Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One

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)

The other part of Bat Gé is that all of the herbs and leaves that will be used on the kanzo process need to be prepared. They all must be reduced to powder, and that’s achieved in a huge pilón with two people beating them with large, person-sized pestles.

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Literally from the moment the drums begin to the end of the very last song of the night, that pilón is full and going. This is super hard work–people who were doing this would be so soaked in sweat that their white clothes would be basically translucent.

In the corner behind them sits the person responsible for everything that goes into that pilón and everything that comes out. She knows what herbs/leaves are in each bag, knows what order to put them into the pilón, and touches every handful that comes out, as the powder must be sifted fine. She sits there every single night, and the only time I saw her leave that chair was when a spirit was in her head. Her preparation began way before Bat Gé as well, since she oversaw the preparation of the leaves/herbs to be beaten.

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This was not even all of the leaves/herbs–a bunch more got hauled in right after I took this picture.

Bat Gé cannot end until everything that needs to be powdered is, and so she is also responsible for making my Manmi aware of how things are progressing. Sometimes the third night can go really late.

We don’t have what most folks would call an altar for Bat Gé, but we do have a niche.

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The niche is where four people will sit each night, beating on specially prepared plates with cutlery, with another person beating on a bag of materials and watching over the niche. They sit there all night every night, and they don’t stop for anything–even if the drums stop or there’s a pause in the ceremony, you can still hear the cutlery against the plates and the bag being smacked. They didn’t move while the ceremony was going on, either.

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Near the niche sits a basin filled with liquid Stuff, and the basin is beaten all night as well. A beatable object is floated in it, and two people sit at the basin all night every night and beat the bath, also without stopping. One of the women who did that each and every night was the oldest woman I have ever seen at a ceremony, and she beat the living hell out of the bath for three nights straight.

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While all these things happen, there are two people with machetes dancing a circle around the poto mitan while beating two machetes together about every other step.

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And, of course, there are the drums. For a largely Petwo ceremony (and Ogou, always Ogou including Petwo Ogous and not), the drums are beat with bare hands and they and fast and hot, all night every night.

Even the dancing is beating–we dance Petwo (or everyone does and I try to), which beats the ground with our feet.

Once all of this is going, the room is kind of busy. However, that’s not all!

Almost every time a lwa is called, a priest or hounsi starts at the main door of the temple with a whip and a whistle and moves around the temple, sometimes following the machete beaters and sometimes following the person saluting. Even in a temple full of singing, objects being beaten, and drums sounding like a frantic heartbeat, it is loud and jarring.

These are the tools of the Petwo lwa; a recollection of the roots of vodou born with enslaved Africans in plantation field with an overseer with a whip and a whistle to keep them working and signal when labor was over. We use these tools call down the lwa who rose up from the ground these individuals bled and died on, and it calls them to war and to fight.

We also keep track of the songs we sing in a very specific way. A specific number of songs must be sung every night, and the job of keeping track of them is really damn important. If the recorder misses one, It Is A Problem. So, the job rotates among a group of priests who know the regleman and know the hundreds of possible songs to be sung. I couldn’t always tell when one song ended and another began, but they sure could and it was carefully recorded each time.

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The air gets really heavy with all that heat and sweat, but it gets heavier as kiman, a special Petwo drink, is sprayed on all the people doing the beating, on all the things being beaten, on at the points that we salute at, and on people who are saluting the lwa, with the hopes of inducing possession. If possession does start happening, more kiman on the horse! In addition, the perfumes used in ceremonies are being sprinkled everywhere, for the same purposes.

This all goes on for three nights, with each night getting progressively hotter and more crowded. Beyond singing and dancing, by the third night it was a constant battle to stay out of the way of the circling machetes, the whip, and the suddenly flailing and flying bodies as the lwa came down in possession.

The first night was comparatively quiet. I think I sweat more that I had ever sweat in my life up until that pointand I was convinced the smell of kiman was never going to leave my nose, but it was what I have grown familiar with as a party for the spirits. Ogou popped into a few people near the close, but didn’t stay long. We needed to rest up, as it was a long couple nights coming up.

Up next: To Beat War, Part Two.

Photos are from various members of my family, unless I note that I took it.

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~ by Alex on September 25, 2016.

One Response to “Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One”

  1. […] Read part one here. […]

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