Gonaives: Vodou Heartland

by Claire Payton

Gonaives, the largest city in the Artibonite region of Haiti, is considered by many to be the heartland of Vodou traditions in Haiti. This reputation comes in part from the presence of three prestigious temples: Souvnans, Soukri, and Bajdo. Each of these three temples preserve a different strands of Vodou tradition that trace back to cultural ancestries in Africa: Souvnans is associated with Dahome nanchon (or nation), Soukri the Congo nanchon, and Badjo with the Nago nanchon. Each tradition serves different loa with distinct dances, songs and drumming rhythms. These temples claim histories that date back many years, even into the colonial era.

Over the years Gonaives has played an important role in shaping Haitian history. Many of the most important challenges to central authority in Haiti emerged from this dusty coastal city. It was from Gonaives that Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Haitian independence from French colonial rule on January 1, 1804. The city was also the site of popular opposition to the rule of Jean-Claude Duvalier, and protests there contributed to the downfall of the dictator in 1986. When in early February 2004, armed rebels seized control of Gonaives, it signaled the beginning of a coup that led to the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a few weeks later.

In 2008 Gonaives was hit by a devastating series of hurricanes that killed thousands of people and destroyed much of the area. Souvnans, Badjo, and Soukri were badly damaged. The lakous struggled to maintain the normal rhythm of the annual festivals despite the destruction of their sites and the roads required to take people there. In September 2009, Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis oversaw the reparation of these sites of national patrimony, further cementing their reputation as invaluable sites of Haitian cultural and historical heritage. (To learn more about this moment in Gonaives history, read some of Le Nouvelliste articles on our links page.)

Interactive Vodou Altar


Move your mouse around the picture to learn about some of the things included on an Vodou alter honoring Gede, the lwa of death and sex.


Lakou Souvnans

by Claire Payton

Lakou Souvnans has the largest and grandest temple in the Gonaives area. At Souvnans, practitioners honors and preserves the Dahomey (or Rada) traditions, which are traced to the African kingdom of Dahomey, or present day Benin. Loa associated with the Rada tradition include Danbala Wedo, and Ayida Wedo.

When we arrived at the lakou in the small town of Souvnans outside of Gonaives on the afternoon of November 2, 2012. The lakou was relatively empty, with a few people milling about a fritay stand by the entrance. Souvnans really picks up around the annual pilgrimage that begins on Good Friday and continues through Easter weekend and into the following week. During this festival visitors celebrate Dahomey as the mythical homeland of Haitians. During Souvnans, some practioners are known to endure sèp, a spiritual punishment inflicted by the loa upon the faithful for violations of Vodou laws. The bodies of the practitioners go stiff and they are often locked into the roots or branches of a sacred tree. This can endure for several hours (some say days) before the loa, often at the behest of the priest, release the victim. One of our companions, a student of Michelet, attested that he had seen people punished with sèp be held captive by the roots of the trees that arched above us in the Souvnans lakou.

We stood before the ornate red wrought iron gates of the peristyle until Roger Bien-Aimé, the spiritual leader of Souvnans, came to greet us, ceremoniously, with a candle in hand. He was accompanied by a sèvitè carrying a drapeau, or Vodou flag. Our team fell into a procession as we crossed the peristyle and entered the temple. Bien-Aimé led us to each of the alters that were erected throughout the rooms of the temple and ouguan Michelet, our host and guide, was invited to salute each loa and explain to them the nature of our research. Each alter was decorated in spirit of the loa it honored. As the video above shows, Bien-Aimé used this time to ask us questions about our research and tell us a little about Souvnans. He explained that the Rada traditions are distinct from the Kongo traditions practiced at Soukri, and that Souvnans has a school for learning Rada drum rhythms. He mentioned that in the Dahomey tradition of Benin their ceremonies are almost entirely based around sacred trees, and they have access to enough land to raise groves of trees, whereas in Haiti he did not have the ability to control that much land. After these conversations we began a formal interview in the inner peristyle.

Watch the interview to learn from Bien-Aimé how he became the leader of the Lakou and what it is like to run the temple.

