The life force that is Haiti's voodoo

The CBC's David Gutnick meets Mambo Charles Pierre and explores Haiti's voodoo culture.
Shadows cast during a Day of the Dead celebration at Petiionville cemetery in Port-au-Prince in November 2009. (Associated Press)

I was driving through the Narette neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince a week or so ago when my way was blocked by a parked truck filled to the brim with 400 (25-kilogram) plastic pails of food and 400, highly coveted, blue plastic tarps.

Narette sits on the side of a ravine. It is where the Italian embassy used to be. But now it is a heap of broken concrete around which dozens of homeless families camp out under the trees.

These families appear to have nothing but the clothes on their backs, little to put in their cooking pots and only dusty, stained mattresses or sheets rescued from the rubble on which to sleep.

But today the excitement was palpable. Everyone was covered in sweat and talking almost giddily about how much they were looking forward to the new food in the plastic pails.

A residents' association, led by the neighbourhood mambo, a voodoo priestess by the name of Lamercie Charles Pierre, was unloading the truck.

A local voodoo mambo, Lamercie Charles Pierre, in her home in Narette, a neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, Hait. (David Gutnick/CBC)

A neat handwritten list had been drawn up setting out who needed the supplies the most. When the unloading was done, the truck driver drove away and the list was passed around.

The food distribution was just about to begin when the driver came back.

He had made a huge mistake. The food was for another tent-park 10 minutes away.

He faced the hungry crowd in Narette and said he needed the 400 pails of food back as well as every single one of the plastic tarps.

A voodoo decision

Now this is a city that is crawling with machine gun bearing troops while international security bulletins warn that Port-au-Prince is on the verge of each-man-for-himself violence.

But here in Narette, the residents' committee huddled with Mambo Charles Pierre and made a quick decision: All 400 pails of food and all 400 blue plastic tarps were passed from sweaty hand to sweaty hand and loaded back on the truck.

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. Over the past 20 years. he's worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. In summer 2008, he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery.

The truck driver thanked them and off he went to deliver his goods to the hungry people at the other tent camp.

This was simply, Charles Pierre would say later, a voodoo decision. That is to say, it was the right thing to do.

When you speak to ordinary Haitians about the catastrophe, and about the continued horror and the losses they have suffered, you very much get a sense that there is a shared understanding of how it all fits into a common universe.

It is something intangible and not something that I would dare try to measure.

It may be simply, as anthropologist Wade Davis has suggested, an element of voodoo culture, a particular "way of being."

What I think it comes down to is a deep sense of responsibility towards the other person, towards those who share your same misery, which may be part of the voodoo way as well.


Davis is the Canadian anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at National Geographic magazine who has spent many years studying Haiti's voodoo culture.

Wade Davis delivered the recent 2009 Massey Lectures on CBC — "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World."

From the archives: Davis's 1986 interview on whether Haitian zombies exist.

He is not the first to stress that Haitian voodoo — one of the country's three official religions — is not the black magic cult that Hollywood had made it out to be.

Rather, he says, voodoo is "a dynamic relation between the living and the dead whereby the living give birth to the dead and the dead, in time, are seen as ancestral spirits, which can be summoned and which can respond to the power of prayer and chants and the drums."

Brought to the island in the 1600s by African slaves, voodoo is a system, Wade says, that believes God and humans can become one, in a moment of divine union, but only if the ancestral spirits are tended to and there is nothing that breaks the "sacred cycle of life, death and rebirth."

That attention to the cult of the dead, as it is sometimes called, explains the candles, the sacrifices and the annual rituals — the Days of the Dead, as they are called — in graveyards and special sites that are the hallmarks of Haitian voodoo.

It may also explain, as Wade suggests, what seems to be an underlying concern here now that, because of the mass graves and rotting corpses, "death is not being properly honoured," a concern that is not lost either on Mambo Charles Pierre.

A way of being

There is nothing particularly imposing about Charles Pierre.

She's got a ready smile, shiny braided hair and big clear eyes. But I did feel I was in the presence of a very wise woman, especially when I went back to her home and saw her surrounded by her religious symbols and the tools of her trade.

Her house is still standing, though her yard is buried in bits of concrete and wood from the neighbours' places. Her garden of medicinal herbs and hot pepper plants, which she stuffs into bottles of a strong sugar-cane alcohol called clarin, were destroyed.

She wanted to show me her sacred rooms. As she unlocked the door, I peered into the dark.

A single candle was burning on a pedestal. High on the opposite wall was a painting of skeletons dancing in celebration. A real skull sat on a low table.

These icons took on a whole new meaning when I realized that just outside this room, in the neighbours yard, there were still bodies under the concrete, unreachable.

Nature's cycle

Part of the tragedy of the earthquake, the mambo says, is that humans do not respect the laws of nature.

A woman takes part in a voodoo ritual during the Day of the Dead celebrations at the national cemetery in Port-au-Prince in November 2009. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Too many trees on the nearby hills have been cut down to make way for houses, she says. Too many streams have been blocked. Too many people live in an urban area that is too far from the fields where food is grown.

But most of all, said the mambo, humans have forgotten that we are of nature and that we have to respect its rules.

The earthquake is a great tragedy she says, but the voodoo religion believes in multiple lives: A tossed apple core can become a tree, and lessons learned in this life can be used in the next because spirits do not die, they are reborn numerous times.

With that, Mambo Charles Pierre asks a neighbourhood teenage boy if he would go down the hill to retrieve a couple of the sacred drums that were lying in the rubble on the edge of the cliff.

Standing in the rubble, the mambo began to sing along with the drumbeat, the age-old homage to the sky and the ground floating over the ravine for the first time since the earthquake shook up so many lives.