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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Future of Vodou at UMass

KOSANBA, the Congress of Santa Barbara, a scholarly association for the study of Haitian Vodou, will be holding its eighth colloquium Nov. 2 and 3 at UMass Boston. The colloquium, which marks the congress’ 10th anniversary, themed “The past regulates the present as it does the future,” is co-sponsored by the William Monroe Trotter Institute and the department of Africana Studies.

“UMass Boston has been hosting the Haitian Studies Project, part of the Haitian Studies Association since about 1994,” Alix Cantave, Associate Director of the Trotter Institute, said. “The Haitian Studies Association is probably the largest network of scholars working on Haiti and Haitian issues around the world; that’s the connection between KOSANBA and UMass Boston.”

The Congress of Santa Barbara was formed in 1997 at the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara by 13 Haitian scholars to institutionalize their efforts on the study of the role that Vodou has in Haiti’s history, society and culture.

“The people who founded KOSANBA are all members of the Haitian Studies Assocation,” Cantave said. “They are a separate organization, specifically focused on the study of Haitian Vodou.”

The connection between UMass Boston and the Haitian Studies Association does not end with KOSANBA, though.

“I founded the Haitian Studies Association here in Boston in 1988,” Cantave said. “A lot of activities took place at Tufts. The first conference of the Haitian Studies Association took place at Tufts in 1989, and at 1994 when Jemadari Kamara was Dean of CPCS, and I talked to him about the importance of the organization. He said, ‘Why don’t you guys come in?’ and then I became the chair of the Africana Studies department, Haitian Studies Association was housed there, and it’s been there ever since.”

Not only are there ties between the university and the colloquium hosts, but also between the holidays falling within the couple of days before the colloquium and the dates the conference takes place.

“Vodou is an ancestral type of religion. October 31 is Halloween, All Saints Day is the first and the second is the Day of the Dead. In Vodou, there is the Right of the Dead, which is the Ghede. It is perhaps the most popular, the largest Vodou feast. The Ghede, which is also the healers, represent the dead and those who died a long time ago. That’s the significance for those two days.”

A large number of Haitian students attend UMass Boston, but Cantave pointed out that the initial response to the topic of Vodou would not be a joyous one.

“My prediction is that [Haitian students’] original reaction will be very negative,” he said. “So, it’s interesting to see, and that’s why I think it’s important for them to come. It’s really from an anthropological, historical perspective. [Vodou is] a class issue; a significant class issue within Haitian society, the Haitian community. Nobody would say, ‘I practice Vodou.’ Very, very few Haitians would say that, especially Haitians who have anything to do with education. It’s viewed as the religion of the poor. Anyone who practices Vodou won’t admit to practicing.

“A lot of the time, when a Haitian person says, ‘I don’t believe in Vodou,’ what they mean is that they don’t practice it. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in the existence of the Lwas, which is a total disconnection from the way we look at belief.”

Cantave believes that the colloquium will be beneficial to everyone on campus. He said it will show how much of an influence Vodou has had and still has on Haitian culture, and said it is important for people to understand what Vodou is.

“All of [the conference] is open to the public,” Cantave said. “Unlike other conferences, there is no registration fee, so the public is free to walk in and out. We’re hosting the event in the Healey Library, with the reception in the Snowden Auditorium lobby.”

The keynote speaker of the event is Gerdes Fleurant, professor emeritus at Wellesley College and former president of KOSANBA. There will also be an opening ritual performed for the colloquium on Nov. 2.