Lakou Badjo

by Claire Payton

Lakou Badjo is the lesser known of the three major Gonaives Vodou temples. Badjo maintains the Nago traditions, which are traced to the Yourba people of West Africa. The Nago pantheon is mainly the Ogou family of loa, which are known as warriors and leaders. The temple at Badjo was dedicated to Ogou Batagri. In the passage below, scholar Marie-Joseph Saint-Lot describes some of the qualities of Nago drumming and dance:

“The Nago dance is dedicated to Ogou, nèg la gè (man of war), hence its extreme vigor. This dance is noted for its pirouettes and the rapidity with with it is executed. Here, the accompaniment of the drum is as hot as the dance. This is one of the occasions when the drummer himself might reach his peak and even appear possessed.” — Vodou: A Sacred Theatre

Like the other lakou we visited, it was tranquil with only a dozen or so people walking about the courtyard. In the center of the lakou was a large empty pool surrounded by trees. Madame Michelet told me that during religious festivals the pool is filled with water for ritual baths and possessions. We were greeted by the head of the lakou, Dorsainville Estimé, who invited us inside the peristyle to offer salutations to the loa. After saluting the loa in the hounfort, we settled in the outdoor peristyle and began our interview.

When we began to talk, Estimé had a lot of questions for us about the nature of our research. As the video above indicates, he felt very strongly about the harmful misrepresentations of Vodou in popular media as diabolical and frightening. But after a few minutes he began to recount to us some of Badjo’s history. He said it was founded in 1792 by a man named Azo Badi*, who fought with Dessalines against the French during the Haitian war of independence. The lakou today is still under control of Badi’s descendants. This military heritage has remained an important part of Badjo’s identity, as is evident through the Nago traditions.

*This the the phonetic spelling of the name

Lakou Soukri

by Claire Payton

Our first visit was to Lakou Soukri, outside of Gonaives. Soukri preserves the Congo traditions. The festival of Soukri, one of Haiti’s most important pilgrimages, begins the night of August 14th and continue for two weeks. The celebrations include rituals, dance, meals, ritual baths, music and artistic expressions of all sorts. Like at Souvnans, worshippers at Soukri have been experince the spirtitual punishment of sèp. According to Marie-Jose Saint-Lot (Vodou: Sacred Theatre), lakou Soukri was an important site of anti-Duvalier protests and ceremonies in the weeks and months leading up to the fall of the regime in 1986.

Seated in the hounfort next to the altar when we arrived were Sèvitè Prophète and Sèvitè Marie-Carme Delvas, a married couple that served the loa at Soukri. After our group greeted the loa at the alter with ceremonial libations, we sat in a circle and the foot of the alter and began the interview.


Gede Bal nan Gonayiv

by Eric Barstow

Our first night in Gonayev was preceded by a four-hour long drive from Port-Au-Prince where I was crammed into the back of an SUV with all the bulging equipment poking me in every which way imaginable. The road was full of bumps, holes, and a general unevenness which made me think the shocks must have been inoperable during that ride there. It was probably an unwise decision to decide to go to a party after all that, knowing we had to wake up early the next day to starting our documentation of the Gede holiday being celebrated throughout the city. Settling down and getting some much needed sleep for our tired bodies and weary souls would have been the sensible thing to do.

But I find those in academia are rarely imbued with a strong common sense in these practical situations.

Hence, I decided to go to a Gede bal, at the invitation of Prof. Ben Hebblethwaite, in order get a flavor for the place and its people. We found out about the “fèt” (Creole for party) upon arriving to the hotel. The two of us went with Madame Alisma (the wife of our guide Oungan Michelet) and a few others from the hotel, armed with cameras in hand.

I had expected to walk into something small; a local celebration of modest proportions. I was delighted to see just how many people were in attendance for this gathering. I was reminded by my companions that this was not a formal spiritual ceremony, where specific duties were performed and offices within the recognized religious hierarchy. It was more an infusion of secular Haitian music with elements of vodou tradition. There were groups of dancers who moved sensually across the stage to the rich songs sung to the pounding beat of the drum. There were dance competitions between men competing with one another to see who could dance most suggestively. Singing, dancing, a bar with plenty of libations for the patrons, and the ever-looming expectation of body possessions taking place at any time made for a lively atmosphere, to say the least.

