Features | Among the vodouisants

Four portraits of Haitian voodoo

I

Raphny has been serving the spirits all her life. The spirits are in her blood. She is the latest voodoo priestess – or mambo – in a long line, stretching back for generations.

In June, I contacted La Belle Deesse, a voodoo temple and ecclesiastical organization based in Pierrefonds, Quebec. Raphny is the daughter of the temple’s founding priestess, La Belle Deesse Sr. I spoke to Raphny on the phone, and told her I was interested in meeting people who practice voodoo.

Raphny told me that if I was interested in going to a ceremony, she could arrange it. She asked me if I would be free on June 24, Saint Jean-Baptiste Day. I told her yes.

Practioners of Haitian voodoo celebrate a spirit called Tijean Dantor on June 24, I soon found out. Tijean is a playful spirit who loves fire.

Raphny’s only directions were, “Be ready for 8 p.m., and bring someone with you who speaks French, because there will be a lot of French.”

Saint Jean-Baptiste Day fell on a Saturday night and, as the day wore on, with no word from Raphny and my calls going to voicemail, I started to figure that I wouldn’t be going to the ceremony after all. But at 7:45 p.m., just as I was showering, I got a call. It was Raphny. She explained that she couldn’t make it, but that Mimose, her “spiritual sister,” would be taking me to the ceremony, adding that I needed to be at Henri Bourassa metro as soon as possible.

Still soapy, I ran madly around my apartment, gathering reporting gear – notebook, pens, and voice recorder – before rushing out the door. The items would never make it out my bag – Mimose advised me not to take notes or record anything. I would return home at 4:30 a.m. the next morning with nothing but the memories of what I had seen.

At the station, Mimose and her mother were sitting in the front seat of their van wearing large white dresses and yellow headscarves.

I sat in the back as we drove through Montreal Nord. Our first stop was to pick up Mimose’s brother, King, from his apartment. King was also dressed all in white, with a white fedora to complete the ensemble.

Mimose and her family spoke a mix of Creole and French; I understood barely a word. I was uncertain what my presence meant for the others in the car. Asking questions as we drove through Montreal Nord, I tried to find out where we were going, how the voodoo community gathers together, and who attends these ceremonies. But it was clear that no one really wanted to give me explanations. Unsure of how far we were going, who was who, and what was waiting at our destination, I accepted my role as a passenger, an observer. I was simply along for the ride.

Soon we began driving through side streets in a neighbourhood I did not recognize. When we stopped outside a white, clapboard townhouse, people poured out of it holding half-finished drinks, and coalesced around the van. Men and women, all dressed in white, spoke to Mimose’s mother through her open car window.

Mimose’s mom introduced me as “the student.” One woman with long braided hair peered into the back of the van and called out to me: “A student? Bonjour! Bonjour!” Soon after, we left as part of a convoy heading towards the ceremony.

We picked up speed on the highway and crossed the bridge heading off the Island of Montreal. After about an hour we arrived at our destination: a sleepy town, which, from what I could see, consisted only of one-story houses with sprawling green lawns. (I later found out it was the Montreal suburb Repetigny).

We pulled up to the curb on a dark street. The people slowly got out of their cars. Feeling conspicuously tall and white, I followed Mimose and King. A hushed discussion between Mimose’s mom and others was taking place. Confused, I turned to King.

“We don’t know which house it is,” he said, shrugging. “I’ve been here once before, but it was dark.” No lights were on in any of the houses, but someone began leading the group toward one house.
We entered one-by-one through a side door that led into a renovated garage. This was the Temple des Mystères. As we were heading in, a question occurred to me. “Does everyone know each other?” I asked King. He smiled at me: “Everyone in voodoo is friends.”

 

For show

Throughout the night, a cameramen and a photographer appeared to be documenting the ceremony. They identified themselves as being with Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Mimose told me that there is a voodoo exhibit planned for 2013 at the museum. “It will be the first time there will be an exposee of voodoo in Canada for awareness and learning,” Mimose had said in the van.

