Sunday marked one of the biggest celebrations of the year in Haitian culture. Gede (also spelled Ghede) is the Voodoo celebration of the Day of the Dead which falls on the Catholic All Souls’ Day.
Jillian, Devon, and I went to the national cemetary in Port-Au-Prince with one of Jillian’s co-worker’s friends to check it out. We were told it was a spectacle, and what we saw lived up to the hype. (WARNING: some of the photos are a little intense)
Haitians use this holiday to honor their ancestors by bringing food (bread, rice and beans) and drinks (mostly coffee and rum) as an offering to those who have died. They then light candles and say prayers around their offering.
Voodoo is practiced by pretty much all Haitians, but it is usually mixed with the Catholicism which was brought by the slave-owners that controlled the island of Hispaniola centuries ago.
This chapel was located in the middle of the cemetary. The service going on here was one of the first things we saw, and it paled in comparison to what was next.
Just outside the door was a little stand with all you could ever need for the voodoo celebration, including voodoo dolls! I got a voodoo doll of my brother Aiden, and started tickling it immediately.
We snaked through the graves just around the corner from the chapel where the real celebration had already started. A couple hundred people had gathered around a monument to the Voodoo “Loa” Baron Semedi.
A Loa is likened to a saint or an angel, but is more a liason between the living and the dead, interfering with human affairs if needed. Gede is actually the name of a specific family of Loa, and Baron Semedi is the head of that family.
What happened next is best described by this article in the San Francisco Chronicle: “The spiritual adepts, the women called mambos and the men called houngans (HONE-gahn), joined by drummers and singers, will pray at a cross rising from a tomb, the symbol of Baron Samedi, summoning the spirits. And then the partying begins.”
Well, before jumping up to the top of the cross, the Houngan above took out some safety pins and stuck them through his cheeks and neck. Don’t ask me why. They were just run-of-the-mill safety pins which didn’t appear to be that sharp. It looked horribly painful.
After jumping up on the cross, he doused himself in white powder to make himself resemble the dead and then started to chant at the people below.
But this guy wasn’t the only one acting possessed. On the ground there were women who were preparing to do something that we thought was a joke when we had heard about it earlier.
Dressed in all white, when these women became “possessed” they would take habanero peppers and stick them into their genitalia as proof that the spirits had taken over their bodies. No joke. The peppers are soaked in a white rum called Clarin, which is supposed to be a favorite of the Gede spirits.
While there were a bunch of people who were taking this to the extreme, a lot of it appeared to be a show for both Haitians and Blancs alike. It was because it was such a spectacle that I was able to bring my camera into the national cemetery. Any other day I would be a little nervous to do so.
It took a lot of time to digest what we had seen. Aside from the craziness of the Voodoo, the paths of the cemetary were lined with the poor who had come for free food that was given as part of the holiday. The whole experience was something you would see in National Geographic, not through your own eyes (or through a camera). It was intense.
And while there were those who stuck peppers in their naughty parts, most people went to pray and truly reflect on those who had died. It was a really powerful thing to witness. (The woman below is holding a bottle with the peppers in it)
Other than Jillian, it’s things like this that make me want to go back as soon as possible. The culture and the people of Haiti are so interesting that you can’t help but want to learn more. It’s pretty exciting that I will be covering this full-time when I’m down there, and even if no one in the States is interested in the footage, I’ll have these pictures for myself forever.