In popular culture, voodoo is all about zombies and witchcraft and dolls with needles stuck into them.
But where some see a religion with African origins, or simply black magic, Nicolas Vonarx sees a structured system of medicine, a way of treating illnesses as worthy of respect as any other.
Vonarx explores this idea in Le vodou haïtien : Entre médecine, magie et religion, a work that won him the Prix du Canada en sciences socials 2013 for a French-language work.
“Medicine, magic and religion – those three words are very important when it comes to understanding Haitian voodoo,” says Vonarx. “This book stresses the first word: medicine.”
Trained as a public health practitioner, Vonarx came to know Haiti, its people and its culture, while working there for an international aid organization.
When he realized that voodoo played a role in medicine in the country, he tried to understand it by meeting with voodoo practitioners and learning about their practices. (There has never before been such an extensive description of voodoo practices, he notes, adding that this was a major shortcoming in knowledge of voodoo.)
What he discovered was a well- structured system, both detailed and nuanced.
As a medical system, he says, voodoo has many strengths.
First of all, it’s accessible.
“Voodoo exists where there is not much else to turn to,” he says of the situation in Haiti. “You can find it everywhere, which is not the case with Western medicine.”
Voodoo, he explains focuses its approach not on the body, but on the patient and his or her place in the Haitian context – a context that includes family, neighbours and also ancestors. That makes it culturally accessible to Haitians, who relate easily to the explanations voodoo practitioners give of illness.
The explanations blend medicine, magic and religion. Because while voodoo is about a quest for health, it’s also about a quest for meaning.
Vonarx explains that by giving a meaning to their illness, voodoo gives Haitians the feeling they have some control over their lives – in a country and a situation where very few people feel empowered.
So does voodoo work as a system for the treatment of illnesses?
Some people treated by voodoo practitioners claim to have been cured, says Vonarx. But others do not look to voodoo so much as a cure or a way of easing symptoms, but as a way of getting in touch with a spiritual side of things.
In that respect, he says, voodoo allows us to get in touch with the multiple aspects of who we are as humans.
“It shows that we can’t consider ourselves as simply inhabiting a body. We also have spiritual aspects that must be addressed.
“That’s voodoo’s lesson to us – it shows us that we are more than just a body.”
Nicolas Vonarx is Director of the Community Health Doctorate Program and associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing Sciences at Laval University. Le vodou haïtien : Entre médecine, magie et religion is published by Les Presses de l’Université Laval.