The search for an Houngan, or traditional voodoo priest, began with a drive through Cite Soleil, the notorious slum on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. My driver told me that Houngans do not live in the city because they believe there are too many people, who crowd out the spirits. The best way to navigate in Haiti is to ask, because there are few street signs, and no signs telling you where you are. The driver keeps asking, and we are told to search beyond the city’s landfill. The road to the landfill is littered with trash that falls from the trash trucks, but the trash dump itself is one of the cleanest places in Port au Prince. A young trash picker agrees to take us to an Houngan’s house.
Just beyond a small tent-shanty town, the gravel ends and a narrow dirt road begins to wind through a forest of palm trees. We pass by clearings where cows and goats are grazing. Then we come upon a hamlet with a wooden cross in the center of the courtyard. Young men sit in chairs lined up in rows watching a black and white television; children play and an old man fans a fire. White doves perch on rooftops and puppies play in the yard. It’s the most peaceful place I’ve seen since arriving in Haiti more than a week ago.
Haiti has just 15 psychiatrists and 30 psychologists working in the country. The earthquake itself has brought the need for mental health services to the attention of the Ministry of Health, which is now working on developing protocols for mental healthcare.
But for many who suffer psychosis, manic depression, or other emotional problems, the first choice is to visit an Houngan, or a Mambo.
The Houngan we meet is quiet and matter of fact. His spiritual name, translated from Creole, is Big Surprise. He takes me into a cinder block building with a dirt floor. This is where ceremonies are held, and altars honoring the spirits are cared for. In one room the altar is lined with pictures of Christian saints. There are bottles of rum, flowers and dishes. He tells me St. Peter and St. Clair are really African gods and goddesses. He says the energy here is slow, and cool.
But on the other side of the large central room, is the black room. Here the energy is fast and hot, and very dangerous. Christian saints also line the back of the altar, but in front of them is a statue of a clown.
Big Surprise says many more people have come to him with mental health problems since the earthquake, and he sometimes treats them with herbs, or sends them to a psychologist. But, he says, some people are possessed by spirits, and to treat them he prays to the spirits to get a remedy. That could involve a sacrifice such as killing a goat, or a chicken. I tell him that I’ve been speaking with young Haitian psychologists who say people waste their money and time going to Houngans like him, and that some Houngans will beat people to chase away the spirits.
He says that’s true, but he’s not interested so much in the money. He says those who try to beat bad spirits out of people have not reached a high level of spirituality, and so are not good Houngans. And if he can’t help, he sends them to a western doctor. Afterall, he says, all medicine comes from trees and plants.