Where Does the Anti-Vodou Violence Come From?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 15, 2011 — 41 Comments

As the first anniversary of the quake that almost completely destroyed Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people, passed us by this week many mainstream news outlets did retrospectives of coverage and check-ins on the country’s progress. The Guardian spoke with local Vodouisants on the anniversary about their belief that the souls of those killed will soon be returning.

Right across the street from the palace, by her tent, Ronite Sant-Louis, a devoted voodooist says her faith has been put to the test since last 12 January when she lost a six-year-old son under the rubble of her now vanished home. “Several times this year I felt like God has abandoned us, I even tried to cancel him from my life in January. But now I want to keep believing my son will be back soon.” For the voodoo, souls of the dead reincarnate in a new body, getting a new life without recollection of the past after it has been washed and scrubbed at sea by angels for 365 days. Of the people who died tragically during the earthquake, 100,000 are believed to have been voodoo followers. According to voodooists, today those souls would be ready to step back on Haitian soil, “like snakes that shed their skins”.

Recently, Vodou has been making international headlines as mobs have started blaming practitioners for a devastating outbreak of cholera, killing over 40 Vodouisants that we know of. Some have tried to debunk the idea that these killings are religiously motivated, pointing out the social stress and mass death cholera is inflicting on some remote communities, but that seems to contradict other eyewitness accounts.

I ask Saint-Louis what the biggest challenge is with the cholera epidemic. He tells me it’s the lack of education and information. “When I go to pick up a body, sometimes the family tries to fight,” he says. “They deny their relatives have cholera. They blame the vodou man for infecting the water. The government needs to educate people. But don’t attack me; I’m trying to prevent cholera, not spread cholera.” As if on cue, five angry men show up next to the van. They are friends and relatives of the man who died. They’re angry the clinic wasn’t open last night. They deny St. Felix died of cholera, and they accuse the government of kidnapping the body.

In his more candid moments, during this flurry of journalistic activity over cholera and the quake anniversary, prominent Haitian Vodou leader Max Beauvoir has more or less intimated that he believes Christian missionaries are stirring up anti-Vodou animus.

Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext. “I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment,” he said.

But hard evidence for this accusation has been hard to come by. There was one instance of violence in the initial aftermath, and accusations of one pastor running a conversions-for-food program, but little comprehensive study of the issue. This is somewhat understandable considering the amount of chaos, death, and violence that has wracked Haiti for the past year, so we often have to rely on what Christian groups are telling their own followers. Those reports have often been troubling. Placing the winning of souls as the primary strategy toward progress in Haiti, and often describing their missions in terms of spiritual war.

[Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll] taught that although Haiti has been set free from slavery as a nation, they also need to pursue spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ. “Tragically, many professing Christian churches have historically included voodoo practices. I explained how a slave only has a master who uses them, but a son has a father who loves them. God is our Father and he sent his only Son to make them sons,” […] Driscoll shared that he chose the topic because of the long-standing history of slavery in Haiti, from the physical slavery that existed prior to the country’s liberation to the spiritual slavery to the demonic voodoo that is widespread today.

A stark example is this testimony from Baptist missionaries, where a Vodouisant burns his tools, and his only source of income, while hinting that it saved him from the cholera-fueled murders.

“That was my way of saying, ‘Down with Satan and up with the cross,'” said the former witch doctor, who now goes by the name Montfort. His conversion occurred months before a rash of voodoo priest killings started in Haiti, spurred by a fear their black magic was spreading cholera. Montfort had given his life to Jesus, and he wanted to let others know publicly that he was repenting of his old ways. God had given him a new life, and he was anxious to start living it.

I think “anxious” is a funny word to use in this context. Why did they decide to mention the anti-Vodou cholera killings in this conversion story? If it happened “months before,” what is the relevance except to point out that it is dangerous to be associated with Vodou now? I fear there is a larger story that isn’t being told in Haiti. What are Christian groups, both indigenous and from missionary operations, preaching to the crowds? How much is religion fueling cholera fears? While the United States debates the effects of inflammatory rhetoric in spurring violence, should we also have that debate regarding Haiti? If extreme accusations are going to take root into violence, wouldn’t it be in a country that is experiencing massive turmoil and instability? At the very least, our press should examine if Christian organizations are cynically taking advantage of this turmoil to increase the size of their flocks.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Jason, I frankly don't pin much on the incipient debate on rhetoric and civility, because I've seen this movie before. A nicely-executed fresh posting on the Pagan Newswire Collective observers' list describes Rush Limbaugh's reaction to the call for civility, reminding us there are those with literally millions invested in unending vitriol. So I don't think we can deploy that debate to do anything useful in Haiti. Sorry.

