Wilson Joseph, Bawon Samdi, and the That means of Vodou in Haitian Politics


In a video assertion launched on Oct. 21, Wilson Joseph, the chief of the 400 Mawozo gang—dressed up as Bawon Samdi, Vodou’s fearsome spirit of loss of life—threatened to kill members of the Haitian authorities in addition to 17 international hostages, together with 5 kids, in Haiti on a Christian mission journey. They continue to be his captives. Why did Joseph undertake Bawon’s traits—beard, purple and black clothes, high hat, and silver cross—to make these threats? The reply reveals how Vodou and Christianity stay perpetually entangled with Haiti’s energy struggles and politics.

Within the video of Joseph, viewers see him standing on a avenue in Croix-des-Bouquets, a poor suburb in northeastern Port-au-Prince, surrounded by attentive males at a public funeral for 5 gang members. (Footage of corpses in coffins was on the finish of the unique clip, which has been taken down by YouTube.) Joseph and his gang held this funeral within the open as a result of that they had taken management of Croix-des-Bouquets, lengthy earlier than the bus stuffed with missionaries drove by way of the city.

In his emotional assertion, given in Creole, Joseph first famous that Prime Minister Ariel Henry, former Prime Minister Claude Joseph, and former police chief Léon Charles had not but “paid their money owed.” He invoked a spell within the identify of Bawon and defined that he had wept over his 5 “troopers” who had been killed and whose open coffins he stood behind. Now the politicians will “cry blood,” he stated, and vowed that he’d shoot “these People” (referring to the missionaries, one in every of whom is Canadian) if his calls for, together with a $17 million ransom, had been unmet. Joseph blamed the killings of his “troopers” on the Haitian police and state, however he additionally appeared to view his killing of the missionaries as half and parcel of his revenge.

In a video assertion launched on Oct. 21, Wilson Joseph, the chief of the 400 Mawozo gang—dressed up as Bawon Samdi, Vodou’s fearsome spirit of loss of life—threatened to kill members of the Haitian authorities in addition to 17 international hostages, together with 5 kids, in Haiti on a Christian mission journey. They continue to be his captives. Why did Joseph undertake Bawon’s traits—beard, purple and black clothes, high hat, and silver cross—to make these threats? The reply reveals how Vodou and Christianity stay perpetually entangled with Haiti’s energy struggles and politics.

Within the video of Joseph, viewers see him standing on a avenue in Croix-des-Bouquets, a poor suburb in northeastern Port-au-Prince, surrounded by attentive males at a public funeral for 5 gang members. (Footage of corpses in coffins was on the finish of the unique clip, which has been taken down by YouTube.) Joseph and his gang held this funeral within the open as a result of that they had taken management of Croix-des-Bouquets, lengthy earlier than the bus stuffed with missionaries drove by way of the city.

In his emotional assertion, given in Creole, Joseph first famous that Prime Minister Ariel Henry, former Prime Minister Claude Joseph, and former police chief Léon Charles had not but “paid their money owed.” He invoked a spell within the identify of Bawon and defined that he had wept over his 5 “troopers” who had been killed and whose open coffins he stood behind. Now the politicians will “cry blood,” he stated, and vowed that he’d shoot “these People” (referring to the missionaries, one in every of whom is Canadian) if his calls for, together with a $17 million ransom, had been unmet. Joseph blamed the killings of his “troopers” on the Haitian police and state, however he additionally appeared to view his killing of the missionaries as half and parcel of his revenge.


Wilson Joseph in a video taken on a street in Croix-des-Bouquets.

Wilson Joseph, dressed up as Bawon Samdi, in a video taken on a avenue in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. YouTube screenshot

To know Vodou-Christian tensions, let historical past function information. Article 3 of France’s colonial Code Noir (1685) forbade “any faith aside from the Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Religion from being practiced in public.” Haitian freedom fighters, unified by Creole, Vodou, and desires of land possession, achieved Haitian independence in 1804. Haiti’s first Black ruler, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1804-06), overlaps in Vodou mythology with the warrior spirit Ogou, and he’s historically represented carrying Ogou’s pink garb. Faustin Soulouque (1847-59), Haiti’s second Black emperor, served the spirits, carried out animal sacrifice for his deceased mom, and consulted with Vodou specialists. The rise to energy of the mixed-race, pro-Catholic President Fabre Geffrard (1859-67) and his concordat with the Vatican in 1860, nevertheless, signaled bother for Vodouists. Catholic, Protestant, and state-sponsored pogroms ensued in 1896, on a frequent foundation between 1915 and 1934 in the course of the U.S. occupation, in addition to underneath Sténio Vincent (1930-41) and his successor Élie Lescot (1941-46). Anti-Vodou legal guidelines had been solely dismantled in 1987.