Possessions by the lwa are typical of religious ceremonies, which are more formal than the ball. But they occurred nonetheless: the possessed careened into the audience, seemingly unaware of their own actions. Many of the possessed were women who fell, rolling, and then thrusting on the floor. It was at this point that I turned to my partner in crime, Mr. Hebblethwaite for an explanation. He assured me that these practices were typical wherever the Gede appear, as they are the spirits who rule over two of the greatest inevitabilities of life: sex and death.

The performances were breathtaking and the energy of the place was unrivaled by any rock concert I have attended. We left the scene by about 3am, just when the festivities were going into high gear. It’s typical for these celebrations to last into the early hours when the sun peers over the horizon.

The dance troupe featured in the clip above opened their act with the traditional cracking of the whip on-stage. Later, they incorporated two torches into the dancing, which were then passed to the lead dancer, a man wearing red pants, who spit alcohol from his mouth to spew fireballs into the air. After this was done, there is a notable shift in the audience’s demeanor as they become more excited, energized, and enthralled by the spectacle. The cracking whip and the introduction of fire are both demonstrative of the Petwo spirits. Within the vast pantheon of vodou lwa there is a distinction drawn between the differing nanchon, or nations, of spirits. One of the most widely know nanchon, the Petwo, are known to be hot spirits, having been birthed from the slavery and subsequent revolution on the island of Saint Domingue. The whip lashing across the slaves’ back, the fire of the canons being shot as the rebellion went into full swing, gave form to these lwa of the Petwo nation. These elements are used, as they were at the ball, to attract these spirits to visit the those assembled in their honor.

Watching the performance, I was left to wonder why Gede, the lwa of death,  feature so prominent in the Vodou canon. I was reminded of what Karen McCarthy Brown wrote in her seminal book, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn:

“The Vodou spirits represent the powers at work in and on human life. The wholeness of the spirits – their ability to contain conflicting emotions and to model opposing ways of being in the world – gives Vodou its integrity as a religion.”
-Mama Lola, p.98

It a continuous road I am on to better understand all that vodou has to offer.

Lakou Granchirè

by Eric Barstow

The Gede ceremony held at Société Grandizè proved to be a pivotal experience both in this trip to understand Haitian vodou and in my personal experience.

Haiti is often represented as “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere”.

It is true that poverty exists and must be addressed, but it is detrimental to define an entire people and their culture solely by parameters of impoverishment which can limit our perceptions and even limit their perceptions of themselves. Vodou is a part of Haitian culture that has been suffered from limited and stereotypical representation. It is commonly associated with evil intentions and bizarre behavior with such the vengeful use of “voodoo dolls”, demonic worship, or even cannibalism. My experiences with vodou, starting with this ceremony, contradict those depictions.

The first clip I have shared here shows numerous sèvitè singing behind the queen manbo as they invited God (known as Bondye in Haiti), the lwa, and the saints to hear their prayers and address those in need. They approached the altar with a reverence similar to Protestant or Catholic settings, bowing their heads in supplication.

Their song that echoed through the lakou reminded me that all of us whose ancestors have toiled in the hell of slavery hold this special blood-memory of their suffering in our veins. Watching this part of the ceremony, I could not help but feel the aches and hear the moans of those who have suffered such loss in the island nation as well as throughout the African Diaspora. There was an aching of the heart to reach for something higher than the self.

That evening’s ceremony was conducted to honor of our personal guide in Gonaives, Oungan Michelet Alisma, who is a prominent oungan in that area. It was clear from the spacious peristil, the elaborate matching costumes worn by the dancers, and the food displayed at the altar that this was a wealthy lakou celebrating an important holiday.

The second clip shows Sèvitè Bonapat undergoing a possession by a lwa, who we believe might have been Kouzan Azaka, or Cousin Azaka. This spirit manifests as a peasant farmer who loves to smoke his pipe and make obnoxious gestures, wearing peasant clothes and his tattered straw hat. He is also known for his generosity, sharing the prepared food from his altar with others attending and entertaining the requests of the faithful.

These possession-performances are especially significant in Vodou ceremonies. The entire ceremony is structured to invite the lwa to inhabit the body of the oungan or manbo presiding over the service, or one of the sevite,  to facilitate interaction between the spirits and the congregants. Once possession occurs, it is not the sèvitè speaking any longer, but the lwa using him or her as a contact point to reach those in attendance. This is when the sèvitè becomes the chwal (or horse) of the lwa. The imagery suggests that the servant is mounted and ridden by the spirit that is in operation. Once a possession has subsided, those ridden by the spirits typically have no recollection of what transpired. This video clip documents Bonapat’s possession experience.

