Part of the problem journalists in Haiti face is voodoo. They just don’t know what to do about it. So they ask: Is voodoo good, or bad? Absent a clear answer, they simply ignore it in general — and religion as a category. Which is the first step toward dismissing the complicated politics and emotions of Haiti as irrational, incomprehensible. Were this Rwanda, our press would call it“tribal.” Were this Bosnia, they’d take care of it with the tidy phrase “ancient ethnic hatred.” But this is Haiti, and they don’t know what to do — so, besides providing gory reports, they do nothing.
The Revealer has reported on the voodoo dilemma before; now, our associate editor Kathryn Joyce investigates the master narrative:
Maybe no one told Alan Sullivan, the seafaring blogger of Fresh Bilge, that Heart of Darkness references are a bit outdated. Explaining his thoughts on the civil war in Haiti, Sullivan summarily dismisses the country’s history of brutal enslavement, violent revolution and poverty as potential causes, blaming rather “the folkways of the local people.” “The problem,” he writes, “is in Haiti itself, and in the human heart. No place on earth demonstrates the Catholic doctrine of the Fall more vividly than that unhappy land.”
Sullivan isn’t alone in his assessment or allusions; in an opinion piece for the evangelical Worldmagazine, Andree Seu suggests that Haiti’s ongoing turmoil may be part of “a hefty toll” exacted by Satan for their voodoo practices. Seu’s proposal? “How about calling off the pact with the devil and joining the growing throng-dispersed seeds of the Huguenots, perchance, from Miami to Port-au-Prince coming to Christ through the labors of… mission leaders who have not given up on Haiti?”
More mainstream publications, such as Canada’s National Post, also allude to devilish roots to the troubles. Describing Haiti’s now-deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide – a former Catholic priest who sanctioned voodoo as an official Haitian religion last April – Kate Jaimetwrites: “For the benefit of foreigners, he always behaved like a priest… In front of his own supporters, he used very different language, some of it bloodcurdling, with borrowings from the voodoo beliefs that dominate the thinking of many Haitians.”
Further examples abound in our daily clichés—voodoo politics, voodoo economics—as Greg Dunkel points out in the weekly Haiti Progres, noting that in such a context these terms are epithets with racist connotations. They speak only of backwardness, not of voodoo’s other attributes (i.e., people of any race, ethnicity or sexuality are free to join the clergy). The insult is compounded by voodoo’s historical role in Haiti, empowering the slaves who revolted against their French masters in 1791 and, after 13 years of fighting, created the West’s first independent black republic.
This is “the pact with the devil” Seu is talking about when he promotes New Directions International and their Haiti Mission Team, HAVIDEC (Haitian Vision for the Third Century), the stated goal of which is to “take Haiti back from Satan.” HAVIDEC is concerned, like the World Evangelical Alliance, by Aristide’s recognition of voodoo as “an essential part of national identity,” though this might seem redundant in a country popularly described as “95% Catholic and 100% voodoo.”
Carol J. Williams, writing last August for the Los Angeles Times, summarized: “By bestowing legitimacy on the African-origin religion, Aristide, the beleaguered president of this poorest of Western countries, has signaled to his people that they should be proud of their African heritage, not forced to subvert it under the religious practices of the European Christians who once repressed them.”
On this year marking 200 years of independence, HAVIDEC succeeded in stopping the planned voodoo celebration of the anniversary. Instead, they hosted an evangelical celebration during which thousands were reportedly converted.