If Haiti can’t escape its past, it may still build itself a future

Haiti, which declared itself free from slavery in 1804, has paid a high price for its presumption. Natural disasters, the refusal of the US to recognise its statehood (Thomas Jefferson feared an autonomous republic of former slaves), the dictatorships of the Duvaliers (1957-86) and continuing political corruption combine to suggest a land in bondage to a cruel fate. Little wonder the few white outsiders who venture beyond the city without the protection of charities, NGOs or the UN find themselves fascinated by the Haitian practice of vodou.

As evening draws on, Jean Michel, an elegant young man who has lived in Toulouse and Paris but was born and brought up in Haiti, tells me about the Iwa – the spirits of the sea. As a boy, alone on a deserted beach and throwing stones, Michel was approached by an elderly man who told him to stop what he was doing. He was disturbing the people who lived down there, the old man said. More than one person I meet is keen to emphasise that Haiti is 80 per cent Catholic and 100 per cent vodou.

Although the Catholic bishop I meet is at pains to distance the Church from superstition, he is diplomatic in his response to my inquiries about the way that vodou blends Catholic saints and feast days with African animism, pragmatically and metaphysically. Far from the lurid image cooked up by Hollywood, vodou has an intimate, spiritual relationship with nature; and although some of its rites still involve animal sacrifice, there are even vegan vodouists today. via NewStatesman


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