Given the historical past of Christian-led colonial violence and anti-Vodou laws, it’s no marvel that these outdated wounds between the religions proceed to fester. Moreover, the historic dynamic of enslaved Vodouist and enslaver Christian remains to be current within the financial immiseration of most Vodouists in contrast with the wealth of international and home Christians in Haiti. Stagnating in centuries of poverty, Joseph’s Creole and Vodou cultures have been systematically downtrodden in colleges and public life by Haiti’s wealthier Francophone and Catholic neocolonial elites.

Donning clothes in purple and black, as Joseph did, attracts on the normal apparel of Fèt Gede, a celebration for the lwa (spirits) of loss of life and fertility, collectively often known as Gede, that takes place on the eve of Oct. 31 and on Nov. 1 and a pair of. Throughout that vacation, usually known as Haiti’s Pageant of the Lifeless, folks carry out rituals in cemeteries for Gede and the lifeless. The Gede Ceremony is one in every of a minimum of 21 distinct rites in Haitian Vodou’s orbit. Whereas kings and armies of predatory African states raided and bought one another’s populations to European enslavers on the coast, in Saint-Domingue, the French colony that grew to become Haiti, the enslaved victims of that trans-Atlantic trade unified inside a confederating Vodou tradition.

Every ceremony in Vodou has canonical spirits, songs, traditions, and thematic specializations. For example, the Gede Ceremony focuses on loss of life, therapeutic, and sexuality, whereas the Rada Ceremony focuses on life, order, and rootedness. Drum rhythms, songs, dances, the personalities of spirits, and mythologies are tied to particular rites. Rada’s Ayizan Velekete is sober, regal, and orderly; Nago’s Ogou quaffs rum, puffs a cigar, and hollers bellicosely; whereas Gede gobbles down spicy meals, pours rum in his ears, or grinds on the dancefloor. Bawon Samdi and his spouse, Grann Brijit (Granny Brigette), are the chief spirits of the Gede Ceremony, which incorporates Gede Nibo, Gede Nouvavou, Jan Zonbi (Zombie Jean), and others.

Haitian Vodou rites are linked to months of the 12 months, with November for the Gede Ceremony. On November weekends, Vodou communities maintain Gede ceremonies to worship the Gede spirits with banda drumming and dancing, singing, prayer, possession performances, and feasting. Individuals flip to those spirits for all the things conceivable, however disaster usually underlies their appeals. Oungan monks or manbo priestesses are sought by dad and mom to name on Gede to heal sick kids. Intercourse staff buy Gede-related zonbi astral (astral zombies) to draw shoppers and to guard themselves from hazard.

The road between normative and nonnormative traditions, as Katherine Smith factors out, differentiates utilizing spirits or zombies to heal and shield versus coercing them to hurt folks or to achieve wealth on the expense of others. Some oungan and manbo refuse the Gede Ceremony’s domains of nonnormative sorcery and magic, labeling those that use them as malfektè (malefactor) magicians. Because the area of loss of life, relics, coffins, crosses, sexuality, miraculous therapeutic, sorcery, and magic, Gede spirits current a fancy spiritual and mythological universe with a number of paths for interpretation. Joseph, the chief of the 400 Mawozo, illustrates the usurpation and efficiency of Bawon’s mythology in Haitian gang politics.

Vodou is central in Haitian rites of passage, in serving to folks to heal illness, in dealing with trauma, in cathartic launch, and in taking and sustaining energy. For example, President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination on July 7 precipitated a number of Vodou memorial ceremonies in addition to ceremonies centered on calling the lwa to deliver justice to the slain president. Most of the gestures and rituals at these ceremonies—reminiscent of air-stabbing round {a photograph} of the deceased president or repeating the phrase “justice” whereas sacrificing a goat—past their literal function in sending spirits to hold out justice for Moïse, are cathartic rituals that assist folks course of trauma.

So basic are Vodou’s cultural types in Haiti that they exert important affect over Christians as effectively, reminiscent of Protestants at one church in Croix-des-Bouquets in October, who in response to the spike in kidnappings took to dancing with machetes and swords in scenes that appropriated historic dances for Ogou, the spirit of battle and protection.

