Haitian Vodou faith in the reparations movement

The Repair Campaign interviewed Vélina Élysée Charlier, Empress of Lakou Souvenance and member of the
Noupapdòmi Collective in Haiti, about her views on her Vodou faith and reparations.

February 28, 2024

Vélina Élysée Charlier, Empress of Lakou Souvenance and member of The Noupapdòmi Collective, Haiti

What are the key aspects of Vodou as a faith? 

In Haitian Creole, we don’t name the spirituality as Vodou. Vodou became a popular word after colonialism. We refer to the faith as Ginen. Ginen means the ancestors – and that’s the very essence of what the spirituality is.  

Vodou is a spirituality where you honour your ancestors who have lived and walked the path before you and who left the earth for you to preserve and leave for your children. That’s why the faith is so deeply rooted in nature – honouring the earth, the sun, the moon, the trees, the rivers etc.  

You are to make sure that you honour your ancestors and honour the nature because they will outlast you. And when you leave them, make sure that you leave them in a better way than you found them because they are for your children. That’s the end goal of Vodou – serenity and peace in understanding that there is life in everything around us. That’s why our spirits live in trees, that’s why we know that there is spirit in the water, there is spirit in the sun, there is spirit in the air. As I’m talking to you, spirits are all over me and around me. It’s the belief that there is life in everything and you have to respect that life. That’s what Vodou is. Vodou is also about finding your truth. What you do, what you think and what you say, has to be in harmony because you are looking for the truth. 

 

How was Vodou brought to the Caribbean and to Haiti in particular?   

When our ancestors were enslaved and taken from the coast of Africa all the way to the Americas our spirituality came with us from the different countries where the trafficking of enslaved Africans was very high. When the enslaved Africans got to the Americas, the first thing that was done was to give them a new name, new faith, new religion, new everything. As if you were nobody. As if you did not exist before. This brainwashing was a way of making sure that the enslaved did not consider themselves human beings. 

What is very interesting is that when our ancestors arrived as slaves in these new lands, they found that the land was already occupied by other people – people of the First Nations. When our ancestors met these people, they realised that their spirituality was very similar. Although they were different people from different cultures, they were also doing the same things in honouring the ancestors and honouring nature. So that spirituality is what we call Vodou now.  

That spirituality, being very deeply rooted in the respect for life and transmitting life, allowed the different tribes to create a new language, create a new culture, get connected among themselves and get connected with Indigenous First Nations. Despite the treatment of the colonisers, the spirituality and faith allowed us to remember that before we arrived here, there were others before us. These others had ways of honouring everything that was around them that was sustaining life, whether it is the sun, the rivers, the ocean, the trees – all that knowledge was already in our culture.  

 

Is the role of women particularly strong in Vodou spirituality? 

A woman in Vodou has as much responsibility and power as a man. For example, I am the Empress of Lakou Souvnans and there is an Emperor as well, but we have as much power and responsibility. 

I am a Manbo, which means I’m a priestess, and no man is going to question my power or question my responsibility. I’m at the service of the people, so I have as much responsibility as I have power, and no man has more power than I do. We don’t have that concept of male and female gender roles in the sense of Vodou.  

We also don’t have the same difference in gender because some of our spirits are genderless. Even in the songs we sing when we worship, we say Mama Lisa, Papa Lisa. It’s not two different deities. It’s one deity that we acknowledge depending on the energy which can be the mother energy or the father energy. Of course, we do have deities that are more masculine or more feminine, but that concept of different gender is not as strong or as well defined as it is in modern ages. 

 

Why did Vodou take root so strongly in Haiti over other countries that experienced chattel slavery? 

Because Haiti was so prosperous, it also meant that there were a lot of enslaved people dying. When the Haitian Revolution started, the average length of time that an enslaved person survived in the colony was five years. Unlike other islands where a lot of people that were born into slavery, in Haiti there was a constant flow of new enslaved Africans being brought to replace those who died. As a result, the spirituality and the faith remained very much alive. The very reason that was possible was because of the high influx of enslaved people being injected into the country from many tribes. Those African men and women coming to Haiti carried their faith knowing that they were free men and that they were human beings.  

 

What makes Haitian Vodou so unique?  

When the enslaved Africans arrived, they met with the first tribes of the Maroons, the Caraibe, the Taíno, the Arawak, and they found their spirituality was similar. That’s what makes Haitian Vodou unique in a way. You will find traditions and practices from Africa, but you will also find practices and traditions from the Indigenous people. For example, we are very famous for our Veve, which comes from our ancient Urdu word representing a form of sacred geometry. You will not find Veve in Benin, but you will find Veve very present in Latin America with the Aztec and the Inca and the same in the Haitian Vodou. 

That’s what makes the Haitian Vodou special. Because when we got here, the First Nations had knowledge that was very similar to our own knowledge, and together they became one and made Haitian Vodou. In other examples, in our pantheon of Lwas, we have Lwas who we honour from the Indigenous people. Even if you go to small villages, the knowledge that they have is very similar to what was practiced in ancient Yoruba. We also have food that was passed down to us from the Indigenous people, like the cassava or the tchaka, and you also see similar knowledge and heritage in our healing practices.  

This mix of Indigenous and African cultures is what makes Haiti, Haiti. It’s very beautiful and it makes you realise at the end of the day, we’re just human and we share a lot of the same knowledge.  

 

Where did the misconceptions and the negative reputation of Vodou come from?   