When I reached the Exhibition Planning Officer for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Nicolas Gauvin, on the phone, he explained that he had been visiting the voodoo exhibit that was moving through European cities like Berlin, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. He has also been working closely the Fondation pour la preservation, la valorisation et la production d’oevres culturelles haitiennes (FPVPOCH), based in Petionville, Haiti. Though the Ottawa exhibit will include some feedback from the Montreal community of voodoo practitioners, the main exhibit will consist of artifacts from the Fondation’s collection.

Fondation employee, and voodoo priestess, Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique explained how the exhibit first began.

“It started in Geneva – the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva – and they were the ones responsible, who came to Haiti, and noticed this extraordinary collection that we’ve been working on since 1987,” she explained, when I spoke to her on the phone from Haiti.

The collection is a site to behold. One piece displayed on the organization’s website is a sculpture of a human figure covered in pink, red, and gold glitter, wrapped in what looks like a snake. The list of materials beneath the photo reads, “Matérial: Os (crâne humain), textile, paillettes, cotton” – bone (human skull), fabric, glitter, cotton.

The Fondation serves as a cultural hub that addresses increasing globalization and the corresponding dispersion of the Haitian patrimony through emigration. It also teaches children in Haiti about their heritage.

One aspect of that heritage is voodoo. “I think that most of the Haitian people have voodoo in their hearts, in their souls, and in their way of being,” she told me. “It’s very simple. You know, it’s the way you dream, it’s the way you think, it’s the way you act. Like the old people used to always, before drinking their coffee in the morning, pour a few drops on the earth just to drink with their ancestors, and there’s a lot of stuff like that.”

Beauvoir-Dominique explained that Westerners have long held mistaken notions about voodoo. “Voodoo has absolutely nothing to do with witchcraft. Nothing,” she said. “Really all of those stories about the pins and needles and the dolls and sorcery were imagined out of North American and European fantasies that came out of their own heritage but have nothing to do with the actual practice of the Haitian people.”

 

II

In the middle of the room in the Temple des Mystères was a pillar embedded with divots, from which candles and flowers hung, and on which a brightly painted snake wound its way down from the ceiling. About forty people sat on chairs around the perimeter of the rectangular room. In one corner, an altar was laden with bejeweled bottles and jugs covered in fabric.

A four-man drum circle struck up a rhythm. Then a priestess, alternating between sitting and circling the pillar, led the group in singing.

After what felt like a long time, the ceremony seemed to end. I looked to King and Mimose – was that it?

King laughed. That, he said, was only the introduction. Mimose motioned to me to come and sit by her so she could explain what was going on.

Soon, Mimose and her mother were on their feet, swaying to the music, moving to the rhythm of the drums. The priestess was wearing loose pants and a large, turban-like headdress. She led the ceremony in a call and response, in which the crowd replied to her prompts by calling out “Ayibobo.” Mimose translated the phrase as “God bless” or “Amen.”

Soon, the first ceremony of the night took place – the offerings to the twin spirits. Mimose explained that practitioners offer candies, chocolate and bread, since those are the foods that kids like, and the twin spirits are children.

Throughout the ceremonies, Mimose told me when to stand up. For the offerings to the sea god, I felt the rhythm of drums change, seeming to indicate that everyone should stand, but Mimose and her mother were nowhere in sight.

When I stood – trusting my instinct – I saw that Mimose and her mother were performing the ceremony. The priestess touched a gourd to the central pillar, crossed herself, and kissed the pillar. Mimose held a candle.

As the ceremonies continued, it seemed clear that Mimose and her mother were not simply voodoo practitioners or vodouisants. I asked Mimose if her mother was a priestess, to which Mimose answered yes. When I asked her if she was one herself, she smiled and replied humbly, “I am on my way.”

 

Friend of voodoo

Jean-François Chalut is a Montreal filmmaker. Recently, he put out his opus, a documentary about Saint-Jacques Ogou, a voodoo warrior spirit. “I felt attracted to that on a symbolic level…it touched me on a level where I felt like the warrior myself, or a conqueror,” Chalut tells me.

