The White Darkness
Richard Stanley's Voodoo Diary
(Originally appeared in Fortean Times #140, 2000.)
Born out of the bloody uprisings of 1791, the complex, primal rituals of voodoo, (or voudou, or vodun - 'invisible force' in the Fon language of Benin), fuse West African and Roman Catholic beliefs in ways that many still find shocking. Commissioned by the BBC, filmmaker Richard Stanley spent three months in Haiti meeting priests, priestesses (houn'gan) and the loa (spirits), that were regularly invited to possess them, sending the displaced egos of the writhing supplicants deep into the void - the 'white darkness'.
Stanley saw at the first hand how intricately voodoo is woven into the fabric of political and cultural life on the island, where the faces of Stephen Lawrence and Princess Diana are as likely to adorn altars as the Virgin Mary. Real power in Haiti, says Stanley, lies not with the military or political leadership but with secret voodoo societies such as Bizango and Makanda, around whom has evolved a powerful myth complex involving cannibalism, shape shifting and the creation of zombies. Papa Doc Duvalier knew this and used his knowledge of Voodoo to maintain a murderous grip on the island.
Today Haiti exists in an unsteady equilibrium, watched with an uneasy eye by the UN and bands of US Marines, ostensibly there to curb drug trafficking. The real drug problem, however, appears to be that of exploitation by American pharmaceutical companies, who view the island as something of a playground for testing new drugs, with often terrible results.
As the first unseasonably warm spring of the new millennium rolled around New York's Haitian community, its ranks swollen by illegal immigrants to almost a million strong, caught its collective breath and prepared for the worst. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the NYPD had tightened the screws to the limit, implementing a zero tolerance policy that had dramatically reduced crime rates at the expense of the community's civil liberties, heightening the tensions in a city already suffering from one hell of post-millennial headache.
It took the death of yet another unarmed man of African ancestry at the hands of over zealous peace officers for the storm to break. The hysterical collapse of the dead man's mother during the funeral ceremony struck a spark that ignited a riot, a flashfire that ran from block to block, briefly searing its way into the evening headlines and registering in the outside worlds' unconscious.
On April 27 2000 Mayor Giuliani announced to the press that he had prostate cancer and on May 9 the city police Commissioner Howard Safir made his own admission. He too had been diagnosed with the early stages of the disease. By May 20th Guiliani's downfall was complete, reports romantically linking him to a string of mistresses having lead to the break-up of his 16 year marriage and ultimately to his withdrawal from the race for U.S senate, leaving the way clear for his rivals; First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Long Island Republican, Rick Lazio.
In the aftermath rumours began to spread along the usual conduits, those strung out neurons that only ever seem to transmit bad jokes and pop mythology. A tale told in Brooklyn and the south Bronx, a tale of an African spirit, a Loa, called down by the dead man's mother when she fell possessed at the funeral and an ancient death magic that reached out from the spirit world to avenge him, a tale fit only for whispering yet which contained within it the germ of something strangely comforting. A reassurance that even the unbelievers, the high and the mighty in their glass towers were not beyond the reach of this Voudou, the veritable wrath of the spirits and I fancy, the candles burned more brightly in the city's shrines of the thought of it.
I was hooked up with top flight German cameraman Immo Horn whom I had worked with before under pretty hellacious circumstances in Afghanistan and Namibia, the explorer/presenter Benedict Allen and a burly, somewhat taciturn Voudou drummer named Frisner Augustine who officiated at ceremonies, in one of the oldest temples in Brooklyn and who had recently received some form of national heritage award from the U.S Government on account of his contribution to the city's culture. In point of fact Frisner's recent attempts to celebrate the festival of Bois-Caiman, the anniversary of the ceremony that sparked the "nights of fire", the bloody uprising that liberated Haiti from French colonial rule back in 1791, had floundered when civic authorities proved unwilling to grant him permission to slaughter a symbolic black pig in Central park. Now he intended to make a pilgrimage back to his homeland to honour the feast day of mount Carmel, a Catholic icon analogous to the mother goddess Ezili, Isis by another name, her dual aspects, virgin and whore, represented in Ezili Freda, the white Madonna and the black Madonna, Ezili Dantor. This practise of masking pagan beliefs beneath the images of Christian saints is common in the Americas under various names. Santiera in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, Obeayisne in Jamaica, Shango cult in Trinidad and Voudou in Haiti, possibly the religion's oldest and purest extant form.
