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Voodoo religion's role in helping Haiti's quake victims

By Henri Astier
BBC News, Miami

A Haitian man takes part in a voodoo ritual in Port-au-Prince in November 2009
Some argue voodoo should play a leading role

A month before Haiti's devastating earthquake, prominent musician Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun and a few friends were summoned by spirits who tried to warn them about the impending cataclysm.

"They told us to pray for Haiti because many people would die," says Mr Beaubrun - the frontman of the group Boukman Eksperyans.

"I thought it was about politics. I didn't know it was going to be an earthquake."

The spirits may have failed to make themselves understood, but according to Mr Beaubrun - whose music and outlook are steeped in voodoo culture - they are standing by the Haitian people in their hour of need.

"We are extremely traumatised," he says.

"We have seen death. But the spirits entered the minds of people to advise and help them heal. They speak to us. It's like therapy."

But Mr Breaubrun's idea that voodoo should play a leading role in helping victims of the country's worst-ever natural disaster is currently little more than a hope.

Voodoo relief

Haiti's traditional religion has kept a low profile in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The songs and prayers heard amid the rubble and tent cities around Port-au-Prince are overwhelmingly Christian.

Theodore Lolo Beaubrun
Some Christian communities do not want to give food to voodoo followers
Theodore 'Lolo' Beaubrun
Singer

The voodoo religion may be practised by many Haitians - the exact number is unknown - and has not been totally absent from the aid effort.

Louis Leslie Marcelin, another singer who also describes himself as a spiritual guide and healer, has used his home in Port-au-Prince as an alternative school and a care centre.

"We work with children and parents," he says. "We work with poor people whose relatives have died."

But such efforts by voodoo leaders have been few and far between. The bulk of the religious relief aid work in Haiti has been carried out by Catholic and Protestant groups.

"For a religion that's supposedly the national religion of the Haitian people, it's amazingly absent in the earthquake phenomena," says Gerald Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Haiti.

Prejudice

Some argue that voodoo's conspicuous absence in the aftermath of the quake is due to prejudice. Many Christians - especially Protestants - regard voodoo as devil worship.

This idea was expressed in its most striking form by the US televangelist Pat Robertson, who said shortly after the quake that Haiti had made a "pact with the devil" when it defeated French colonists two centuries ago.

According to Mr Beaubrun, such attitudes have been in evidence during relief operations.

"Some Christian communities do not want to give food to voodoo followers," he says.

"As soon as they see people wearing peasant clothes or voodoo handkerchiefs, they put them aside and deny them food.

"This is something I've seen."

Quake rubble in Port-au-Prince, 10 Feb 2010
The 12 January quake left more than a million homeless

Hostility to voodoo - which blends elements of Christianity with West African animistic beliefs and practices - is indeed rife among some evangelical groups in Haiti and elsewhere.

However most mainstream Christians - notably Catholics - have insisted on not marginalising the voodoo faith.

Father Reginald Jean-Marie of Notre-Dame, the largest Roman Catholic church in Miami's Little Haiti, insists: "Any system of belief that people cling to especially in a time of crisis can be of help to them."

Blaming voodoo for the country's problems, he says, is "theological nonsense".

"When the (Asian) tsunami happened it was not because people did wrong," he says.

"Things happen because they are natural disasters. If you claim that voodoo is responsible for those things, then is God responsible when bad things happen to good Christians?"

Faraway god

The three days of prayer held for earthquake victims on 12, 13 and 14 February pointedly included voodoo practitioners.

And, perhaps equally pointedly, a houngan (voodoo priest) taking part in the event stressed the common element between his faith and Christianity.

People pray among the ruins of the Sacre Coeur church in Port-au-Prince on 14 January
Religious faith plays an important role in Haitian society

He told the BBC he would "pray to bondye" - referring to the voodoo supreme god, while not stressing the "loa", the lesser spirits that are at the centre of rituals.

This suggests tension between Haiti's rival faiths is not the main reason for voodoo's lack of visibility after the earthquake.

The principal factor, according to anthropologist Gerald Murray, could be theological.

In the voodoo belief system, natural disasters are not caused by the "loa", but by a distant "bondye".

The supreme being that unleashes the forces of nature is an unfathomable entity which cannot be influenced.

Only the lowly "loa", Mr Murray notes, can be accessed or propitiated - often through rituals led by houngans.

The main role of these specialists, Mr Murray adds, is the diagnosis and healing of an individual's illnesses.

"They have not traditionally played a role of national, social leaders of any type," he says.

"They will continue to be spirit healers for people who believe that their problems have been caused by the loa - but this earthquake was not caused by the loa."

Many Haitians will find solace in voodoo, which remains an important element of Haitian identity.

But the coping strategies it offers in the aftermath of the earthquake may be limited.



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