“We don’t do black magic,” says Haitian Vodou healer Manbo Katy. “We do white magic. That is cleaner and holier.”
Katy is the subject of a new short documentary by Broadly, directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker. In the years since the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which displaced more than a million people, the priestess has worked to bring both spiritual and physical healing to her community, while carrying on the centuries-old tradition of Vodou worship.
In the film, Katy describes her vocation as a Vodou manbo, or priestess, while taking viewers through the practices and beliefs of the often-misunderstood religion.
Vodou was developed by African ethnic groups that were enslaved and brought to colonial Haiti, formerly Saint-Domingue, by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Vodou means “spirit” or “deity” in the Fon language of what is now Benin.
A fundamental principle of Vodou is that humans live side by side with lwa, or spirits, as well as mystè (mysteries), anvizib (the invisibles), zanj (angels), and ancestor spirits. During ceremonies, Vodou priests and priestesses honor and commune with the spirits by chanting, dancing, offering prayers and performing certain rites.
As the Broadly documentary depicts, spirit possession also plays an important role in Vodou rituals, during which the Iwa are believed to actually enter the healers’ bodies.
“When the spirit enters me, it enters with a force. When the force is done entering, my normal spirit, Katy’s spirit, has left me,” Katy says.
In the film, Katy and her fellow healers prepare for and conduct a celebration of the dead. Between ceremonies, Katy fulfills her role as healer by offering food, shelter, friendship and support to those in her community. At times there are dozens of people filling the rooms and halls of her Port-au-Prince home.
Interwoven with Katy’s narration are stories from members of the priestess’s community who lost homes, loved ones and livelihoods in the 2010 earthquake. One woman says that in the wake of the disaster people were forced to dig mass graves for the dead, unable to carry out Vodou funeral rites.
As a Vodou priestess, Katy says, “I’m always there for everyone. Even when their problems seem overwhelming, I always let them know that one day things will change.”
“There is a proverb that says, ‘As long as there is life, there is hope,’” she adds. “I have to give them hope, because hope gives them life.”