    • *nods* We in America need to clean our own collective house first before we even start thinking about "helping" anyone in any other country. And as you said, there are people whose income depends on keeping it filthy.

    • chuck_cosimano

      Yes, that debate is going nowhere here, and it certainly will go nowhere in Haiti.

  • I want to slap the people who "led that Vodouisant to new life" or whatever. They'll leave, and his life won't be any different except that he no longer has his tools and his country's a less tolerant place.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      The text coverage disclosed that he promptly started asking for Bible study organization, and eventually offered his own house. He's going to continue to be the local cunning man but under Christian rather than Vodou colors. We're seeing how a tradition targeted for extinction adapts (as it has before).

      • Pagan Puff Pieces

        I'm guessing it's to suggest that he wasn't converted because of death threats?

        • our press should examine if Christian organizations are cynically taking advantage of this turmoil to increase the size of their flocks.

          Also, they should check out whether the sky is blue and how often bears shit in the woods.

          • Bless you.

            The whole "cynically taking advantage of" routine is as old as Christian charity itself. Christians did not invent "the spirit of giving". Philanthropy was a widely recognized and practiced Pagan virtue long before Jesus came along. But Christians do appear to have been the first to see poor, and otherwise vulnerable, people as soft targets for religious conversion.

          • chuck_cosimano

            With equal results. The Christians won't stop and no one else has the power to make them.

        • There is such pain in that man's eyes. And his own words contrasted rather with the words of the missionaries. "He feels good," they said. But, "God can take anyone at any time," he said for himself.

          I wonder who he is grieving? I wonder how deep was the pain that undermined this man's faith in his Loas?

          Perhaps I am mistaken. But in his eyes, his movements, his gestures, I read the grief of a man who fears his own gods have deserted him, and a weariness, a defeat even, behind the words about finding something new.

          As a therapist, I worked with many sad and traumatized people. I understood that to further undermine their faith or to manipulate them into one in the image of my own would have been a form of abuse. My heart is very heavy, to know that there are others out there who feel justified in the name of an allegedly loving god in doing what my heart as well as any therapist's code of ethics calls immoral.

          Again, I may be wrong. I'm only speaking my intuition. But I am sorely grieved for this man.

          • Robin Artisson

            "Perhaps I am mistaken. But in his eyes, his movements, his gestures, I read the grief of a man who fears his own gods have deserted him, and a weariness, a defeat even, behind the words about finding something new. "

            Welcome to what Christianity has specialized in for 1700 years, even your Quaker brethren. You speak from the inside.

          • Self-righteousness knows no religious boundaries.

  • It is also very likely that many of these missionary groups are partially funded by US taxpayers. A significant portion of the US "foreign aid" budget goes directly into the coffers of World Vision, Catholic Charities and other missionary outfits.

    Pagans here in the US can help by raising awareness about the dark side of Christian missionary work, which spreads the "good news" of religious hatred to people all over the earth, and also about the scandal of billions of dollars in US federal funds going to support religious proselytizing.

    When you think of Christian missionaries, please remember what the Quaker missionaries did in Alaska: they made Native dances illegal!

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This funding connection, if there's anything to it, might be a story for a Pagan journalist to dig out and report via the Pagan Newswire Collective, guaranteeing both an interested audience and dissemination to the wider news world.

      • The incestuous relationship between the foreign aid establishment, especially USAID, and Christian missionary groups, especially World Vision and Catholic Charities, has been kicking around for a while.

        The Boston Globe did a major four part series on the subject in 2006. They found that the amount of USAID money going to missionary groups went from 10.5% in 2001 to 19.9% in 2005, with the lion's share going to World Vision and Catholic Charities. They also pointed out that the guy George W. Bush appointed to head up USAID (Andrew Natsios) had formerly worked for World Vision. Natsios had also formerly worked for Samaritan's Purse, which is led by Franklin Graham, Billy's son.