Every year on the same date that New York's catholic community process through the streets of Manhattan thousands of Voodooists gather to honour the virgin at the sacred waterfall of Saut d'Eau, deep in the heart of Haiti's impenetrable Antibonite mountains.
What follows are a series of extracts culled more or less at random from my travel journal for that period. Together with the accompanying photographs they convey only the barest hint of what I found there.
July 11th - Incoming
The twin prop aircraft shudders as it comes barrelling out of the clouds, skimming across the southern edge of the Bermuda triangle, a huge cumulo-nimbus cloud banking up before us on the coppery horizon.
Approximately three hundred boats a year still manage to disappear between Miami and Cap Haitian, mostly as a result of bad seamanship and drugs nonsense, although I partly suspect that someone or something down there might just be eating them.
The corsairs of the 18th Century once roved these waters and it was the pirates and cattle rustlers of Tortuga who first brought the French influence to Haiti along with the Jolly Roger, the sign of the skull and bones, so redolent with Masonic symbolism.
The Spanish had already succeeded in exterminating the native population, the Taino and Arawak Indians, a vanished race who left behind only the island's name along with their curious stone artefacts.
The plane lurches, the cabin lights blinking as we bank steeply downwards into the waiting cauldron.
July 12th - Port au Prince
The rain is only a memory now, the sun a blazing blue rivet in a shy pale and incandescent as burning gas. The graveyard is a truly terrible place, especially on a day like this, a labyrinth of white washed vaults built above ground like a microcosm of the city, a morbid mirror image of the world of the living, its narrow streets stark and sun-drenched as a De Chiroco painting.
One of Frisner's aunts has recently passed away and so our first act on arrival is to attend a small ceremony at the family vault that starts with Catholic hymns.
The importance of respecting the dead is evident here at every turn. Funerals are held on a lavish and costly scale complete with professional mourners whose wailing cries only add to the pervading sense of anguish as we thread our way deeper into the mecropolis to light our candles and pour water three time before a blackened cross, the seat of Baron Sandi, a guardian of the graveyard and head of the Gede spirit family, the spirits of the dead, associated with the colours of black and purple.
It is vital to keep the spirits nourished and at the base of the cross Frisner starts to give out bread and coffee, sharing the offerings with the urchins and mendicants who live amongst the shattered graves, specialised beggars who survive on food left behind by the mourners.
The burial ground also serves as the hub of a thriving child prostitution racket, echoing the bawdy, mischievous nature of the Gede family whose sexually explicit behaviour recognises that life must continue side by side with death. Many of the vaults have been desecrated by graverobbers while others have been smashed open because the next of kin have only had enough money to rent the graves and when they cannot keep up the payments the coffins are removed and either recycled or hurled onto a huge mound in the centre of the necropolis. Even the bodies are recycled as bones and individual body parts all have their uses in ritual magic.
Frisner grew up in the slums surrounding the graveyard and like the rest of his family spent most of his life surviving off the various rackets associated with this place. Now he takes us on a guided tour, introducing us to some familiar faces from his childhood.
There is an old man at the crossroads, in the dead heart of the wasteland who seems more to writhe than walk towards us, swinging his emaciated body on two battered crutches, lame in one leg from an untreated bullet wound. He is dressed in red and clutches a dusty toy police car in one hand, mumbling incoherently, apparently possessed by Papa Legba, the guardian of the crossroads and the opener of the way who must always be placated first in any Voudou working.
Our meeting is considered fortuitous and Frisner takes me by the hand, leading me through the maze lit backstreets of the surrounding slums, from one candlelit shrine to another, each one seemingly smaller than the last, to be introduced to an aged individual who has a bony protuberance growing out of his forehead like a horn. He doesn't get up as he shakes my hand and although I don't understand all that passes between him and Frisner I gather he gives us his blessings for the journey into the mountains. With friends like these I can't imagine we have anything to worry about.
July 13th - the Antibonite mountains.
Beyond the arid flatlands, beyond the swamps and the spectral forests of moss and fern, high up in the smoky foothills we come after a day's rough ride on precipitous, half flooded roads that were at times no better than crude tracks, to the tiny village of Villebonheur.
