Sunday, July 11, 2010

Validating Initiations

This old chestnut (by now it may be a coprolite!) has arisen again, this time on that social networking dinosaur Tribe. Kathy Latzoni (my wife, who is also a Mambo Si Pwen and the moderator of the Vodou tribe) has been engaged in a discussion with Wedosi, an African-American woman who practices West African Vodun and who spent several years in Benin.  Wedosi insists that:
I am sorry moderator..that is INCORRECT! In Tradtional African Vodun ALL person's lineage CAN be verified! Accountability is paramount in ORIGINAL vodun; however, in the diaspora there appears to be problems in that the ORIGINAL hiearchy of vodun IS NOT in place.
While I am not an expert in "Traditional African Vodun," I would assume that said faith would "traditionally" be practiced by local Africans.  A person who comes to "Traditional African Vodun" as an outsider is by definition not  a member of the "traditional" congregation.  These practices were by villagers and for villagers. They were never viewed as part of a world religion by their followers but rather as a series of practices which ensured spiritual and social cohesion within the group.

(As an aside, the "asson lineage" which many people identify as "orthodox Haitian Vodou" actually was developed in the 1920s in response to deforestation and the development of an urban culture in Port-au-Prince. As hungry peasants came to the cities in search of work, they lost touch with their local religion and their local spirits. The asson became a way by which servants of the lwa could recognize each other and gain access to the spirits of a particular house. And because it was designed to accommodate outsiders, this lineage was also open to anthropologists and other curious foreigners -- hence, it became the tradition which was most frequently studied and ultimately became the default setting for "Haitian Vodou").

This is what leads to much of the confusion about "validating initiations." In a small village in Haiti, Togo, or Cuba, people know each other.  There's no question about who initiated whom, or who is practicing the "authentic faith."  These social safeguards are not in place for those who travel to a foreign country to engage in rituals with and among strangers.  They may get a valid ceremony or they may get the infamous "airport initiation" designed to entertain bored and wealthy tourists. 

Unless you are a part of that specific culture, it is going to be impossible for an outsider to tell the difference.  Based on my years of experience among Haitian-Americans and my initiation in Haitian Vodou, I might be able to offer some tentative thoughts on the status of someone who was claiming to be an initiate in Haitian Vodou. I couldn't begin to address the question of whether or not someone claiming to be a babalao, or a tata in Las Reglas de Congo, was or was not the real thing.  While some people would like to turn all these traditions into one big happy blend of Afrocentric mush, the cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora are a diverse and sometimes conflicting lot.  The brutal wars between Hutus and Tutsis and the Sudanese peoples put the lie to the claim that any kind of overarching "African culture" exists outside utopian fantasies.

So how do you determine whether or not someone is "validly initiated"? Basically, you have to take their word for it. If they appear generally trustworthy and sane when describing their daily lives and interests, they are probably telling the truth when they say they were initiated in some foreign country.  If they recognize the benefits of their initation and its limits (in other words, if they don't try presenting themselves as the Grand High Poobah of African Religion, Pope of Santeria or Sole Arbiter of Real Vodou etc.), they are probably not creating these titles to bolster their fragile egos or to sell services.

If you know other people within the community in question, you can also ask them.  Does this Florida "Santero" have any Cuban-American friends in Miami? Does this Massachusetts "Mambo" ever attend services given by Haitian-Americans in Mattapan or Dorchester - or do they ever show up at her events? This means you will have to become at least somewhat plugged into the community yourself - but if you want to be a "valid" practitioner, you're going to have to do that sooner or later anyway.

And of course we get back to the ultimate test: know your initiator.  I am always amazed to see people who will write checks and travel to foreign lands with someone they barely know, simply so they can get  an initiation ceremony and a fancy title.  If you show as much caution in choosing an initiator as you would in choosing a new car, you'll likely avoid the worst rip-offs. This means investing some time and effort, not just money - but there really is no substitute for doing your homework.