Understanding Vodou

Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe in Haitian Vodou. (Photo by Rachael Bongiorno via Feet in 2 Worlds)

Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe in Haitian Vodou. (Photo by Rachael Bongiorno via Feet in 2 Worlds)

Often vilified and misunderstood, Haitian Vodou offers a way for community members to connect with their African roots and honor and respect both the living and the dead. Rachel Bongiorno of Feet in 2 Worlds attended a ceremony in the basement of a New Jersey home, and spoke at length with Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe, or female high priest in Haitian Vodou who presided over the ceremony. Her story and audio report provide a window on the culture and the meaning of vodou.

“Vodou integrates all the senses,” explains Désir. “The scents, rhythm and vibrations of the songs and drums all connect to help call down the spirits.”

Désir is a passionate advocate of Vodou and dedicates much of her time to fostering a greater understanding of Vodou’s religious and cultural practices. Her work aims to dispel the myths that plague the Vodou religion including the Hollywood-invented stereotypes of zombies and ‘pins in dolls’ that were popularized throughout the twentieth century.

Haitian Vodou is a monotheistic religion, with origins in West Africa. Like other Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions it was brought to Haiti with the transatlantic slave trade, or as Désir refers to it, the Maafa, meaning ‘the great suffering.” It’s an agrarian based tradition that is deeply tied to the land and its natural cycles.

To the accompaniment of drummers, vodou priests sing and initiate dances.

“The singing allows a certain kind of vibration to enter into the universe and allows divine energy to transmit itself,” Désir explains.

“Each drum rhythm represents a specific Lwa [spiritual force] or a specific song for a Lwa … because of the polyphonic nature of African sensibility, the drums themselves are singing, they’re talking. They’re going, they’re repeating, they’re paraphrasing what we are singing; they are a form of prayer. Our dance is a form of prayer. There’s also specific dances for specific musical rhythms that accompany specific Lwa.”

Désir, the daughter of a devout Catholic mother and an atheist father, once herself held the view that people who practice vodou are poor and illiterate. Go to Feet in 2 Worlds to learn how she came to embrace vodou and view her role primarily as that of a healer.

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