Haitian Vodou history reads like a laundry list of religious co-option. The United States occupation from 1915 to 1934 gave rise to Hollywood caricatures. During the Catholic campaigns against “superstition” in the 1940s, Vodou objects and temples were destroyed, leaders were forced to convert or go to prison, and Protestant missionaries swept in. Then came Vodou’s perversion by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who took power in the late 1950s, assumed the persona of Baron Samedi (a malevolent Vodou deity) and recruited Vodou priests and secret societies to support his bloody campaign. When Duvalier’s son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” was deposed in 1986, thousands of Vodou followers were killed in retaliation for their connection to him.
Lozis wends her way to the 2010 earthquake, which killed an estimated 220,000 people and affected millions more. “After the earthquake, do you know what happened? Vodou was blamed for causing it! All these Christians started coming to Haiti with the idea of helping, and put a lot of trash into people’s minds about Vodou. And people believed them. People who practised Vodou were killed. And now people spend a lot of time praying to get rid of Satan instead of putting together their strength and making the situation better,” she scoffs.
Lozis believes that the influx of missionaries after the earthquake pressed Vodou further underground. Just a month after the disaster, the Baptist Press reported that 40,127 Haitians made professions of faith in Jesus Christ and that the Florida Baptist Convention spent $53,000 to purchase Bibles and tracts for Haiti-wide crusades.
Today, evangelical groups own three of the 10 most popular radio stations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s largest city. Radio is a key source of communication in a country whose literacy rate hovers around 50 percent. Christian organizations also control humanitarian aid and access to medicine, while international private schools and church-run schools educate 90 percent of Haiti’s students.
But wearing a cross doesn’t necessarily mean trading in the sacred rattle. Vodou is a syncretic religion, originally a blend of African traditions. Its porous nature makes it well suited to adaptation. During slavery, Vodou lwas were disguised as Catholic saints: Legba (the first lwa invoked in a Vodou ceremony because he is the gateway to other lwas) was recast as St. Peter (the keeper of keys at the Pearly Gate); Loko (the guardian of the worship space) was modelled into St. Joseph (the protector of Jesus). There’s a maxim: Haiti is 80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant and 100 percent Vodou."