God, Natural Disasters, and Voodoo

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Ben Cohen
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People flee for safety in the throws of Haiti's earthquake that registered at 7.0. The country experienced tremendous damage to the capital Port-au-Prince and other areas. by Pan-African News Wire File Photos.

Guest post by Ibrahim Arsalan

I was recently hipped to a BBC article with the title "Why does God allow natural disasters?"

As with all things philosophical I was immediately interested in its contents. What I found was sad. At no point were the views of the dominant religion in Haiti (Voodoo) consulted. They sited views from philosphers such as Hume, or the opions of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu (I've a suspicion he was consulted only because he's African since he hasn't a thing to do with Haiti), but nothing from a priest of Voodoo or Ifa; finding one wouldn't be hard in that country. This article saddly reflects Western arrogance even in an effort to be sympathetic. This is indicative of the entire focus on the disaster. As we watch CNN we see one reporter after another, one aid worker after another all commenting on the situation but no commentary from the Haitian people. There was even a moment a few days ago where a reporter stood before a scene of great commotion as children ran back and forth with empty aid boxes in their hands throwing them back and forth. The energy was vigorous and violent but I saw that they were playing a game because of the patterned way they would through boxes into the center out again and dodge them, almost like a game of dodge ball. The people next to me saw black bodies in commotion and many of them said "They're looting at a time like this?" I chuckled as I replied "Is there a better time to loot?"

While they were perplexed by this quip I continued, "They're not looting, they're obviously playing a game." They didn't believe me.

That is until the reporter standing in front of the scene explained "What we thought to be some sort of fight over resources turns out to be a sort of game they're playing..."

The most obvious thing the reporter could have done to bring clarity would have been to ask the people standing next to him about the scene. We've all seen this before time and again from reporters on the scene, they ask onlookers, usually the ones with mullets or "Jesus is my Homie" t-shirts, and they lend "average Joe" credibility to the reporting. But that's just it, these aren't average Joes, these are savages. So the proper thing to do is exactly what he did, jump out of the way and as they walk by and avoid all contact; because these aren't people, they're animals at the Zoo.

You may be wondering, what's all this have to do with the question posed by the article; everything. Animals have not complexity of language nor the deep conceptions of their own nature and therefore no religion or philosophy. So the "religion" of animals is irrelevant; which is as true now in Western thought as it was when the British and French colonialist first started their scramble for Africa. But lets presume for a moment that these aren't animals and they have religious/philosophical concepts of their own. Then the question would be asked of them, "Why does God allow natural disasters?"

I'm no Babalawo (Ifa priest) but I'll do my best to present what I know of their philosophy. In Voodoo and Ifa, a natural disaster such as this would be the work of an aspect of God known as Oya. This energy of chaos and destruction isn't considered "bad" or "good" but necessary.

Necessary because it is in the face of destruction that we are forced to reevaluate our lives and rebuild. For this same reason Oya is associated with the grave. Death is the foremost process of transformation for any life form, equaled only by birth. Once confronted with it, we humans are confronted with the reality of our own mortality. In this state of mind we are more willing to undergo a lesser death of the the self (e.g. quit smoking) to avert the ultimate death. By degrees of transcendence this process extends to entire human societies in which a natural disaster will occur. When Hurricane Katrina visited us, we found that it was not the Hurricane itself but the flood waters breaching the levees which brought such devastation. This single event, more than any other, forced us to look at the disgusting side of our own society. Class inequality, government incompetence and corruption, and race consciousness; all were on display and crying out to us from the breaths of fallen citizens. The condition of poverty and decay occurring in New Orleans, tucked quietly away behind conspicuous strips of excess, lay naked before us festering like an open wound. Something which we could ill afford to ignore any longer as it was symbolic and indicative of the American condition.

In Haiti, the situation is not all that dissimilar. Stifling poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and government ineptness have long plagued the island nation. It was upon this island that Columbus first set foot and from that time forward, it has known naught but violence and despair.

We forget that Columbus rendered the Taino indians to extinction in his search for gold.

We forget that this was the first port of call for slave traders.

We forget that the French imposed an unprecedented campaign of terror on those slaves where rape, torture, and mutilation were used as systematic tools.

We forget that those same slaves, lead by Voodoo priests, were the first to defeat Napolean's army in the only successful slave revolt resulting in an enduring independent state.

We forget that the US government established the Dominican Republic on the Eastern half of the island reducing the population to a new form of slavery in its neo-colonial agenda and for which the term "Banana Republic" was coined.

We forget that since the election of Jean Baptiste Aristide our government, in collusion with France and Canada, has funded and armed death squads to destroy the democratic process; because they keep electing Aristide and not "our" candidate.

Now with the destruction, we are forced to look at that reality that we chose to ignore; the Haitian people are forced to rebuild and their choices in this affair are paramount to their future.
Enter God, the ultimate teacher. In indigenous African religions, God is existence and isn't bound by the morality which binds humans. Existence dictates this morality to humans in various ways, subtle and stark. God is the all-encompassing existence whose full nature is beyond human cognitive ability, just as our full nature is beyond the computer's cognitive ability; therefore, existence is self-conscious and self-generating. All things in existence are composed of complex formations of Ire and Ibi. These are extremely complex concepts similar to Yin/Yang but my favorite translation would be expansion and contraction, respectively. In these circumstances Ire would be generation and Ibi, destruction. If a priest of Voodoo were to have been consulted, I believe his comments might swirl around the sentiments of reconciliation with the spirits of nature and humanity. Reconciliation for abuses against the land and reconciliation for the abuses of human lives. This solution would no doubt involve a sizable offering, meant to convey the intent of change to the Universal consciousness and to act as a constant reminder to us that change is an enduring process not a singular act.