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Voodoo festival offers respite in troubled year

Cooked fish, complete with bones and eyeballs. Spicy peppers soaked in bottles of rum. The food is an offering to the spirits expected to dance among the revelers at Voodoo priest Erol Josue's Miami home.
Image: Erol Josue participates in a Gede ceremony
Voodoo priest Erol Josue participates in a Gede ceremony with other followers at his home in Miami on Nov. 15.David Adame / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Goat meat stewing on the stove and sweet potatoes baking in the oven. Cooked fish, complete with bones and eyeballs. Spicy peppers soaked in bottles of rum.

The food is an offering to the spirits expected to dance among the revelers at Voodoo priest Erol Josue's Miami home that night.

Josue's belief: Provide spiritual sustenance to both the living and dead in Haiti and the U.S. to help the linked communities cope with disasters that have embroiled them the past year. Worldwide economic turmoil, the ruin and death left in Haiti by four tropical storms and a school collapse that killed 90 all have left an imprint.

Josue's night-long celebration of the dead, a condensed version of the two-day festival in Haiti that opened November, was repeated in other homes in Haitian-American communities during the month. Vodouisants believe the Gede, or the dead, rituals honor their ancestors and the spirits and help clear the pain of recent tragedies. About 1 million Haitians live in the U.S., most in Florida. Large communities are also in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

"Artists and advocates for Haiti have been doing relief concerts to bring money for Haiti, which is very good, but as a spiritual person, as a priest, I think first of all we have to pay respect for our brothers and sisters, for those souls who have died," Josue said.

Hours before the "sacred carnival," Josue and a handful of vodouisants gathered before a small altar to pay special homage to the nearly 800 storm victims and those killed in the Nov. 7 school collapse.

He had expected at least 20 people for the daytime service.

Many hoarding extra cash
But many have reserved their extra cash to help relatives in impoverished Haiti. They told Josue they couldn't afford the gas for driving to the outskirts of Miami twice in the same day. And when they came for the night service, they would wear the same black and purple clothes they had on last year, not being afford new things.

"And there's only one goat," Josue said and sighed.

In the past, many guests laid offerings on the altars adorned with decorative skulls in black top hats. This year, they spent what they could to honor the dead, while still trying to support the living, Josue said.

"I don't think the Gede will be offended," Josue said. "They will be concerned about the condition of the world, because they have a lot of work to do now."

Voodoo, a blend of Christian tenets and African religions, was sanctioned as an official religion in Haiti in 2003. It is widely practiced in the Caribbean country of nearly 9 million people, and emigrants continue traditions fused by slaves in Haiti's colonial past.

Believers look to the celebration of the dead as a way to relinquish the pain of the past year and "start the new year with a positive attitude and let go of anything that is going to weigh you down physically and emotionally," Raymonde Baptiste of Miami said after the requiem at Josue's home. "This is a way of moving on."

Worries left at the door
All worries seemed to be abandoned at Josue's front door by 10 p.m., when the festivities began. About 75 people, from young adult to old, crammed into his living room, emptied of its furnishings to make room for four conga drummers and a central pole draped in black and purple, the colors of death and strength. More guests, including a few wearing skull T-shirts, spilled onto a sun porch and into the front hallway.

Josue and a few initiates, now dressed in black and purple, began calling the spirits with dancing and singing around the pole. When the spirits overtook their bodies, they staggered and lurched in the small space, supported by the outstretched arms of the crowd.

The drummers maintained an upbeat, sometimes frenzied pace well into the early morning. The air grew thick with incense and the sweaty crush of guests joining the other dancers in the hip-swiveling gyrations that reflect the Gede's joking, vulgar nature.

The Gede festival, believers say, is a time to say and do things usually discouraged the rest of the year. It's just the fix for a tough year at home in the U.S., and at home in Haiti. Haitians abroad sent about $1.83 billion home last year, amounting to about 35 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

"When you do the Gede, it's like therapy," said Ingrid Llera, a Voodoo priestess who lives in Homestead, Florida. "You just let it all out."