First, go through the crossroads and ask Mèt Kafou to give you passage so that you can attend to the dead. Then, surrounded by the smell of strong “kleren,” walk into the graveyard and dance to the staccato banda drumbeat, your back straight, your hips swiveling in a figure eight motion. Sing with wild abandon a special song to Bawon Samedi, Guardian of the Cemetery—the bridge between life and death, the head of the Gede or Ancestors.
Put up an altar in the Vodou temple for the raucous and high-spirited “manjè mò” ceremony. Cherish and feed stewed goat and salted herring to the dead; reconnect with the past and ask for protection in the future. Salute the four cardinal points. Do some more singing and dancing, while letting the alcohol flow, as the merriment will continue until dawn.
Then you can say that you have celebrated Fèt Gede, the Festival of the Ancestors, which takes place in Haiti on November 2nd (All Souls Day). Photographer Les Stone has taken part to the celebration countless times —he’s witnessed the processions and sacred rituals. The Gede Lwa are renown for their ability to prophesize, heal, and protect. During a ceremony in the Artibonite, Stone witnessed the possession of a man by Papa Gede, the spirit who speaks for the dead.
“Fèt Gede is very difficult to photograph,” says Stone, “because not only is it spread out all over the place, many of the ceremonies are very private.”
Last November, Stone was in an area called Ti Bedo, a well-known gathering place for Vodou societies. Few people showed up for the Festival, however, as it came amidst a deadly cholera epidemic . The disease was caused by bacteria transmitted through contaminated water or food; the diarrhea and vomiting lead to severe dehydration and killed quickly.
“It’s an absolutely disgusting disease,” says Stone who visited a hospital in Lester the next day. “It makes people completely helpless. It’s horrible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The cholera was raging, people coming in every two minutes.
“One of the boys they brought in died during the triage,” says Stone. “Right in the arms of the mother. His eyes rolled back—dead.”
It is said that Papa Gede takes souls into the afterlife. If a child is dying, Papa Gede is prayed to. It is believed that the lwa will not take a life before its time, and that he will protect the little ones. The writer of this article likes to believe that the child’s mother prayed to Papa Gede as doctors and nurses rushed the small child to the operating table, pinching him, twisting him, trying to get IV in every arm and leg, and taking his pulse.
A miracle. The boy was saved.
Not everyone was lucky, however. “A lot of people in the countryside live far away from clinics or hospitals. If you have to walk five or six hours, you’re not gonna make it. You’re going to die on the trail. You’re never gonna get there.”
Because Vodou, which is in fact a very peaceful and beautiful religion, often inspires fear among non-practitioners, many people blamed the Vodou priests for the country’s deadly cholera epidemic, accusing them of spreading the disease by scattering powder or casting “spells.” The media reported several “hougan” and “mambo” being lynched in Artibonite.
“Totally unconfirmed,” says Stone. “Nobody actually know anybody who actually saw it. Nobody. No eye witness. “
Stone‘s work has appeared in the pages of National Geographic, Time, Life, Paris Match, Stern, Fortune, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Mother Jones, and countless others.