Thousands of pilgrims have flocked to this area for the feast of the virgin, tying up its streets in an insane traffic jam. The Madonna is closely associated with the concept of luck and thus great many concessions have sprung up offering roulette wheels and other games of chance for the pilgrims to try themselves against.
Their excited faces huddle around the gaslit stalls, swimming in and out of the tropical darkness like figures in an El Greco canvas, underscored all the while by the wavelike rhythms of the drum tent where an ageing Voudou man in the last stages of his struggle against the AIDS virus sits propped up before the peristyle, the column representing the last link between heaven and earth, belting out one extraordinary song after another, a bevy of sultry backing singers in canary yellow picking up the choruses.
Even here, despite the use of drum machines, people were being gripped by the spirit left, right and centre, flying into shivering trance dances or simply dropping like flies.
When they start jamming like this it can go on for days or even weeks. You can feel its rhythms in your diaphragm, creeping up through the soles of ones feet, running like a pulse through ones blood and even if you can't go with it you certainly cannot ignore it.
July 17th - Saut d'Eau
On July 16, 1843 and then again on the same day in 1881 the virgin Mary appeared on the top of a palm tree at the base of the falls where the tepid water of the La Tombe river plunge into a misty cauldron long held sacred to the goddess Ezili, to Ayida Wedo the rainbow and to Damballah the serpent, the lord of the air and the father of the falling waters whose seven thousand coils hold the earth in place.
When the apparition appeared again during the first American occupation in 1910 the marines are said to have opened fire upon it. The brilliant light is reputed to have danced from tree to tree, finally metamorphosing into a dove as the last palm was felled, lingering in the vicinity of Ville Bonheur for a few days before taking off in the direction of the falls. The marines involved in the incident are said to have either died prematurely or lost their minds, allegedly wandering the forest for days before being found.
This particular feast day get off to a rather bad start when Benedict discovers that a tarantula has crawled into one of his boots during the night. By the time we hit he street the majority of the pilgrims are already crowding to take mass in the church while black garbed riot police move in, waving snub-nosed machine pistols indiscriminately in people's faces, trying in vain to restore order.
Large numbers of beggars throng about the church steps in the hope of receiving alms from the pilgrims. Everyone here has come to ask for something, not just the beggars.
Many people are weeping openly, photographs of loved ones, I.D cards and even passports clutched in their outstretched hands. Some are probably praying for the people in the photographs who might be sick or even dead while others seems to be praying for their green cards so that they can leave Haiti and find work in the states.
The traffic jam is by now so bad that the authorities are forced to cancel the annual procession in which the virgin is meant to be taken out of the church and carried through the streets. Instead we follow the pilgrims, many of them clad in pink and white, the colours of Ezili, on the last leg of their journey, up the mountainside to light candles before an ancient tree associated with Legba, the opener of the way and onwards to the sacred waterfall itself.
The pilgrims gather in the basin beneath the falls, some of them clutching bits of root or wads of mombin leaves brought from herbalists who have set up shop along the trial while others carry wooden chairs, bottles of rum or Florida water and offerings of corn, rice and cassava. Men and women, young and old, strip off their clothes as they clamber toward the falls, adding to the carnivalesque atmosphere by festooning the overhanging mapou trees with their underwear. I clamber with them over the slabs of slippery bedrock that protrude like giant steps from the base of the falls, threading my way past knots of figures bathing, drinking and filling their bottles with the healing water.
Some of them stand with their arms outstretched, invoking the spirits, their prayers lost in the thunder of the falls. Writhing figures begin to fall possessed on all sides of me, dozens at a time collapsing as the water strikes them, their naked, thrashing bodies slithering snakewise across the damp rocks, mounted en masse by Damballah.
There are no drums here, no complex sycopated rhythms to set off the collective trance, only the clear, cold lifeblood of the Goddess falling as a blessing on our upturned faces. A Voudou baptism.
A possessed woman almost crashes right into me, her arms pinwheeling, her eyes screaming tears. Frisner gets hold of her, cradling her protectively and soothing the spirit with the secret words and gestures that are taught to the Voudou initiate for just such a purpose. I climb past them, working my way higher, into roaring hear of the falls. Naked in the presence of the Goddess the cataract takes me into its embrace, bathing my overheated body with drops as hard as bullets.
Continued in Part II