        Links to the Boston Globe series, along with other relevant information on Christian missionary activities, can be found in something I wrote back in August of '09:
        Lies, Damned Lies, and the "Persecution" of Christians in India

        Just a year ago there was a bit of a minor dust-up, if you knew where to look, concerning World Vision's policy of only hiring Christians. You can read about that here:
        World Vision: Only Christians Need Apply

        In August of last year, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that World Vision is exempt from Title VII prohibitions on religious discrimination. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is still fighting this in court, though:
        World Vision Collision

      • Crystal7431

        There has been. It's just overlooked. It's dirty and unpleasant and breaks the myth of the good work "nonreligious" charities do

  • The question is not whether Christian missionaries are taking advantage of the situation in Haiti. The question is WHAT TYPE of Christian missionaries are taking advantage of the situation in Haiti. Although Catholic and some Protestant churches in the U.S will deny it—they allow the practice of Vodou and Christianity to mix. The Vatican in early of 2010 finally placed Haitian Vodou drumming in their library. Recently a Catholic private college installed a Hindu course. There is a multi-facet within Catholicism. That I know for I have attended a Haitian dominated Catholic church in Boston, Mass where there was a hint of Vodou. It is displayed wherever there is Charismatic worship. You also see this within the African-American community who to this day practice a Charismatic form of Christianity. Even though many of no idea where this all stems from.

    The Christian missionaries that are causing chaos in Haiti are 1. Anti-Charismatic practices 2. Anti-Catholicism.

    • I agree that there needs to be more education on the spread of Cholera and how to prevent it. Blaming Vodou for ails is not new…killing someone for the ails, especially during this time of turmoil…is new. Typically, one just sees a mambo or houngan to reverse the ails…this is not happening. Murder is happening and that is a WHOLE different story.

      Sorry, my comment was too long: therefore had to reply

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Typical response to the ails may have been disrupted by the damage and deaths. Ie, that part of society is broken, too.

      • Actually, killing someone/some group isn't that new for monotheistic religions. Goes all the way back to early Judaism (till the occupations, then they really could only get away with it during their bids for freedom), then on through Christianity and Islam. their solution for every problem is that "God is angry, kill the sinful unbelievers."

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      What type? Both of those boastful links, the video and the text, were from Baptist sources.

    • Both in Africa itself, and throughout the Americas, no branch of Christianity has done more to destroy the ancient spiritual traditions of African people than the Catholic Church. Vodou and other forms of African Traditional Religion survive despite the concerted and continued efforts of the Catholic Church to eradicate them.

      • Like I stated, Apuleius: the Catholic Church is multi-facet [dark and light]. Yes, the church has done a LOT to eradicate many ancient religion. Yet, at the same time there are those who turn the blind eye to many of the hidden practices. After the Earthquake in Haiti MANY Christian denomination pointed to the Haitian Catholic church destruction as "divine proof" that it is a false Christian denomination. It was God's punishment of the Catholic Church in Haiti to "tolerate" the blending of Vodou. There is this "bitter-sweet" relationship with the Catholic Church and Vodou that MANY Haitians and Haitian-Americans, like myself, are in conflict with. If it were not for the Catholic Church, there would be NO VODOU but the traditional African religion—we must acknowledge that. Vodou is a religion and also an historic folklore of Haitians history [Celtic lore of Madame Brigitte/Goddess Brigid brought to the slaves by working alongside the indentured servants of Ireland/Scotland. For an example]

  • Git

    'our press should examine if Christian organizations are cynically taking advantage of this turmoil to increase the size of their flocks.'

    "Also, they should check out whether the sky is blue and how often bears shit in the woods. "

    I wouldn't have been so cynical 30 years ago, but it is what it is, now, and I've seen it growing over decades.

    In the US, however – despite 'open religious debate' – the real elephant in the room is xtian religious aggression. It is still essentially a forbidden topic, except off-mainstream; and most especially where it delves into the money and power (in our society and government, to include your tax dollars) that backs it.

    We know the same was/is going on in Africa, with the 'witch' & gay murders/attacks (and we know without doubt it was fueled by xtian churches that were funded, visited and encouraged by US extremist xtians); we know the Vatican threatened AIDs-ridden Africa with ex-communication if they used condoms (even married couples); we know South American nations that have legislated against women's rights and birth control (let alone abortion) at the behest of Vatican influences. Why would Haiti be any different?

    Losing adherents steadily in advanced nations, xtianity has turned to the third world – with a vengeance.

