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  • Writer's pictureBrian Thacker

Vodou and headless chickens

I've had some pretty crazy experiences in my travels, but I don't know if I'll ever top the Vodou Festival in Haiti that I was at twenty years ago today. It was while I was researching festivals to go to for my book 'The Naked Man Festival' when I stumbled upon an article on the Saut d’Eau Vodou Festival. During the two days of the Saut d’Eau Vodou Festival, thousands of Vodouists strip and bathe nude under the Saut d’Eau waterfall to purify themselves. Many shake and cry when they become possessed by Erzulie, the Vodou Goddess of Love. Drums beat incessantly the entire time while regular sacrifices of chickens and oxen are made to Erzulie. Now that sounds like a party, I thought. But besides that, two words stuck out: ‘no tourists’. Up until then, I’d never really been anywhere truly off the beaten track before. Sure, I’d been to exotic places like Mongolia, Morocco and Tasmania, but I would always bump into a backpacker somewhere haggling over a can of Coke. Also, I found the whole Vodou thing utterly fascinating. My and, let’s be honest, most people’s idea of Vodou owes a lot to Hollywood: groaning zombies, evil possessions, human sacrifices, Voodoo doll curses and scantily attired voodoo priestesses (well, they’re in my version at least. I once saw this dodgy but brilliant film called Voodoo Academy in which a schoolful of hunky blond boys ran around in bulgy boxer shorts while their scantily attired Voodoo priestess headmistress slowly turned them all into flesh-eating zombies). So, I wanted to see and experience some real Vodou.

To relive that simply mad Vodou experience, here is an extract from my book (and some pics):

The normally quiet streets of the village of Ville-Bonheur were packed with cars, buses, taptaps, horses, donkeys and pilgrims on foot (it would have taken them a couple of days of walking just to get this far). Not much further down the road there was a massive car park in the form of a large muddy field. People were unloading bags, bottles of rum, palm-thatch mats and chickens (for sacrificing, I discovered later) as they began the final four-hour trek to Saut d’Eau. Our driver Jean-Robert ignored the small inconvenience that the road was full of people and drove straight through the middle of them, forcing donkeys as well as people to dive into the surrounding cornfields.

If it was at all possible, the new road was worse than the one across the mountain. It had holes so big that cars could disappear into them. And one had done just that. The rear end of a car was poking up out of a crater-sized hole in the middle of the road. Jean-Robert just drove around it, scattering a few more people and donkeys in the process.

When we finally reached the tiny village of Saut d’Eau, it felt as if I’d just completed 12 rounds with a couple of WWF wrestlers. My back had taken quite a beating, but I soon forgot the pain as we watched the sea of colour as pilgrims trudged up the narrow dirt track leading to the sacred waterfalls on foot, mules, donkeys, horses and oxen. The mambos stood out from the flock in their bright red silk scarves and cobalt blue dresses. Jean-Robert stood out even more. He was wearing his ‘guiding uniform’ of slacks, dress shoes and a business shirt.

Our first task was to find a room for the night (most pilgrims sleep in the open, while some dance to the drumming all night long). This involved walking up to people’s houses and asking if they had a spare room. The first ‘spare room’ we were shown was no bigger than a bathroom and had a dirt floor. They wanted $40 for it. ‘Are you possessed?’ Mike said to the owner. I'd met Mike at my hotel in Port-au-Prince. He was doing his Masters Degree and Thesis on Haitian Voodou. A few houses later we were shown another tiny room, but this one was a step up in the luxury stakes: it had a concrete floor, but no beds. The owner asked for US$60.

‘Have you got cable?’ Mike asked.

‘No, but they’ve got cockroaches,’ I said, pointing to our potential roomies scuttling across the floor. We took the room. We could have wandered around for hours and not found anything better. And besides, the house had a nice verandah overlooking the track up to the waterfall. Plus, it wouldn’t be too hard to find if we got lost: it was painted a rather garish pink and green. Jean-Robert told us we could buy our beds at the market. Most pilgrims complete the final five or so kilometres on foot, climbing up a steep stony path, crossing caverns by wading through waist-deep brackish water and crawling up cliffs. But not Jean-Robert. Oh, no. He decided that we should drive up. As the crowd snaked its way along the path through the thick vegetation, the shouts of laughter mingled with prayers were soon replaced with shouts that I imagine translated as something like, ‘What the fuck?!’ as we barged through them all. I had thought the previous stretch of road was bad. This was so bad that I couldn’t stop laughing. Well, when I wasn’t getting thrown around in the back like a rag doll. Jean-Robert was trying to drive with one hand. The other one was fixed to the horn. When we crossed a fast-moving river and the water was rushing by just below the windows I almost wet myself with laughter. The whole time Jean-Robert was screaming out ‘Terribull! Terribull!’ while sweat literally poured off his face. When we finally stopped at the gate to the waterfall and fell out of the car, Mike said, in between hysterical fits of laughter, ‘You’re a FUCKIN’ lunatic Jean-Robert!’

