Analysis

What the Kidnapper Wilson Joseph’s Costume Says About Haitian Politics

Vodou and Christianity are perpetually entangled with Haiti’s power struggles.

A Vodouist walks to Bawon Samdi's tomb during Fèt Gede at the Cité Soleil Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 1, 2018.
A Vodouist walks to Bawon Samdi's tomb during Fèt Gede at the Cité Soleil Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 1, 2018.
A Vodouist walks to Bawon Samdi's tomb during Fèt Gede at the Cité Soleil Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 1, 2018. Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
By , an associate professor in the department of languages, literatures, and cultures at the University of Florida.

In a video statement released on Oct. 21, Wilson Joseph, the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang—dressed up as Bawon Samdi, Vodou’s fearsome spirit of death—threatened to kill members of the Haitian government as well as 17 foreign hostages, including five children, in Haiti on a Christian mission trip. They remain his captives. Why did Joseph adopt Bawon’s traits—beard, purple and black clothing, top hat, and silver cross—to make these threats? The answer reveals how Vodou and Christianity remain perpetually entangled with Haiti’s power struggles and politics.

In the video of Joseph, viewers see him standing on a street in Croix-des-Bouquets, a poor suburb in northeastern Port-au-Prince, surrounded by attentive men at a public funeral for five gang members. (Footage of corpses in coffins was at the end of the original clip, which has been taken down by YouTube.) Joseph and his gang held this funeral in the open because they had taken control of Croix-des-Bouquets, long before the bus full of missionaries drove through the town.

In his emotional statement, given in Creole, Joseph first noted that Prime Minister Ariel Henry, former Prime Minister Claude Joseph, and former police chief Léon Charles had not yet “paid their debts.” He invoked a spell in the name of Bawon and explained that he had wept over his five “soldiers” who were killed and whose open coffins he stood behind. Now the politicians will “cry blood,” he said, and vowed that he’d shoot “those Americans” (referring to the missionaries, one of whom is Canadian) if his demands, including a $17 million ransom, were unmet. Joseph blamed the killings of his “soldiers” on the Haitian police and state, but he also seemed to view his killing of the missionaries as part and parcel of his revenge.

In a video statement released on Oct. 21, Wilson Joseph, the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang—dressed up as Bawon Samdi, Vodou’s fearsome spirit of death—threatened to kill members of the Haitian government as well as 17 foreign hostages, including five children, in Haiti on a Christian mission trip. They remain his captives. Why did Joseph adopt Bawon’s traits—beard, purple and black clothing, top hat, and silver cross—to make these threats? The answer reveals how Vodou and Christianity remain perpetually entangled with Haiti’s power struggles and politics.

In the video of Joseph, viewers see him standing on a street in Croix-des-Bouquets, a poor suburb in northeastern Port-au-Prince, surrounded by attentive men at a public funeral for five gang members. (Footage of corpses in coffins was at the end of the original clip, which has been taken down by YouTube.) Joseph and his gang held this funeral in the open because they had taken control of Croix-des-Bouquets, long before the bus full of missionaries drove through the town.

In his emotional statement, given in Creole, Joseph first noted that Prime Minister Ariel Henry, former Prime Minister Claude Joseph, and former police chief Léon Charles had not yet “paid their debts.” He invoked a spell in the name of Bawon and explained that he had wept over his five “soldiers” who were killed and whose open coffins he stood behind. Now the politicians will “cry blood,” he said, and vowed that he’d shoot “those Americans” (referring to the missionaries, one of whom is Canadian) if his demands, including a $17 million ransom, were unmet. Joseph blamed the killings of his “soldiers” on the Haitian police and state, but he also seemed to view his killing of the missionaries as part and parcel of his revenge.

Wilson Joseph in a video taken on a street in Croix-des-Bouquets.
Wilson Joseph in a video taken on a street in Croix-des-Bouquets.

Wilson Joseph, dressed up as Bawon Samdi, in a video taken on a street in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. YouTube screenshot

To understand Vodou-Christian tensions, let history serve as guide. Article 3 of France’s colonial Code Noir (1685) forbade “any religion other than the Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith from being practiced in public.” Haitian freedom fighters, unified by Creole, Vodou, and dreams of land ownership, achieved Haitian independence in 1804. Haiti’s first Black ruler, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1804-06), overlaps in Vodou mythology with the warrior spirit Ogou, and he is traditionally represented wearing Ogou’s red garb. Faustin Soulouque (1847-59), Haiti’s second Black emperor, served the spirits, performed animal sacrifice for his deceased mother, and consulted with Vodou specialists. The rise to power of the mixed-race, pro-Catholic President Fabre Geffrard (1859-67) and his concordat with the Vatican in 1860, however, signaled trouble for Vodouists. Catholic, Protestant, and state-sponsored pogroms ensued in 1896, on a frequent basis between 1915 and 1934 during the U.S. occupation, as well as under Sténio Vincent (1930-41) and his successor Élie Lescot (1941-46). Anti-Vodou laws were only dismantled in 1987.

