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