Where Does the Anti-Vodou Violence Come From?

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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.