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Haiti recognized voodoo as a religion three years ago, but misconceptions are as stubborn as the undead.
By Kevin Sites

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Gelin Jean Sergo was just 12 years old when one angry, restless spirit, Simbi Andezo, came to him in a dream and said he was to become a "vodousiant," or practitioner of voodoo.

"My life changed that night," says Sergo, now a "hougan," or voodoo priest, and second in charge of a temple in downtown Port-au-Prince. "I was having difficulty in school and in social situations, but everything got better when I became a vodousiant."

More than its beginning as a slave revolt that created a nation, more than its bloody history of exploitation, occupation and dictatorships, more than even the grinding poverty that afflicts the majority of its population, Haiti is known for one thing — voodoo.

The word voodoo comes from the West African word "vodun," which means spirit. While there aren't accurate statistics, the government says significant portions of Haiti's population of more than eight million people are practitioners.

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"It was brought here from Africa, with slavery," says Sergo. "The culture of voodoo is in the heart of every Haitian."

Haitian voodoo became mixed with Catholicism, probably as a way for slaves to hide it from their masters — most of whom forbade the practice. Voodoo spirits were, and still are, associated with painted images and statues of the Catholic saints, concealing the original intent of the vodousiants' worship.

Voodoo was officially sanctioned as a religion in 2003 by ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, himself a former Catholic priest. There is a formal commission known as Conavo to help correct what some adherents say are misconceptions about voodoo: the obsessions with zombies, voodoo pin dolls and sexual orgies, fed by Hollywood and popular culture.

Sergo is assistant director of the commission.

"We want to show voodoo as a religion focused on doing good," he says in the neat temple office, complete with bookshelves and a computer. In fact, the only outward sign that the space is connected with voodoo at all is a small, costumed plastic doll attached above the door frame. "We want to establish it more as a social institution."

Voodoo has much in common with traditional religions, including the belief in a supreme being, "Bon Dieu" or "Good God," and a host of spirits or "Loas," who help humans make connections with divinity.

The spirits, however, are said to fall into two categories: "Rada," the calm, happy spirits, and "Petro," the angry, agitated spirits of black magic. Neither is considered specifically good or evil. The spirits are summoned with offerings, usually animal sacrifices like chickens, but also with produce, like sugar cane and even rum.

Hougans like Sergo say most people outside the faith focus on the black magic aspect of voodoo, the sensationalized portion. It exists, they say, but comprises perhaps only five percent of the religion. Radas make up the other 95 percent.

They insist the drums and dancing, central to voodoo worship, can create the wrong impression, shrouding voodoo in mystical opacity and primitive, orgiastic sensuality.

In fact, many contend that the central tenet of voodoo is really about healing — overcoming physical and spiritual sickness with good spells — not sticking pins in dolls and turning people into the undead.

At Sergo's temple, the surroundings are overtly drab. Even Sergo, in his gray polo shirt monogrammed with the words "GMC-Isuzu" in red stitching, doesn't fit my expectations of a voodoo priest. The only things that give a hint of his calling are his silver skull ring and a skull on his belt buckle.

He shows me the tools of his trade. For the most part they are tame looking objects used in voodoo ceremonies, like colored flags, water jars, necklaces and a bell attached to a gourd, called an "anson," used to summon the spirits. He also holds up a photocopied manuscript in a plastic binder, "The Book of Voodoo," which outlines the terms and practices.

While voodoo has many adherents here, crossing class and socioeconomic divisions, the wealthy and educated are more likely to practice secretly to avoid being tainted by the perception that voodoo is a superstition of the "ignorant masses."

"They come to us quietly," says Sergo, "to ask us for spells to help protect their businesses and families."

And if the past is any indication, voodoo's reform movement may face an uphill battle.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their historical interweaving, voodoo has had a turbulent relationship with Catholicism. Militants in the Catholic Church went on a rampage in the early 1940s, burning down voodoo temples and artifacts. But the campaign did little more than drive voodoo underground for a while. It emerged even stronger as a result of the oppression.

Hundreds of vodousiants were killed after the fall of the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. He and his father, Francois "Papa Doc," known as the "voodoo physician," were closely associated with the practice.

Today, voodoo is under pressure from the Protestant evangelical movement in Haiti, which seeks to distance itself from voodoo and has banned some styles of music from its services, and even some instruments, like drums.

Voodoo also is criticized for its fatalism, the belief that most lives are predestined by the spirits and that little can be done to change them. Critics say that belief has kept Haiti mired in poverty and prevented its growth and success as a nation.

Sergo dismisses those arguments, calling himself an example of voodoo's power to transform for the good.
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