Monday, January 23, 2017

My Vodou Story

It was a chilly January morning in 2001 when my family and I arrived in New Orleans to drop me off at my new residence in the graduate dorms of Loyola University. I was beginning a masters program in religious studies, but more importantly I was finally moving to the one place in the country I’d most wanted to live since I first visited when I was 18. After many, many trips during community college (Co-Lin in Wesson), the year I took off from school and lived in Jackson, and university (Mississippi State University), I would at last have a New Orleans address and be able to call it home. I was a ball of mixed emotions, trying to contain my excitement while also feeling sad saying goodbye to my family as they helped me move into my room, then drive away. I was also nervous about grad school at a private (and Catholic!) university, being this public school-educated Mississippi boy. However, the religious studies program sounded awesome and I couldn’t wait to dive in. Speaking of religion, if you’ve read my account of my journey in Wicca and Witchcraft (“Journey of the Moon, Parts 1 and 2”) you know at this point in my life I’d been practicing a very eclectic form of Wicca for a few years, and I was super excited about meeting people in the New Orleans pagan scene. (If not, go read it.)

The last thing on my mind at this point was trying to connect with any “voodoo” people. In fact, the only thing I really knew, or thought I knew, about anything Afro-Caribbean was what I’d read online about Santeria. A couple summers prior while at Mississippi State I apartment-sat for one of the counselors of the Campus Crusade for Christ, which was weird considering I was the president of the Wiccan/Pagan Student Alliance at the time, but whatever. She was a minimalist and didn’t own a TV, so radio it was! One Sunday morning NPR did a special on Santeria featuring sound clips from Desi Arnaz singing “Babalu!” which of course caught my attention. So I went to the library to look it up. Keep in mind that was around 1999 (aka The Dark Ages of the internet), so there wasn’t that much out there. Anyway, the point is that I didn’t really know anything about any of it, and I certainly wasn’t expecting my life to take a complete left turn into lands of “darkest Africa!” But considering how life can be sometimes, that’s exactly what happened.

I had a Planet Gay (or something like that) profile back in the Stone age of gay internet dating and was so happy about being in New Orleans and not having the nearest person on the site be an hour away. About a week or two after settling into my new fancy cosmo city life I got a message. He said his name was Mark, but he went by Aboudja (however the fuck you were supposed to pronounce that I had no idea!) and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting him. So my first date in this awesome new dream bubble I was living was him picking me up in his jeep and taking around town to show me the lay of the land. We grabbed some food and went back to his place, and that’s when I discovered he was anything but ordinary. He was renting half a house from his godsister Michelle on General Pershing Street a block or two riverside (that means south in New Orleanian, lakeside would be north) of S Claiborne Ave. I walked into the living room and there were colorful altars with Catholic images and statues, lots of bottles, and many other things, too many to take in. Unable to ignore the elephant in the room he told me quite casually that he was an Houngan Asogwe (a what?) of Sevis Ginen (of who?). “Oh, you’re a Voodoo Priest!” Well, something like that.

After that date Aboudja and I became friends (not boyfriends) and I spent a lot of time with him at the CC’s coffee shop he worked at on the corner of St. Philip and Royal in the French Quarter. We talked about religion, magic, and of course Vodou (he corrected my spelling pretty early on.) He’d recently gone back to Haiti for his third time going through the kanzo (initiation.) Now, I’ve written about much of this in an article “Memories of Kay Aboudja” for the purpose of preserving my memories of the Vodou House that Aboudja Built, but I want to emphasize at this point how much I didn’t appreciate back then just how much knowledge Aboudja had acquired over many years of initiations, training, and trips back and forth to Haiti and New York, where his at-that-time Mambo (priestess) lived. He’d lived in Haiti for a year, spoke Haitian Kreole, knew his herbs, his prayers, his songs, just so much! To this day I’ve never met another non-Haitian who went that deep into Vodou. A white boy from Texas. He hated it when I called him white, always talking about some Eastern European and Native ancestors, way back when…but he was white.

Anyway, I got invited to my first Vodou ceremony a year later at the same house he brought me to on our (one!) date. I had no idea what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect to feel the same type of electricity in the air as when I was younger and attended a Pentecostal church (Church of God) in Mississippi! That shit was cray! After the party was over it was a Hallelujah moment where I was utterly convinced that I’d finally found what I was searching for. (And it was. At that time.) REAL spirits coming down into people and interacting with us, not someone wearing crushed velvet standing in a circle spouting off psycho-babble. (“Look inside yourself. You are stronger than you know. Here’s a cookie, don’t be hungry.”) Wicca-what? Wicca-who? I shelved that shit so fast and dove right into the waters of Ginen, swearing never to look back again. We all know how that went, but anyhow I was super stoked to finally be part of something that had a legit history that went back before the 1940s. (Burn)

