Healing in the Homeland – Haitian Vodou Tradition

‘As a child in Haiti laying in my bed, I heard the Tams Tams of the Vodou drums beating all nights. These beats were telling the stories of my African ancestors, of their struggles, and their survival, their self determination and resistance to domination to keep their dignity. However, the Christian schooling system and the social setting alienating children from their African Traditional heritage and demonized it. As an adult I have decided to go and make a difference. Thus my Doctorate in Conflict Analysis and Resolution reflects this conflicts and the healing that followed.’ Margaret Mitchell Armand

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Margaret Mitchell Armand is a Haitian scholar, poet, artist and trained psychologist. Born in Haiti and raised between Haiti and the US, Margaret’s’ life and work are framed by her faith in the African religious traditions and a celebration of Haitian Vodou.

Two of her most recent publications are a poetry collection “Finding Erzili” [English, French and Haitian Kreyol] and “Healing in the Homeland – Haitian Vodou Tradition”. In addition to writing, Margaret is an artist whose work is grounded in Haitian culture, which is to say it is grounded in Haitian Vodou. She creates art using scraps of wood, branches from palm trees, rocks, calabash, seeds and whatever else she finds in her garden. Her garden is also a lush collection of herbs and plants for healing and soothing the body and spirit.

‘Healing in the Homeland: Haitian Vodou Tradition’ explores the possibility of attaining decolonization through reconnecting with the past and reclaiming knowledge, particularly for the Affranchi descendent / bourgeois / elite class in Haiti. This is achieved through a series of narratives of formally educated Haitians who have ‘transcended their class and elite status’ to openly embrace Vodou, Haitian Kreyol and African-Haitian culture. I say openly, as Margaret points out that most Haitians practice Vodou in secret whilst dismissing it publicly. The narratives provide an insight into how social and cultural mores act to oppress individuals and take on a life of their own.

The work is an ‘indigenous intervention’ which begins by honoring the Taíno people who were murdered by the Spanish. Margaret alerts us to the failure of Western scholarship to acknowledge the Taínos as well as their relationship to African peoples both prior to Columbus and during the colonization.

‘All the ideology, the connections to nature, cosmology, what it means to be human, traveling with the stars. These were shared by Taíno and Africans.’ [MMA: Healing in the Homeland]

Although she is a Haitian scholar and Vodouizan, her position as researcher from a privileged social class highlights class divisions and assumptions around language, religion, and political affiliation. Margaret tells us how she had to recognize these issues but at the same time acknowledge to herself as she powerfully states:

‘Voice gives us, as writers, a presence in our writing. Our voices can thus position us as part of the humanity we write about or as separate and coolly detached. In this study, my position is as part of that humanity I am studying. I belong to the struggle because I was also a victim of it.’ [MMA: Healing in the Homeland]

In the conversation Margaret underlines the importance of historical knowledge in the decolonization process. She asserts that for Haitians and people of African descent or any indigenous people who suffered colonization, the decolonization process must begin around the Poto Mitan. That is to say, decolonization must be grounded in our historical knowledge and belief systems as African peoples and drawn from the spirit of the Haitian revolution and our ancestors knowledge. In particular she emphasizes that to reclaim one’s culture and identity through the Vodou tradition is a liberation from colonial mentality and a way to bridge the cultural gap between bourgeois and the popular masses.

‘The spirit of the Haitian Revolution was based on African and Taíno philosophy and ideology, a tradition of ancestral remembrance, a connection to nature, reparation of past wrongs and the fundamental principle of equality and justice for all through collaborative effort and consensus-based problem solving ….

‘Indeed the Haitian Vodou tradition is the cohesive force of the African Haitian revolution, the rallying point of resistance against colonial ideology continues to be the Poto Mitan of Haitian identity, which is the fulcrum of this study.’ [MMA – Healing in the Homeland]

 

The Haitian Vodou tradition began on the Atlantic crossings of enslaved Africans. On reaching Haiti, the enslaved men, women and children from across west and central Africa shared their belief systems, knowledge of the spirit world and rituals, with those of the indigenous Taíno peoples of Ayiti.

An awareness of the origins and the centrality of Vodou and Kreyol to Haitian identity formation, enables us to understand why both have been maligned and desecrated by Europeans from the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade. The colonizers and plantation owners realized very quickly that Vodou Tradition was critical to freedom and from then until now, they have never ceased in attempts to destroy the essence of Haitian culture.

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SOKARI EKINE: You have been a Manbo for over 25 years, why did it take so long before you had the idea to write this book and what kind of challenges did you face?

