Mother of Haiti

Carole Demesmin is a vodou priestess, singer, activist, and -- above all -- a hopeful savior of her troubled homeland

"Carole is an inspiration," says Lacroix. "She challenges people to know, to go beyond pure comfort, go beyond in finding what's there to find the essence of art, the black art which is the African diaspora."

Demesmin's Hallandale apartment is tastefully decorated and virtually indistinguishable from countless other Broward County abodes. The décor -- Florida modern featuring a white living room couch and matching loveseats, and a glass-topped dining room table with glossy-white, high-back chairs -- offers no clue about its occupant. You could just as well be in the home of a Jewish retiree from Brooklyn as a mambo from Léogâne. She lives here to be close to the sea, just as she is when she's home in Haiti.

Only the pictures on the wall distinguish her apartment from thousands of others. Above the sofa is a portrait of François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture drafting the Haitian Constitution in 1801. Noteworthy in its absence is any representation of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who signed the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804 after defeating Napoleon's army and finishing the slave rebellion that Toussaint L'Ouverture led. Toussaint L'Ouverture was raised as a servant, rather than a slave, and was treated to a life of relative privilege. He learned to read and write and rose to become the French-installed governor in colonial Haiti. He advocated compassion and freedom for all people, white or black, who promised to respect the country's constitution.

The spirits are hungry: Animal sacrifices keep lwa strong and well-fed
The spirits are hungry: Animal sacrifices keep lwa strong and well-fed
Vodou priests and priestesses wear white and are the only people allowed to handle the ason, a rattle made of a calabash gourd and used to direct rituals
Melissa Jones
Vodou priests and priestesses wear white and are the only people allowed to handle the ason, a rattle made of a calabash gourd and used to direct rituals

Dessalines, on the other hand, was a former slave who sought revenge on his French overlords. When Dessalines signed the Declaration of Independence from France, ending the 13-year revolution and the only successful slave rebellion in modern history, his secretary recommended the document be written on parchment made of the skin of a white man, using his skull as an inkwell and his blood for ink.

The ideological distinction is important to Demesmin. Both Dessalines and Toussaint L'Ouverture are near-mythic figures in Haiti, a country that never stopped fearing it would once again descend into slavery. But it's Toussaint L'Ouverture's vision of Haiti she embraces, not Dessalines'. "Toussaint was very far ahead in his concept of life," says Demesmin, looking at the picture. "He doesn't see the white man as an enemy but as a human being."

If her love-thy-fellow-man ethos doesn't quite seem to square with the bloody, atavistic image of vodou, that's because the image is wrong. There's a lot of shock value in vodou, at least to North American sensibilities, but there's also a lot of beauty. Vodou is the repository of Haitian music and history, a way of honoring ancestors and passing down their wisdom. It is a belief system that respects all life. It is entertainment, healing, and societal glue rolled into one.

Vodou is many things, as is Demesmin. She gets understandably agitated when the cultural repository of her people is characterized as dark, sinister magic. "Where does this notion come from?" she shouts excitedly. "Where do people get their ideas about vodou? The movies."

Perhaps the most well-known modern depiction of vodou is the 1988 movie The Serpent and the Rainbow, the fictional account of an American scientist traveling in Haiti attempting to find a mysterious white powder used to turn people into zombies. It's based in fact -- such a potion does exist -- but the story takes a few liberties. People, for example, are not sacrificed at vodou ceremonies (though more than a few chickens, goats, and pigs have met their maker as offerings to appease the lwa).

Zombification isn't quite what the movie makes it out to be either. People have in fact been poisoned by a powdery substance made from witchy ingredients like puffer-fish venom; secretions from bouga toads, millipedes, and tarantulas; and a mysterious blend of herbs. But in this case reality is worse than fiction. The poison causes the victim's heart rate and other bodily functions to slow to almost imperceptible levels. When the drug wears off, however, the victim does not return to his or her normal state, as victims do in the movie. Lack of oxygen to the brain leaves victims cognitively impaired for life. They are, in a sense, both dead and alive. According to vodou belief, the person who whipped up the poison has stolen the victim's soul.

Zombification has its roots in Africa, says Demesmin, where it was used as a form of ultimate punishment or revenge. "In any society there is a penalty," she says. "The Africans didn't accept killing of the human body…. I have never found anything [in African society] where if somebody did something they would kill you. They would [make them into a zombie] instead."

Nor does vodou involve worship of Satan or calling the spirits of the devil, as implied in the movie. There is no devil in vodou. Instead there are thousands of divinities, the lwa, which represent the immortal spirits of ancestors or aspects of the natural world -- fire, water, death, et cetera. Some lwa are playful, some are malicious, some are benevolent. Adherents of vodou call upon the lwa because they are knowledgeable and can help solve real-world problems. The lwa impart their knowledge by visiting the earth during ceremonies where they take temporary possession of ordinary people, often causing them to do extraordinary things such as handling fire, performing great feats of strength, or wriggling on the ground like a snake.

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