Voodoo pig

An uninvited spirit possesses Simon Lee’s hut while he investigates a vaudou ceremony in Haiti

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

Even in my most immodest moments, I’d never claim to be brave. A mere mouse in the house can put me to flight; cockroaches make me cringe, and when a rat the size of a well-fed cat recently jumped out of the back of my washing machine, it was a two-feet-versus-four race to the door. But beyond the fear and loathing I’m a curious creature, ready to jettison routine and jump at the first opportunity of adventure. Which is how I found myself one Good Friday morning winging across the Caribbean, en route to the oldest voodoo ceremony in Haiti.

Strictly speaking it’s not voodoo (which is mostly a figment of Hollywood B-movie directors’ imaginations, all zombies, pin-stuffed dolls and demonic drums). Vaudou is how Haitians refer to their ancestor- and spirit-worship belief system, which they brought with them on the slave ships across the Atlantic, and then adapted to help them survive, and eventually shatter, the chains of slavery.

Vaudou is about harmony: a holistic way of life embracing the living and the dead, man and his environment. At least that’s how my compere Lolo Beaubrun, leader of the seminal vaudou roots band Boukman Eksperyans, explained it to the gobsmacked audience, when they played in Trinidad some time ago.

After the gig, with the ceremonial vaudou rhythms still reverberating through my body, I was eager to find out more. “Ni pwoblem,” Lolo answered, promising to take me to a ceremony or two if I came to Haiti.

On my first visit I toured various peristiles (temples) in Port-au-Prince, attended a ceremony for Erzulie, the spirit of love, and met a vaudou emperor and master drummer, the imposing Aboudja. He was all for transparency and demystification. “Everyone can come and look into vaudou and see the positive things we’re doing and see we’re not hanging people upside down or eating soup with fingers in it,” he quipped, with a challenging glint in his eye.

If I were really serious I could accompany him to Souvenance for the six-days-and-nights ceremony, held in honour of the Rada spirits from the ancient kingdom of Dahomey — the most important event on the vaudou calendar. This sounded like an offer I couldn’t refuse, and would give me a break from being terrorised by the mice and cockroaches back home.

So there we were on Easter Saturday, bumping along the so-called highway north from Port-au-Prince to Gonaïves, where the triumphant ex-slaves had declared Haiti the first independent black nation in January 1804. From Gonaïves we headed onto a dust-clouded plain surrounded by bare mountains.

Dusk was mingling with the dust as we arrived at the Souvenance lakou, a sacred compound which, apart from the large peristile, resembled an African village of thatched mud huts.

Installed in a hut, I was just drifting off into a pleasant slumber on my millet mat when the drums summoned me. The compound was thick with hounsis (initiates) dressed in white, making their way to the entrance for the opening ceremony: the libations to Legba, the doorman to the spirit world.

Candlelight silhouetted the face of the old straw-hatted chorus leader who led the devotees in the call-and-response chant summoning Legba to the compound. With the help of Babancourt Four Star rum poured liberally in the dirt, the thunderous poly-rhythms of the drums and haunting voices of the hounsis, Legba soon declared his presence.

By midnight the peristile was swirling with dancing hounsis, some of whom fell to the floor in a trance, possessed by spirits invoked by the singing and dancing. I left them at full swing around 2 a.m., only to find them when I awoke next morning dancing with renewed vigour, their whites now splashed with the blood of sacrificial goats and chickens.

The rituals for the various spirits continued throughout the day until by nightfall the compound was dense with hounsis who’d swapped white for a riot of individualistic colour. Aboudja caught my eye through the crowd — was there anything to be scared of, he seemed to be asking? I’d grown accustomed to the sudden possessions going on all around me and, quite frankly, in the atmosphere of joyous celebration there seemed less to worry about than crossing the road.

When I found myself unable to keep up with the tidal energy of the drums and dancers I slipped off to my hut so I could be up for the dancing next dawn. Stepping into my room, I heard a rustling punctuated by grunts. I didn’t need to resist the impulse to run as I was transfixed by the sight of my millet mat writhing and tossing at my feet. Maybe I’d grown complacent? Had I offended some of the spirits of the compound?

I was calculating how long it would take me to sprint to Gonaïves and safety, when the mat gave a sickening lurch and a black snout poked out at me. It was attached to an irate pig, disturbed in the middle of his midnight snack. Recovering from our mutual fright we greeted each other vaudou-style — “Ayi Bobo!” — and retired to our respective beds.