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lunes, 28 de enero de 2013

Who may participate in Vodou?

Anyone may participate in Vodou. There are no gender, racial, age, sexual orientation, or national origin requirements, neither is anyone asked to renounce a pre-existing religious affiliation. In Haiti, the vast majority of Vodouisants are also Roman Catholics.

There are various levels of participation, of course, just as in most other religions. A Vodou ceremony is public, and anyone may enter the peristyle, or temple, and observe. Singing and dancing are encouraged. Because there is no centralized hierarchy paying salaries to Houngans and Mambos, and because a peristyle is private property, it is considered normal for uninitiated participants to make a small cash gift. This money is used to defray the cost of the drummers, food which is offered to the participants, and the general upkeep of the peristyle and of the Houngan or Mambo in charge. This is often hard to understand for people raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where priests, ministers, and rabbis are salaried professionals.

Individuals who have an initiatory grade may participate in initiation ceremonies pertaining to other individuals of their own grade or lower. A person with a lower grade may not participate in a ceremony conferring a higher grade of initiation, because the knowledge imparted is secret and because they are not competent to do so.

There has been quite a bit of controversy among people in the United States in recent years over ethnic affiliation and participation in African-derived religions. It is true that some unscrupulous Houngans or Mambos in Haiti will take advantage of the ignorance of a foreigner, perform bogus ceremonies, and charge exorbitant rates. Others claim that they will not reveal the "secret" knowledge of Vodou, meaning correct information and initiation, to a non-black non-Haitian. These Houngans and Mambos paradoxically sometimes have non-black or non-Haitian initiates whom they dupe shamelessly, and load down with commitments. The trend is away from this practice, however, as the new "initiate" often returns to their home country, proudly proclaims themselves to be a Houngan or Mambo, and are then debunked by authentic practitioners. All of this reflects badly on the rip-off artist who performed the bogus ceremonies in the first place.

Other Houngans and Mambos hold the view that people are chosen by the lwa, and not the other way around - and that therefore a Houngan or Mambo who refuses training and initiation to a foreigner sent by the lwa will suffer for it. Initiation requires a significant period of study, and the commitment shown by the foreigner is usually enough to overcome any reticence on the part of the officiating Houngan or Mambo. I have even seen a Houngan vigorously defend his non-Haitian candidate, and refuse all suggestions that he "rip off" the person.

Having said that, I would note that respect for African and Western Hemisphere black people is incumbent on all who would study or follow the Vodou tradition. The history of Vodou is one of resistance, and much of the anti-Vodou propaganda which has entered into the popular mind was invented to forward the political goals of the United States or the Roman Catholic church.

Vodou supported the impetus for the resistance to French colonial slavery. The Haitian Revolotion, the only succesful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere, began with a famous ceremony at Bois Caiman in northern Haiti, now a protected national site. The Haitian Revolution succeeded, and resulted in the birth of the hemisphere's first independant black republic.

Even as recently as the United States military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, a systematic effort was made to eradicate Vodou. Temples were burned, priceless ancient drums destroyed, and Houngans and Mambos beaten, imprisoned, and murdered.

Thus, non-Haitian initiates in Vodou should behave respectfully, and should take time to learn both the religion and it's cultural context. At the same time, they are free to defend their own right to correct ceremonies and respectful treatment by the Houngans and Mambos with whom they work and study.

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