Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part Two

•October 1, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Read part one here.

Kanzo is kind of like being boiled alive. Bat Gé is where you get thrown in the pot and, over three nights, the temperature of the water begins to heat up to a full rolling boil. By the time you get thrown into the djevo, the ‘pot’ is boiling so hard that it is shaking and bouncing and spitting water all over.

On the second night of Bat Gé, bubbles have formed in the pot and steam is coming off the water. It’s getting hot, and the ceremony reflects that. The air is heavy, hot, and wet with kiman and perfumes, there is not one second of silence or stillness, and the lwa come in the heads of their children with an almost unstoppable frenzy.

I am pretty hard to shake or impress these days–I have Seen Some Shit™ and am sort of used to the spiritual rollercoaster of divinities showing up, grabbing me by the proverbial ankles, and shaking me upside down. I, however, have never seen stuff like I saw in Haiti starting that night. It’s hard to explain, really, but vodou is different in Haiti. There is something about having your feet in the dirt–literally, temples do not have finished floors–that changes things. It’s not that vodou is somehow less real or authentic in a Haitian house in the US–it shouldn’t be–but the immense weight of being on the ground that was bloodsoaked and left smoking in the wake of the Haitian revolution and where ancestral spirits live in EVERYTHING makes things blow open in a whole other way.

The first lwa that came on the second night of Bat Gé was a lwa I had never heard of or seen in the US–a theme for much of my kanzo and practice going forward–and he came hard in a petite Haitian man. A priest told me, in our charades-like communication, that he was a very strong lwa. I watched him dance and noted how happy he was–big smiles for everyone, and it was clear that there was some sort of relief and release of tension in being able to be embodied. Eventually he asked for some cologne and the next thing I knew, he had dumped about half a bottle of Florida Water on his chwal’s/horse’s head…and lit the chwal’s head on fire. He danced for a minute with his head on fire and then he was gone, the fire extinguished, and the chwal perfectly fine beyond a slight smell of singed hair.

After he left, another lwa came who I had never heard of before and took the head of a tall, lanky Haitian man who danced like nothing I had ever seen before and then left. After he was there, they started coming faster and faster and people were falling out all over the place. It was surreal to watch–I was constantly jumping out of the way of a flailing lwa or a chwal who had been thrown to the ground and was rolling out of control until they could be corralled by a priest. Being on the ground in Haiti takes away any extra spiritual red tape the lwa have to contend with to be present, and especially for ceremonies with Bat Gé.

At some point, we sang for another lwa I didn’t recognize and he was almost immediately there, in the principal drummer. I found out later that he always possesses a drummer as a precursor to another lwa arriving, and a possessed drummer is something else. I watched Towo drum so hard that, if it had been his chwal drumming instead, he would have had broken hands–he beat the drum so hard that I thought his hands were going to be ripped off. He went faster and faster with only the whites of his chwal’s eyes showing and eventually asked for cigarettes–some lwa like to smoke. Someone put two cigarettes between his lips and he puffed on those for a moment while drumming like a madman. Then, as me and my sister watched over the absolute crowd of folks in front of the drum platform, he opened his mouth, rolled those lit cigarettes back onto his tongue, chewed them up, and swallowed them. I have seen lwa smoke cigarettes and cigars backward with the lit in end in their mouth, but I’ve never seen one eat them lit before. Another ‘only in Haiti’ moment. The chwal, of course, was fine.

Continue reading ‘Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part Two’

Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One

•September 25, 2016 • 1 Comment

I landed in Haiti in the middle of a giant what-fuck-whirlwind. I got on the plane–when I got on the plane, after spending 24 hours in an airport–knowing that I would be returning homeless and jobless, and my only possessions being a few boxes in storage and whatever made it into my suitcases. And my spirits; I landed in Haiti with my only assets being my spirits, both in vodou and out.

