A devotee in a trance performs at an annual Voodoo festival in Ouidah, Benin
Cotonou (AFP) - Three senators from Haiti pause in reflection in front of a statue of their country’s independence hero Toussaint Louverture in Allada, southern Benin, where he had his roots.
The West African and Caribbean countries, separated by thousands of kilometres (miles) and ocean, share the same history but also the same religion – voodoo.
Jean Renel Senatus, Jean-Marie Junior Salomon and Ronald Lareche came to Benin late last month on a research trip as part of Haiti’s reforms of its 19th-century penal code.
Part of the process is taking advice from countries where their ancestors lived before they were shipped abroad as slaves.
Historically and culturally, “Haiti and Benin are two sides of the same coin,” Senatus, a lawyer and president of Haiti’s Senate justice commission, told AFP.
“We want to adapt these texts to modern-day life and we’re here to see how Benin handles irrational phenomena in law,” he said after placing flowers on Louverture’s statue.
Benin – giant Nigeria’s tiny western neighbour – is one of the cradles of voodoo, where it is an official religion and has millions of followers.
The cult of the invisible and natural spirits travelled across the Atlantic Ocean from the 18th century, as millions of West Africans were transported to the New World as slaves.
- ‘Zombification’ -
The very word “voodoo” typically conjures up a raft of cliches, not least dolls covered in pins.
But certain phenomena are a concern for politicians and has prompted them to wonder: how should a country legislate for crimes linked to the religion?
A voodoo devotee in a trance takes a body from a grave in a cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
With zombification, for example, Haitian voodoo priests are said to administer a powder to the victim giving the appearance of clinical death.
The supposed deceased – exhumed with the help of an undertaker – can then be exploited in its weakened, semi-conscious state.
Salomon, the vice-president of Haiti’s Senate, said zombification “is the fact of being declared dead and openly buried and then ‘brought back to life’.
“What’s different is that the person ‘brought back’ then works like a slave.”
In working class areas and remote communities in Haiti where there is no confidence in local justice, zombification is a way of settling scores with enemies.
In Benin, the same method exists but for a very different purpose.
“It is used by those initiated in the secret ways of the temples to strengthen their power but they keep an antidote to hand,” said Honorat Aguessy, a Beninese sociologist.
In Benin, “voodoo is for good”,” he added.
A man wears a charm and cowry shells around his arm at the annual Voodoo Festival in Ouidah, Benin, which declared voodoo an official religion in 1996
Some people in Benin still use charms to get rid of a rival – but the weapon stays largely hidden and for lack of evidence, the country has not legislated against occult practices.
Traditional justice, however, still plays a big role in society through the use of traditional rulers.
- Voodoo chief -
In Allada, the three senators met the traditional monarch, Kpodegbe Djigla. “He told us that he is asked to judge certain cases,” said Senatus.
Traditional rulers resolve many land disputes because they know local history. Villages have a council of sages comprising elders, community leaders and a voodoo chief.
“It often deals with complaints linked to custom, for example if a widow who is not supposed to leave her house at a certain time does it anyway,” said lawyer Sandrine Aholou.
In her work, Aholou sees a mix of the two legal systems: “On the one hand, the civilian justice system accepts traditional justice on the other.
“Tradition influences modern law.”
Most of the time, decisions taken by the elders are respected, to the astonishment of the Haitian senators.
For Salomon, it’s a question of culture. “Here, people respect tradition,” he said.
“In our country, because of the influence of modern life and proximity to the United States, we’ve abandoned it.”