–Eric Barstow

Gede nan Simityè Gonayiv

by Eric Barstow

The morning of our trip to the cemetery in Gonayiv, I had envisioned a peaceful and solemn outing where Haitians approach the grave sites of the dearly departed to commune with them and connect with their ancestral dead. Everyone loaded up in the same war horse of an SUV that got us to the city the day previous. Although I had read how Haitians used this time to make supplications of all sorts to their ancestors, I still pictured the occasion to mirror the Catholic masses I had attended as a kid in Queens. What we encountered here, however, threw me into a whirlwind of adaptation as I strove to record video and gain my bearings amidst a raucous atmosphere where so many things were happening all at once.

This is where a lot of my personal upbringing come to bear. You see, I grew up around Haitians. My aunt and cousins, my mother, uncle, godfather and his children, friends around the way; many people have had an influence in my life.

One thing this trip confirmed which I already knew growing up: never call the Haitian people a dispassionate bunch!

The cemetery was an orchestral pit of the converging sounds from the visiting families of believers, whether their allegiance were to vodou or Christianity. Prayers were mingled with supplications, instructions with chastisements as the elders tried teaching the younger children, cries of commerce from merchants walking to and fro offering their little bags of water with other treats of sustenance, and the unmistakable muttering that came from most of the attendees’ disdain for the prying eyes of the “moun blan” who have come to watch them.

Fèt Gede invites this menagerie of activity to descend upon these necropolises which provide connection for the living to their deceased while seeking assurances for a life that can be fraught with turmoil. Asking for protection is common as well as asking for justice for wrongs performed against oneself or the family. As these requests for intervention are made on behalf of the living, there is also a process of appeasement that go hand-in-hand which entail feeding the spirits there with food brought to the grave along with libations being poured out to quench and honor them.

In the above video, I decided to follow one such family who were making offerings to the spirits while surrounded by a crowd of participants and onlookers alike. –EB

In the audio clip below, we enter the cemetery with Michelet and approach the large white cross in the video, Croix-St-Moise. He says a few words about what people how people worship in the cemetery, saying that people come to bring offerings to their ancestors and dead relatives. They give gifts of alcohol, coffee, and roasted nuts in order to please the dead, and also to ask for favors or interventions.

In this clip, Madame Michelet prepares me to give offerings and prayers at the cross of Baron Samedi. Each cemetery has Baron Samedi: he is present in the grave of the first man buried there. She advised me when I pray to him to tell him about the work I was doing for Vodou, along with any problems I may be having in life that I would like his help with. -CP

About the Vodou Archive

The Veve of Gede loa Baron Samedi
The Vodou Archive: Gonaives, November 2012

Our small team of researchers came to Gonaives in November 2012 at the invitation of Oungan Michelet Tibosse Alisma in order to document Gede ceremonies and Vodou practice in Gonaives more broadly. Michelet was born and raised in Gonaives and has since relocated to Miami where he runs a prestigious Vodou temple. Our group of visiting researchers was made up of Ben Hebblewaithe (University of Florida), Aimee Green (University of Florida), Eric Barstow (Duke), and Claire Payton (Duke). This website was created by Eric and Claire as a project for the Haiti Lab at Duke University.

Eric Bartsow is currently completing his Master’s of Fine Arts degree at Duke University’s MFA program in Experimental & Documentary Arts. He has placed all of his focus on filmmaking and understanding the process from beginning to end.

Claire Payton is a PhD student in the Department of History at Duke University, where she focuses on modern Haitian history. She is also the creator of the Haiti Memory Project, an online archival collection of interviews with Haitian earthquake survivors.