    • Regarding HIV/AIDS education and the Catholic Church. Yes, the Catholic Church forbids condom use and any contraception. Due to EDUCATION the rate of new onset HIV/AIDS cases in Haiti back in 2009 declined due to education of condoms and science. They found with education despite religion many Haitians began using condoms.Lower than the new onset rate of United States. Education is key.

      In Switzerland a Catholic church and school was passing out condoms with the slogan, "protect thy neighbor as thyself" http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Catholic_c… The Vatican is not as "persuasive" as they use to be. Similar to Catholics of the North in the U.S tend to be more liberal [breaking away from orthodox Catholic teaching: the Kennedy's a prime example]. There is a "split" within the Catholic Church and the Vatican…I guess being raised with BOTH Catholicism and Vodou…I can personally say, "There is a 'dark' and 'light' within the Church.

      • Part II: As for Haiti, if the Catholic church wanted to stay in Haiti–then they must accept Haitian government who recognized Vodou as a religion. It is one of those "Now you confirm to me or you can leave" That is during the time when politicians like Papa Doc, an OPEN VODOUIST ruled with a fist of iron. Now, there is "no" "government" and people are running a mock and so is religion.

        • Papa Doc, the former President, use to dress like Baron Samedi and attended Catholic services…nothing the Catholic church or any Christian denomination back then could do about it [they feared him for he was known for genocide]. The Catholic Church HAD to accept Vodou and any other religion there…they had no choice to be tolerant. Any missionary that protested were ordered to leave. Similar to France ordering Scientology to leave. Haitians really do need a strong government leader who will place an end to all this madness. In addition, a leader who has no issues with Vodou. Similar to Africa—look at the leaders. Many of them allow the witchcraft accusations…they chose to leave their traditional practices.These leaders are NOT ignorant…many of them are well educated and received education in European countries, then came back to governed.

  • druideric

    religious leaders from many backgrounds often use fear as a means of controlling their faithful followers. whether it has been legitimately earned or not, voodoo has a bad reputation for this. when a shaman fails to deliver on his end of the protection racket things can become extremely difficult for them.

    • chuck_cosimano

      Why does the phrase "Tonton Macoute" come to mind?

      • druideric

        shades of papa doc

  • Peter Dybing

    As long as Haitians suffer from a lack of education there will be those groups who capitalize on ignorance in their pursuit of power. Yes the so called"faith based" organizations are guilty of this. So are politicians, local council leaders, NGO's and foreign governments.etc.. The complexity of any issue in Haiti is unbelievable. As a Pagan who is on the board of an organization building and running schools in Haiti, I can tell you that sometimes we struggle against the beliefs of even those who we are working with to relieve the suffering.

    • druideric

      Right on, peter! finally a voice of reason. Anyone think that this is a simple issue? Google Haitian history and get back to me.

  • bard08

    When was there a time that Christian organizations did not use fear as the root for converting the masses? Having so much devastation in Haiti is what I would imagine as a shark feeding frenzy for missonaries.

  • Robin Artisson

    Another fine story demonstrating the vulture-like nature of Christian missionary work. And this doesn't just happen in Haiti. We're just finally getting to see it in Haiti more than we ever have before. This is what it's like all over the world, in any developing or underdeveloped nation. Missionary work and wickedness are the same creature. Missionary work is the fully premeditated and connived destruction of native cultures, of non-Christian cultures, and of the lives and minds of other human beings. No matter how "missionaries" frame it, this is their intention, goal, and outcome. They are a disease for which the only cure is one we'll never see, due to our sad lack of strength and reason on these matters, and due to our sad pervasive cultural apathy.

    What greater flaw could have seeped into our system than this conflation of human dignity with a human's "choice" in religion? Christianity cannot be criticized or fought the way it needs to be (nor can Islam) because governments and people are paralyzed with fear that criticizing these crimes is the same as criticizing people's rights or dignity or souls. These corrupt religions can flourish and torment people at will because they cannot be separated (in most people's minds) from the people that claim to follow them, or the people who are traditionally bound to them.

    • Nick_Ritter

      "These corrupt religions can flourish and torment people at will because they cannot be separated (in most people's minds) from the people that claim to follow them, or the people who are traditionally bound to them."

      Hear, hear. The adherents to a flawed ideology are its first victims.

