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.