While in the middle of my airport adventure, I chatted with my almost-official brothers and sisters. Mostly, I was completely losing my shit over everything, and rightfully so. Ogou lit the match, and I lit the fire to burn my life down so that I could follow him all the way into the djevo. One of my sisters said the most insightful thing–that my kanzo had already begun, and she was right. It had started months earlier, actually, when the lwa made it clear that I had to dismantle my life if I wanted to get to Haiti. Kanzo, in many ways, is a trial by fire and my feet were already getting hot months earlier.

The preparations for kanzo begin months ahead of time, too. I remember sitting with my Manmi is mid-April and having her explain part of how kanzo proceeds. Preparations in Haiti had already begun, with materials being collected, prayed over and worked, and carefully guarded. In fact, preparations has begun late since it had been raining so much–leaves and plants can’t be put up wet. The temple was being staffed 24/7 with children of my Manmi and trusted friends of the house to make sure everything stayed safe and ritually clean.

Kanzo is a dangerous time for those who are going into the djevo. There are many things that can harm the process, the materials, and those initiates. It’s a huge vulnerability, and extreme measures are taken to protect those about to go in. Before I went in, I was locked into the house at night, my food was carefully monitored, and people had eyes on me basically at all times. I found out later that priests had basically volunteered to keep me safe, since I was an outsider and didn’t know how to see all the things that could happen.

Part of keeping the initiates safe and making sure kanzo goes as smoothly as possible is literally going to war to protect the house and the to-be priests and hounsi.

To do that, the kanzo cycle proper begins with Bat Gé. Bat Gé literally translates to ‘beat war’ and it’s a three night ceremony of progressive spiritual heat, which leads to actual heat. As the ceremony progresses, it heats the temple (literal heat) and the coming process (spiritual heat). It’s a very Petwo ceremony, calling down the lwa that range from intense spirits who speak with their hands and leave you wondering if they’re angry to lwa that come down screaming, howling, charging, and putting the bodies of their horses into situations that would harm any regular person.

(Picture heavy after the jump)

Continue reading ‘Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One’


•August 24, 2016 • 3 Comments

August 14th was the 225th anniversary of Bwa Kayiman, the initial meeting and ceremony among enslaved African that began the Haitian Revolution and ultimately created the first Black republic and Black ruled country in the world. It’s still on the books as the single largest and most successful slave revolt ever undertaken. In addition, Bwa Kayiman is an actual place you can visit in Haiti—it’s in the north, about an hour and a half south of Labadie. I haven’t been there (yet) but I imagine I’ll get there some day, as it’s a pretty big pilgrimage site.

Bwa Kayiman is really important, for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the most obvious.


Andre Normil

1. It was the powder keg moment that began the TWELVE YEAR Haitian revolution. The story goes that, at the time, there were roughly 50,000 whites on the island as a whole (it was not yet divided, really, into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and close to 500,000 enslaved Africans. History says that there were French who saw it coming, but colonialism is colonialism and no one wanted to touch the idea that enslaving people was a bad fucking practice that should be undone. Profits would be lost, territory surrendered, and the world could potentially end. So, no one in power did anything.

The enslaved Africans, though, had well and truly Had Enough, and probably for quite awhile. Word was put out that there was to be a gathering in the north to plan a revolt, and people showed up. Popular history said that it was led by Dutty Boukman and Cécile Fatiman, named as the houngan and manbo respectively that led the ceremony, but I think that’s misleading and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Regardless of who ran stuff, it happened. If the accounts recorded are correct, a Haitian pig was slaughtered and some lwa stepped forward for the first time—namely Ezili Danto (or, more accurately, Ezili Je Wouj/Ezili Red Eyes, Danto’s furious and bloody sister) and many of the Ogou only known in the New World. They extracted promises from the enslaved Africans present, and in return promised aid and strength for the fight to come.

The enslaved Africans said yes, the lwa said yes, and by morning the north of Haiti had started to burn. In about a week, the entire northern coast and upper third of the island was controlled. Within a year, half the island belonged to the Africans who said ‘no more’. This lasted for twelve years. A TWELVE YEAR revolution where enslaved Africans never gave up and never backed down. I don’t know about you, but there are very few things in my life that have been unending and constant for twelve years. I don’t think I have ever done anything for twelve years.