He lived in Haiti between 1979 and 2008, and compiled the footage that would make up his film. But, like me, Chalut came to voodoo as an outsider. Growing up in Francophone Outremont, his parents had a Haitian woman who worked for them around the house. Chalut feels that, from a young age, her presence created an “ambiance.”

“We didn’t understand, but often she would be in almost like a trance. We would often find her on the ground because she was rooted to her country. There is always the question of roots in Haiti you see. It’s very important. That is what voodoo is – they are the roots,” he says.

I meet Chalut in a bakery near his home in Rosemont. He is tall and slim. When he speaks, he gestures restlessly with his hands, and bobs his head forward to emphasize his points.  

He tells me that, after coming to a “crossroads” in his life, he looked to his mother for advice. She recommended going to Haiti, having been to the country once before, and having loved it.

So, when he was in his mid-twenties, Chalut visited Haiti. He liked it so much he went again the following year. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he discovered voodoo.

“I discovered voodoo in New York because I fell in love with a New Yorker – a French woman,” he tells me with a sigh. He recounted sharing his love of Haiti with Chantal, the French woman, and encouraging her to go discover the country.

Chantal heeded his advice. She was a skilled photographer, much better than him, and, when she returned from Haiti, she showed Chalut some pictures.  

“I saw her photos in New York, and I had a flash. I absolutely have to see that. I don’t know why I had that attraction. I don’t know why,” he said.
Inspired, Chalut went on his own photographic trip.

“I went and took my photos and when I came back and showed Chantal my photos, she said ‘Shit, you saw my photos and went and did the same thing!’” Chalut laughed.                                                            

“‘You have stolen my subject.’ And I said, ‘look it’s not my fault. I am inspired, you were inspired and so am I.’”

They broke up over the dispute. Still, Chalut maintains that he didn’t mean to copy Chantal – they were just inspired by the same Haiti.

“There was something that brought it to her and that brought it to me. It’s a public place. It’s not something hidden. And so that’s how I discovered it – thanks to her, and then I brought it to my film.”
After taking the photos, Chalut knew he had to make a movie about Haiti. When he moved the Plain-du-Nord region of the country, he married a “true vodouisant” as he calls her, and lived with his wife, mother, and father-in-law – all of whom practice voodoo. (Despite that, Chalut does not identify himself as one.)

His film relies heavily on archival footage of men and women being manifested by spirits like Saint-Jacques Ogou. Many of them lose control of their bodies when the spirit enters them. In one scene, a man flails in a shallow, muddy pond, violently bumping up against its banks. A scholar knowledgeable about Ogou explains to the camera that the passion the spirit inspired led to riots on more than one occasion.

 

III

The first instance of a manifested spirit that night at the Temple des Mystères occurred to the priestess. Vodouisants believe that spirits can enter your body at any time. Spasms and convulsions shook the priestess’s body. People surrounded her, helping her reach the ground gently, cushioning her fall.

After the spirit had left the priestess, someone nearby drank from a bottle of rum and sprayed the priestess’s face with it.

As the night went on, spirits manifested themselves in more people, and the cycle of convulsions, a cushioned fall, a shot of rum, and a spray in the face happened each time. People stood on their chairs dancing. Individual voices could be heard rising above the collective din as they joined in the chanting.

Sweat streaming down his face, one man stood up and exclaimed “Yai bobo” in a strong, loud voice rich with warmth and happiness. He wore a black full-length robe with a matching black hat.
I saw one man begin to convulse, his head swinging back and forth, his neck muscles contorting with exertion, his body launching into spasms in all directions. The area around him cleared immediately, and, slowly, a few of those nearby began to embrace his body.

People rocked and swayed as those possessed by the spirit careened into crowded sections of the room. I asked Mimose if a spirit could come to more than one person at a time. She smiled with anticipation and nodded.

Sometimes there were breaks in the ceremony to air out the room. The drummers would take a rest, and the soft hum of voices would replace the rhythm of the drums.

During breaks, soft drinks and beer were passed around. One man was pouring generous shots of rum.