The Vodou Archive: Curating and Sharing the Sources of Vodou Religion and Culture (by Professor Ben Hebblewaithe)

This project seeks to improve the understanding of a central Haitian and Haitian American spiritual tradition by gathering the audiovisual and textual sources of Vodou communities, by interpreting what we collect, and by diffusing the knowledge via an open access website. The project is part of a long tradition of scholarly work stretching back to the early twentieth century that has sought to counter reductionist and racist visions of the religion through ethnography, analysis of visual culture and music, and an exploration of Vodou’s language and history. Such work has turned to the central texts in Haitian Vodou: its Creole-language songs. Building on Hebblethwaite’s (2011) Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, this project focuses on making that knowledge available in Haitian Creole and English along with substantial interpretative scholarly apparatuses. The Vodou Archive will be the first extensive multimedia digital library to deliver a diversity of Vodouist perspectives and complement them with rich scholarly exegesis that situates the source materials in their national and international historical and cultural context. In the English-speaking world, Vodou sources are underserved and emerging areas of research. This project is launching an e-library that will fill major gaps in knowledge about the religion and serve as a springboard for research.

What is Haiti Vodou?

Vodou is the hereditary spiritual tradition of African descendants in Haiti (Jil and Jil 2009). Until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars and practitioners began writing down songs, Vodou was transmitted orally from elders to children and from priests to initiates. Vodou, or serving the lwa (spiritual beings and forces), is a religion, philosophy, culture, and way of life that mainly comes from two major regions in Africa: Dahomey and the Kongo. Dahomey was a large African kingdom and empire that lasted until 1892 and included parts of the countries currently known as Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, and Benin, the seat of its power. Dahomian ethnolinguistic groups were the most numerous populations in the early colonial period of SaintDomingue (c. 1680–1750; Bellegarde-Smith 2006). The second major influence came from the Kongo, which supplied the majority of slaves in the late colonial period (c. 1750–1791) (Blier 1995:83; Jil and Jil 2009:199; Rigaud 1953:26). Vodou songs and traditions are important historical records in their preservation of many African historical (i.e. Bosou, Achade), religious (Legba, Danbala), cultural (i.e. lwa, ounsi, ason, oungan), and geographical (i.e. Rada, Savalou, Boumba) terms. Although African influences are fundamental and tangible in Vodou, they are creolized or blended into a coherent Haitian religious and cultural system (Brand 2000:15; Michel 2006:30; Monsia 2003; Rouget 1991, 2001). This system is one among a series of such religions within the Atlantic perimeter—places like coastal West Africa, Bahia, Brazil, Haiti, Florida, and New York—where there are diverse groups that inherited, maintain, or adopted African religions and philosophies (Murrell 2010: 1). Vodou songs are a testament to the tenacity and creativity of the ancestors who taught and practiced these ancient traditions in the dreadful conditions of Saint-Domingue.

Read more



Vodou Terms and Concepts

Drums/ drummers: Drum beats are used to invite the lwa to visit a ceremony. Different drumming styles and rhythms correspond to distinct Vodou traditions. It is used in conjunction with songs, dance, and prayers in the lwa’s honor.

Lakou: A compound or courtyard where families live communally. Vodou temples can be  associated with the lakou that they are a part of. *

Lwa: Vodou spirits created by Bondye (God) to intervene in the everyday affairs of life. This indicates the distance which Bondye places between himself and humanity, allowing on the lwa to converse with followers. The lwa are entreated to participate in Vodou ceremonies, most notably through the possession-performances. There are several distinct families of lwa (known as nanchon) with different characteristics, including Rada, Kongo, and Nago.

Mambo: A female priest. In Haitian Vodou men and women can both be spiritual leaders.

Oungan: A male priest.

Peristil: The roofed structure supported by four poles in which ceremonies are held. *

Possession: (also referred to as possession-performances) occurs when a Vodou lwa takes over the body of the sèvitè, in essence, speaking, walking, and interacting through the vessel of servant. This is called “mounting the horse”, where the body of the sèvitè is a horse ridden by the lwa.

Poto Mitan: The central pole in the peristil, which functions as a major avenue to the spiritual world.*

Sèvitè-  One committed to serving the lwa through ritual practice.

Syncretism: The combining of two or more spiritual systems into a single religious paradigm. This is especially evident in Haitian Vodou, in which religious practices of the West African slaves melded with the Catholic practices and saints of the French colonizers of the colonial Haiti (known as Saint-Domingue).

Vèvè: sacred designs made from cornmeal on the ground to invite lwa to appear in ceremonies. 


Vèvè corresponding to Gede