MARGARET MITCHELL ARMAND: It was never an idea to write a book. You know I am a Manbo, I initiated but it was not easy because the society I’m in was not supportive. Vodou was not part of my childhood experience but my grandmother and great grandmother were both Manbos. As young adult I had little to say about being Haitian and I felt diminished because of this. So I returned to Haiti and with the support of Ati [url=https://vimeo.com/64228572Max Beauvoir[/url] as my spiritual father, I was initiated in the Peristyle of Mariani in Haiti. I am an avid learner and when I decided to get my Ph.D, I knew that my dissertation would be something that has deep meaning to me. One day, a colleague came to visit who had just finished her PhD and I said to her ‘oh I cannot do this, I cannot do the qualitative work, I am stuck’. She said to me ‘Margaret, don’t you have Vèvè, don’t you have Lwas, Don’t you have Vodou ceremony? I said ‘yes I do’ [Laughs] ‘Then do it!
SE: In terms of the structure of both your poetry and ‘Healing in the Homeland’, you choose to use the Vèvè and Lwa’s as a way of introducing the chapters. Why did you do this and what is the importance of the Vèvè ?

MMA: Vodou is about life itself in its many forms. It is also about art, music, and dance. Vèvès are everywhere, they are part of our spiritual, artistic and cultural expression, and also they are found in other indigenous communities. There they are called in terms of that culture. They are also used to depict the design and energy that you want to connect with. Just like in other religious beliefs systems. A Vèvè could be the design of a business card, it could be the symbol of a belief, so we cannot pin point the Vèvè.

The Vèvè has a spiritual element to it if one wishes. The design of the Vèvè varies according to the Lakou,[2] or the Peristyle; it has a structure but within that, it is flexible. It is an evolving process and we can create our own vèvès just like I have done with my business cards.

SE: You include in ‘Healing in the Homeland’ a series of participatory interviews with formally educated Haitians who have decolonized themselves through embracing Vodou. Each interviewee takes the name of a Lwa also depicted with their Vèvè, to represent themselves? Whose idea was this and why?

MMA: During the interviews, as part of the reclaiming of identity process, it seemed fitting that the interviewee chose a name for themselves and they chose a Lwa name. For others, I picked a name that would fit their personality.

SE: And that is what gives the book character, you are talking about Haiti, talking about Vodou, culture and language and you frame it all within the Vèvè, the Lwa and the Poto Mitan. One question we have discussed before is the chapter ‘Decolonizing the Poto Mitan’. How is the Poto Mitan the sight of decolonization, of Haitian decolonization in particular and even beyond that because you can take the idea of the Poto Mitan as the central force, of our very essence as [Black] people?

MMA: The Poto Mitan is the seed that grows into the tree of knowledge, that is the tree of Loko Atisou.[3] It is our seed, so when the seed comes up as Poto, the tree is our Poto Mitan in nature. This is our communication where the energy of a Lwa comes to communicate with us. It is under the Poto Mitan that we draw the Vèvè to say which spiritual energy [Lwa] we want with us. It is around the Poto Mitan that we find our peace and we can learn about our ancestors and our stories are told, and we pray, we dance we sing, we communicate with our Lwas. Here we are no longer colonized, that is why it is the place of decolonization.

Anything can be a Poto Mitan; in my Lakou, a mango tree or palm tree. When you put your ear to the palm tree you can hear the energy so its our connection to nature, to the energy and with spirits and our respect for nature. Around the Poto Mitan even from the time of the Taínos, it is here that we sit, we discuss and make plans. Its a collaborative consensus thing. And that is why I say it is a place of decolonization because this is the place of our truth.

SE: Our senses become numb when you live in certain environments not necessarily the west but in Haiti too. One of the things I learned from your work is the need to be aware and not to fear because then you are unable to feel or see.

MMA: Yes, you have to be aware that we have ancestors and we have some energy around us, you don’t have to see it, you have to feel it and have that sense but you have to work on this by being more observant. You have to accept it and trust it.

SE: From the interviews it is clear that many of the Haitian elite who become Vodouizan do so as a way of reclaiming their Haitian identity which is part of the decolonizing process. For example Marinèt Bwa Chèch [one of the interviewees] life struggle was a struggle to be Haitian and like many elite, her decolonizing journey began by discovering a hidden family history of Vodou practice.

‘Ah it felt good. I felt good to know that I had a Manbo and Hougan in the ancestral family. ….then I wanted to give myself a Haitian Lwa name. Give myself a name that could link me directly, not only to the Haitian Vodou religion but put me right there in it. Therefore I gave myself the name of a Lwa, you know Ezili Freda and Danto and Dahomey…’

Out of all the interviews which was your favorite?

MMA: I respected all their stories because they are all powerful. However, I admire a lot Grann Ayizan Velekete. [Standing Tall] She has moved to the world of the ancestors, I miss her, but she has done so much work and I identify with her in so many ways. It was a hard time, she had the whole society against her, she went to the countryside, to the Manbo’s house. Even today her family refuses to admit that she said these things but its all on tape, thats her voice. So Grann Ayizan to me was a fighter.

