Religion in Contemporary America

Review of Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola : A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Berkeley : University of California Press, 1991.
Reviewed by Madeline Fitzgerald

In Karen McCarthy Brown's book, Mama Lola : A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, she gives her reader a look into the life of Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, also known as Alourdes ("Ah-lood") or Mama Lola.(2) Haitian Vodou is the form of religion that Alourdes was born into in Haiti. Ms. McCarthy, through her history of Mama Lola, gives an outsider an insight into the religious practices and beliefs of this Vodou Priestess. She takes her reader to the time before Alourdes birth in Haiti, through her present life in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Ms. McCarthy gives a completely unopinionated description of the Haitian culture and it's religious practices. By using examples of this Haitian family, their position in our culture, and their ceremonies, we are able to visualize the life of Mama Lola as a Vodou Priestess. However, I do not feel that Ms. McCarthy describes clearly for her reader the thought process that went into her own conversion into the Vodou religion. In this perspective, I found the book lacking in the author's ability for complete objectivity.

Philo, Alourdes mother, wanted to abort her child. She tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions. Philo was visited in her dreams by a woman who asked her to give birth to her child but Philo continued to try to cause a miscarriage. Finally after the fifth month, Philo was still with child, the woman warned her not to give birth in the hospital where the woman lived. She told her to call the baby Alourdes. Later she is told that the woman was Our Lady of Lourdes, of whom the chapel in the hospital was named. Early in her ninth month, Philo felt pressure to urinate and out popped the baby. The woman in the front of the house she rented heard her bang on the wall and came to her assistance, then went for the midwife. The baby, Alourdes, was fine but Philo was with fever. She could not feed Alourdes so she asked a friend who had just had a baby if she would nurse Alourdes. She agreed, and Alourdes grew strong. In the meantime, a man had been asking Philo to heal his ten year old son, and Philo insisted that she had not received the dream to allow her to heal him. As Philo regained her strength, her dreams returned, one with the healing needed for Rapelle's son. The healing process took over one year, but Philo was financially rewarded by the spirits. Life was so secure for her that her promise to her gods were forgotten. Bad luck began. At the age of seven, Alourdes, returning a curling iron to a neighbor, was bitten on her leg by a dog and became very ill. Not listening to her mother, and ill with fever, Alourdes left the house for three days and three nights. Philo had a friend, Madame Victoir, who read cards for her, and was told by Madame Victoir, to look in the south for Alourdes and that she had broken a promise she had made to honor Ezili Danto. With that thought in mind, Philo had the police search south for Alourdes, and she went home to affirm her promise to Ezili Danto. She prayed hard and Alourdes was found and returned to her but without knowing what had happened to her. During the celebration that was prepared for Ezili Danto, Our Lady of Lourdes, Philo was instructed to have Alourdes take her place to serve the family spirits. Philo agreed. Alourdes simply nodded.(215-17) Alourdes grew up in Port-au-Prince and has lived in the United States for twenty-five years. Her grandmother Marie Noelsine Joseph was daughter to the old African Joseph Binbin Mauvant, who had the spirits on him all the time.(224-5) In 1965 Alourdes brought her three children to the United States, Jean-Pierre, Maggie, and William. Maggie , who was thirteen at the time became very ill and was hospitalized. The emergency doctor suspected that she may have tuberculosis, a disease common among Haitians. Maggie begged to go home and return the next day to be followed up by the doctor and he agreed. That night, while laying in bed a shadow came to her, coming closer she could see a lady with a blue dress and veil; she could recognize that it was Ezili Danto. Our Lady told her not to be scared and that she would be well. She rubbed Maggie's back and told her to light a candle to thank her. In the morning, when they returned to the hospital the doctor could not find any evidence of illness.(226-7)

One of the main ingredients of the book is that of the six million people in Haiti 85% are Catholic, even though Catholic priests denounce Vodou and preach that followers of that belief will go to hell, 15% are Protestant, but 100% of the population serve Vodou spirits. (5) Believers shrug off this reprimand from the Catholic priests, as Catholics in America do today, in respect to Church rules. Discrepancies of beliefs about important controversial issues within the Church do not make members of Vodou feel removed from the Church. They continue to allow the Church to have its' own position and yet permit themselves to practice what will work for them, not believing that the Church is wrong, but just not practicing something that they can not adhere to in their own lives. An example of this would be the Church's views on abortion. Mama Lola and her followers believe the Church to be correct in their position of abortion being murder, but in their eyes, that it is not always a viable choice for a woman to keep her unborn child. They do agree that abortion does make the gods mad, in particular, Ezili Danto, Our Lady of Lourdes, because she really loves children, but in Vodou one can serve the spirits again and make the gods happy.(241) In Alourdes life, she had a child because Ezili Danto urged her not to abort the child, now she pays everyday of her life because her son, William, was born retarded and will never be able to support himself. Vodou gods are forms of Catholic saints and also have feast days as do Catholic saints. Ceremony is an important part of Vodou and they are opened with Catholic prayers. "Haitians believe that living and suffering are inseparable. Vodou is the system they have devised to deal with the suffering that is life, a system whose purpose is to minimize pain, avoid disaster, cushion loss, and strengthen survivors and survival instincts."(10) They call on their spirits, with Catholic and African names, Mary is Ezili, the Vodou love spirit; Saint Patrick, the serpent spirit, Danballa; Saint Gerard is Gede, master of the cemetery; Saint James is the warrior, Ogou; and Isidore is the peasant farmer, Azaka.(3) They are mediators between God (Bondye ) and "the Living."(4)

