Voodoo and Modernity

Last week, C2C President Liz Sheehan and I were down in Port-au-Prince for meetings with partners at MSH, AmeriCares, and Grace Children’s Hospital. We’re rounding the bend of this marathon quest to open the first clinic, and with patients only a few days away – and an inauguration celebration planned for November 4th with guests including US Ambassador Kenneth Merten – we wanted to make sure everything was geared up.

Per usual, this was a great trip. Given all the back and forth we’ve been doing the past few months, I’m always pleased to see the lessons from one trip building upon the last. Each week I’m in Haiti I discover some new layer of complexity that temporarily confuses my Haitian world order until suddenly it snaps the landscape into focus and everything starts making a little more sense. For example, last week I was writing up patient exit surveys so that we can start digging at the heart of the “qualitative experience” in the C2C clinic, and one of my questions is “where else do you go for health information/care” and two of the options are “dokte fey” and “hougan”: an herbalist and male voodoo priest. Speculating about the frequency with which we’ll see either of those two answers pop up, I started talking to Handy Tibert, C2C’s Project Coordinator in Port-au-Prince, about Voodoo, which I’d previously associated with dolls and baby-eating ousted despots (See: Jean-Bertrand Aristide). This is a bit of what I learned (amplified by the incontrovertible source, Wikipedia):

Voodoo is everywhere. Haitians say that their country is about 80% Catholic, 20% Protestant and 100% Voodoo. Haitian voodoo’s what’s known as a syncretic religion: a religion that sought to reconcile opposing truths and faiths simply by combining them. Ask a Haitian for a photo of the voodoo lwa (deity) “Black Danbala” and she’ll show you a man I would call Moses. Ask for St. Peter and she’ll show you Legba. This makes sense: most Haitians’ ancestors were Africans brought to Hispanola with their own beliefs and were forced to adopt the Roman Catholicism of their slavers. The human goal of survival begets compromise; ergo Haitian Voodoo.

My interest with Voodoo is its pervasiveness. Everyone believes in its power; and some of it’s pretty dark. But mostly, it teaches people to think twice before being evil (again, except if you’re Aristide). Also, according to Handy, the person who’s right always wins the day; you’re only vulnerable if you’ve actually wronged someone. I mean, isn’t that the Catholic mantra? Religion’s a fascinating force, and I’m always curious about how it effects people’s perceptions of health and personal efficacy around its maintenance.

I worked in a community in Mozambique last year where some Christian missionaries were teaching poor Mozambicans that deep faith would cure their blindness, malaria, hunger, handicaps, etc. I wonder what voodoo’s panacea is? It’s no wonder that alternative, faith-based “medicines” enter communities lacking access to “Western” medical services with extraordinary power. So actually, I suppose what I’m curious about is how to get the two to work together. In communities where we start seeing the introduction of more modern care (I don’t know if that or Western are the terms I want to use here. Not concerned about being PC but accuracy…) how can we involve traditional healers in a way that’s respectful of the clout they have to generate support for modern interventions?

I’m not sure this will be something we see much of in Port-au-Prince, where modern medicine has an ample track record, and I need to do a lot more research into what Mambos and Hougans (female and male voodoo priests) actually teach about the cause and consequence of illness. Anyway, through these patient experience surveys, it will be interesting to learn about how they synthesize recommendations from traditional healers with the care they receive from C2C’s clinic.

This entry was posted on by Allison Howard-Berry.