History notes the eventual success, where the French were ejected and very few white folks allowed to remain on the island, and the first nation established as a result of a successful slave rebellion. This is still celebrated today on January 1, the official day when victory was declared, and Haitians and adherents of vodou mark it sometimes with ceremony, but almost always with soup joumou, a special food linked with celebration and victory.

Bois-Caiman_24-x-36_1250 Solange Jolicoeur

Solange Jolicoeur

2. It was the moment that solidified what vodou was and made it undeniably Haitian. This is where I think it is incorrect to label Boukman and Fatiman hougan and manbo in Haitian vodou. Prior to the revolution, there were a ton of different religious practices on the island based around where the enslaved Africans were from. There wasn’t, however, a uniform practice or a common religious ‘language’ spoken. Bwa Kayiman changed that and basically set down the roots for what vodou is today. When we talk about different nasyons/nations of lwa—Rada, Petwo, Kongo, Ibo, Djouba, Nago, Wangol, Makaya, and on—we are really talking about lwa who largely came from specific regions in Africa, or Haiti. What Bwa Kayiman did was bring all that together and find a common way to speak a ceremonial ‘language’ across individual groups, families, and lineages. If I go to another sosyete that uses the asson, I have a basic understanding of what will go on and how to participate as a priest there. Even though it is a separate lineage from asson, if I walk into a peristyle that is in the tchatcha lineage, I will even understand a little bit there, too, since we also use the tchatcha in asson houses. Basically, it pulled all of these spirits and practices together and made something that could be spoken anywhere. This didn’t happen over night, of course—it took time and practice—but it was the beginning.

Further, it rooted the spirits in Haiti and made them undeniably Haitian as well. A lot of the liturgy in vodou acknowledges that we have left Africa and can never go back. In vodou, Africa has become l’Afrique Ginen, a sort of paradise-like other place where the lwa reside. We long for l’Afrique Ginen, but we are where we are and so we do what we can here. That rooting in Haiti is what says Ogou is not the same as Ogun in Orisa worship. They have the same or similar roots, but Ogou is undeniably Haitian and is very much the screaming, howling, blood-drinking voice of the Haitian revolution. It is why Ogou Shango and Sango from Yorubaland are not the same. It’s why lwa are not interchangeable with Orisa—even though many Orisa reside in our Nago rite. It’s like a permanent cultural translation that changed the spirits in a particular way. In vodou today, you can see the African influence in a variety of places, but it has been translated through a Haitian lens.

Going even one step further down the line, Bwa Kayiman is what made the enslaved Africans Haitian. In the same way that Africa is spiritually out of reach, the enslaved Africans who became Haitian came to the realization that they would never be able to go back to Africa and that it was lost to them. The island now had to be home and so they had to be something different. As a non-Haitian, I think this is why Haitian cultural identity is so strong now—there is this deep investment in being who you are no matter where you are because Haiti is the roots that grow the tree. Even in the Diaspora, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Haitian self-identify themselves as Black—they are Haitian first and Black is a designation that the US government gives them.


Nicole Jean-Louis

3. As it solidified what vodou was and was to be, it instilled revolution as a core part of vodou. Vodou is a living history of Haiti—our liturgy speaks about what happened over and over, and it brings it to the present, where Haiti is still suffering at the hands of colonialism and Haitians in Diaspora must fight white supremacy and colorism at every turn. Revolution is the drum beat underneath everything—the lwa come down screaming and crying and fighting because their children still suffer and there is still so much to do to assure the future. Vodou is a continual process of seeking balance by upsetting the table that has been set for you, and this is the legacy of Bwa Kayiman and the Haitian revolution. We all have to survive somehow, and it’s bloody out there.