Given the history of Christian-led colonial violence and anti-Vodou legislation, it is no wonder that these old wounds between the religions continue to fester. Furthermore, the historical dynamic of enslaved Vodouist and enslaver Christian is still present in the economic immiseration of most Vodouists compared with the wealth of foreign and domestic Christians in Haiti. Stagnating in centuries of poverty, Joseph’s Creole and Vodou cultures have been systematically downtrodden in schools and public life by Haiti’s wealthier Francophone and Catholic neocolonial elites.

Donning clothing in purple and black, as Joseph did, draws on the traditional attire of Fèt Gede, a celebration for the lwa (spirits) of death and fertility, collectively known as Gede, that takes place on the eve of Oct. 31 and on Nov. 1 and 2. During that holiday, often called Haiti’s Festival of the Dead, people perform rituals in cemeteries for Gede and the dead. The Gede Rite is one of at least 21 distinct rites in Haitian Vodou’s orbit. While kings and armies of predatory African states raided and sold each other’s populations to European enslavers on the coast, in Saint-Domingue, the French colony that became Haiti, the enslaved victims of that trans-Atlantic industry unified within a confederating Vodou culture.

Each rite in Vodou has canonical spirits, songs, traditions, and thematic specializations. For instance, the Gede Rite focuses on death, healing, and sexuality, whereas the Rada Rite focuses on life, order, and rootedness. Drum rhythms, songs, dances, the personalities of spirits, and mythologies are tied to specific rites. Rada’s Ayizan Velekete is sober, regal, and orderly; Nago’s Ogou quaffs rum, puffs a cigar, and hollers bellicosely; while Gede gobbles down spicy food, pours rum in his ears, or grinds on the dancefloor. Bawon Samdi and his wife, Grann Brijit (Granny Brigette), are the chief spirits of the Gede Rite, which includes Gede Nibo, Gede Nouvavou, Jan Zonbi (Zombie Jean), and others.

Haitian Vodou rites are connected to months of the year, with November for the Gede Rite. On November weekends, Vodou communities hold Gede ceremonies to worship the Gede spirits with banda drumming and dancing, singing, prayer, possession performances, and feasting. People turn to these spirits for everything imaginable, but crisis often underlies their appeals. Oungan priests or manbo priestesses are sought by parents to call on Gede to heal sick children. Sex workers purchase Gede-related zonbi astral (astral zombies) to attract clients and to protect themselves from danger.

The line between normative and nonnormative traditions, as Katherine Smith points out, differentiates using spirits or zombies to heal and protect versus coercing them to harm people or to gain wealth at the expense of others. Some oungan and manbo refuse the Gede Rite’s domains of nonnormative sorcery and magic, labeling those who use them as malfektè (malefactor) magicians. As the domain of death, relics, coffins, crosses, sexuality, miraculous healing, sorcery, and magic, Gede spirits present a complex religious and mythological universe with multiple paths for interpretation. Joseph, the leader of the 400 Mawozo, illustrates the usurpation and performance of Bawon’s mythology in Haitian gang politics.

Vodou is central in Haitian rites of passage, in helping people to heal sickness, in coping with trauma, in cathartic release, and in taking and maintaining power. For instance, President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination on July 7 precipitated several Vodou memorial ceremonies as well as ceremonies focused on calling the lwa to bring justice to the slain president. Many of the gestures and rituals at these ceremonies—such as air-stabbing around a photograph of the deceased president or repeating the word “justice” while sacrificing a goat—beyond their literal role in sending spirits to carry out justice for Moïse, are cathartic rituals that help people process trauma.

So fundamental are Vodou’s cultural forms in Haiti that they exert significant influence over Christians as well, such as Protestants at one church in Croix-des-Bouquets in October, who in response to the spike in kidnappings took to dancing with machetes and swords in scenes that appropriated ancient dances for Ogou, the spirit of war and defense.

Moïse received a national funeral, but his interment in the familial mausoleum on Habitation Baudin near Cape Haitian was accompanied by a Vodou ceremony during which dozens of oungan and manbo sang and wished his soul a “good arrival” in Ginen (the resting place of souls and spirits). Haitian YouTubers mentioned that Moïse served spirits such as Bosou Twa Kòn, among others, and clearly his family wanted oungan and manbo to preside over this last rite of passage.

