As desperate Haitians take to the sea, they turn to Vodou to help guide their journeys
The twin-engine wooden cargo boat crammed with 356 Haitians was churning toward Florida, battling six-foot waves on the open seas when Wilfrid, a 60-year-old former sailor who got a free seat because of his navigation and recruitment skills, spotted a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
Wilfrid didn’t panic. Instead he remembered the instructions given to him by a hougan, a Vodou priest, shortly before the trip. He dug around in one of his pockets, pulled out a scarf and waved it up and down. Suddenly, he said, the Coast Guard lost sight of them and they continued on their harrowing journey.
“We waved Hamithon away,” he said with a mischievous grin, explaining how the overloaded vessel was able to make it six days on the sea in March without being stopped by the Coast Guard, which Haitians here refer to as Hamithon after Alexander Hamilton, who founded the service in 1790.
Conventional wisdom would have one believe that the Haitian boats washing up on U.S. shores are making it into the United States’ territorial waters in Florida and Puerto Rico because they are employing GPS technology, boat engines and different routes to evade the Coast Guard.
But mariners and owners of Haiti’s wooden sloops like the ones that have successfully made landings in the Florida Keys since November have another explanation for why, after years of being intercepted, some are suddenly getting through: Vodou.
Visiting a hougan before any clandestine voyage is as important as finding the right boat and outfitting it with the essentials, mariners, locals and the priests themselves say. During the visits, boat captains and operators seek spiritual protection and guidance to help them arrive safely — and put the evil eye on the Coast Guard.
The details of the intricate rituals are tightly held out of respect to the religion and devotees who maintain secrecy as an important part of preserving their sacred knowledge. But generally, Vodou faithfuls say the ceremonies can include drumming and chanting, and paying homage to the Vodou spirit Agwé, who they believe rules the sea. Sometimes Haitian rum is poured, a citrus-scented cologne named Florida Water is sprayed, and a chicken is sacrificed.
To further protect the boat and its passengers, the hougans dictate conditions for the voyage: No sexual relations on board, men and women must sit separately, and personal good luck charms and amulets are not allowed because they can conflict with spiritual purification rituals the boat has already received, several former passengers and priests told the Miami Herald.
The boats don’t depart until the priest gives permission and blesses the boat itself in a final ceremony just before launch, said Jofène Lundy, a Vodou high priest.
The faith in the essential role of Vodou in the clandestine migrant operations is rooted in the same mysticism that many Haitians believe launched the first successful slave revolt in modern history. The religion, a centuries-old blend of African beliefs and Catholicism, remains so ingrained in the soul and fabric of this shattered nation that even those who claim to be nonbelievers often refer to it to explain the inexplicable.
“It protects everyone on the trip and it protects the boat and it ensures that everyone arrives successfully, because it is a force,” said Hervé Germain, 67, a high priest and national representative of a network of Vodou followers.
Largest surge in decades
Since a rickety wooden sailboat arrived in the shallow waters off Card Sound Road in Key Largo on Nov. 18 with 63 Haitians onboard, more than 1,400 Haitians have landed on U.S. soil from boat crossings arriving in the Florida Keys and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, while another 5,000-plus have been stopped at sea and returned to Haiti.
The surge is the largest in nearly two decades, U.S. Coast Guard officials say, and is part of a massive wave that has desperate Haitians increasingly taking to the sea to escape worsening economic and political crises and gang-related kidnappings.
On a recent rainy day on the outskirts of Port-de-Paix, Wilfrid stood on the rock-strewn shore in the Bodin fishing community where he had boarded the cargo vessel in March. It was his first migration attempt, he said, as the blows from a boat builder’s hammer echoed in the background.
While he knows how to swim, Wilfrid said, days without food onboard weakened his legs and made it difficult for him to jump into the sea and try to make his way to shore when the boat arrived in Key Largo. Along with 197 others who had remained onboard the vessel, he was repatriated back to Haiti days later.
Despite his own bad luck, Wilfrid said, the maji, the magic, worked: 158 passengers made it onto U.S. soil after jumping into the rough seas to swim the 200 yards to the shoreline in north Key Largo in the Upper Florida Keys before being rescued and detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Vodou is a very practical religion. It deals with the practical issues of life: ‘I’m sick. I’m going to call the lwas [spirits] to help me,’ ” said Leslie G. Desmangles, author of “The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti” and professor emeritus of religious studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “So yeah, if they’re going to undertake something that is really important, I’m not surprised that they are going to consult a hougan.”
That Haitians seek Vodou’s guidance and blessing before embarking on such risky journeys shows the force the religion continues to carry in a nation that has long credited the success of its late 1700s revolution against the French to a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, a wooded area in northern Haiti where enslaved Africans planned the insurrection.
“It is true of everything that Haitians undertake: They either consult their hougan or do as special prayer to the lwa,” Desmangles said. He added that one of the things that Americans and foreigners don’t understand is the way the religion is part of the fabric of Haitian life.
“It’s part of the culture, it’s part of who you are and you’re raised that way,” Desmangles said. “It’s not a religion that’s practiced in a church or some kind of a temple. It’s practiced at home. It’s practiced wherever people are. It’s with them all the time.”
Haitian Vodou was born out of the oppressive conditions of the African slaves brought to the island, once France’s richest colony. Yet it wasn’t until 2003 that it became an officially recognized religion in Haiti. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, issued an executive decree recognizing Vodou as an ancestral religion and “an essential element of national identity.” Aristide followed up by inviting Vodou chiefs and temple officials to register with the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs to perform legally binding marriages, baptisms and funerals.
Today the practice and beliefs are giving force to those preparing to embark on risky sea voyages, say mariners who talk of the necessity to pay homage to Agwé and seek the help of hougans to make it impossible for the Coast Guard or other law enforcement authorities to interdict them.
“The land of Haiti isn’t the land of ‘amen.’ It’s the land of Ayibobo,” Germain said, using a common Creole term used by Vodou practitioners in praise or welcome.
Surrounded by miniature spiritual statues, colorful bottles and other wares of his craft, Germain noted that Haiti’s Catholic and Protestant beliefs are the imports of its European colonizers and Christian missionaries who, with the support of the government in the 1940s, led an “anti-superstitious” crusade in Haiti. That campaign led to the destruction of temples and religious objects and the imprisonment of Vodou priests before fears of a revolt halted it.
Haiti is “not the land of evangelists,” Germain said. “It’s the land of Vodou.”
Like all practitioners, Germain is reluctant to give up the secrets of Vodou, or to go into much detail about the rituals that routinely take place the night before a migrant voyage. He and Lundy prefer to discuss the turmoil that is fanning despair and leading to a surge in business among practitioners as desperate Haitians show up on their doorsteps seeking spiritual protection before a trip.
“Our ancestors didn’t fight for us to undergo all of this suffering. They didn’t fight in order for us today to not be able to eat a cup of rice, or a piece of chicken. Our ancestors didn’t fight in order for our children today to not be able to go to school,” Germain said. “People are leaving because they have no other choice.”
The Haitian population, Lundy said, faces “abject and utter misery.”
Lundy sees a direct correlation between the current surge in seagoing migrant trips and the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, who faced his own share of protests before his July 7 death.
“The uprising against elected president Jovenel Moïse, and his death, opened the door to a wave of widespread disorder,” he said. That has led many Haitians to decide that fleeing their country is the only choice left.
“It’s every man for himself,” Lundy said. “Those who can, run for their lives.”
This report was supported in part by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. This story can also be read on our news partner, the Miami Herald.