What do you do when you want to enslave somebody? The first thing that you do is you control their mind and their heart, and you make sure that whenever they think about themselves, they think of bad things. The only way to keep people enslaved is to make them think that they are no good. Slavery and any exploitation of people by people is based on controlling their mind and their hearts, and controlling what they believe about themselves to make them believe that they are bad. And the only way to make somebody accept that form of chattel slavery is to control their mind and control their heart. In doing so, the first thing that they attack is your spirituality, making you think that everything that you believe is bad or is the devil. 

 

How integral was Vodou in how enslaved people rebelled or resisted enslavement? 

First there was the language. Living in the same island allowed us to create one common language, Creole, and the enslavers did not speak Creole. 

The Maroon communities, which were led most of the time by Vodou priests or priestesses, would remind them that your spirituality does not want you to continue to live as cattle. You are full human beings and not animals. Many of the enslaved taken from Africa were soldiers or generals in the old army, leaders of villages, kings and queens. They had lives as free human beings before. 

Because Vodou is a belief that finds and brings out what’s best in you, it was very easy to make the enslaved understand that the way they were living was no longer acceptable and that they could win the war. Vodou was at the very essence of organising the Indigenous army along with enslaved Africans who remembered their worth and their power. Vodou was the cement. 

In the famous speech that Boukman gave during the ceremony of the Bois Caiman that began the Haitian Revolution, one line of that speech says, “the God of the white people wants you to remain slaves. Our God has spoken, we are not slaves.” That one line was enough to make the enslaved believe that we as human beings, as spirits, are not to live that way. And when you read history and you read about the battles, it’s almost unbelievable that a bunch of slaves were able to fight against Napoleon’s army, which at the time was the strongest army, and still win. To me, Vodou makes you believe that you are unbreakable. I believe strongly that being a Vodou practitioner gave that little edge, that little something more that the enslaved in Haiti needed to become the first Black republic. 

 

What does your Vodou faith mean to you? 

I’m a Vodou practitioner so I know the power of my spirituality and the power of my faith. I know the power of knowing that the Lwa is giving me the strength. I know the power of healing, of knowing the leaves, knowing the trees, knowing how to treat people. I know the power of giving real value to life because I know how easy it is to die and how easy it is to kill.  

As a Vodou practitioner, when I call upon a deity like Ogun, our God of War, I do believe that he’s going to pull me through any obstacle. Even today, if they’re shooting in the streets, I say, “Papa Ogun, you have to bring me home,” and I can be assured that I’m going to get home without anything happening to me. I guess it’s the same for someone who says, God lead me through this.  

 

I’m going to fast forward from 1804 to 2024. What role do you think Vodou can play in the regional fight for reparations for chattel slavery? 

I think because Vodou is a faith that is based on finding the truth, the first thing we must do is speak the truth in seeking reparation. It is true that there was slavery, and it is true that there should be reparation. 

I think that the fight for reparation is also the fight against making our faith into something evil as descendants of Africans. Reparations are about getting people to show more respect for those who were people before they were slaves, who had their own way of life, their own beliefs and their own spirituality. Reparation is not only monetary, it is also moral. It is a matter of justice. It is a matter of recognising that slave traders went into Africa and they destroyed life and what life is supposed to be. When you think that Africa is the first continent where life started, it becomes reparation towards us as human beings, no matter the shade of our skin tone. 

I think the fight for reparation is also about bringing back social justice, bringing back money that could have been invested in the islands so that people can stop living so poor and with so very little. 

It’s also a discussion about healing the hurt. It is so much more than just saying we’re going to set up a fund and then we’re going to make sure that kids go to school. To me, reparation is a conversation about recognising that we have one mother that’s been hurt. And we’ve done enough bad. 

Reparation is rooted in my faith because my faith makes me believe that I have to have the deepest and sincerest respect for all types of life. To me, Vodou can bring that to the top of reparation. 

  

Do you think it’s important to maintain links between other regions and spiritualities in fighting for moral justice? How do practitioners of Vodou like yourself feel about dealing with other religions? 

In Vodou we have a saying, “Tout moun se moun” which means every human being is a human being and the “Tout piti se pitit” which means every child is a child – that’s the core of the belief. That’s why it’s common to have so many people being Catholic and a Vodou practitioner at the same time or being Buddhist and a Vodou practitioner at the same time because we are not a spirituality that says you have to be exclusively a Vodou practitioner. We don’t do that. We welcome everybody from all faiths, ages, skin tones and countries as long as you identify yourself as a Ginen, which means someone who honours the ancestors and honours nature and who has respect and love in themselves. That’s what Vodou is.  

 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I’ll leave you with one piece of Haitian history.  

When there was the revolution that led to Haiti’s independence, France brought in military from Poland. When they arrived in a particular village in Haiti, the Vodou practitioner had images up of Notre Dame de Czestochowa. When they saw that very picture of a Catholic black virgin, they decided not to fight for the French army but to join forces with the enslaved because they said if they can worship this black mother, then they are the same people as us because she is the guardian of Poland.  

So, to me, I strongly believe that we are one people, and that love is the guide. We all have different faiths and religions, but love is the guide.  

I strongly believe that all the talk about moral justice and reparation comes from a place inside of our genetic code where we are now remembering that it is time to heal. The journey that we are on is the journey of healing. Healing ourselves so that we can heal our home because we don’t have another one. We only have motherhood. That’s it. And I think that the genetic code has awakened to make us all realise that. 

Whether your work may seem very small or whether it is very big, we are all working towards the same thing when you talk about it, so I think, let love be.