOU CEREMONY -- "Sacred Waters"
We sat on the balcony of the Oloffson Hotel in the cool early morning, waiting for our guide to arrive. Blancs (whites and all other foreigners) often need a "fixer" in Haiti, someone to translate and navigate dangerous situations and missed cultural cues. Two photographer friends and I were headed north on a long drive to a Vodou ceremony, and Milford, a Haitian artist, who often works as a guide, had agreed to go with us.
"I have terrible news," Milford informed us as he limped over to our breakfast table. "I can't go with you," he said, showing us an oddly swollen knee. "But," he said brightly, "I present to you Jean."
No offense to Jean, but he was not exactly what we needed. His English was terrible, his energy frenetic and as we reluctantly agreed to take him, I heard Milford whispering to him, "No drinking."
By 8 a.m., we were off on our adventure to the small northern village of Plaine du Norde. Every year, thousands of Vodou practitioners gather there in honor of St. Jacques, the warrior spirit. The ceremony is centered around sacred waters.
Water in the Vodou religion is multifaceted in significance and use. It is offered as refreshment and nourishment to the spirits and used for cleansing in ceremonies and initiations. Water is where certain spirits and ancestors reside, and its fluidity is thought to offer the lessons of change.
"Water is one of the five precious elements of the world that we look to in Vodou," said Dorothy Desir, a mambo, or Vodou priestess, living in New York City. (Since Jean's English was so poor and his hand so heavy to the bottle, despite Milford's admonishment, I interviewed Desir when I returned to New York, to ask her questions about the ceremony I had attended.)
The drive north is a jarring experience, literally. Much of the road is unpaved and covered in potholes. What should have been a two-hour drive turned into a dusty, bumpy eight-hour grind. Yet the scenery was spectacular in places. The sea shone robin's egg blue, the rice fields radiated florescent green and the towering mountains seemed to touch the sky. As we neared Plaine du Norde, we passed small four-wheel drive trucks loaded with people wearing blue and red, the colors of St. Jacques.
St. Jacques is the Catholic personification of the African spirit Ogun. When slaves were brought to Haiti, they were baptized as Catholics and forbidden to practice their African religions. Yet they continued to do so in secret and incorporated Catholicism into their traditions. Most spirits in Vodou are represented with both an African and a Catholic name. Ogun, or St. Jacques, is the warrior spirit and is associated with fire, iron, politics and thunderbolts.
"Ogun is the one who cuts, makes the way, lays the infrastructure for us," explained Desir.
We dumped our bags at our hotel in Cap-Ha´tien (the closest city to the ceremony that had lodgings), picked up another photographer who works for the Associated Press and, on Jean's advice, stuffed our pockets with change to offer in exchange for our voyeurism.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived. The basin where people worship was less a body of water than a mud pit, and it was about the size of a basketball court. Around the basin a seven-foot-high stone wall rose up, and there were openings on either side where people could enter. Thousands of people milled about, and vendors lined up in rows to sell food, rum and clothing. Small huts called peristyles dotted the entire area. The peristyles, where the Vodou families go to worship, are open-sided structures with makeshift roofs.
That first evening, the muddy basin was fairly quiet, so we spent much of the time in and around the peristyles. Inside, the drums sounded a powerful rhythm, and the smell of rum, earth and sweat was intoxicating. The drums call the spirits. There is only one god in the Vodou religion, but there are many spirits, referred to as Lwa. There are thousands of Lwa, and they represent universal concepts: nature, ancestors and everyday life. They can be keepers of the crossroads, protectors of women, representatives of agriculture, or spirits of the wind and the rainbow. During ceremonies, Lwa can "mount," or possess, practitioners, inhabiting the human form in order to communicate.
Inside the peristyle, people swayed and danced. A man beside me was mounted, and his body contorted as he was temporarily released and the spirit took over. The power of a spiritual presence flickered over me, and I felt overwhelmed and walked out into the night. A little girl in a white dress came out of nowhere and wrapped herself around my waist. Her heart beat rabbit-fast, and I felt comfortable and welcome.
The next day the mud basin was busy. "One goes to this source of water, to these muddy banks, to nourish and fortify oneself, to rid ourselves of certain negative energies ... and to bring forward positive energy, goodness, strength, power and the ability to forge our way through difficulties," Desir told me later.
I watched throughout the day as male and female priests on the muddy banks washed people with herbs, water and rum. Animals were sacrificed in order to replenish the spirits. Women in red and blue stood at the edge of the basin, holding candles and throwing offerings of food and rum into the muddy waters. Ogun is particularly fond of rum, they say, and it was ubiquitous at the ceremony. Sometimes, mounted by a Lwa, people waded into the mud, and immersed themselves completely.
As evening fell, the ceremony began to feel like a party. People prepared to dance the night away or sat quietly with their families, readying themselves to return to their daily lives. We lay down on the hood of our truck and smoked cigarettes and drank Coca-Colas. Jean hadn't been the best of fixers, but at least he had kept us together and out of harm's way.
Back in New York, Desir, the priestess, spoke of the necessity of linking the religious experience to political change.
"When you leave there, for me, one should be thinking about how do I get my government to provide the infrastructure, the wells, the pipes, the drainage, the very things that Ogun calls for," Desir told me. "The creation of infrastructure ... the calling down of thunder ... that kind of power, that kind of might, that warrior energy to help bring about change."