On a Saturday night in Jersey around thirty people gather in the basement of a suburban home. Friends and family greet each other and the scent of BBQ fish lingers in the musty air.
Although this looks akin to any other festive gathering, tonight is no ordinary party— It's fête Gede, a ceremony to honour the Haitian Vodou spiritual force or Lua, named Gede. An alter is the centerpiece for the room laden with gifts for the Lua. There are libation bottles covered in colorful sequins and filled with the Lua’s favorite drinks, baskets of sweets, percussive instruments, candles, their favorite perfume, and some goats meat.
"Vodou integrates all the senses," Dòwòti Désir, a Manbo Asogwe, or female high priest in Haitian Vodou, explains to me. “The scents, rhythm and vibrations of the songs and drums all connect to help call down the spirits.”
"Much like the how Mexicans celebrate the day of the dead, on fête Gede, we connect with those ancestors who have passed" Désir says.
Haitian Vodou is a monotheistic religion, which has its origins in West Africa. Like other Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions it was brought over 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.
One key tenet of the religion is honoring and respecting not just the living but also the ancestors who have passed.
“Part of Vodou’s covenant is the communities relationship with those of us on this plain and the communities that preceded us.” Désir says, “So we honour and respect those who are among us and visible and those who have come before us.”
One way congregants of Haitian Vodou connect with the ancestors and Lua is through ceremonies, which are executed through song, music, prayer and dance.
“The singing allows a certain kind of vibration to enter into the universe and allows divine energy to transmit itself.” explains Désir.
“The drumming isn’t just musical in the sense that there’s no message or text being conveyed, each drum rhythm represents a specific Lua or a specific song for Lua… 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 Lua.”
Désir describes the Lua as different deities and ancestors who represent various paths that we take in our lives and various responses to situations. Some of them are male, some of them are female, some of them are both.
“Islam has prophets, in the same way that Christians have saints, in Vodou the Lua play an equivalent role.”
But first and foremost, Désir sees her role as a Manbo Asogwe as a healer.
“Our role as priests is multifold, it’s no different from a rabbi or a pastor or a Father in any other tradition. Our role as priests is to help people heal. It isn’t about preaching and converting them. But it’s definitely about healing, about spiritual and social healing; as well as physical healing when people are ill.”
Désir was raised by her grandparents in Haiti, before joining her parents and two sisters as a young teenager in New York City. As Désir spent her formative years in a different country to these family members, she says her household was slightly fragmented.
“I was raised a little bit differently from my sisters, not only because I spoke a different language as they, I also had different cultural sensibilities about me, like how early I got up in the morning, what I was used to eating, that sort of thing. It was very different from what my sisters had, so I was living in two worlds that way.”
With a devout Catholic Mother and an Atheist Father who gave her books on Marx, Lennon and Malcolm X from a young age, Désir has always considered the philosophical questions of life and searched for knowledge systems, which made sense to her.
Désir attended a Catholic school in New York City, but felt alienated from the education she was receiving.
“Not only did I not believe what was being said in the bible, I had issue with the idea of the original sin, I had issue with this Aryan looking person that was supposed to be God in the form of Jesus, blue eyes and blonde hair…Nothing in my memory was European oriented. Everything that I knew and loved at that point had been black or brown… There was nothing in my memory that connected itself to that vision of the Divine.”
“Ultimately I became agonistic and atheistic for a very long time. And it wasn’t until about 18 years ago that I accepted the notion of a supreme being and a construct of God that made sense to me.”
Over the course of many years Désir experienced a series of dreams she said that although were difficult to rationalize, eventually guided her towards searching out the knowledge systems of her heritage.
But it was ultimately the opportunity to politically organize with the New York Haitian community in the wake of a brutal violent attack on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant by a police officer in 1997, that Désir came to better understand Vodou.
“A group of Vodouisant (practitioner of Vodou) were organizing a forum, on economic development, on social change politics, and I thought, what? Vodouisant are doing that? Because one is taught that people who practice Vodou are illiterate, they’re poor, they’re dangerous, there’s all these terrible stereotypes.”
“And yet, here was a group of people who were spiritually aligned in a very particular way, and they’re sensibilities seem to embrace everything I had been taught that I thought were important… So I went to their meeting, and I quickly became the president of the New York Chapter that they had established, became initiated as a priest and it’s just been history from there.”
