Haitians - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although the majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic and although Protestant missionaries have won a number of converts in the poorer rural areas, the religion of Haiti is still Vodun, an ancient religion that focuses on contacting and appeasing ancestral spirits ( lwa ), which include both distant, stereotyped ancestors and more immediate relatives, such as dead parents and grandparents.

Religious Practitioners. Vodun is a particularly egalitarian religion; both men and women serve as priests ( ouganyo and manbo-yo, respectively; sing ougan and manbo ).

Ceremonies. As many of its rituals are performed in the context of sickness and death, Vodun is primarily a system of folk medicine that attributes illnesses to angry ancestors; it consists of appeasement ceremonies, including divination rites, which are used to find the cause of illnesses; healing rites, in which a Vodun priest interacts directly with sick people to cure them; propitiatory rites, in which food and drink are offered to specific spirits to make them stop their aggression; and preventive rites, in which ancestors are offered sacrifices to help head off any possible future trouble.

Arts. In the 1940s Haiti burst into the consciousness of the art world with an astonishing display of paintings, and its artists received worldwide attention for their so-called primitive or naive art. In 1944 the Centre d'Art was founded in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is also renowned for its literature, despite its high rate of illiteracy (85 percent). Major themes include concepts of negritude, which foreshadowed the Black Power and post-World War II anticolonial movements, and Vodun. The most famous novel in Haitian Creole, Frankétinne's Dézafi, is about the revolt of a colony of zombies.

Medicine. Although Western medicine has been available to the urban elite since the early 1960s, there were only 887 physicians in Haiti in 1988 (Wilke 1993, Table 804). In the rural areas, curing depends on a rich body of folk knowledge that includes herbal medicine and Vodun. The peasants nevertheless suffer from malnutrition and many diseases. Measles, diarrhea, and tetanus kill many children, and the daily per capita caloric intake for 1988 has been estimated at 2,011 (Wilke 1993, Table 824). Only about 38 percent of the population has access to potable water. Tuberculosis is the most devastating disease, followed closely by dysentery, influenza, malaria, measles, tetanus, and whooping cough. Eye problems are endemic in Haiti; the chief causes of blindness are cataracts, glaucoma, pterygium (a growth over the cornea), and scarring of the cornea.

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