A Hidden Religion: The Truth of Haitian Vodou

Darmon Richter explores the perpetually troubled nation of Haiti and uncovers the subculture of vodou that locals are often reticent to discuss.

When I signed up for a Young Pioneer tour to Haiti, I didn’t do it for the beaches. It wasn’t for the scenery either, or for the two-day mountain hike which formed the centrepiece of the planned itinerary. More crucially, I was hoping to witness something of Haiti’s national religion: vodou.

We had been warned in advance that the Haitians are loathe to show this side of their culture to tourists. They are a proud people, well groomed in the face of poverty, optimistic in the face of disaster. For many here, vodou is an uncomfortable truth at the core of their culture, a secret face best hidden from the rest of the world.

I had therefore braced myself for a challenge in finding anything authentic. I anticipated distraction and disguise – hints and glimpses of ancient culture hidden behind a wall of Westernised hospitality. I was wrong, however; for in Haiti, the practice of vodou is alive and kicking. It is real, it is raw, it is visceral and it is utterly terrifying.

Our trip started much the way I might have expected: a somewhat predictable tour of the main sites in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, as our group of half-a-dozen-or-so foreigners was whisked – with almost military precision – from one attraction to the next. We visited the national museum, saw the monuments to past dictators. We walked through a market, an experience almost entirely spoilt by the hordes of locals who groped and fawned, attempted to drag us this way and that to view their stalls. Ironically, had they allowed me space to breathe, I might actually have gotten my wallet out.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that we caught our first glimpse of vodou.

E Pluribus Unum, read a sign above the entrance to the art museum on Boulevard J.J. Dessalines; Out of Many, One. It was a Latin phrase lifted straight from the seal of the United States, which marked our entry into a collection quite unlike anything I had ever seen.

Photo series from Haiti, featuring Port Au Prince Grand Cemetery and the Sculptors of Grand Rue. Courtesy of Darmon Richter and The Young Pioneer: An Adventure Travel Magazine.
The Sculptors of Grand Rue in Port Au Prince, Haiti.

Turning a first corner, I ran face-to-face with a skull poking out of the collar of a faded corduroy suit. I looked a little closer… that skull seemed awfully realistic.

The museum consisted of several open-air courtyards, each filled with a forest of grotesque figurines. They depicted gods and demons, Illuminati and Masonic symbolism mixing with the iconic sigils – or veve – of practical vodou. Most of these figures had been stitched together from an assortment of scrap; dolls’ heads glued onto vacuum cleaner parts, industrial remnants fused with wood and glass and bone.

Bones. The more I looked, the more I found them. Bones bleached white or boiled smooth, hips and femurs, vertebrae, ribs and skulls. In a far corner of the collection, a group of men sat huddled about a table, drinking beer and playing dice. They could almost have been another exhibit. As I approached, one of them introduced himself as an artist. I asked him about the human leftovers seemingly incorporated into his work.

“Oh yes,” he nodded enthusiastically, “of course they’re real!”

The artist told me that most of the bones came from the city’s central burial ground, the Grand Cimetière of Port-au-Prince. Before I left, I bought myself a souvenir: a crude wooden board painted white, and detailed with the veve of a powerful vodou spirit, or loa. It took the form of a painted diamond, intersected with crossing lines and framed in a tangle of arms and stars.

A thought crossed my mind.

“Who is this?” I asked, gesturing at the symbol. I had little desire to inadvertently summon a voodoo death god into my home.

Ayizan,” the artist smiled, knowingly. “Goddess of marketplace. She bring you good fortune.”

If the art collection had given me a taste for vodou, then the next day would find me face down and drowning in it… as I headed out in search of this notorious bone quarry, the Grand Cemetery.