This is one reason why vodou is a hard and uncomfortable religion—the bar was set with enslaved people deciding that they were tired of being abused and exploited, and so they made war. That’s the expectation—we will go to war for what we need and what is important to us, and there will be pain and suffering and casualties along the way even with the assistance and protection of our lwa. Vodou is not for the comfortable or for those who are extensively privileged. It is a religion of self-empowerment—you must get up and fight, because revolution does not happen on the proverbial couch or come with a 401K and tax refunds. When you build a foundation on revolution, the fight is in every song, every dance, every prayer, and every offering.


Ernst Prophete

4. Bwa Kayiman made vodou an undeniably political religion. This has been on my mind a lot lately, especially with the latest vomit all over the blogosphere about politics and minority religions. It sounds like a joke sometimes when it is said, but vodou really is the original Black Lives Matter movement. It places high value on those who suffer at the hands of life circumstances because of who they are, and it provides the tools to aim towards a leveling of the field…if you put in the work.

This isn’t a unique characteristic of vodou—politics are present in all world religions, and all world religions have gone to war at some point, whether it’s to protect the faith, protect the people, or simply because the divinities are engaged in pissing matches with each other and someone gets stabbed—but what seems to be unique is the embracing of the political as a natural part of the practice. The lwa are unapologetically political in nature—they have strong and decisive feelings about the world at large and know how to move in it.

Having politics be entwined with religious practice is what seems to trip up outsiders who are interested in vodou. It surprised me a bit when I first showed up, but my religion has always been political—as someone who Western society continually tries to make illegal, I can’t afford not to have my religious practice support how I move in the world. What happens most often with outsiders coming in—and it is what is happening now as people try to build movements out of separate non-cohesive practices by applying cultural concepts to a non-existent worldview—is that there is this desire to put vodou/religion in a box and take it out when necessary. This is not how it works, nor is it maintainable. The essence of Bwa Kayiman as the spark of revolution is ‘if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re all the way out’—vodou and religion in general are infections, in the best of ways. Vodou permeates everything, all the time. There is no halfway. You can’t keep vodou/religion in a box. To try and say that politics do not belong in religion is to deny the fights that the ancestors—blood or lineage—engaged in to keep the religion alive, to deny the autonomy of the spirits and divinities to have a deep investment in how the world works and how we move in it, and to engage in the Western privilege and long-standing modern church practice of keeping religion on a shelf and out of the world. It is the whitest of white people problems, and I just can’t understand it at all.

And, since vodou is a culturally based religion made up of primarily dark-skinned folks, you have to be good with all that entails. There is no room for your racism and unexamined white privilege. There is no room for your ethnocentrism and shock and/or revulsion when ways of living are very different than what you are used to. There is no room for your offense when people will not speak English for you, or when the color of your skin is a factor in how you are treated. If you can’t lift up the lives of those who suffer and get out of your own way to do so, your time in vodou will be very, very hard.

So, today—225 years and 10 days after Ogou and Ezili Je Wouj came down screaming and soaked the ground with blood—I think about the revolution and how Bwa Kayiman lives every day in those who serve the lwa. I think about how kanzo is an indelible tie to that blood-soaked ground. I think about stamping my feet on the ground that my spiritual ancestors set on fire, and I think about the ancestors who fought to oppress those they would keep subjugation. I think about the revolution that was my kanzo, and how Ogou lit everything on fire around me to allow a new life to take root. I think about how it’s not over for me and for all my Haitian brothers and sisters. I think about their every day fight in Haiti and in the US, and I think about how it will never be over for them or for me. Mostly, though, I think about how revolution is an act of love—for my lwa, for my brothers and sisters in the religion, and for me—and what it means to be loved in such a rooted, bloody way. I wish that it was easy to translate what that really means into words, but, like vodou, it is something that happens to and with you.

If you’re in, you’re in.

I Miss Haiti: A Tiny Photoset

•August 13, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I looked through the very few photos I took in Haiti (I was busy…) and suddenly realized how much I miss being there. I miss the people, the drums, the early mornings, and even the Haitian Parent Loudspeaker (ask me about the Haitian Parent Loudspeaker).

