Chanting Haitian voodoo celebrants honor quake dead

Sun Mar 28, 2010 2:57pm EDT
 

By Pascal Fletcher

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Dressed in white, shaking decorated gourd rattles and singing praises to "Olorum Papa" (God the Father), several hundred practitioners of Haiti's voodoo religion held a public ceremony on Sunday to honor those killed in the January 12 earthquake.

While several Christian ceremonies have been held to mourn the hundreds of thousands of quake dead, this was the first national commemoration by Haiti's voodoo religion, which has had to defend itself against accusations by some Evangelical preachers that it somehow caused the deadly natural disaster.

The supreme head of Haiti's voodoo religion, Max Beauvoir -- an elderly, bespectacled man dressed in an embroidered white robe and bonnet -- presided over the ceremony in a central Port-au-Prince square. It coincided with the Catholic feast day of Palm Sunday, the start of Easter Holy Week.

More than half of Haiti's nearly 10 million people are believed to practice voodoo, a religion brought from West Africa several centuries ago by slaves forced to work on the plantations of their white masters in what was then the rich French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue. The religion is recognized by Haiti's state and protected by the constitution.

"Olorum Papa, hear our cry to you," chanted the worshipers. The women wore white robes, some trimmed with lace and embroidery, and black headscarves; the men white shirts and trousers, some with black hats.

To the sound of rattles and drums, the celebrants held a Booroum, a voodoo ritual which they believe sends the souls of the dead "under water" so they can be cleansed and return to life as better beings.

"Hounkou Bolokou Djavohoun Bohoun", chorused the worshipers, repeating an ancient voodoo incantation intended to encourage the souls of the dead.

"The people who died did not die, they went to another world, to live, under water," Beauvoir, who was educated at City College of New York and the Sorbonne in Paris, told the crowd from a stage, surrounded by other "houngan" or voodoo priests.

VOODOO 'GIVES US FREEDOM'

"Ai Bobo (Amen)," shouted the celebrants, some of whom also wore black armbands. Some greeted each other with an elaborate salutation between voodoo adherents that involves a complex handshake and embrace.

"It's voodoo that gives us freedom," one houngan, Jean Claude Bazile, told Reuters, recalling that it had survived as a living religion since playing an important part in Haiti's independence in 1804. It was a revolt by black slaves, many of them voodoo practitioners, that triggered the overthrow of French colonial rule.

Bazile rejected public statements made by some local Evangelical preachers since the quake, who he said had tried to discredit voodoo by telling people that the African-born religion was responsible for bringing on the earthquake.

"Voodoo is not for making evil, but good," he said.

"The other religions want to crush us, they think we're too strong," he said. "Everyone was hit by the earthquake, it was Nature," Bazile added.

After the catastrophic quake, which the government says may have killed more than 300,000 people, Beauvoir complained to President Rene Preval about the anonymous mass burials of tens of thousands of dead, which he said went against voodoo and Haitian culture.

Dumping the dead in hurriedly excavated mass graves without proper rites is seen as desecration in a country where many believe in zombies -- dead bodies brought back to life by supernatural forces who could persecute the living.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)