Roshmee Roshan Lall’s recent article in the Guardian, Voodoo Won’t Save Haiti, Says Cardinal, is so problematic on so many levels the temptation to ignore it is only outweighed by the number of people who have called it to my attention. They expect me to respond and so I shall. Lall’s expertise in international affairs is in business and economics so why the journalist is writing about religion even from a development perspective is my first question? Before I continue, it is imperative that one glaring observation be made: She misspells Vodou or has not made it clear to the Guardian’s editors that the orthographically correct spelling of the religion and discipline is V-O-D-O-U and not Voodoo or voodoo. The latter’s implicit racist and Afrophobic leanings repels a person such as myself, a human rights activist, author and Manbo Asogwe (a female high priest in Haitian Vodou) from reading any further. See:http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/13/voodoo-big-problem-haiti-cardinal-chibly-langlois)
While Roshmee Lall’s spelling is an eyesore, it is her subject the Cardinal Chibly Langlois and his conservative, dangerous intolerance of the traditions and culture of those he was chosen by the current head of the Roman Catholic papacy, Pope Francis to pastor. Cardinal Langlois’ appointment might be historic but it epitomizes manifestations of Afrophobia gone awry. Cardinal Langlois is an Afrophobe. Afrophobia is the irrational fear of the people, culture and sensibilities of African descendants. And yes, one may be an African descendant and be Afrophobic. Such individuals are amongst the most effective at suppressing their fellow brothers and sisters. They consume the spaces of our imaginations, our cultural agency and capacity for building on what we believe are the best options for making sense of our lives be it spiritually, intellectually, economically or socially. As these social problems sink into our realities, they take a twisted turn towards devouring our geopolitical spaces. Such individuals are the facilitators of injustice, spatial, juridical and policy-related. Is it a wonder that such a man has been appointed Cardinal during the administration of a President (Martelly) who in 2012 would succumb to the demands of the international donor community to alter the constitution of Haïti and outlaw (yet again) the practice of Vodou? His dismissal of this African-based tradition as “magic” reeks of the worst Hollywood pulp fiction of the American Occupation of Haïti 1915-1934.
Langolis’ accusation of Vodou’s magic would be amusing were they not so misleading. Magic is an art form that is in the business of creating illusion and states of suspended animation, making disbelief what we believe and what we have been made to think impossible, possible. Even as a Vodou priest I would argue the same can be said about most religions. Perhaps this argument can be said of all believers and even non-believers as well, for we chose to believe certain myths, tales, facts, and theories written in books or passed to on to us verbally regardless of their feasibility or evidence towards improbability. Yet, some might call such rationalizing leaps: “faith?” Vodou however is more than just a set of religious tenants but a discipline that has order outside of its sacerdotal attachments, outside of rites and ceremonies. Vodou is a healing centered, eco-theological tradition of liberation that provides a basis for sustaining and transmitting the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors into sacred rites. It is the foundation of the moral and ethical standards we uphold as African descendants. Vodou’s intellectual and spiritual framework teaches and advocates a self-sufficient, democratic, equalitarian and egalitarian way of living that holds each member of the community accountable for his or her actions.
Vodou…is the foundation of the moral and ethical standards we uphold as African descendants. Zanj Amba Se Mwen, the Angel Beneath the Heavens Is Me What most people don’t understand is, the ethical and moral foundation of Vodou practitioners is a philosophic or epistemologic disposition (that is, manner in which we gather knowledge) and ontological overview (the nature of existence or being) that is based on our understanding of community. It is found in the simple greeting of “Honor and Respect” (Onè..respè) and konesans, namely a body of knowledge of community life whose foundation is better known in the globe community as Ubuntu. A humanist principle that informs us we are defined by each other; that our lives take on resonance when we are in concert with “us.” Ubuntu or konesans instructs you and me, that we are the summation of those who came before us, that the energy of the departed in the known and unknown world is transformational and is still among us. Time does not erode the relationship we have with our ancestors. That they are we and we are they: the Zanj/the ancient African warriors of Basar/Keepers of Divine Knowledge/the Angel beneath the heavens, is me (and you). Irrespective of our station in life, we come to understand that our humanity like clay takes its form with the meeting of the disparate elements that form our community. Our individual person joined in commune … like water and earth, wind and fire when joined together… all things are possible. These notions make Vodou such a revolutionary construct. This is the “Vodou” that made Haïti possible.
The battle for our souls, for that form of supremacy took a turn with the racialization of the slave trades. It turned into a battle for annihilation of the institutional memory of Africans. Belief systems embodied in the religious philosophies of Vodou, Lukumi, Bwiti, and Bantu-Kongo (for example) would in turn be subverted. Notions of Ubuntu, of African community and African humanity as found in the AfroAtlantic would be unhinged. That these spiritual or religious bodies that initiate, and train African descendants (pitit LaAfrik Ginen) to serve the public memory of the collective masses, are discredited is telling. Destruction of the principles they uphold and the respective infrastructures that support them when coupled with the imposition of an eschatologically-based belief system that profits from the suffering of others, and further partnered with an economic system that encourages exploitative behaviours was paradoxically its own “end of the world” for Africans. Only it would not be.
Black spiritual power would continuously contest that of the Church and challenge European concepts of religiosity, memory, and institution building. Vilification of African spiritual traditions knowingly undid the African person, casting the net of Afrophobia well into the 21st century. Sadly our own brother Cardinal Langlois is such an example. As a public institution, the European Church is a public witness to the open and voyeuristic suffering of Africans. Beyond justification of the Code Noir through Biblical canon, the Code Noir forced baptism and conversion to Christianity, leading Africans away from their proper religious traditions. Instead they/we were made to believe a life of suffering would be rewarded with a good death and a place in Heaven at the end of the world. History shows us the colonial French government and the Church had determined the apocalypse of liberated, sovereign Africans would come with economic impunity and a type of social amnesia.