We stopped for a well-deserved drink before we tackled the final stretch of track. For only a few cents a fellow slashed the end off a coconut and we drank the sweet cool juice straight from the gaping hole. Mike had trouble drinking his as he was still laughing his head off. Troops of chanting people banging on drums passed us as we tramped up the final 500 metres to the falls. According to Mike, our resident Vodou expert, the different troops represented different Vodou sects. If that was the case, then they had some rather odd ones. The group that were all wearing LA Lakers tops must have been the LA Lakers sect. I wonder if they play the Chicago Bulls sect, which danced past after them, in a game of basketball later on. My favourite, however, was the condom-mobile-phone sect. A local health agency was handing out silver packets of condoms (three joined together) and this whole sect was walking along pretending they were mobile phones and having pretend conversations.

On the way down the narrow, steep and slippery path to the waterfall I stood on someone. The someone was a man in deep prayer sitting under a tree among burning white candles and calabash bowls filled with rum and sugar water. I knocked over one candle and stood on his hand. Oh well, here comes my first Vodou curse.

We rounded the final bend and there it was—Saut d’Eau. For minutes I was lost in awe at the sight in front of me. Three gleaming waterfalls cascaded down a rock wall onto thousands of people wearing only their underwear. They were singing, laughing and chanting as they bathed and scrubbed their feet, arms, legs and everything else under the pounding, 40-metre-high waterfalls in the tree-ringed ravine. The bathing in the waterfall, Mike told us, is the most important ritual at Saut d’Eau, which is considered a place of healing of both physical and spiritual ailments. From time to time, bathers would shout, suddenly possessed by Erzulie (the Goddess of Love—and Vodou’s equivalent of the Virgin Mary). Singing, rolling their eyes, collapsing into the water or onto the rocks, they were seemingly oblivious to the swift current and jagged edges. Fellow worshippers rushed over, taking advantage of Erzulie’s presence to whisper direct requests in their ears (they ask for everything from good crops to a visa so they can get the hell out of Haiti).

Mike scrambled down the mossy bank into the water so he could get a closer look at the largest of the waterfalls, which was hidden from view further up the ravine. I traipsed down to the bottom of the large pool to see if I could get a view of the big waterfall from there.

I did find a view, but not of what I expected. At the far edge of the pool there was an incredible collection of underwear. There were hundreds of discarded underpants and bras, with more shooting down in the water and adding to the pile. As part of the whole Vodou cleansing ritual, old knickers must be discarded and left behind in the water. I stood there for quite a while surrounded by old knickers because it was so deliciously cool. The spray from the waterfall was a wonderful respite from the suffocatingly hot and humid morning.

As I clambered back up the bank, I stood on a large and rather worn pair of Y-fronts. I couldn’t see the main waterfall from the bottom of the falls, so instead I decided to try to get to the top of them. This involved climbing a precipitous track up the steep cliff face. It was quite hairy and at times the only thing that stopped me from falling was clutching the exposed roots of trees.

As I squeezed around a tight corner, a woman staggered down the cliff track towards me. She was trembling from head to toe and her eyes were rolling around in her head. She was possessed by one of the Vodou spirits. Three strapping fellows were holding her, trying to stop her from falling over. It looked just like a scene from closing time on a Saturday night at the local pub.

At length I reached the top and the view was simply breathtaking. Looking back across the valley I had a long, sensational, unobstructed view across green rolling hills of palms and corn. It was particularly amazing when you considered that the other side of the mountain was nothing but desert.

The view down into the ravine was even more amazing, although some of the Vodouists looked as if they were about to drown. Hundreds of them were standing under the massive torrents of the waterfall with arms stretched wide asking Erzulie for favours, while others were bathing themselves with soap and leaves. I spotted Mike in the midst of it all. He was taking close-up photos of women's breasts. By the look of his research, his thesis was actually about the role of large breasts in Vodou. At the bottom of the path a lady was selling bars of Cussons soap. If you’re going to cleanse away evil spirits, you may as well do it in style.

