Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Haiti: Boukman, Aristide, Voodoo and the Church.

Date: Tuesday 26 August 2003
Subj: Haiti: Boukman, Aristide, Voodoo and the Church.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

Over the past decade there has been a marked rise in the use of religious nationalism as a political tool. Religious nationalism embodies a rejection of colonialism and the present trend towards the globalisation of culture (global Westernisation). So it is not uncommon these days for a political party or individual aiming to take power or struggling to hold on to power, to use to religious nationalism to gain popular support and dragnet the vote of the majority religion.

This has been the case with Hindu nationalism in India and Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. It was inevitable that eventually African Traditional Religions such as voodoo would be promoted politically in the same way. In this regard, Haiti (in the Caribbean) is most certainly the nation to watch.


As with all nationalism, some knowledge of history is crucial for understanding the present situation. "Hayti" (or mountainous land, as it was known by the original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians), was discovered by Christopher Columbus and named "Hispaniola"(Little Spain) in 1492. The Spanish colonised the island and under their rule the Arawak Indians were virtually annihilated. In 1697 the western portion of the island was ceded to France and named Haiti. (The eastern portion under Spanish rule became Saint-Domingue, now Dominican Republic.)

Haiti flourished under French rule and became invaluable as a resource for cocoa, cotton, sugar cane and coffee. By 1780, Haiti was one of the wealthiest regions in the world. The plantation system was however built upon the backs of vast numbers of slaves imported from West Africa.

Several consequences of this era provide the foundations for the present situation.
  • Firstly - the West African slaves brought with them the religious practices of voodoo.
  • Secondly - the French colonial masters treated the slaves with such undue harshness they created hatred amid an already resentful environment.
  • Thirdly - a class of "mulattos" (light skinned, sophisticated, Catholic, French-speaking Haitians) arose from the relations of the slave owners and the slaves. They were at odds with the dark-skinned, voodoo practising, Creole-speaking masses.
On 14 August 1791, a black slave and witch doctor named Boukman led the slaves in a voodoo ritual. They sacrificed a pig and drank its blood to form a pact with the devil, whereby they agreed to serve the spirits of the island for 200 years in exchange for freedom from the French. This became known as the "Boukman Contract". The slave rebellion commenced on 22 August 1791, and after 13 years of conflict, the slaves won their independence. On 1 January 1804 they declared Haiti the world's first independent black republic. (Link 1)

Since independence, Haiti has been in a continual state of political struggle and wracked with poverty.


Haiti's current president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is a former Catholic priest who gained notoriety with the Catholic Church and popularity in Haiti in the late 1980s on account of his liberation theology.

Aristide was elected president in 1990, ousted in a coup in 1991, and re-elected as president in Nov 2000 (results disputed). He survived coup attempts in July and December 2001. November 2002 was marked by unrest and anti-government protests. The next elections are scheduled for later this year.

In light of the historic and political facts it is therefore very interesting that in April 2003, President Aristide made voodoo an official religion in Haiti (link 2) declaring, "voodoo is an essential part of national identity." (Link 3)

Haiti is reckoned as being 95% Christian (predominantly Catholic), but according to Catholic missionary John Hoet, Haitians "are 100% voodoo". (Link 4)

It is primarily the growing evangelical Christian Church in Haiti that is opposed to voodoo, actively working to bring people out of it and to help them find reconciliation with God and peace and strength through the Holy Spirit. (Link 5)

Christian Aid's 'Mission Insider' reported on 14 August 2003, "While some witch doctors want to renew the 200-year commitment to Voodoo, Christians are spear-heading a year-long prayer movement to 'take Haiti back from Satan', according to the HAVIDEC website. HAVIDEC (from the Creole for Haiti Vision for the Third Century) is 'a concerted effort of all the major churches, denominations, and Protestant organizations in Haiti to bring about a spiritual deliverance for Haiti on the occasion of the celebration of our country's 200 years of independence (1 January 2004)'."


Several analysts have already surmised that Aristide's official recognition of voodoo is a political move to shore up popular support before the elections.

Los Angeles Times reporter Carol J. Williams found evidence to support that theory when she interviewed people in Haiti recently. (Link 3)

"Aristide is the only president in our history who has done something for us," said one voodoo practitioner. "We will stay with him forever and perform every ceremony necessary to keep him in power. We will not negotiate with any country on this, no matter how much pressure they put on us. We will eat rocks if we have to, as long as we can keep him in power."

Williams says, "Legitimising voodoo has strengthened Aristide's image as a man of the people and probably has enhanced popular support for the rumoured bid by the former Roman Catholic priest to amend the constitution so he can seek a now-prohibited third term as president.

"By bestowing legitimacy on the African-origin religion, Aristide, the beleaguered president of this poorest of Western countries, has signalled to his people that they should be proud of their African heritage, not forced to subvert it under the religious practices of the European Christians who once repressed them."

There is concern that the promotion of voodoo as "an essential part of national identity", could signal danger for evangelical Christians. Williams quotes one Haitian as saying, "Voodoo has done everything for Haiti. It gave us our independence, while the imported religions held us by the throat."

Christian Aid reported recently (14 August), "One ministry spokesman in northern Haiti said five of its pastors had been murdered recently. He blamed it on the strong influence of Voodoo in the area. No other details were available." This report, from a highly trusted and reliable source, is being further investigated.

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) New Beginnings 2004. Youth With A Mission

2) "Haiti makes voodoo official" BBC 30 April 2003

3) "Official recognition of voodoo in Haiti stirs enthusiasm,
concern." By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, 6 Aug 2003

4) "Voodoo's spell over Haiti" By Nick Caistor
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti 4 Aug 2003

5) "Voodoo pilgrimages draw thousands" 26 July 2003
By Michael Norton, from Plaine du Nord, Haiti (AP)