Historically, the Church’s involvement in matters of economic development of formerly colonized countries have made it part of the apparatus of state recidivism, in this instance, the Church is a tool of the State to deny the human right to memory– le droit de mémorie. I not dismiss the many good services the Church may provide but instead wish to call attention to that organization as an instrument of state oppression. The Church is the most effective structure of forgetting history. It creates a lieu de desounen, a place of removing the residue of life, a term I coined for spaces that are designed for erasing memory especially of those enslaved and formerly enslaved peoples. African descendants revisit such a place every Sunday to reinforce the notion that we should accept the status quo and embrace their/our fate. Contradicting the exorcism of memory are Vodou ceremonies as our services are acts of remembrance. The arrival of the Lwa in ceremonies are a reminder of the range of options we have when confronted with adversity or opportunity. To that end, as I shame the Church for its abuses, I shame Vodouyizan that abuse our power and knowledge.
At the intersection of the Lwa and the Lord, Langlois makes one interesting point: that Vodouyizan should be Vodouyizan, and Christians Christian. Haitian Vodou practitioners must analyze why the latent colonialist habit of going to ceremonies on Saturday nights and running to Church for Sunday morning mass and communion remains in tact. Littering altars with the iconography of saints and images of Jesus that look nothing like those venerating them is beyond a matter of syncretism but the unyielding infrastructure of enslavement and the tenacity of the Code Noir, on our imaginations. Some in the community like Neg Mawon a reknown drummer, cultural activist, radio personality and Ougan Asogwe (male high priest) suggested if Vodouyizan stayed in their/our own camps as Langlois suggests, the local Church would immediately feel the economic impact of their absence. The Stuff of Manbo Jumbo and Hocus Pocus Vodou is not a salvation based belief system so no – it will not save you. It will not save me. Its intention is not to save but to serve and to heal. Going to the Ngangan or Vodou priest is the norm in African-centered societies because it is the job of the priest (often extraordinarily trained herbal doctors) to heal. Unlike the Christian priest, we heal not just with words and ointments of unknown substance but medicinal plants, herbs, roots, barks, leaves…the pharmacy of nature, in other words with the Manbo Jumbo (Big Medicine) that is botany, chemistry, science acquired thorough years of study and centuries of cultural transmission not “hocus pocus.” Vodou provides its adepts that ability to assume control of his/her world. To have a hand in determining one’s circumstances and govern one’s space of spiritual agency, that is what annoys the Church so profoundly. It is that knowledge of how to be self-administering, self-sustaining, self-sufficient, these basic Pan-African constructs that lead to and sustain Black liberation.
Vodou and other African based traditions of the Americas are critical to the realization of UN Millennium Development Goals and the My World Campaigns focused on the alleviation of poverty. Destroying Vodou and discrediting it is what contributes to Haïti’s and much of the Caribbean and Latin American poverty and condemns us to invisibility. Even on the eve of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024, we are made to believe that our knowledges and cultures are without value. That the knowledge of our ancestors allowed us to gain freedom, and to sustain ourselves is meaningless. This illusion is the magic of the Church. This is where its teachings remove the will of God from us. Internalized Afrophobia makes us afraid of and disregard our natural selves.
I renew my call for a world stage, a forum already proposed to the Organization of American States, that invites religious leaders of the AfroAtlantic World, academics and governments (Ministers of Justice, those of Culture and Education) to sit together so that we understand collectively the cultural patrimony of the AfroAtlantic World, and comprehend how repressing African-based spiritual traditions and knowledge production diminishes human capacity and development in the region. Perhaps together we can work towards developing resolutions to protect our cultural and human rights, and establish the institutions that will enforce those rights and create policy like a Vodou Anti-Defamation League, and a NATO of sorts: Northern AfroAtlantic Alliance & Treaties Organizations. The truth is, it’s not really the Cardinal I have a problem with, it’s not even the Church per say but instead what happens at the kafous, or the crossroads of where the various institutions and their ideologies meet: the Church and the IMF, the Church and US foreign policy, the Church and racism, the Church and Afrophobia, the Church and Vodou. Intersections are tricky milieus to navigate.
It is the vodoun that lay there – where Papa Lebga (a guardian of meeting points) awaits us at the gate ajar – it may be about to open or might be ready to close. We in Vodou at least know to be mindful of both possibilities at all times, the Catholic Church would be wise to do the same. Though the month of August, in the spirit of Bwa Kayiman all Vodou practitioners are asked to evoke the force of justice that is Ogou by lighting a red candle every day. When Trayvon Martin was killed we stood in solidarity “Hoods Up” with this current attempted assassination of Vodou we call on our brethren, “Red Candles Blaze” Limen balenn nou!
Dòwòti Désir is a Manbo Asogwe in Haïtian Vodou, the Founder of the DDPA Watch Group human rights organization (www.ddpawatchgroup.info) and author of Goud kase goud: Conjuring Memory in Spaces of the AfroAtlantic (2014). She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REFERENCES: • Désir, Dòwòti, Wòch kase wòch: Redlining a Holocaust, Memorials and the People of the AfroAtlantic, unpublished manuscript (2013) • Horne, Gerald, The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, New York University Press 2014 • Sala-Molins, Louis, Le Code Noir ou le calvaire de Canaan, Quadrige/PUF 1987 • Soja, Edmond W., Seeking Spatial Justice University of Minnesota 2010 And: • Ulysse, Gina Athena, “Defending Vodou in Haiti”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/defending-vodou-in-haiti_b_1973374.html • The Code Noir https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/335/ • English translation of Pacte Coloniale, http://www.shvoong.com/social-sciences/sociology/1779711-pact-colonial/