Two of us made the trip, taking a motorbike taxi into the heart of Port-au-Prince. We sped through crowds and markets, past the rubble of collapsed homes and churches, before finally reaching the cemetery gates. Here a crowd of men gathered about the entrance, barring our path. We hadn’t seen another foreigner all day, and all eyes were upon us as we cautiously approached. At first they forbade us from entering… but five minutes (and a small bribe) later, suddenly the path opened up ahead.

The guards did insist, however, on assigning us a tour guide from their ranks. At first I assumed it had been for the benefit of information… and another chance, of course, to squeeze some money from the wealthy foreigners. As the ‘tour’ progressed though, I soon began to realise that the guards had more likely been fearful for our safety once inside; our new companion was less a tour guide than a bodyguard.

The devastating earthquake of 2010 left many Haitians homeless and desperate, and, in the wake of the disaster, some turned their eyes to this
very cemetery. The tombs here were all constructed above ground, mausoleums formed from heavy stone slabs and wrought iron cages. As hoards of destitute Haitians descended on the ancient burial ground, they began to break open the elaborate tombs, pulling out the rotten bodies in order to make new homes for themselves.

Photo series from Haiti, featuring Port Au Prince Grand Cemetary and the Sculptors of Grand Rue. Courtesy of Darmon Richter and The Young Pioneer: An Adventure Travel Magazine.
Haiti Grand Cemetery in Port Au Prince, Haiti.

What we saw now, as we were led this way and that through the winding alleys of the Grand Cimetière, was a whole community of grave-dwellers. We passed residents who would stop and stare at us in surprise, while others followed behind us at a discreet distance. Our guide – a gnarled, older man with a smooth bald head and heavily hooded eyes – pointed us to a tree festooned with voodoo dolls. Glancing up at its higher branches, I spotted human skulls that had been nailed to the bark.

A few twists and turns later we came upon the heart of the makeshift village. Inside a hastily constructed tent, a church service was already in full swing. The crowd rocked and wailed, many of the congregation glancing up at us as we passed by the open awning. The looks we received were generally not welcoming, and I soon found myself feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

Just past the church, we stopped at a shrine to the vodou lord of the underworld: Baron Samedi. A black cross stood in the centre of an open square, where locals gathered to make offerings to the loa. Over in one corner, beneath a wall painted with messages in blood, a woman saw us and began to hiss – she shouted something at me in Creole, and we left before the scene could grow any uglier.

The rest of the cemetery tour continued in the same vein. We visited a shrine to Baron Kriminel: one of the gede, or demons of the vodou faith. At our guide’s encouragement, I gave up the last of my Cuban cigars as an offering. I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable in that place, and if the small token might buy us safe passage back to the real world… well, then it was a sacrifice I was prepared to make.

Somewhere near the exit we were treated to one final shock. Turning a corner between two mausoleums, I walked headlong into a naked woman who stood drying herself with a strip of cloth. Beside her, one of the stone tombs had been pulled open to expose a deep, dark space within. Another woman, similarly disrobed, was climbing up and out of this water-filled grave. Our guide explained that it was the resting place of her ancestors – and that the women were buying themselves some good fortune through the act of swimming amongst the bones of their relatives.

By the time we left the Grand Cemetery behind, my curiosity for this strange practice had been more than satisfied.

Most Haitians don’t want to talk about vodou. They’ll talk to you about music, about art, about their breathtaking natural landscape or the impressive progress that their country is making: about the holiday resorts being built on the northern coast, or the soon-to-be-opened electronics manufacturing plant. Many of them will try to talk to you about Jesus.

For the majority of these progressive Haitians, the practice of vodou is an embarrassment. As I learnt in the course of that trip however, vodou is not a preserved curiosity, nor a quaint and little-known relic of antiquity. People naturally turn to extreme measures when faced with desperation… and so in Haiti, a nation which seems to have been the victim of history at every turn, it’s no wonder that vodou continues to flourish. While many of the locals try their best to hide it from the prying eyes of tourists, the reality of Haitian vodou is violent, and bloody, and crude, and far more widespread than you might care to imagine.

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