McAlister Sees Foreign Religious Influence on Haitian Tradition

The influence of evangelical Christianity is starting to erode support for the traditional Haitian practice of vodou, according to Professor of Religion Elizabeth McAlister. She tells Public Radio International (PRI) that: “the evangelical movement desires to reduce vodou entirely, if they could they would have a Christian revival and transform the country to a Christian majority.”

Still, McAlister, a Haiti scholar, also points out that even many Haitians feel the vodou religion and culture is something they would rather leave in the past.

“Among educated and other people who see vodou as always having been denigrated, always having been insulted, the discourse on vodou are either that it’s an illegal practice or it’s a practice of superstition done by the ignorant,” she says. “Meanwhile, so much of the culture is infused with the principles of the form. So it creates a tension, psychologically — how does one represent the culture, and how does one come to terms with being from this culture which is so saturated with this religion?”

That tension is the subject of the PRI story, which features Josue, a friend of McAlister’s who works as head of Haiti’s  National Ethnology Office.

Ground zero for the tension is Bwa Kayiman, a site in northern Haiti. A late-night meeting there in 1791 set in motion what would become one of history’s most successful slave revolts. It’s essentially where the country of “Haiti” was born — as a union of different tribes, faiths and languages.

“It was the moment the slaves said, ‘We’ve become Creoles today; we’re no longer African. We won’t fight to return to Africa, but for this land,'” Josué said.

These days, Bwa Kayiman is a mess. On a visit with a team of ethnologists, Josué found a handful of historical sites unmarked and decaying. This is supposed to a heritage site, but buildings have been built illegally, including Protestant churches.