Since then Désir has dedicated much of her life to connect the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora with their spiritual traditions and to facilitate a greater understanding of the Vodou religion, as well as engage in interfaith dialogue.
“It’s important to encourage people to understand that it is ok to be an African descendent and to embrace your Africansness.” Désir says with an emphatic smile.
For Désir sees her role as a Manbo Asogwe as less about ‘creating love potions’ and more about helping to reconnect with African culture, collective memory and the healing of communities.
“Because we live in a world with the legacy of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, in some way we can describe the experience of the African decedents, particularly in the Afro-Atlantic world, in the Americas, as one that has been about anomic erasure. It’s been about erasing our culture, erasing our memory, erasing our sense of self. And I see my role as a human rights activist and as a Manbo Asogwe as one to help heal that and to repair that gap, to help to literally conjure memory, so that our sense of self and sense of place is restored. Because it’s when that occurs that the process of spiritual reparations can begin.”
Désir points to the legacy of colonization as the reason for the vilification of Vodou by France, the U.S, and the Government of Haiti, where a constitutional amendment in 2012 effectively outlawed the practice. This is amidst an environment of a growing evangelical Protestant presence there and pressure from international donors post earthquake, asserts Désir. Haiti also has a strong history of violent crackdowns on practices of the religion, which has pushed it underground.
“It’s a symbol of resistance” Désir says, and it was a Vodou ceremony that united the slaves and sparked the Haitian Revolution— making Haiti the most successful slave revolt and the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world. Désir also pointed out that Vodou is beyond a religion, it is a widespread cultural practice in Haiti that is a way to hold onto their African heritage, an avenue for freedom and a spiritual mechanism for healing.
In her recent article, Afraid of the Dark: Zombies and the Extrajudicial Killing of Our People, written in response to the no indictment outcome for the police officer who killed an unarmed Eric Garner, in New York City, Désir encourages the community to draw on the principles of justice and equilibrium in Vodou as well as Vodou’s history of resistance, to systematically combat structural racism and achieve civil and human rights for Black communities.
“We can advocate for the movement #BlackLivesMatter but the reality is in this country, we experience #ZeroToleranceforBlackLife. The latter is the current unspoken, grandly juried apex of Afrophobia in our society. The streets of North Americans whose collective popular imagination is filled with zombies, seem to mistake Black and Brown people as the substance of their worst fears.” Writes Désir.
“Without the same hard tools used to liberate us from enslavement, occupation and Apartheid, we will end up on the wrong side of Elegba’s (Master of the Crossroads in Vodou) door, gyrating Gédé’s (the Lwa of struggle and death) macabre dance, #NoLongerAmongTheLiving.”
On January 1st 2015, the UN will launch International Decade on People of African Descent (2015-2025). This decade of action is an outcome of the 2001 Durban Declaration—a framework to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Désir who is also the president of the Durban Declaration Action Watch Group sees this decade as an opportunity to facilitate a better understanding of Afro-Atlantic spiritual systems such as Vodou, which continue to be demonized and vilified by the U.S and other American and Caribbean nations.
“The potential outcomes of the decade for people of African decent in the AfroAtlantic community is that it will de-criminalize our cultures.” Says Désir
In the ‘de-criminalizing of these cultures,’ Désir hopes we will see a reduction in the discrimination faced by these communities and thus alleviation of poverty and distress experienced in the U.S, Latin America and the Caribbean.
On the 11th of December as part of the UN Subcommittee for the Elimination of Racism, Désir organized a ‘Sacred Season Interfaith Dialogue’ to honor the International Decade for People of African Descent. This event included speakers from a number of AfroAtlantic traditions of including Vodou, Orisa, Rastafari as well as Islam.
For Dr. Sheridan Booker, an initiate to the Orisha, (Yoruba) religion, who spoke at the forum, this decade provides an opportunity to not only provide greater recognition of AfroAtlantic religious traditions, but also to address racism more broadly.
“In order to even get to root of Afrophobia, which is the problem we encounter with African based traditions, you have to unravel that whole paradigm of modernity and the concept of race; where African descendent people sit within, in order to get to the root of why African based traditions are still ostracized and stigmatized.”