The first couple of nights at the hotel I was wondering what all the loud drumming and strange chanting was. I asked Meliu, our driver, about it. He said it was a Voodoo ceremony with around 1000 participants, including himself. I think he probably overestimated the attendance, but it sounded like a 1000 during the night.
The ceremony was being held in a vacant lot right next the the house neighboring the hotel compound. Emmet not only knew the owner of the house, but one of the Acdi/Voca staff members, Anna, lives in the house. Emmet was able to get us an invitation from the host — in his three years in Haiti Emmet had never been to a ceremony. We were warmly welcomed by the host and he rounded up chairs for us right up front. The ceremony was dedicated to the host’s father who was recently killed in a car accident. The goal of the ceremony was to cast away the spirits who had caused the family’s tragedy.
On the first night we attended, which was actually around the 10th night of the ceremony, the participants were singing songs to the gods or spirits known as loa (or lwa). Over the course of the two weeks they were singing songs to over 400 lwa. The participants believe that the songs evoke the spirits who come to visit the ceremony by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. We witnessed several examples of this, marked mostly by frenzied dancing.
The woman in the yellow dress is the mambo (female high priestess). She led most of the songs and seemed to sooth some of the participants who were “possessed” by spirits. She took frequent swigs from a bottle of rum that was widely shared, occasionally pouring small amounts of rum onto the ground near the altar.
The drumming was great, rhythmic and danceable, and the songs were mesmerizing.
The white guy — the only non-Haitian there besides us — said he was a high voodoo priest, a houngan. He was Australian and has now moved to Haiti to practice Voodoo. He spent a lot of time dancing with the mambo. He took a special interest in us and came over to see if we had any questions. He explained the meanings of some of the songs and activities. Later we saw him ministering to one of the participants — it looked like head massage therapy. We didn’t have the presence to ask him if being a high voodoo priest was his day job.
The host explained that that evening’s activities were just a prelude to the next night’s ceremony and invited us back. On Saturday night there were a lot more people — around 200 or 250 maybe. And this night featured ceremonies with animals, — chickens and goats. The “ceremonies” — that’s putting it delicately — consisted of manhandling the live animal and eventually killing it. For the chicken, its feathers were immediately plucked and it was then passed over to the outer rim of the gathering where it was cooked over an open fire. The Australian priest, probably seeing our discomfort, came over to explain that this was definitely not an example of animal sacrifice because the animals were later eaten. We appreciated the distinction, although I’m not sure the chickens and goats would have seen it that way. They looked quite upset.