The Haitian Vodou is the world’s most famous form of African Spirituality. Beyond its omnipresent demonization by the West, what are its fundamentals? What are its foundations? We will try to answer.
Haiti is the second most populous country in the Caribbean and one of the “Blackest” countries in the Americas, with 85% to 95% of its population being of African descent. An estimate of 1 million Africans were kidnapped, shipped and enslaved in the country. Haitians come from all over the West African coast, from Senegal to Angola, but also from Mozambique and Madagascar. Some Dinka from Sudan and baGanda from Uganda were also deported to the island. Some Haitians are of course mixed-race with Europeans and Native Americans to a minor extent.
From a cultural point of view, there is a predominance of the Gulf of Benin (Danhome, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana) and the Kongo Empire (Angola, DR Congo, Congo) in the origins of the people of Haiti. The Fon kingdom of Danhome is now Benin. If the roots of Haitians are spread across Africa, then it can be said that the Fon, Yoruba and Kongo fundamentals have had the utmost influence on their present identity. This is reflected in Haitian Spirituality.
Lwa, God’s manifestations
For Haitians, there is a unique God whose name is Bondye (creolized form of the French Bon Dieu (Good God)). Bondye has several manifestations or aspects called Lwa. We are in the definition of African Spirituality, which is a monotheism (unique God) that is polymorphic (possessing several manifestations). Thus in Egypt, there was one God (Imana-Ra) and His-Her manifestations (Ntjeru), Olodumare and His-Her Orishas in the Yoruba culture, Ra and His-Her Iskokis for the Hausa people or Waaqa and His-Her Ayaanyas for the Oromo people, etc.
In Africa, God is like a multi-faceted diamond. It is these facets or God’s appearances that the Fon people of Benin call Vodoun. The word thus crossed the Atlantic and designated the religious cult as a whole, although the term Lwa has taken up its deeper meaning. So in Haiti, when God is concerned with the defense of the people, He-She is Ogun as among the Yorubas. When He-She presides over knowledge and its acquisition, He-She is Damballa like for the Fon people. When He-She is in charge of protecting the waters, He-She is Simbi like in Kongo culture, etc. Haitians do not define themselves as Vodouists, but as those whose role is to sevi lwa (serve the Lwas).
There are 21 nanshons (groups) who worship the Lwas differently. One of the main cults being Rada, gathers the oldest manifestations of God, originating principally from Danhome; Kongo brings together God’s manifestations associated with the Kongo pantheon or Petwo that consists of the warrior gods of the Haitian revolution. We can also mention Mandinka (from present Mali and Guinea), Ibo (Igbo from Nigeria) or Nago from Angola, etc.
The cult to the Lwas consists partly in feeding them. In the African thought, God is the invisible consciousness that, by His-Her will, brought forth from Him-Her the Energy that created the world. This initial and totalizing Energy is distributed among His-Her manifestations and in each element of the Creation. When God makes the waters run continually, He-She spends energy. When He-She illuminates the Earth through the Sun, He-She also spends energy, etc. In doing so, God – through His-Her forms – gets exhausted while working. Humans therefore make offerings and sacrifices to reinvigorate them and for the cycle of life to continue.
This is the reason why Haitians give meals and make sacrifices that the Lwas spiritually feed on. This is also the reason why during the drought in Egypt in Pharaoh Djoser’s time, he asked his minister and priest Imhotep what form of God to reinvigorate so that water comes back.
Another aspect of the cult to the Lwas is connection. Like absolutely everywhere in authentic Africa, through rites and dances, a Lwa takes possession of one of his servants who goes into trance. This scene is described by the Hausa people with the entry into trance of the Magadjiya (the priestess), in Madagascar with the possession of Mpimasy (the priest), or among the Zulus with the possession of Sangoma, etc.
The ontological components of the Being
In the Haitian culture, two of the main components of the Being are the Gwobonanj (big good angel) and the Tibonanj (little good angel). The Gwobonanj is what the Egyptians called Ka or what is called Selido in the West African Vodoun. The Tibonanj is the Egyptian Ba and the West African Semedo. The Human being, like any element of the creation, carries a part of the Divine Energy. It is this energy assimilated to the Creator Himself-Herself that makes him live. This individual energy is called Ka/Selido/Gwobonanj. The human also has a soul, which gives him a moral sense and which makes him accountable for his actions in the terrestrial world. It is the Ba/Semedo/Tibonanj.