So, have a few photos:


I had started taking photos of some of the gorgeous new art in the new Petwo peristyle/temple, and some of the kids saw the camera. Haitian kids LOVE having their picture taken, love looking at the photos you take, and love telling you who to take photos of next. In this photo is Shu-Shu, the sassiest five year old ever, Tyema, the most grown ten year old ever, Kiki, my godmother’s son, and a sweet girl who loved having her picture taken but who was too shy to tell me her name.


Shu-Shu, sassiest five year old ever. She was the only kid brave/sassy enough to walk in the blan’s (post-kanzo) room and play, at first. We played catch with an empty water bottle until I was tired of being a jungle gym.


Pictures were also needed in front of every saint in each temple. In front of Gran Bwa, we have my tiny-but-exuberant entourage, plus Zing-Zing, cutest toddler ever (and she knew it).


Lakou Manbo Maude. Outside of the main compound, with a family crypt, some houses in the back, and just out of frame to the left, The Tree which is the seat of Manbo Maude’s ancestral spirits and Very Important. This picture was one pf few times I was allowed to set foot outside the main compound unaccompanied. Might have been the only time, actually.

Funny Thing.

•August 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

There has been this interesting phenomenon since I have gotten back from Haiti. To be truthful, there has been a LOT of interesting phenomenon, but this one makes me tilt my head and squint a little bit.

Apparently, me going into the djevo and coming out the other side means I am no longer a polytheist and have no connections to any other divinities and the other parts of my spiritual practice have been chucked in the garbage.

This is a huge assumption to make (and we know what we say about assumptions) and it’s a terribly incorrect one. My other spirits and my gods did not sign off and crawl into a hole, and I did not give them all the grand middle finger. Some of them showed up before kanzo to remind me of my obligations (looking at you, Kemetics) and some showed up for me while I was in the djevo, since I brought all my non-vodou spirits and gods with me as the whole human being that I am.

It’s true that things are quiet with many of my other divinities, but that is largely because I am spiritually quarantined right now and also because I just did a month of having me head spiritually blown open and I need a damn nap. The lwa do not give one damn that I have outside commitments, contracts, relationships, and responsibilities, provided I hold up my end of our bargain. They are endlessly pragmatic and modern, so I do not get shut in box and locked up.

I find it super interesting that it’s not vodouizan that are getting twisted over this, it’s pagans and polytheists. Largely, pagans and polytheists generally rip off a whole lot of shit from vodou and other Diasporic and Traditional religions, but fail to have any understanding of how it works out in the world. Your beliefs and divinities may be exclusive and vaguely monotheistic in bent, but mine are not (despite being a priest in a monotheistic religion). Because I do not buy in to the latest round of Polytheist Charades does not mean my core religious beliefs have changed.

Liminality and Waiting

•August 8, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I am doing no better with reintegration into ‘civilian’ life than I was a few days ago. I feel very unsettled in a very unsurprising way–I feel like all my insides have been shuffled and yanked out and rearranged and shoved back in, which they were–and it is hard to find equilibrium. I am exhausted most of the time and am having trouble being around unexpected people, which is Complicated because I am, for all intents and purposes, homeless and living on the generosity of friends who are hosting me. I don’t have my own space so it’s hard to shut the proverbial gate.

I’m not working at the moment (but am actively looking) and despite literally having less than a dollar to my name, I am grateful that I have this time to settle. I’m not sure what it would be like to work right now, especially since I have not yet ventured out of my whites and am tying my head now and then even when I am indoors.

The last few months have all been about liminality. The fucking death march that was the trip down to Haiti–over 24 hours in airports and no sleep for 48 hours–was about liminality. I basically abandoned my life and moved on, and sort of hung in the balance for a very stressful full days.

Kanzo was a liminal space. Once I entered the djevo, I died and went under the water for nine days.

