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Haiti calls on voodoo priests to help battered nation heal

MARIANI, Haiti – To the outside world, their faith has long been shrouded in mystery, ministering as much to the dead as the living, and associated with images of animal sacrifices and human skulls.

But in postquake Haiti, the practitioners of voodoo have taken on a more practical role, enlisted by the government to help count the dead, tend to the injured, and soothe the psychologically damaged.

“One must understand that Haiti is voodoo,’’ said Max Beauvoir, 75, the “pope’’ of Haitian voodoo and a former biochemical engineer who once worked for Digital Equipment in Maynard, Mass. “Helping Haitians is nothing else but helping ourselves.’’

To make use of that resource, the United Nations has reached out to the vast and influential network of about 60,000 voodoo priests in Haiti, Beauvoir said. And the priests, firmly entrenched in their displaced communities, are eager to lend a hand.

“Priests are considered to be leaders,’’ David Wimhurst, a UN spokesman here, said of the voodoo hierarchy. “And community leaders obviously have a role to play to help the humanitarian effort.’’

Eno Mondesir, a public health researcher in Boston and native of Haiti who serves as chairman of Haitian Americans United, conceded that voodoo priests “do play a role in national life,’’ but he is concerned they could come up with inaccurate data. “I’d like to know what scientific markers they would be using to gather and document that information.’’

Beauvoir said the priests are counting among their own people, so they expect accurate numbers. He is confident the religious and scientific perspectives will not clash.

In a nation where government barely functions, and where more than half the population of 9 million is believed to practice voodoo in some form, the assistance of these priests is considered critical to better assess the situation. The priests in Haiti dispense unofficial justice and cater to religious needs.

The religion, born in Africa but melded with elements of Christianity by colonial slaves to mask its “pagan’’ veneer, is a nature-based belief that venerates one’s ancestors, calls on their spirits, and promotes a fervent love of family and community.

“In fact, we are the country,’’ Beauvoir said of Haiti’s voodoo followers. “Many people do not want to see it that way.’’

As a result, the voodoo priests – “houngan’’ if a man, “mambo’’ if a woman – are conducting an informal national census of the dead and injured, Beauvoir said. They also will participate in a national ecumenical memorial service that has been scheduled over six days beginning Friday.

“Today, we are down on the ground, and our back is broken,’’ Beauvoir said. “We need to stand up as soon as possible.’’

In addition to the census, the priests have been busy practicing their healing arts. In a tent city in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, the local mambo, Lamercie Charles Pierre, recently stood beside a pregnant woman who had been bleeding heavily. After a treatment of voodoo medicine, Pierre said, the bleeding stopped.Continued…

Another woman, ambling into the conversation, said that she had been traumatized by the earthquake, but that Pierre and a voodoo ritual involving coffee leaves had restored her sanity.

“If not for her,’’ the woman said of Pierre, “I would be running crazy in the street. I would be hit by a car.’’

After the Jan. 12 earthquake, Pierre, who projects a calm, serene authority amid the devastation, gathered her neighbors onto the nearby grounds of the shattered Italian Embassy. There, they pitched makeshift tents from tarps, wood, and sheets. Soon, after reaching out to a French relief agency, Pierre obtained portable toilets for their new home.

The living are the priority, of course, but the dead hold an essential place in voodoo culture. A few hundred yards down a steep hill, in a voodoo sanctuary that survived while all around it disintegrated, Pierre walked among three “spirit rooms,’’ where human skulls, voodoo dolls, murals of dancing skeletons, and the belongings of the newly dead had been stored.

Garlands of flowers hung from chandeliers, paintings of Christian saints adorned the walls, and tall voodoo drums lay stacked for safekeeping in a small, secure room.

“This is where we call the spirits,’’ Pierre said. “In the voodoo, we only do good.’’

That version of voodoo, far different from the dark imagery with which the religion is sometimes painted, was echoed by Marc Yves Louis, 59, who works as a groundskeeper at Beauvoir’s lush estate about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

“Voodoo is our culture, our roots, and our strength,’’ Louis said. “Voodoo is our heart.’’

Beauvoir, a native of Haiti, returned to his roots after a 20-year odyssey that took him to City College of New York, to France for further study, and finally to Massachusetts, where he lived in Stow in 1973 and 1974 while working for Digital.

Then, Haiti beckoned. And as the self-styled “pope’’ of Haiti voodoo, Beauvoir adjudicates domestic and other disputes from an ornate concrete chair set under a towering ficus tree. On the back of the seat is a “carrefour,’’ which resembles the Christian crucifix but represents the crossroads to which the plaintiffs and defendants have arrived.

On the right arm of the chair, inside a sculpted fist, is a stone dagger that represents Beauvoir’s power as a voodoo judge.

“I do it on a constant basis,’’ Beauvoir said of these duties.

Beauvoir stressed that he respects all religions, despite what he sees as others’ disrespect for voodoo. Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, said that Haitians had been cursed by the earthquake because of a “pact with the devil,’’ referring to a 1791 voodoo ceremony that began their revolution against the French.

“Do we sacrifice animals? Of course we do,’’ Beauvoir said. “There is nothing we do that does not implicate nature.’’

Haitian voodoo holds that a single spirit has 16 lives, equally divided between male and female lives.

After each death, the spirit returns to the sea, Beauvoir said, where it is cleansed before “a proper body’’ can be found for the next incarnation.

Throughout the cycle, he said, the spirits of the dead are a constant, accessible presence. In a striking symbol of that belief, a sculpture in the sanctuary’s amphitheater shows a skeleton locked in an embrace with a woman who represents Haiti.

“She dances with her tradition,’’ Beauvoir said, “and with all of her ancestors who are dead.’’

The calamity, Beauvoir believes, is a chance for Haiti’s voodoo culture to reassert itself by taking a prominent role in the recovery.

“It is inconceivable,’’ Beauvoir said he hopes, “that people will think about Haiti without thinking about voodoo.’’

Meghan Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report.