SE: She was my favorite too. She had so much to fight against because she went against the grain of her social class and because she was a woman too. I wonder why she chose Grann Ayizan?

MMA: Her strength was obvious. Whenever I asked her how is she doing she would reply “I’m still standing tall”! And the tree for Grann Ayizan is the royal palm and the royal palm always stands tall. It is also the palm in the Haitian flag.

SE: Grann Ayizan along with the other interviewees is a descendent of Affranchi which is a pejorative term used for the bourgeoisie. Could you explain the concept and the relationship of Affranchi with class in Haiti?

MMA: The Haitian elite do not like the word; they like to think they are French. Affranchi is not based on color, it is social status from pre-independence, someone of African descent who paid for his freedom. This is why in the book I did not use race as a variable because everyone is Black [Dessalines declared every Haitian to be Black]. I remember when I asked my aunt to tell me the story of our family, I said I know we were Affranchi. She got upset with me and did not want to talk about it because the Affranchi suffered a lot too. They were caught between two worlds and penalized by both. The affranchi were abused. They were used as prostitutes, humiliated, beaten.

They were eager to have families but seeing the Black families so denigrated they wanted to be like the white family. The Affranchi and the ‘mulatto’ had huge psychological problems. Petion [Alexander Petion] went to find his father who said “who are you”? But then when he ruled Haiti, he was just as bad as his [white] father. So being an Affranchi came with suffering but at the same time you had the space to survive, make money and have status.

My poetry is a reflection of the journey of my soul in particular time and space that brings magic to my life. It is often thought-provoking as it interrogates, shares, brings into perspective, writes back, questions, talkback, defends, speaks out, brings close, teaches, shows gratitude, understands, nurtures, remembers, dreams, honors, gives hope, cherishes and above all Heal and LOVE. It is a medium through which the creative energies of ancestral legacies flow in their relentlessness to provide immense satisfaction while transforming what I feel to a clearly defined outcome. The poems coalesce with the sacred arts of the Vèvè that offer the testimony of spiritual powers’. [Margaret Mitchell Armand – Finding Ezili]

SE: All your work is extremely personal and your poetry too; it is a self-exploration and very touching as you write about the loss of your son and the loss of your parents but you also celebrate them. So there is grief but also joy of life. How has your work as a writer, poet and artist impacted on your life as a Haitian American?

MMA – My poetry is personal. It is about celebrating life – love, joy and grief. Being an immigrant, coming to a different country I felt free because in Haiti then we were persecuted by the Haitian Government. Becoming an immigrant was an opportunity because in Haiti at that time there were limited opportunities in terms of higher education. I was glad to be in America and was able to adjust very fast. Then I realized also it was not as easy because of racial tensions. But when my culture and Haitian Vodou was attacked, I saw the ignorance and I wanted to change it but first I had to accept who I was and learn about Haitian Vodou and decolonize myself as well.

Many family members and friends showed their displeasure about me becoming a Manbo while introducing my children to Vodou. I did not care, I listen to the energies of the Lwas and I began to write poetry. So when I work it is the energy that talks to me. I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write a poem today. I just follow my instinct. As an example I miss my son who passed away and one day I saw some flowers that he loved and I wrote the poem. I feel something and I write it, these are my healing processes. I do not think of myself so much as Haitian American or American or Haitian. I just feel that where I am is where I need to be in this world. So I write, I dance, I paint
SE: In 1999 you traveled to West Africa. Why did you go, why was it important?

MMA: I wanted to make that connection so I travelled to West Africa. Afterward I did my DNA with African ancestry to find my roots to a specific area where my ancestors lived. The DNA revealed that I am connected to the Yoruba people [this is the Kingdom Nago / the Oyo Kingdom, during the time and prior to slavery,] and the Hausa and Bamileke people from Cameroon which was South Kongo prior and during the slave trade. This knowledge is found in the Vodou songs. I travelled to Benin in 1999 and to Senegal, Ghana Ivory Coast and to Cameroon in 2010. These are the most memorable places for me. I am grounded. I am Free.

 

‘Transformation is only valid if it is carried out with the people, not for them. Liberation is like childbirth and a painful one. The person who emerges is a new person: no longer either oppressed or oppressor, but a person in the process of achieving freedom’. Paulo Freire [MMA – Healing in the Homeland]

END NOTES

[1] Grann Ayizan – a powerful Lwa who cares about the weak and the unprotected and establishes order and peace.

[2] Lakou – a compound of traditional extended family and spiritual living

[3] Loko Atisou – the Lwa represented as the tree of knowledge of the Vodou tradition.

 

ADDITIONAL READING:

Margaret Mitchell Armand – http://www.margaretmitchellarmand.com