Posted on May 24, 2024

Haitians Seeking Solace From Unrelenting Gang Violence Turn to Vodou

Associated Press, May 11, 2024

The Vodou faithful sing, their voices rising above the gunfire erupting miles away as frantic drumbeats drown out their troubles.

They pause to swig rum out of small brown bottles, twirling in unison as they sing in Haitian Creole: “We don’t care if they hate us, because they can’t bury us.”

Shunned publicly by politicians and intellectuals for centuries, Vodou is transforming into a more powerful and accepted religion across Haiti, where its believers were once persecuted. Increasingly, they seek solace and protection from violent gangs that have killed, raped and kidnapped thousands in recent years.

The violence has left more than 360,000 people homeless, largely shut down Haiti’s biggest seaport and closed the main international airport two months ago. Basic goods including food and life-saving medication are dwindling; nearly 2 million Haitians are on the verge of famine.

From January to March alone, more than 2,500 Haitians were killed or injured, up more than 50% from the same period last year, according to the U.N.

Amid the spiraling chaos, numerous Haitians are praying more or visiting Vodou priests known as “oungans” for urgent requests ranging from locating loved ones who were kidnapped to finding critical medication needed to keep someone alive.


Vodou was at the root of the revolution that led Haiti to become the world’s first free Black republic in 1804, a religion born in West Africa and brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people.

The syncretic religion that melds Catholicism with animist beliefs has no official leader or creeds. It has a single God known as “Bondye,” Creole for “Good God,” and more than 1,000 spirits known as the lwa — some that aren’t always benevolent.

During Vodou ceremonies, lwa are offered treats ranging from papayas and coffee to popcorn, lollipops and cheese puffs. A ceremony is considered successful if a Vodouist is possessed by an lwa.

Some experts consider it a religion of the exploited.


Vodou began to take shape in the French colony of Saint-Domingue during funeral rituals for enslaved people and dances called “calendas” that they organized on Sunday evenings. It also was practiced by slaves known as Maroons who escaped to remote mountains and were led by François Mackandal, a Vodou priest.

In August 1791, some 200 slaves gathered at night in Bois-Caiman in northern Haiti for a Vodou ceremony organized by Dutty Boukman, a renowned enslaved leader and Vodou priest. They sacrificed a pig, drank its blood and swore to keep secret an imminent revolt against slavery, according to a surgeon present at the ceremony.


Vodou is attracting more believers given the surge in gang violence and government inaction, said Cecil Elien Isac, a fourth-generation oungan.

“Whenever the community has a big problem, they come here, because there is no justice in Haiti. You find it in the ancestral spirits,” he said.


It’s unknown how many people currently practice Vodou in Haiti, but there’s a popular saying: “Haiti is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% Vodou.”

Vodou also has countless lwas, although Ogou Je Wouj — the god of red eyes — has grown more significant to Haitians given the lack of security in the country, said Erol Josué, a singer, oungan and director of Haiti’s National Bureau of Ethnology.

Ogou Je Wouj is a manifestation of the god of war and is believed to wield a machete.


Josué, the singer and oungan, noted that some young people becoming Vodouists are trying to change traditional prayers or certain practices, but he said oungans and mambos are not embracing the push.

“We make them understand that those spirits are a symbol of resistance of the Haitian nation,” he said. “There’s a lot of substance in Vodou that can lead to a renaissance of Haiti.”