    • It's simply imperialism, and it often tries to disguise itself as charity. But if one is authentically concerned about supporting work for justice within a culture, trying to spiritually demolish that culture is hardly the way to do so. Honest, genuine diplomacy — which for missionary Christianity is impossible, because you can't have diplomacy of any real kind with a sovereignty you're intending to dissolve — can support dialogue and justice.

      A famous Saga man said something to the effect of, "The thing that I am most proud of in my life is that I was never arrogant."

      It's incredible that people do not perceive the arrogance of missionary work. It's imposition, plain and simple. At least when a (n ancient) warrior culture invades with the intent to conquer, they don't disguise it as charity. Missionary work ought be compared to black ops, or like Jormungand, slipping in like a snake and then slowly squeezing to death with its coils. While Rome may have emasculated those priesthoods likely to put up anti-imperial resistance, even Rome when it conquered did not require the people to lose their religion.

  • I appreciate this post and the concerns it raises. There are a few Christians who are articulating something different in regards to Haiti, both in that country and in the United States.

    • druideric

      thank you, john. I often fear we are too quick to throw out the baby( Christ-child/mabon archetype) with the proverbial so-called Christian bathwater.

      • Robin Artisson

        druideric, there is no "Christ-child/Mabon archetype". There is the superstition of a man called "Christ", whom some erroneously believe is the savior of the entire world and the cornerstone event of all history, and then there is the far more ancient and actual divinity of the Mabon- and Mabon is not an "archetype", anymore than the "christ" is. Mabon is a powerful and perpetually-existing non-human person. He is not a Jungian psychological construct, and to lump him into that category, and then beat him together with "christ" in that same category, is offensive to a point beyond which there is no greater possibility to offend. I submit that authentic "druids" from history would have sacrificed you for that blasphemy and dipped your skull in bronze to make an offering bowl to the real Mabon, in reparation for your new-agery.

    • Robin Artisson

      Wow, another "liberal" Christian has found a home on The Wild Hunt. And this one apparently can read and write well. You'll get along well with the crypto-christians that frequent these discussion boards. I hope the rest of the people here can see through your "open minded" rhetoric, however well-written it may be, and however you balance grains of truth in your writing against your religious tradition's deeply embedded need to convert all other human beings to agreement with you and your "lord". Getting an intercultural degree isn't going to be enough to convince the discerning that you aren't just another coming of the same old cavalry, but I know for a fact that at least two, and possibly a few more people here will just love you. With any good fortune, they'll leave their "paganism" completely and go away to your church and be gone from here.

  • Moggie Cat

    I've been following this debate, but it did not hit home until very recently.

    A neighbor, who I am friendly with, has been very active with the current Haitian relief work. I never asked in detail what exactly she does or with what group, but at a neighborhood meeting, she asked people to come to a fundraiser for Haitian relief. Okay, she's doing good work and we all want to help, but for various reasons, my husband and I cannot attend this event. I emailed her saying I can't come but I would like to give a small donation. She said great, make a check out to so-and-so and here's their webpage. I went to check it out and it turns out it is a Christian evangelistic missionary group. She NEVER mentioned anything about it being a Christian group, and she herself has never come across as particularly "bible-thumperish". Yet, this group was very blatant about their mission. Definitely not a group I would feel comfortable supporting.

    This woman knows I am Pagan. I do not hide it from any of my neighbors. And with the exception of a one or two, it's not been a problem. Most of the neighborhood leans towards Christian, but I have a lot of Christian friends and our different beliefs have never been a problem. To each his own, I say. Maybe this neighbor thought I was already aware of her organization? Maybe she does not take my beliefs seriously? Who knows, and not important to me why. But I cannot in good conscience give money to (especially associate my name with) this particular group. I tore the check up.

    So here is my question to the Pagan community…yes, we can sit here and complain, but what are we doing about this situation? And I don't mean just the Haitian tragedy, but any charity…Do we organize and run our own charity groups? Or do we support other groups as a community? And if so, who? What groups, either "pagan friendly" or just secular, are out there that we can support? I would like to help, even if it's only a small monetary donation, but I don't know who to go to.

    In the meantime, my neighbor will ask for the check and it will not be forthcoming. It is my fault for not asking about her group before offering a donation and just assuming she was working for some secular group. I have to handle this delicately without causing bad feelings with her or her supporters in the neighborhood.

    Thanks for listening. And thank you Wild Hunt for letting me have a forum to post on.