Ezili Danto is the spirit that told Alourdes to take her place to serve the family spirits. Alourdes is a priestess (manbo) and practices healing. "Her body becomes the "horse"of the spirit, her voice the spirit's voice, her words and behavior those of the spirit."(5) A problem that comes from God, simply is, and Vodou can not remove it, but most problems are supernatural and can be treated through the spirits.(347) "Haitian traditional religion is the repository for wisdom accumulated by a people who have lived through slavery, hunger, disease, repression, corruption and violence--all in excess."(98) Her mother taught her never to do bad in her life because if you do it will turn on you, "When you do bad to people, that return--right on your back!"(188). Alourdes believes that if she were to take the doll that represents Danto on her alter and turn it upside down in an attempt to take vengeance on an enemy, the energy unleashed would eventually come back to destroy her.(232) Boko, mostly men, are professional magicians. They take many more chances with the spirits than Mama Lola does. The Boko will take the soul of a person without family or who did not get a proper burial and make them minor spirits. Sometimes these spirits turn on the Boko and their family. This is considered very risky business and usually not performed by women.(189) Money, health, employment, love and safety are all areas of speciality for Mama Lola. By serving the spirits properly, Mama Lola will always be in their care, but serving can sometimes be forgotten and Mama will suffer some type of heart ship from the spirits as a reminder to honor them. Celebrations consist of liquor, cookies, candy, fruits, cakes, popped corn, peanuts, cassava bread and puddings, rice and beans, and sweet potatoes, all things that the spirit might enjoy are placed on the altar.

As soon as a child is old enough, he is expected to contribute to the life of the Vodou family. Strict discipline is important in a Haitian household. Beatings occur. Unruly children are threatened with evil spirits; they are deemed more likely to be possessed, therefore, they must be watched closely by their elders. "Life is hard. You got to make them tough!"(373) "...if you push a child off-balance occasionally, that child will learn to locate the inner balance Alourdes calls Confidence in Yourself"."(373) This is how the Haitian children are taught. The Haitian form of Vodou is feared by many people who are unfamiliar with it's beliefs. It is practiced in urban areas behind closed doors and in basements with windows darkened so that no one will see. Adults and children are warned not to mention their beliefs to outsiders or suffer severe reprimand from the spirits.

Throughout her book Ms. McCarthy can never say for sure whether Mama Lola actually made a change to someone's life through the spirits. In Haiti, there is a woman, Cecile who desperately wanted to sell her house; Mama Lola came to her aid in the sale and also offered to assist with her love life. She performed her card reading and ceremonies, using plants, baths, blue colored water, eggs, molasses and pennies, for nearly a week. A year after returning to the States, Ms. McCarthy asked if Mama Lola had heard from Cecile and her reply was "yes". Ms. McCarthy then asked if she had any luck in the sale of her home and Mama Lola's reply was that she forgot to ask.(349)

Karen McCarthy Brown was encouraged to join Vodou by Alourdes, "Try it and see if it work for you."(306) A person is under no obligation in choosing Vodou according to Alourdes. Ms.McCarthy decided to marry Ogou but Alourdes felt she needed the balance of Danbala in her life also; she agreed. The spirit descended on a relative, Andre, who fell and wiggled across the floor, snakelike and hissing. Ms. McCarthy was directed to lie beside Danbala and both were covered with a sheet held in place by members. An egg was placed under the canopy with a small white dish containing the wedding band purchased by Ms. McCarthy. Sweet smelling Florida water was sprayed on the sheet and each drank almond flavored syrup. Danbala picked up the ring with his lips and proceeded to bite into the egg, then slipped the egg coated ring onto Ms. McCarthy's finger with his mouth. She was then lifted over to Alourdes, who was also possessed by a Danbala. This one signed the marriage certificate with an X, crumpled it, and hugged Ms. McCarthy. The marriage to Danbala marked the acceptance into Alourdes family.(306-7) At the time Ms. McCarthy went through this experience, she was experiencing problems in her own life, stress, and dealing with a divorce. "I found it increasingly difficult to maintain an uncluttered image of myself as scholar and researcher in her presence. This difficulty brought about a change in the research I was doing. As I got closer to Alourdes, I got closer to Vodou. ...I soon found that I could not claim a place in her Vodou family and remain a detached observer."(9) When the spirit comes to you, he comes into your head, takes over your body and when released, witnesses must tell you the spirit's message.(353) From this experience, one is changed forever.

"Alourdes once said about Ezili Danto: She don't give money. What she do, she give you opportunity...opportunity to help yourself. Yes.'"(242)


Reviewed by Madeline Fitzgerald
April, 1998

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