On the way back up the track to meet Jean-Robert we passed a bunch of well-dressed folk about to sacrifice a chicken. Six people stood in a circle around a design that had been drawn in white ash on the ground to summon one of the Vodou spirits. The chicken was clucking happily as they passed it around the circle.

Mike got out his video camera and started filming the chicken sacrifice. Although my guidebook warned that ‘violent incidents have followed unwelcome photography’ and Mike had already been abused a few times, he kept filming. Even when one of the sacrificers sneered at him and waved his arms angrily in his face. ‘I’ll keep filming until they physically stop me,’ he said. Stop him all right. They looked like they were going to sacrifice Mike instead of the chicken.

Which, when we saw what happened next, would have been rather messy. The houngan put the chicken’s head in his mouth and crunched it clean off. He then casually squeezed the neck like a tube of toothpaste and put the blood on the ground around the pattern. Mike almost jumped in the middle of the circle so he could get a close-up shot. I walked away. Watching Vodou priests biting the heads off Americans tends to put me off my lunch.

We were all quite hungry by the time we got back to what I’d dubbed the Ritz-Carlton. We wandered into the village and stopped at someone else’s house for lunch. The owners had converted their home into a restaurant/bar for the festival. Put a few tables out the front, hang up a hand-drawn sign saying ‘Restaurant’ and voila! you have your very own restaurant. They had something different on the menu, too. They had char-grilled chicken with char-grilled banana and beans. I wasn’t complaining, though. I love my char-grilled chicken. The owners of the house were incredibly friendly, too, and even shouted us a couple of beers. When I asked for the toilet I was led down the main corridor of the house.

‘Here!’ the man said. There were two doors on either side of the dark corridor.

‘Which one?’ I said.

‘No, here!’ he said pointing to the concrete wall and floor. ‘Right here?’ I stammered. After I’d said ‘You mean HERE!’ a few more times, I shrugged, dropped my pants and peed in the middle of someone’s house.

‘Don’t ask to use the toilet,’ I told Mike when I returned. ‘They’ll probably ask you to piss on their bed!’

Jean-Robert went back to the Ritz-Carlton while we went to buy a bed. The small village market had spread out onto the streets and into the front yards of people’s houses. Everything from food to bottles of rum, hats, drums, Vodou scarves and flags were on sale, but there wasn’t a bed in sight.

‘We’ll get the concierge to find us some beds,’ Mike said.

On the way back, the sound of incessant drums could be heard all around us. We followed the sound of the closest drums and, after negotiating a narrow path through a cornfield, stumbled across a Vodou ceremony in full swing. A crowd of around 40 people all dressed in white was standing in a circle around a houngan who was leading a small group of chanting drummers and dancers. It was a joyful uplifting beat and everyone was smiling and laughing.

Mike explained it to me: ‘This is known as a Rada ceremony,’ he whispered. ‘The houngan uses different rituals to conjure up different Vodou loa or spirits. They’re trying to conjure up either St Jacque or Ogou.’

‘What’s that all about?’ I asked Mike, subtly pointing towards the six-foot-three man wearing a white crocheted dress on the other side of the circle.

‘He’s dressed as a woman.’

‘Oh, that explains it!’

Mike got out his camera. Oh no, I thought, here comes the human sacrifice. One snap later a very large man sidled up next to us. He smiled and flashed a badge that said ‘Vodou Without Frontiers’. He was a Vodou PR man. His job was to spread the good word about Vodou to foreigners. ‘Take many photos,’ he said. We started snapping away only to get screamed at by a handful of worshippers. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Take many photos.’ There was a slight possibility that he had made the badge up himself and liked nothing more than watching a few westerners get sacrificed and cooked in a pot (although, maybe I’m getting my religious stereotypes a little mixed up here).

Just to get myself even more confused on the religious front, we stopped at the small Catholic church. A large assembly of people was slowly trying to force its way into the church. Many were holding up copies of an American passport. Mike told us that the main thing people prayed for was an American passport. Actually, the whole Saut d’Eau thing started when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared in 1884 in the foliage of a palm tree near the waterfall. Because Mary is also Erzulie, the Vodou spirit of love, pilgrims pay homage to both. I’m not sure how the whole waterfall thing fits into it, though. I told you I was confused.

We got back to the Ritz-Carlton just as dinner was being served. Jean-Robert had talked us into paying $10 to have a home-cooked meal. We reluctantly agreed only because we thought it would be fun eating with the family and at $10 each we were expecting an absolute feast. So you may imagine my surprise when we were served char-grilled chicken and rice in our three-by-three-metre bedroom with no family in sight. It was just the three of us, including Jean-Robert.

