Mimerose Beaubrun's book Nan Dòmi: An Initiate's Journey into Haitian Vodou — the first part of the title refers to a spiritual state — is a welcome addition to the canon of vodou scholarship, a deeply felt inside account of a faith of often daunting complexity.
Beaubrun is one of the leaders of the Haitian vodou-rock band Boukman Eksperyans — named for one of the heroes of Haiti's revolution — which features music that combines propulsive vodou drumming with Jimi Hendrix-like guitar runs. Beaubrun came to the religion as a trained anthropologist, but as the narrative makes clear, she soon found a deeper and more fundamental connection to it.
Often given short shrift by journalists and others seeking to understand Haiti's turbulent political history, the vodou faith has been pivotal at many critical times in Haiti’s development, including during its long struggle for independence from France. Its relevance continues into the present day, when watchful eyes can discern subtle vodou imagery among Haiti's politicians. Vodou remains at the center of the daily experience for many in the country, its complex web of deities and rituals throbbing through life like the plangent sound of a rada drum beating in the tropical night.
Over the years, outstanding books have been written about Haiti's distinctive blend of African religious faith and European-derived ceremonial flourish.
In 1953, the Russian-American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren published Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a companion piece to her film of the same title, which chronicled four years of research into the faith. Five years later, the Swiss anthropologist Alfred Métraux published Voodoo in Haiti, in large part the result of his travels around the country with the great Haitian author Jacques Roumain. They documented vodou traditions for Haiti's Bureau d’Ethnologie, which Roumain had established to legitimize the study of Haiti's peasant traditions.
To this tradition Beaubrun makes her contribution. Among her first-person accounts of possession and other interior aspects of the faith, readers are treated to a tapestry of invocations, consumption of esoteric, perhaps hallucinogenic, concoctions, lots of drumming, dancing and chanting. Some of the direct descriptions of vodou goings-on may seem esoteric to the point of magic realism to the lay reader, and the book could have used a heavier, more explanatory editorial hand. Many readers may be left wondering what a “caco” (basically an armed peasant rebel) is, for example, but the intimacy with which Beaubrun relates her strange tale gives a unique immediacy to the book.
Beaubrun does not present her story in an overtly political context. But a shadow of Haiti's fratricidal political battles is apparent when one of Beaubrun's vodou mentors tells her that “each living being is a warrior and he is alone in combat. Depending on his magical force . . . to undertake battle, he will be the victor or the loser.”
At one point in the narrative, one member of Haiti’s vodou pantheon — said to have been a Carib chieftain on the pre-colonial island — is said to have prophesied that Haiti was “going to experience two hundred years of tribulations” but “she will not perish.” In the faith documented in Nan Dòmi, the reader begins to get a flavor for how such a seemingly benighted place could have endured for so long.
Michael Deibert is the author of “The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair.”