Religion and Culture in Haiti

One of the biggest sources of misunderstanding and conflict between different countries is the lack of tolerance for certain cultural mores.  Normally, local cultural practices enrich the lives of native people and those who visit there.  But what about when a local tradition violates some greater standard of right and wrong?

Just last week I saw a program on PBS that talked about Haiti.  A renowned academic decried the “demonization” of the harmless and quaint Vodun religion practiced by the simple Haitian people.  It was an example, he implied, of intolerance and cultural imperialism.

So, is Vodun an innocent practice that must not only be tolerated, but celebrated and promulgated?  While many exaggerations of Vodun (a.k.a. Voodoo, Vodoun, Vodou) have spread through American media, even its apologists must admit that it is a belief system based on fear, intimidation, and superstition.  It involves animal sacrifice, the drinking of blood, curses, and possession where celebrants literally give up their wills and persons to unknown spirits.

It is also responsible for untold harm to its adherents.  For example, there is the notion of “bad milk” (“lèt gate” in Creole) where a mother refuses to breast feed her child because a Vodun priest has declared her milk bad for whatever bizarre reason.  For a detailed description of this phonomenon, read this article from the NY Times.

I’ve run into it first hand, as well, when a young friend told me how a close relative had died of “voudou disease”, which could mean anything, but almost certainly was the result of a supposed “curse” and precluded real treatment.

On a web site dedicated to religious tolerance, the following declaration is made:

The purpose of [Vodun] rituals is to make contact with a spirit, to gain their favor by offering them animal sacrifices and gifts, to obtain help in the form of more abundant food, higher standard of living, and improved health. Human and Loa depend upon each other; humans provide food and other materials; the Loa provide health, protection from evil spirits and good fortune.

I’ve been to Haiti on numerous occasions and I can tell you that, even from a practical standpoint, it just ain’t working.  I would think that eventually someone would realize that the Loa aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain.

This kind of belief system is anything but harmless.  I’m all for being culturally sensitive, but some cultural traits are just plain bad.  Tolerating them in the name of political correctness is what should be bemoaned.  Save the cultural stuff, but do away with those practices that spread disease, fear, poverty, and ignorance.

I would think that two hundred years of misery would be enough to convince people of the problems with Vodun.

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About rickconti

It's not about me, remember?
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One Response to Religion and Culture in Haiti

  1. Scott says:

    Simular arguments are made for and against the ‘cultural’ practice of female circumcision. The difficulty in dealing with these kinds of issues is the temptation to take the easy high-ground of banning the practices. Since these practices are embedded deep in the social fabric, getting deep into the culture with a message of hope and love will most likely be effective.
    Rick, I applaud and support you and others who have taken their time, resources and not a small part of their hearts to get close to the people of Haiti. My prayers are for them and for you.

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