‘This chicken must have starved to death,’ I said. Our ‘feast’ was anorexic chicken, beans and rice. We’d had the same meal (with a better-fed chicken) for lunch in the village for just under $2.

In the middle of dissecting our dinner, Mike casually turned to Jean-Robert and said, ‘So Jean-Robert, where do I go for a shit? In the banana tree?’

‘What do you mean?’ Jean-Robert responded.

‘Are the family going to come out in the morning and see an American white ass shitting in the banana tree?’

Jean-Robert, quietly finished eating his meal then said, ‘So, now I go find where you shit.’

While we sat on the verandah having a beer during a brief torrential downpour, the owner of the house turned up with our beds. Well, when I say beds, they were actually incredibly thin palm-thatch mats.

‘We may as well just sleep on the concrete,’ I said.

‘Would you like a girl for the night?’ the owner asked casually. He was a real entrepreneur, this fellow.

‘How much?’ Mike asked.

‘Three dollars.’

‘We should have got a girl to sleep on!’ Mike said. ‘It only cost a dollar more than the beds and she would be a damn sight more comfortable than the mats.’ He was right. But we’d already bought the mats. Mind you, the prices of lots of things in Haiti didn’t make any sense. Like a concrete-floor room with a banana tree as an ensuite costing not much less than a room at one of the best hotels in Port-au-Prince, or a girl for the night for a third of the price of a rather dodgy chicken meal. Even the money itself made no sense. The gourde is the official currency in Haiti, but prices can be in gourdes, Haitian dollars (which are still gourdes, but five gourdes equals one Haitian dollar— which doesn’t exist as a note) or US dollars. Throw in the Vodou/ Catholicism thing and it’s no wonder I was confused the whole time.

When the rain stopped, we headed back into the village. It was lucky Mike had a torch. It was dark and the potholes in the road were now filled with water. In the village, pilgrims clutching rosaries or dressed in Erzulie’s red and blue colours were walking the streets singing and asking for offerings while noisy street bands played drums and horns made of sheet metal. A lot of people were very drunk on rum (or possessed, one of the two). The streets were full not only of drunk people, but also of donkeys, carts selling food and rum, and makeshift restaurants. Well, when I say restaurants, there were diners sitting on plastic stools in the dark. They would have had no idea what they were eating (which was probably a good thing).

We wandered the streets past ‘discos’ that had been set up in corrugated tin sheds that looked as if they’d been put together by me (which is the worst compliment you could ever get). Loud Rara music (a sort of drum-based hip hop Vodou music) blasted out from inside. We peeked through a gap in the wall of one shed to see people all doing the same dance. ‘It’s not the chicken dance,’ I said to the boys. ‘It’s the sacrifice-the-chicken dance.’

We stopped at another Rara music shed. This one just had tin walls and a large open tarp as the roof. As we tried to peep through a gap in the door, a big mambo stuck her head out and said, ‘Come inside my friends.’ A band of eight drummers, with bongo players and three singers, was up on a stage belting out a song using the different drums sounds as a melody. It sounded extraordinary. There seemed to be one member of the band, however, whose sole responsibility was to wander up to the other band members with a bottle of rum and give them long swigs while they were playing. Our big mamma mambo led us to the bar and gave us two beers each. She then dragged us to the front of the stage, threw some old people out of their chairs, and said, ‘You sit!’ The music was deafening. The PA system would have looked more at home at a Rolling Stones concert. We sat there mesmerised by the band, but that was probably because the music was so loud that our brains had shut down.

An hour later the band was still playing the same song. We’d had enough (well, my ears had at least), so we nonchalantly got up and made our way to the exit. We’d thought no one had noticed us leaving until we turned around to see every single person in the place staring at us.

‘Let’s go back to our 150-dollar-a-night room (the price of our room had slowly been creeping up during the day) and order room service,’ Mike said as we stepped out onto the still-crowded street.

I slept on the floor in my clothes with my ears ringing. All three mats didn’t quite fit into the room, so I had Mike's feet in my face. Jean-Robert was already asleep.

I slept surprisingly well. When I woke up a little after four for a piss on the banana tree, the path at the front of the house was already full of people trudging noisily up to the waterfall. When I got back

to the room, the roosters started.

‘Hey, Jean-Robert!’ Mike said. ‘Go sacrifice those fuckin’ roosters will ya?’

By four-thirty we were all awake. Jean-Robert suggested we leave before the human traffic jam on the path to the waterfall built up any further.

‘Does our 200-dollar-a-night room include breakfast?’ I asked Jean-Robert. Not surprisingly, it didn’t.

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