Haiti has the dubious distinction of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. According to a UN report, it is the third hungriest nation, after Afghanistan and Somalia.
Three out of five Haitians are illiterate and 2.5 million of its 8 million people are jammed into the capital city of Port-au-Prince – where they live a precarious existence in shacks and hovels, with few jobs, sporadic electricity and little clean water.
However, on 1 January 2004, Haiti will celebrate 200 years of independence from colonial rule.
First the Spanish and then the French ruled Haiti. The native Amerindians, who inhabited the island of Hispaniola discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, were almost annihilated by the first settlers.
In 1697, Spain ceded Haiti to France. As a French colony, it became one of the richest countries in the Caribbean, with its wealth derived from forestry and sugar. But the labour was predominantly slave labour, imported from Africa.
In the late eighteenth century, Haiti’s half million slaves revolted and, after a prolonged struggle, Haiti became the first black republic in the world.
Since then economically and politically, the nation has done anything but prosper. The negative influence of Haitian religion, and continued oppression of the people by a rich oligarchy, have conspired with other factors to keep the country in a cycle of poverty, ignorance and disease.
For one thing, animistic traditions and beliefs are held as strongly now as when the slaves first arrived from Africa.
While other parts of the Caribbean have assimilated European and American ideals, most Haitians hold to ancestral voodoo – a mixture of spiritism and witchcraft. Not all admit to practising it, however.
There is a Haitian proverb that says the country is 90% Catholic and 100% voodoo. Voodoo is syncretistic and polytheistic, with a supreme ‘god’ ruling a pantheon of local deities, deified ancestors and saints. Hence voodoo meetings may even begin with prayer addressed to Bon Dieu (the one true God).
Voodoo treats fetishes, spells and curses as magic powers. Local Roman Catholicism is pervaded with its influence, and Protestantism is also affected.
For example, there is a Haitian festival in which the local Catholic priest leads a mass, which is followed by a pilgrimage to a site where animistic rituals are performed.
Cycle of poverty
Voodoo involves placating and communing with spirits called loa. Haiti was dedicated to the loa at a ceremony at Bois Caiman on 17 August 1791. Two hundred years later, in 1991, Haiti’s current president Jean-Betrand Aristide reportedly re-dedicated his country to this, its ‘cultural heritage’.
People walk for many miles to attend voodoo rituals, which continue through the night, causing worshippers to sleep during the day.
They gather and pray that the loa will come. They petition the spirits for favours, and vow in return to make gifts to the voodoo priest. Many end up heavily indebted to the priest, and may even have to pass their debts down to the next generation.
Voodoo priests sometimes own ‘zombies’. One eyewitness report explains the zombie phenomenon in the following way.
A priest administers a powerful narcotic potion to the person he is ‘bewitching’ so that the person seems to become completely lifeless, and is then treated as dead. He is placed in an underground ‘coffin’ and ‘buried’.
Then the priest claims he will bring him back from the dead. So after some time in the coffin, when the poison begins to wears off, the person is dug up.
This person, now a ‘zombie’, becomes like a slave to the voodoo priest, who continues to administer small amounts of poison to keep his brain almost ‘dead’, although his physical body can still perform hard labour.
The priests chain zombies up at night and treat them like animals. No wonder many people are terrified of the voodoo priest’s ‘power’.
Today few Christian organisations are at work in Haiti; and few preach the clear biblical message of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.
The condition of Haiti is like a forgotten nightmare – forgotten, that is, except by those who are in its terrible grip.
The only lasting answer for the nation’s poverty, spiritual darkness and chaos must lie in unremitting, faithful, gospel toil – looking to the Lord to bless his Word in the most difficult of environments.
We therefore commend to your reading Ken Wimer’s report, also carried in this missionary spotlight feature.