Thursday, March 1, 2007



Poukisa n'ekri'l konsa

Why we spell it this way

VODU, VODOU, VAUDOU, VAUDOUX, however you spell it. The french pronunciation is vo-du. Moreau de Saint-Méry, french slave-owner in the eighteenth century, is one of the first to have used it, and the trend never stopped: the written media had found a catchy name to describe what the negroes of Saint-Domingue did. The successful slave revolt of 1804 that created Haiti brought away the white planters and hundreds of their slaves -treated like cattle - to the land of the "free", the United States, and in particular to New-Orleans. Need I say more? Unlike cattle, my distant cousins carried with them the seeds of what became voodoo and hoodoo in the States. But whereas these descendants of the Saint-Domingue slaves adopted that name with pride, in Haiti, this word has never meant anything to the masses. It remains a word used by the white man (or the westernized intelligentsia of Haiti) to reduce a culture to a supertitious hodge-podge. It carries prejudice, suspicion of moral turpitude. It reeks of intolerance.

I am aware that people in Benin proudly practice a religion that they call Vodou, but this african origin only adds to the confusion regarding haitian "vodou". There is no such thing as vodou in Haiti, or rather no authentic organisation bears that name. Incidentally such a word does exist in the traditional lexicon, but it does not begin to describe our culture no more than the word "mustard" taken out of context could represent an imaginary american "religion".
So this word means nothing to us, worse yet, it pretends to describe a "religion", a very dangerous proposition as witnessed by the senseless murders of innocent practitioners by extremist catholic organizations. If by religion you mean a church, with a creed, a dogma, a hierarchy of priests, with one religious leader, you will find none of that. No more will you find devil-worship, snake-worship, tree-worship or human sacrifices. Of course you will find one or two ritual murderers a century, or if you are a tourist, some hoodlum that will worship your dollars and recreate your fantasy.

Instead you will find a loosely wound yarn of family traditions, some better kept in old sacred grounds tended by the same family since colonial times. Of course they all share ancestor worship, and one step beyond, spirit worship. Spirits, which is what we become when we fade away in the firmament of our descendants memory. Did King Arthur really tread England's green hills once, or does it matter. Was ever Ogou a real, breathing warrior? Or does it really matter? Of course there are precise rituals that are attached to these beliefs. They don't make up a religion. Instead, these are the foundations of a real culture that is shared by all Haitians. For we believe that in Haiti, the African born slaves voluntarily smoothed their differences (in one or more mythical Bwa Kayiman ceremonies) in order to fight the common enemy. To this day, an opening litany to "vodou" ceremonies salutes all other rites from other "nations". The key to peaceful co-existence in this new land.

Still, there is more in common between episcopalians and catholics than there are between a practioner in Soukri, near Gonaives (city of the Artibonite river plain) and Kanzo/Ginen in Port-au-Prince.
We then were caught in this awful dilemna : under what name can we describe the beauty and harmony fostered by our traditions in all its diversity without falling in the trap. Using the same artificial word would seem to condone the confusion that has gone on before. On the other hand, since our purpose is to communicate we needed a clear way to indicate what we are talking about.

The evident solution is to talk of "Culture", but we needed to go beyond that. To talk of Haitian Culture would unfairly brush aside our occidentalized brothers and sisters, arguably no less haitian. "Vodou" crept up logically, plainly having gained visibility, but this time we turned to the speakers themselves. We hear "Vodoun" with a nasal, velar pronunciation of the final syllable the few times the word comes in the rituals. So its more like VO-D'n. We hoped this difference would elicit your curiosity.
Hence our choice : VODOUN CULTURE.

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