At death, there is separation between the material body (flesh) and the energetic and spiritual entities. The Vodou priest thus performs the rite of Dessounen on the dead, who acted positively all his life. It is a matter of separating – in an orderly manner – the components of the Being and sending the Tibonanj (soul) to Paradise.
Throughout Africa, special rituals are performed for the souls of those who have respected the divine laws. In the Bwiti culture of Gabon, the soul of the deceased arrives in the courtroom to prove that he did good all his life. In Egypt the deceased arrives in the room of two Maats to prove that he respected the 42 commandments. The deceased who passes this test becomes a deserving ancestor.
Ginen, the land of the ancestors
It is the justified ancestors, that is to say those who have successfully passed the trial of the last judgment, who are entitled to approach God and to speak to Him-Her. These ancestors live in a place called Butdenga by the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, Ginen by Haitians. Ginen is the creolization of Guinea and designates a cosmic Africa where the Gwobonanj (energies) of the deserving ancestors stay.
Since energy never dies on the basis of a unanimously accepted physical principle, the Vodouist thus enters, through rites, in contact with his deserving ancestor. From Ginen, the ancestral energy comes to manifest itself to its descendants. The adept gives him-her food to reinvigorate him-her and so that he-she passes across the messages of the living to Bondye.
The dead in the African tradition are never dead. They died through their flesh and live through their energies. It is this African – yet logical – concept of the living-dead, associated with God’s name in the Kongo culture (Nzambi), which is probably the origin of the devalued word zombie in the Americas and throughout the Western world.
The ceremonies for the ancestors in Haiti often begin with the story of the ancestral lineage of the Vodouist. It is the same thing in Africa. The authentic African does not have a surname and a first name like the Europeans. The Africans mention their identity by going back to their family tree. For example: I am … daughter of … herself daughter of … himself son of … from the house of … from the clan of … from the ancestral family … of the people … etc. This is how one mentions their identity in Africa; a person is only part of a community, since he is the continuity of his ancestors from the primordial Ancestor (God). It’s colonization that changed that.
In Vodou, both women and men can exercise priesthood. This is a foundation of the African Spirituality, inherited from the androgynous (male and female) perception of the Creator and matriarchy. The Vodou priestess is called Mambo. The priest is said to be Houngan. We also note that the priest in the Dogon culture of Mali is called Hogon. This women’s right is opposed to the revealed religions which do not allow women to be priestesses, based on patriarchy. All antiquity black civilizations (Egypt, Phoenicia/Carthage, Indus Valley, etc.) also had women as priestesses or even religious leaders.
The repression and the demonization of Vodou
The reader who has followed us so far may be surprised by the logic that emerges from Vodou and will certainly wonder where this extraordinarily negative image of this religion comes from. It is this image that also resonated on the Beninese Vodoun. The mention of this single word causes fear, mockery, and rejection to the extent that, many Haitians emphasize that they are not Vodouist while at least ¾ of the population might actually serve the Lwas.
African Spirituality in general has been soiled in the genocidal process of Europeans over Africa. Since Africans had to be deprived of their humanity to justify their enslavement, it was necessary to demonize our religion. Slavers also knew that Africans fortified in their culture, history, languages and spirituality would be rebellious slaves. Just as we know today that such an African is impervious to white supremacy.
This is why African rites were banned in the Americas during the slave trade and Africans were forcibly Christianized by the missionaries. But Vodou resisted in secrecy and by adopting Christian elements such as the Virgin Mary, St. Patrick, St. Peter and the concept of paradise in order to survive and hide its practices.
After the Haitian revolution, supported spiritually by Vodou, the white world avenged itself after this monumental and humiliating defeat, by propagating the idea that this religion is an illogical superstition and maleficent cannibalism to the extent that, during the 2010 earthquake that left 230,000 dead, many Christians felt that God punished Haiti for its Vodou practice.
But even Haitian elites, often mixed-race and contemptuous of Africa, participated in this demonization by banning Vodou repeatedly. Until 1941, the police was burning temples and the local Catholic Church did a ubiquitous and demonizing job. It was only until 1987 that freedom of religion was recognized in Haiti.
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By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbidden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)
– Encyclopedia of African Religion, Ama Mazama and Molefi Kete Asante
– Haitian Vodou: an introduction to Haiti’s indigenous spiritual tradition, Mambo Chita Tann
– Vodou Haitian religion, article by Elizabeth McAlister for Britannica
– L’Impératif Afrocentrique, Ama Mazama