Moïse obtained a nationwide funeral, however his interment within the familial mausoleum on Habitation Baudin close to Cape Haitian was accompanied by a Vodou ceremony throughout which dozens of oungan and manbo sang and wished his soul a “good arrival” in Ginen (the resting place of souls and spirits). Haitian YouTubers talked about that Moïse served spirits reminiscent of Bosou Twa Kòn, amongst others, and clearly his household needed oungan and manbo to preside over this final ceremony of passage.

Beneath completely different circumstances, due to this fact, Joseph’s dressing up as Bawon Samdi whereas invoking him at a funeral would theoretically mirror normative Haitian Vodou burial traditions. For example, burial companies are typically bundled right into a group’s initiation charges. When a member dies, the whole group clothes in purple and black on the funeral, carrying sashes with the temple’s identify embroidered on them. Nonetheless, dressing up as Bawon Samdi and invoking his identify whereas threatening to kill members of the state and kidnapped international missionaries displays nonnormative and felony coercions of Bawon. Doing so repackages Vodou’s mythology for the aim of sacralizing the violence and political ambitions of a neighborhood gang chief.


François Duvalier with his wife, Simone, after they voted in Haiti's presidential election in September 1957.

François Duvalier along with his spouse, Simone Duvalier, after they voted in Haiti’s presidential election in September 1957. AFP through Getty Photos

The Haitian dictator François Duvalier, who dominated from 1957 to 1971, additionally impersonated Bawon Samdi. Dressing up because the spirit and talking in his nasal tone, Duvalier appropriated the spirit’s Grim Reaper status, utilizing mystification and worry to rally his naive supporters round his dour cult of character.

Extra broadly, Joseph is like different politicians in Haiti who use faith to advance political objectives. Throughout Haitian historical past, Vodou is linked to anti-colonialism, Haitian nationalism, and Black political rule. A folkloric, secularized number of Vodou has lengthy been politicized in Haiti, together with on the state-sponsored ceremony for the inauguration of the Marion dam on Could 1. Extra cynical are the phrases and deeds of the G9 militia chief Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier. His participation in a Vodou ritual to deliver justice to Moïse whereas threatening the “stinking bourgeoisie” and the “Siriyanolibanè” (Syrian and Lebanese descendants) places on uncooked show Haitian essentialism and racism in that the ritual ties so-called genuine energy, the ability Chérizier envisions for himself, to the traditions of Haiti’s Black majority.

Revered Vodou, Catholic, Islamic, and Protestant leaders and congregations exert appreciable affect in Haiti’s faith-centric subcultures. Politicians and people who search energy in Haiti repeatedly lean on faith—or numerous religions without delay—as they promote themselves politically. Think about the Salesian Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide donning a stole with Vodou’s Rada drum (recognized by the pegs, seen under) stitched on it years earlier than being elected Haiti’s thirty ninth president in 1990.


Jean-Bertrand Aristide preaches at Saint Jean-de-Bosco Church in Port au Prince on Aug. 2, 1987, wearing a stole a stole featuring vodou’s Rada drum.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide preaches at Saint Jean-de-Bosco Church in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 2, 1987, carrying a stole that includes Vodou’s Rada drum. Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma through Getty Photos

These Catholic entanglements with energy aren’t any much less complicated than these of Vodou. On the one hand, Catholicism was the faith of French white supremacists in Saint-Domingue, and mixed-race and Black folks had been at all times underneath its yoke. Catholicism and energy had been practically synonymous. Overseas Catholics have partnered with Haiti’s mixed-race elite—and Black Haitian Catholics—because the 1860 concordat, by sending French monks and advancing elite Francophone training.

However, icons of Haitian political emancipation, from Toussaint Louverture to Aristide, have embraced types of Catholicism to boost their political energy. Within the Nineteen Sixties, the rise of liberation theology and the adoption of the Creole language in sermons after the Second Vatican Council helped generate the democratizing and collectivizing work of the Ti Legliz (Small Church) motion of the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. These developments amongst Catholic parishioners fueled to energy Aristide within the 1990 presidential election with 67 p.c of the vote.

In Haiti, folks on normative in addition to nonnormative paths of energy seize spiritual symbols to construct their model of energy, to dog-whistle, to justify violence, or to harden their authority. The huge Vodou faith, like every other, has professional private and non-private expressions in addition to illegitimate felony subcultures. There is no such thing as a scarcity of individuals like Joseph, Islamist terrorists, or Catholic pedophile monks who manipulate spiritual symbols, phrases, and rites for self-serving violence or political energy. Joseph is snatching up Bawon Samdi’s potent mythology and lore to assemble himself because the sufferer and avenger of the Haitian state towards so-called international meddlers just like the 17 missionaries who’re nonetheless in his clutches.



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