Haitian vodou as a health care system: between magic, religion, and medicine

Altern Ther Health Med. Sep-Oct 2011;17(5):44-51.


Haitian vodou has been considered an African-American religion organized around a pantheon, sanctuaries, priests, fraternities, and rituals honoring the spirits (lwa), the dead, and the ancestors. This construction of vodou, which is predominant in the literature, is based on a substantive approach to religion. It obscures the close connections between vodou and illness and does not adequately reveal how vodou is used in the daily lives of Haitians. By adopting a microsocial perspective on vodou and focusing on the knowledge and practices of vodou practitioners, the importance of vodou's therapeutic dimension becomes clear. Indeed, I am compelled to conclude that vodou is a health care system. Grounded in 16 months' research in the Haitian countryside and using a definition of health care systems identified in the medical anthropology literature, this new way of approaching vodou situates its religious and magical dimensions within its role as a health care system. This article deals with these different aspects, addressing the criteria that make vodou a health care system. In particular, I explore the practitioners who are recognized as healers and consulted as such; the sites where practitioners meet with the sick and treat them; the vodou theories on illness; and the curative, preventive, and care-giving practices based on those theories. This approach helps us to better understand how medicine, religion, and magic are linked in Haitian vodou and leads us back to debates about the construction of vodou, which are apparently well known in the scientific literature. All of this leads us to reflect on Western approaches to healing and caring.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Medicine, Traditional*