Coming out of the djevo didn’t end that, it just changed the parameters. I am no longer dead, but I still hang in the balance until my quarantine period is over. I am feeling every bit of it, too. My main jobs at the moment are to firstly protect my head and, as a distant second, find some work. It is exquisitely hard to write cover letters when all you want to do is lay on the floor and stare at things. I feel so foggy so much of the time.

In some ways, this is sort of a reflection of my entire life. Liminality should be my middle name–I’ve never really had two feet anywhere at any given time, and I’m not even sure I do now. One foot here, one foot in Ginen. But my kanzo experience and my quarantine experience is sort of a giant ball of ‘This Is Your Life’. Every single part of who I am, from my gender to my professional aspirations to the spirits who have made themselves significant parts of my life, is about liminality and boundary bending in some way. My brain doesn’t know what to do with that yet.
I have a lot to do and a lot to think about. I need to start writing about Haiti and things that happened so I don’t lose them, or lose how they felt. It still doesn’t feel real, though, and if I didn’t have a pot tet staring me in the face alongside an array of govi and paket kongo I’d probably think I dreamed it all up.

Beginning at the End

•August 6, 2016 • 2 Comments

I have been back in the US for three days and, if I am completely honest, I hate it. I don’t necessarily want to be back in Haiti, but things were monumentally easier there. It was easier to maintain the sort of headspace that I need there and easier to explain my desire to sit in a chair and stare out at the world.

I have physically been out of the djevo for just about two weeks, and, as a result, about two weeks into what my manmi calls my quarantine period. Immediately post-kanzo is a tenuous time, and so we have a lot of restrictions that keep us safe until we are a bit more stable. There are things I cannot eat, behaviors I cannot engage in, times of day/night that I cannot be out during, and even the way I sleep is pretty drastically altered for the moment.

I didn’t think much about what the post-kanzo period would be like. I figured life would go on and I would feel relatively normal, but boy was I wrong. I feel anything but what used to be normal because I am no longer the person I was pre-kanzo. A lot of things have shifted on the inside and I am not used to it yet. I was very protected in Haiti, and here I am largely on my own. I told my godfather the other night that I feel as if I am made of porcelain, and that’s very true. Everything feels like it could crush me, and some things could if I am not careful.

I am tired a lot and spend a lot of time doing nothing. My godfather cautions me not to do too much or get too tired, and I feel grateful that my quarantine period is enforced downtime. I can’t imagine jumping back into life as usual right away. Of course, I have no idea what life as usual means anymore because the person who went into the djevo is not the person who came out.

Kanzo is both an ending and a beginning. It is a death in a very real sense–who I was before died in the djevo and a new person walked out. It’s like a huge restart button was pushed and the door firmly closed on who and what I was beforehand. There’s no going back. It all tastes like ash.

Significantly, I have very much shut the door on a female identity. I was baptized as an oungan, a male priest, and a large piece of my kanzo was literally purging female-ness from who I am. Significantly, I got my period in the djevo and was almost a week early with it, which never ever happens to me–I am always late. As I prepared to go into the djevo, I chatted with priests in my sosyete about my worry about menstruating while I was inside. A good friend and manbo noted that menstruation is a purging of sorts, and that perhaps I needed to purge things related to my gender. Certainly plenty of men menstruate, but there is no denying the significance for me in that context. I think my friend was right.

And here I am. I have a new name, a new identity, a new course in life (though I don’t yet know what it is), a new family, new responsibilities, and a new self to figure out. I have a LOT to process and write about, and I have a life to build back up. I am currently jobless and homeless (staying with generous friends), and I am largely a blank slate. I showed up in Haiti with nothing to call my own except a few boxes in storage and my spirits and divinities. I have a little more now, but I have a ton of work to do. I got lifted out of a hole and It’s my responsibility not to dig myself back in.
Of all the things I have gained from kanzo so far, the first and foremost has been an incredible sense of gratitude for how the last month has unfolded. I didn’t think I would make it, but I did.