When the ceremony started up again, Mimose gestured for me to stand up, as she had done many times throughout the night. “They are honouring my mother,” she explained.

Mimose’s mother stood at the front of the room in a new yellow dress with ruffles and silver sparkles and a sparkly silver headdress, which she had changed into moments before.

The priestess handed her a certificate with a dark wooden frame. “For honour, merit, and generosity,” the certificate read.

I later found out that Mimose’s mother was La Belle Deesse Sr. herself, the founding priestess of La Belle Deesse voodoo temple. The temple’s website says she was identified as “the chosen one,” when a spirit entered her at the age of seven. Mimose and Raphny, it turns out, are not only spiritual sisters, but blood sisters.

Only minutes later, as La Belle danced nearby me, she suddenly began to sway. Convulsing periodically, her head dropped to her chest; Mimose moved to her side.

Suddenly, La Belle began pulling at her clothes, taking off the top half of her dress. She threw off her headdress and donned a baseball cap taken from a nearby boy’s head. Wearing sunglasses, she took swigs from a large jug, and smoked two cigarettes at once. The spirit had come.

I later read a description of Tijean Dantor, the spirit being honored by the ceremony that night. Tijean likes to wear caps, drink from jugs, and smoke two cigarettes at a time.

 

The privacy of her home

The next time I went to a voodoo ceremony was the night of Halloween. I met Monique Dufain, a vodouisant, in her Montreal Nord apartment.

Dufain immigrated to Canada when she was 22 to work as a domestic for a family in Montreal. Dufain now holds information sessions about voodoo in her apartment, mostly for curious university students. She takes donations for her lessons but doesn’t demand a fee. I gave her five dollars.

I also arrived with red flowers in hand – Dufain had asked the night’s pupils to bring items that could contribute to the evening. That night, a UQAM student named Florine and I were the only two there. Dufain ushered us past her son and into a spare room. A piano was pushed up against one wall and was stacked with bottles. The room was strewn with candles, and pillows to sit on.

She began our evening by saying that, in voodoo, the truth depends on the person. “You have your truth,” she said nodding to Florine, “you have your truth” – looking to me – “and I have my truth.”
She lit candles around the room and opened a door that led to a balcony before pouring a shot of Bacardi rum outside. Her long, braided hair tied behind her head, she set a handful of sage alight in the centre of the room. While pouring mentholated oil onto our hands, she told us to do whatever we liked with it. I rubbed the oil onto my arms and neck.

Dufain’s practice of voodoo involves small rituals like this every day. She does them first thing in the morning and when she gets home from work.

She explained why she practices voodoo in the privacy of her own home and not in large groups. She feels that the reference to Catholic saints like Saint Jean-Baptiste, so prevalent in mainstream voodoo ceremonies, is an unnecessary relic of the French colonialism Haitians threw off in a slave revolt in 1791, which culminated in their independence in 1804. “I had never done it in Haiti,” she explained, “so why would I do it here?”

Voodoo, though the roots, soul and culture of the Haitian people, has not been in a position of power since the slave revolt against France, Dufain contested. She attributed some of the greatest prejudices against voodoo to other Haitians, Catholics, or Protestant evangelicals who look down on the religion.

“People will say you’re crazy,” she explained. “It is hard to be a vodouisant.”

 

IV

It’s a lot to take in, Mimose said to me, when the ceremony had broken up. We sat parked outside a Tim Horton’s somewhere on the outskirts of Montreal, waiting for Mimose’s husband to bring back coffees. The next time it will be easier, and you will understand what is going on. This time was just to see. I nodded in agreement.

Dropping off King and La Belle, I thought about how surreal our night would have seemed to someone on the outside.

La Belle was bad ass in a way that no other older woman living in Angou could possibly imagine. As she climbed the steps to her townhouse, she lifted the layers of her yellow skirt from around her feet. Here was a woman who had just been honoured by the voodoo community, had drank large amounts of rum, and had been possessed by a spirit in a single night. And now she was walking back to a reality in which she would be surrounded by people who have no way of understanding the world she had just come from.


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