Friday, February 5, 2010

Vodou Initiations Outside Haiti: the Great Controversy Revisited

According to some people, initiations in Vodou can only be done in Haiti. According to others, the first two degrees (Hounsi Kanzo and Houngan/Mambo Si Pwen) can be done outside Haiti but Asogwe initiations should be done in Haiti. And still others claim that an initiation in Vodou can be done anywhere so long as you have the proper setting. Dr. Karen Richman, author of Migration and Vodou, takes the first position:
In rural Haiti, “serving the spirits,” the Vodou deities or lwa, is a family affair. Members of descent groups trace their eritaj, or inheritance, back to a founding ancestor. Both land and lwa are part of this heritage, and are inseparable. Worship cannot be transplanted to Florida; the spirits cannot be appeased from afar, disconnected from their native soil.
My house, Société la Belle Venus #2 of Brooklyn, New York will put initiates in the djevo in their djevo in New York: they also hold initiations in Haiti. I was told that it was preferable for the Asogwe initiation to be conferred in Haiti, but that it can be given in the United States. (I received my Si Pwen initiation in 2003 in Brooklyn: my wife, Mambo Zetwal Kleye, received hers in 2005).  There are other houses in New York, Boston, Miami and Montréal which initiate candidates locally. 

During the reign of Duvalier peré and fils, many Haitian immigrants were political refugees who could not return to their homeland. Today many Haitians in the United States are economic refugees who cannot return because they are here illegally.  It is not surprising that Vodou (which has always been by necessity a flexible tradition that adapted to circumstances) has grown to accommodate the situation of its followers.  And since it is a decentralized tradition with no overarching governing body, it is not surprising that any change will be greeted with controversy and disagreement.

There are certainly advantages to initiation in Haiti, particularly if one has a chance to stay for longer than the bare minimum required for the ceremony. Haitian Vodou is inextricably linked to Haitian culture: living in country can provide you with a better understanding of the deeper meanings behind the elaborately coded songs and myths. There are many powerful pwens and sacred sites in Haiti which are well worth visiting, and the experience of pilgrimage is certainly a worthwhile one.  And there's an economic reason as well: even when you factor in the cost of lodging and transportation, initiations can often be held in Haiti for less than a similar American ceremony.

But there are also advantages to being initiated in the United States (or Canada, or France) by a working société.  It is easy to get initiated in Haiti, return home, and have no further contact with Haiti or with Haitians.  Initiation into a local société can give you the opportunity to attend and participate in fets and ceremonies regularly.  It can plug you into a social network of Haitians and Haitian-Americans as a fellow member, not just a wealthy tourist who comes to enjoy the local color and leaves again after bestowing a few pennies on the deserving poor.

From a spiritual standpoint, I would argue that it is important that Vodou initiations take place in the United States. Much as Haitian immigrants have created Vodu Cubano and Vudu Dominicano in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, I would expect to see the development of American Vodou and La Vodoun Canadienne among Haiti's large diaspora population.  While this will differ from Haitian Vodou as practiced in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, it will be no less vital and meaningful to its followers. And it will have roots in this country as surely as Haitian Vodou has its demambwe, its sacred land.

Ultimately, houngans and mambos are lords over their own houses.  If you disagree with the teachings of one house, you are free to seek out another which works for you. There is no Pope of Vodou and no council grisée to excommunicate or cast judgment. Those who find fault with another house's practice generally do not consult their priests and do not attend their ceremonies. If enough people shun them, the offending house will find themselves out of clients and members. Otherwise they will become part of the diverse and sometimes-squabbling tapestry which is the Haitian religious and folk tradition.