From January 2002 to January 2003 life was Vodou. Vodou was life. I dropped out of the grad program (goodbye, stuffy old academia; hello, living religion!), got a job as an archivist for the State of Louisiana’s Vital Records like a grown-up, and moved into the Marigny area to be closer to Aboudja and the botanica one of the house members, Tribble, opened, The New Orleans Mistic on St. Claude (more info in the “Memories” article.) I spent all my spare money building altars for the Lwa and learning how to serve them from Aboudja. And by October of that year I got THE DREAM. The one where the Lwa show you secrets only someone who’s gone through the kanzo would know. That was the sign! I needed to go to Haiti and initiate. I was chosen. I was special. I was validated. I was VERY young and na├»ve. But damn it I was going to Haiti! AND it just so happened that the brand new job I’d gotten with the state was offering a lot of overtime that I could use to take the time off I needed for the trip, and Brandi Kelly of Voodoo Authentica offered me a part time job at her shop in the Quarter, so there was the money! I worked my ass off for two months, taking no days off and getting everything together just in time to leave. Nervous, excited, and full of an optimism only a twenty-something with no experience whatsoever could have, off we went!

Yeah, they tried to prepare us for Haiti. But Haiti’s not really something you can prepare for, not mentally, anyway. Not that first time. As you leave the airport there are lines of beggars on either side of you desperately asking for money in broken English. Pregnant women crying, guys with no legs, and Haitian dudes offering to carry your luggage…for a fee, of course. However, we were well cared for and got scooped into the back of a truck with boards for seats and no fucking shocks at all! Every bump, of which there were many because the roads are shit, was felt by my scrawny white ass. I probably had bruises but I couldn’t tell cause it was dark as fuck by the time we got to where we were going…where ever the hell that was. (The roads made no fucking sense, and I’d given up all hope of knowing if we were anywhere near Port-au-Prince still.) When you’re used to having electricity 24 hours a day, you don’t realize how pitch-fucking-black it can get until you’re stuck in a third world country, somewhere in the middle of bumfuckegypt, with only candles going. It was at this point I started to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake and would make it back to the U.S. alive. But who cares cause I was gonna be initiated into Haitian Vodou, bitches! Yeah! (Slight eye-twitching at this point.)

The next morning: Here’s the toilet. You have to fill the back of it with one of these buckets to make it flush because the water hasn’t been turned on yet…but only if you go Number 2. “If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Here’s your bath, from the same set of buckets (because the water hasn’t been turned on yet!!!), try not to use too much. But the fucking coffee was awesome!

The first few days was the “acclimation period,” and boredom quickly set in. Using what little Kreole I’d been able to absorb in a year I tried making really basic conversation with some of the locals. That didn’t last long. Tried reading a book I’d brought, then thought, “I’m in Haiti for my kanzo, why am I reading Lord of the Rings?!?” So I put that away and counted chickens until the ceremonies started, slowly getting used to the feeling that I could never rinse off all the soap from my morning baths. Oh, how I would miss that feeing in just a couple of days!

We were taken from the house we first stayed at to the place the ceremonies would take place. Another butt-busting trip from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere else. I’m not going to relate the whole kanzo experience, but in a nutshell here we go. The first night those of us going through the kanzo slept on mats on the dirt floor outside the room we’d eventually be cloistered in covered from head to toe in a dark, gritty oil. It kept us warm and moisturized. The next two days were us sitting in small wooden chairs with woven seats while the loud and aggressive “bat ger” ceremonies took place and many of the ritual items we’d receive were being made. Drums, dancing, possessions! Now we’re talking! Finally! The day after they gave each of us 21 cleansing baths made with sacred herbs. I’ve never felt sexier than sitting there soaking wet, shivering, between baths 18 and 19, with okra sliming it way down my face. I still won’t eat okra today. After that we dressed in whites and sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally that night the ceremonies began, and we were spiritual “balanced” before being blindfolded and led into the djevo, that tiny altar room we wouldn’t come out of for five days later. I can’t talk about the rituals that took place inside, but I can say this. Being closed up in a small room, sleeping on sheets on mats on the ground, hot and with open flames going the whole time, not being able to take a bath, and eventually being covered with all sorts of “really spiritual stuff” takes its toll. And the smell. Oh my God, the smell. I called it Djevo Funk. One woman lost her shit and went balls-to-the-wall crazy. And then something happened to me.

Crazy lady had a fear of fire cause she was badly burned in an accident she was in at another New Orleans Vodou house involving a gauzy dress, an open-faced heater, and an inattentive Mambo. So, when the ants came in for the food that was laying at our heads and the people doing the kanzo came in with gasoline to sprinkle down (cause that’s always a great idea with open flames everywhere!!!), she acted a fool until they came back with bug spray. Let’s review once again. Open flames and enclosed room…and now bug spray? Well, the peristyle (temple complex) we were at was an old one having recently been re-opened after many years of disuse. The altars in the room were old and everything except the very front of them were the recent offerings were was black with soot and age. The back of them contained only what God knew…until now. Once the billowing clouds of bug spray reached back there, out crawled about a dozen of the largest spiders I’d ever seen in my life. They crawled up the walls and to the ceiling. Now, ladies and gentlemen, let me say that up to this moment in my life…including this moment…I’d suffered from arachnophobia. Badly. And now in this moment, I found myself trapped in a small room, in a foreign (tropical!) land, looking up at my worst fear. One of those furry-legged bundles of hope and joy decided to perch itself on the edge of the altar right above my head. As I slowly maneuvered into a sitting fetal position and my skin turned an even paler shade of white, I contemplated the choices I’d made that had gotten me into that situation. And I started right at it and counted its eyes. Yep, 8. Eventually the spiders crawled back into the altar, but I was stuck with the truth of knowing we would co-habitate in that room for the remainder of the kanzo. Still slightly arachnophobic, but not nearly as much as I used to be.

