Letter: A prejudiced view of voodoo

HAITI has always had a bad press, and ignorance is often to blame. Charles Richards ('The trouble with Haiti', 25 September) understands nothing about voodoo. To call it 'the cult of darkness' is Hollywood sensationalism. I have been to many voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, they have nothing to do with darkness or black magic.

Voodoo, vaudoux or, more commonly, vodun, is derived from a complex system of rites and beliefs brought to Haiti by African slaves in the 1600s. Souls are attributed to inanimate objects - plants, stones, trees - while the divinities of faraway Africa are evoked through dance and song. The word voodoo is of Dahomean origin, meaning 'spirit' or 'deity'.

Mr Richards says voodoo has hijacked Roman Catholic saints and turned them into malevolent totems. This is nonsense. The forcible conversion of Haitian slaves to Catholicism did nothing to shake their faith in the divinities of Africa; they worshipped them under cover of Christian icons. Voodoo, like other slave religions is simply a fusion of African animism and Catholicism.

It is said that Haitians are 80 per cent Catholic and 100 per cent voodooist. Voodoo is their only way to rise above the misery of poverty and political oppression. When a Haitian is possessed by a loa (spirit) he is taken out of himself and transformed. Just for one night, an ailing mother may become Loco Attison, god of medicine and wisdom; a downtrodden farmer might transform into Ogoun Feraille, Lord of the Thunderbolt; a young girl betrayed by her boyfriend, into Maman Brigitte, the fiery wife of Baron Samedi, god of the underworld.

It is insulting, and silly, to imply that these people dabble in black magic. The spirits of ancestral Africa are all that remain for the voiceless poor of this beautiful, bedevilled country.

Ian Thomson

London SW1