Mother of Haiti

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

For adherents vodou transcends religion as a Christian might define the word, says Demesmin. "It is a way of life, that is the best way of saying it. Vodou is not just a spiritual thing for the Haitian. Vodou is their spirituality, their way of surviving, their way of living, their way of being there for each other, their way of entertaining themselves sometimes. The peasant of Haiti doesn't have entertainment. They don't go to movies -- that is not made for them; the price they would have to pay is not the kind of money they are making."

In Florida she is something of a vodou counselor, giving marital and family advice to the faithful, helping heal headaches or other minor maladies with Haitian herbal remedies when possible. But for the big jobs, she returns to Haiti. "Certain treatments need the spirituality of the motherland, where the energy is connected to the land, where the leaves are. Certain treatment needs spring water from a certain river to have the energy of the water. I can do treatments in the sea, the simple things can be done here, but where spirituality is involved, it is important to go back."

There is also a lack of facilities here, she adds. While many vodou adherents may have small shrines in their homes, there are no proper hounfort, or vodou temples, in South Florida. In Haiti Demesmin leads colorful, multiday interdictions such as the one at a hounfort near Port-au-Prince caught on tape by a German documentary team.

Demesmin leads a tom-tom festival in Jérémie, Haiti, celebrating the native dish of crab and breadfruit
Demesmin leads a tom-tom festival in Jérémie, Haiti, celebrating the native dish of crab and breadfruit

A man in his thirties came to Demesmin suffering from "severe mental problems." His family had tried modern medicine with little luck, so a doctor suggested a vodou cure. (Such cross-specialty referrals are not uncommon in Haiti, says Demesmin.) In the videotape the patient whirls and writhes on the ground in apparent agony. He jerks when touched, and it sometimes takes two mambo to hold him down. He is either possessed by a spirit, or he is mentally ill. There is a distinction between the two, she notes, and vodou won't do much to help the man if the latter turns out to be the case.

Such cases are physically and spiritually treacherous, says Demesmin. "You are in as much danger as the patient. Working with the negative forces, you need to call on your own negative forces…. If I got possessed, the next person could take over."

Before treatment can begin, the mambo must identify the lwa that has taken possession of the man. Her ciphering leads to the discovery that this unfortunate soul has been taken over by danti, ancient divinities so long dead that they are seldom seen or heard from. It's hard to communicate with these particular spirits because they don't speak or understand the Creole language Demesmin and other mambo speak.

The course of treatment involves rubbing the man's body with herbs and oils, cleansing him in a bath, and sacrificing a chicken as an offering to the lwa in question. It's apparently successful. Calmed considerably, the man is taken from the main part of the hounfort to a small anteroom, where he is placed in the dark to avoid exposing his soul to the sun. Demesmin reports that the treatment was successful and the patient recovered fully.

In another ceremony Demesmin and a dozen or so dancers, most clad in white with bright red or blue scarves wrapped around their heads, pay homage to their ancestors by kneeling and kissing the poto mitan, a post ringed at its base by a wheel of flat-topped cement, where offerings of food and drink are placed for the divinities. Ceremonies revolve around the poto mitan, and most begin with a salute to it.

Later Demesmin and the other participants pluck a live chicken with their hands, kill it, and clean the insides with lime. The chicken is an offering to the gods, who, unlike those of other religions, need sustenance. Vodou belief holds that a well-fed lwa is a strong lwa, and a strong lwa is better able to provide assistance when called upon. The bird is fried in small jars the size of flowerpots to prepare a ceremonial dish called boule zen. The ceremony is performed to harness the power of the fire, and part of it involves adding balls of cornmeal to the boiling oil, then removing the balls with bare hands. "If someone is not capable of doing that, you don't have the power of the fire," she says.

Vodou is the soul of Haiti, and music is the soul of vodou. Vodou music is played primarily on drums made for specific occasions or ceremonies, with accompaniment on rattles, conch shells, and gongs. Mesmerizing rhythms that got their start in Africa and came to Haiti with the slave trade are the signature of the musical style.

Demesmin's music draws heavily on these rhythms. "The spirituality of my race, the mythology of my race, the instrument created by my race, which is the drum, you will find very sharp in each song that I sing."

Her first album, Carole Maroule was released in 1978, followed by Carole Min Rara in 1980, Carole Lawouze in 1987, and Kongayiti-Afrika in 1998. They are all self-released or on the Haitian label Marc Records, though her last effort was recorded both in Haiti and New York.

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