With the kanzo concluded, we headed back to the U.S., and I never loved my bed and my shower more than in those first few days back. (The Djevo Funk lingered a bit.) I was elated and relieved it was over, and despite the harsh physical conditions, it was the most awesome spiritual experience up to that point of my life. The next test was getting through the 41 day taboo period afterwards. No sex, a whole list of foods not to eat, nothing too hot or too cold, no sex, not being outside after dark, wear white clothes, did I mention no sex? Because it’s during those 41 days when I had every opportunity I never had most other times to have sex all I wanted. Guys hitting me up left and right! Day 42? Crickets.

I’d love to say that after all this my life changed for the better and I’ve had a fantastic spiritual life ever since. But I can’t. In fact, things kinda went to shit soon after. A tropical storm came through and collapsed a ceiling in my apartment, and then I moved into a new one, only to have the roommate quit his job and leave me paying all the bills I couldn’t afford. And of course all the rumors of my kanzo not being done properly started flying around and the Vodou house I was in started falling apart. I took these as signs I’d probably been had and I should just go back to Wicca. At least with Wicca I didn’t to pay lots of money for a whole lot of nothing! I tried to walk away but got sucked back in time to help with one last ceremony before Hurricane Katrina hit the city and I landed up in Massachusetts, where Traditional Wicca took over my life for a while. (See “Journey of the Moon” for details.)

About two years after Katrina and having had no contact with anyone Vodou I got invited to a presentation at Harvard where a Mambo from south Boston would be lecturing and hosting a short ceremony after. I went, and of course that reignited everything for me, so after I got back in touch with Mambo Marie and went down to a ceremony at her place in New York. Before I knew it I was on a plane going back to Haiti to go through the kanzo all over again! The first time I initiated at the lowest level, that of Hounsi, basically a ritual assistant. This time, however, I went for the third and final level (no, you don’t have to go through all three; it’s whatever your spirits say…or you have the money for) of Houngan Asogwe. My second kanzo was much better than my first one! Much more organized, and even sweeter was that it was the same group of people who had been hired to do my first one. But this time they were in their home peristyle. And they remembered me! They had nicknamed me “Sen Josef” because of my beard, and Sen Josef had returned. 2007 ended up being a great year for many reasons, but also because almost immediately after getting back from Haiti, I got a new job that would set the stage for me to return to New Orleans.

Just under three years of busing it to New York for ceremonies and serving the Lwa on my own,  2010 rolls around and I said deuces to Boston. Returning to New Orleans, where it all started for me was bittersweet. The Mistic was a junk shop, with only remnants of the beautiful peristyle behind it, and most everyone I knew in the house had gone elsewhere. Tribble was on the West Bank, Toby, a godbrother who started attending ceremonies only shortly after I did, came back to town a month before I had, and Aboudja was making plans to return about a month later. However, because of past Vo-drama, Toby and I kept to ourselves. We brought Mambo Marie down the following year, January 2011, which re-connected Marie and Toby and he later that year went to Haiti to make Asogwe. As I mentioned in “Memories,” though, Tribble passed away in 2011 and Aboudja in 2012. So, that left just me and Toby to carry things on. We slowly started to build things up, attract some interested folks, travelled up to New York and brought Marie down for ceremonies. That continued until Marie moved down here and set up a new Carmel and Sons Botanica in the Seventh Ward, which brings us up to how things currently are.

This Vodou ride has been rollercoaster, and I’ve left out so much just trying to touch on the major highlights. My road to Ginen has without a doubt been one of self-discovery, growth, and all those other spiritual Hallmark phrases. I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not gone to that very first ceremony 15 years ago this month. Vodou has opened doors to other spiritual practices, too, which I’ll be writing about in the future, but Vodou has done so much for me personally, whether it be direct intervention of the Lwa themselves or by having gone through all the experiences that I have because of Vodou. If I had it to do over again I might tweak a few things here and there, but the overall timeline would remain intact.

Steven Bragg
Houngan Twa Pote, aka "Sen Josef"
January 2017

2 comments:

  1. It's these kinds of bittersweet stories of fortitude, fear, courage, and discomfort that the community needs more of. It is so important for people to see that whether it's Vodou, Traditional Wicca, or any other serious system of spiritual and occult practice that these Arts require guts, patience and persistence in order to reap the powerful fruits thereof.

    Another wonderful post, my dear. As always, thanks for sharing.

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