Accepted Paper:

The internationalization of Vodou in Haiti?  
Markel Thylefors (Göteborg University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper explores tendencies of change in the Haitian Vodou religion, eg official recognition, efforts to form nationwide Vodou organisations, and/or a 'Vodou church'. Such tendencies are related to local social stratification and possible global influences.

Paper long abstract:

Markel Thylefors Ph.D. (Göteborg University) markel.thylefors@sant.gu.se

The paper explores some social aspects of new influences inciting religious and social change of the Vodou religion in contemporary Haiti. While Vodou has been portrayed as an example of religious dynamism; the last decades, however, have brought some new trends of change within in sectors of Haitian Vodou: e.g. the 2003 presidential decree officially recognizing Vodou as a religion, the formation of nationwide Vodou organizations with agendas of creating an institutional basis for Vodou and/or a Vodou Church with a common liturgy, as well as "anti-syncretistic" tentative. Such tendencies, the paper suggests, are influenced by global discourses on African-American religion.

Novel changes - or models for change - do not reach out to, or are embraced by, all of Haiti's Vodou practitioners. Nonetheless, as visible in the public sphere, they are most important for Vodou as a social fact in Haitian society at large.

The paper suggests that "big" Vodou priests, e.g. leaders of national Vodou organizations as well as local Vodou communities, are crucial for introducing initiatives for change. Such "big" Vodou priests have a high degree of Diaspora contacts, literacy, as well as the economic and cultural capital to interact with the official spheres of society (e.g. politicians, public servants, scholars, media). The argument is that the "big" Vodou priests bring new ideas and proposals of change to the ranks of poorer and less empowered Vodou practitioners through formal and informal networks. Conceivably, the influential, or "big," Vodou priests' international networks are important for bringing global discourse on African and African-American religion to Haiti. The very idea of phenomena such as formal and officially recognized Vodou organizations, anti-syncretism, or naming God as Olowoum, I propose, are largely of foreign import.

Even if the "big" Vodou priests are influential, they exercise no absolute power over their less well off peers and "big" priests are dependent on the support of their followers. Thus agency on the grass roots level should not be overlooked. A vital question is what will be the results be from the negotiations between "big" and other Vodou practitioners regarding future articula¬tions of Vodou? Will "elite" Vodou priests be successful in their attempts to introduce new organizational forms of Vodou, or ridding Vodou of its Folk-Catholic elements?

The paper is based on the findings from the first phase of the three year post-doctoral research project "The official recognition of Haitian Vodou: a Study in Social and Religious Change" (funded by Sida/Sarec), based at the Department of Social anthropology, Göteborg University, Sweden.

Keywords: Haiti, Vodou, change, official recognition, African-American religion, Diaspora connections.

Panel W075
The internationalisation of African-American religions