An Easter Voodoo Festival With Political Undertones

Every Easter for as long as he can remember, John Menard has driven the nearly 100 dusty miles on rutted roads to this tiny enclave, shrouded himself in white and offered himself up to the spirits.

Last month he lost his job as the catering manager at a hotel in Port-au-Prince, and he is desperately short of money, he said. Under the circumstances, he might be expected to turn to the spirits, or loas, that his family has worshiped for generations and ask for prosperity, but not this year.

"This year I will not ask the loas for money," Mr. Menard, 34, said Sunday, as he lounged beneath a sacred tree just outside Souvenance — a lakou, or village, that is one of voodoo's holiest pilgrimage sites. "I will tell the loas, this is your land. You have to make the nation right for the people."

Hundreds of people flocked to this tiny village over Easter weekend, filling a couple of dozen whitewashed huts in a walled compound, arrayed around a sacred temple. On this spot, for at least 200 years, Haitians have shown their devotion to the African spirits brought to this island by slaves from West Africa.

It is one of the holiest pilgrimages for believers in voodoo and it is also the first major pilgrimage since Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, was pushed from power by an armed uprising in February that began just a few miles from here, in Gonaïves.

The heady events of the past few months, coupled with the fact that this year is the bicentennial of Haiti's independence from France, charged the pilgrimage to Souvenance with an electric energy. Here, politics, religion and history bubbled into a peculiarly Haitian concoction, as hundreds of worshipers converged on the village.

"We celebrated the bicentennial of our freedom by saying no to a dictator," said Charles Roland Despinasse, a houngan, or voodoo priest, from Gonaïves. "We come to Souvenance to thank the loas for removing Jean-Bertrand Aristide."

In addition to being practiced by a vast majority of Haitians, voodoo is also a potent symbol of the nation's liberty. Armies of escaped slaves liberated Haiti from France's imperial grip in 1804, creating the world's first black republic.

With the departure of colonial power, and with it forced Catholicism, voodoo flourished in Haiti in the 19th century. It has experienced periods of intense persecution, and a cloud of mystery still hangs over the religion, fueled by Hollywood fantasies about zombies and demonic possession. But its survival and strength are a testament to Haiti's independence, said Läennec Hurbon, a Haitian sociologist who has written several books on voodoo.

That strength was in evidence during Easter weekend, as hundreds followed a raucous rara band, a collection of horns and percussion played by musicians in spangled costumes who parade through the countryside in the week preceding Easter, to the gates of the lakou. Fueled by generous tots of clairin, a fiery raw rum, women in satin dresses hike up their skirts as they strut to the blaring horns, baring white panties and broad bellies.

On Sunday morning, believers clad in white to indicate their devotion to the voodoo of light, not darkness, gathered in the temple to dance and chant, shaking a finger in the air to affirm the oath they took as initiates to remain true to their faith. Hounsi, devout helpers of the loas, passed three goats and one ram, their throats slit and gushing blood, from the shoulders of man to woman, soaking the recipients' white satin head scarves and sending crimson rivulets down their faces.

Voodoo rituals, like the pilgrimage to Souvenance, often coincide with events and people in the Catholic faith imposed upon African slaves when they came here. In that way, the slaves disguised the practice of their religion, concealing it from the slave masters, who feared its power.

Residents said the Souvenance holy site was founded by a group of freed slaves from an area of West Africa they called Dahomey, now part of Benin. This place is sacred because of that direct link to the ancestors and for that reason is charged with a special political significance as well.

Nestled in the Artibonite Valley, Souvenance lies at the center of Haiti's revolutionary heartland. Haiti's independence from France was declared in 1804 in Gonaïves. It was also the site of the uprising against the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, and during the last year it once again took its role in Haitian history, brewing the ferment that toppled Mr. Aristide.

According to local legend, in the 19th century one leader came here seeking refuge, and the lakou sheltered him, bathing and preparing him to lead the country. He was so impressed with the lakou's power that, upon becoming president, he shuttered the lakou for decades to prevent any of his rivals from seeking its strength.

François Duvalier, the brutal dictator whose family ruled Haiti for 30 years, surrounded himself with houngans, and Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, sanctioned voodoo as a recognized state religion last year.

This year's pilgrimage is no different: representatives of the new government and of the rebel soldiers who helped push Mr. Aristide from power came here to pay their respects and seek the blessing of the loas.

"This past year there are some great forces that helped me," said Wilfort Ferdinand, a leader of the rebel group that started the uprising that helped topple Mr. Aristide. "I have come here to try and connect with those forces. In Haiti, when someone gets into power they use these forces to maintain power."