Under different circumstances, therefore, Joseph’s dressing up as Bawon Samdi while invoking him at a funeral would theoretically reflect normative Haitian Vodou burial traditions. For instance, burial services are sometimes bundled into a community’s initiation fees. When a member dies, the entire community dresses in purple and black at the funeral, wearing sashes with the temple’s name embroidered on them. However, dressing up as Bawon Samdi and invoking his name while threatening to kill members of the state and kidnapped foreign missionaries reflects nonnormative and criminal coercions of Bawon. Doing so repackages Vodou’s mythology for the purpose of sacralizing the violence and political ambitions of a neighborhood gang leader.

François Duvalier with his wife, Simone, after they voted in Haiti's presidential election in September 1957.
François Duvalier with his wife, Simone, after they voted in Haiti's presidential election in September 1957.

François Duvalier with his wife, Simone Duvalier, after they voted in Haiti’s presidential election in September 1957. AFP via Getty Images

The Haitian dictator François Duvalier, who ruled from 1957 to 1971, also impersonated Bawon Samdi. Dressing up as the spirit and speaking in his nasal tone, Duvalier appropriated the spirit’s Grim Reaper reputation, using mystification and fear to rally his naive supporters around his dour cult of personality.

More broadly, Joseph is like other politicians in Haiti who use religion to advance political goals. Across Haitian history, Vodou is connected to anti-colonialism, Haitian nationalism, and Black political rule. A folkloric, secularized variety of Vodou has long been politicized in Haiti, including at the state-sponsored ceremony for the inauguration of the Marion dam on May 1. More cynical are the words and deeds of the G9 militia leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier. His participation in a Vodou ritual to bring justice to Moïse while threatening the “stinking bourgeoisie” and the “Siriyanolibanè” (Syrian and Lebanese descendants) puts on raw display Haitian essentialism and racism in that the ritual ties so-called authentic power, the power Chérizier envisions for himself, to the traditions of Haiti’s Black majority.

Respected Vodou, Catholic, Islamic, and Protestant leaders and congregations exert considerable influence in Haiti’s faith-centric subcultures. Politicians and those who seek power in Haiti continuously lean on religion—or various religions at once—as they promote themselves politically. Consider the Salesian Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide donning a stole with Vodou’s Rada drum (identified by the pegs, seen below) stitched on it years before being elected Haiti’s 39th president in 1990.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide preaches at Saint Jean-de-Bosco Church in Port au Prince on Aug. 2, 1987, wearing a stole a stole featuring vodou’s Rada drum.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide preaches at Saint Jean-de-Bosco Church in Port au Prince on Aug. 2, 1987, wearing a stole a stole featuring vodou’s Rada drum.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide preaches at Saint Jean-de-Bosco Church in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 2, 1987, wearing a stole featuring Vodou’s Rada drum. Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty Images

These Catholic entanglements with power are no less complex than those of Vodou. On the one hand, Catholicism was the religion of French white supremacists in Saint-Domingue, and mixed-race and Black people were always under its yoke. Catholicism and power were nearly synonymous. Foreign Catholics have partnered with Haiti’s mixed-race elite—and Black Haitian Catholics—since the 1860 concordat, by sending French priests and advancing elite Francophone education.

On the other hand, icons of Haitian political emancipation, from Toussaint Louverture to Aristide, have embraced forms of Catholicism to enhance their political power. In the 1960s, the rise of liberation theology and the adoption of the Creole language in sermons after the Second Vatican Council helped generate the democratizing and collectivizing work of the Ti Legliz (Small Church) movement of the 1970s and 1980s. These developments among Catholic parishioners fueled to power Aristide in the 1990 presidential election with 67 percent of the vote.

In Haiti, people on normative as well as nonnormative paths of power seize religious symbols to build their brand of power, to dog-whistle, to justify violence, or to harden their authority. The vast Vodou religion, like any other, has legitimate public and private expressions as well as illegitimate criminal subcultures. There is no shortage of people like Joseph, Islamist terrorists, or Catholic pedophile priests who manipulate religious symbols, words, and rites for self-serving violence or political power. Joseph is snatching up Bawon Samdi’s potent mythology and lore to construct himself as the victim and avenger of the Haitian state against so-called foreign meddlers like the 17 missionaries who are still in his clutches.

Benjamin Hebblethwaite is an associate professor in the department of languages, literatures, and cultures at the University of Florida, where he teaches courses on Haiti, Jamaica, and France. His books include the forthcoming A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou, Stirring the Pot of Haitian History, and Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. He is currently investigating Arabic influences in French, German, and Dutch rap lyrics.

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