Religion: Granny & the Voodoo

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High in the voodoo hills of Haiti above Port-au-Prince, a big bonfire crackled one day last week. Some 200 Haitians, dressed in their cotton Sunday best, watched intently while an old lady threw object after object into the flames—bottles to bubble when a thief is in the garden, carved wooden bowls from which to feed the gods, wanga bags to protect the traveler, love charms, colored beads, mysterious, headless dolls. Granny Holdeman was having another "burning." Granny's ceremonial burning of voodoo charms and fetishes is a potent symbol in a land where dark gods and hungry spirits sometimes seem more at home than the people themselves. Some eight years ago, when she went to Haiti, the drums throbbed often in the hills. If there are some who pay little attention to them now, 66-year-old Granny Holdeman has a share of the credit.

A Corner in a Suitcase. Granny Holdeman grew up as Bertha Halstenberg in a family of 18, on a farm about 80 miles west of St. Louis. She left home at 18 to work in a St. Louis dental college. But what she wanted to be was a missionary.

Bertha put in four years at the Missionary Training Institute in Nyack, N.Y., cramming all the medical-aid courses she could find. Three times she was set to leave for Africa when the trip was canceled at the last moment. Finally, she wound up in Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains, nursing the sick, teaching the Bible, and making clothes for the dirt-poor cabin dwellers.

She married a widower, raised a son and daughter, canned thousands of quarts of farm produce, and nursed her neighbors through illness and childbirth. But after 25 years of marriage, Bertha Holdeman and her husband were divorced, and she went back to evangelism and Bible teaching. She was in Tampa, when the Rev. John Turnbull and his wife met her while making preparations for an independent Baptist mission in Haiti. One day Bertha Holdeman sighed: "I wish you had a corner in your suitcase to stick me." A month later the Turnbulls invited her to come.

Houngans and Mambos. In Haiti Granny settled in as though she had been a missionary all her life. While Missionary Turnbull and his son labored in the mountains above Port-au-Prince to build a church, parsonage, school and dispensary, Granny went ,"on trail." Outfitted in a tropical helmet and web belt with water flask, she would visit the tiny thatched cailles that dot the ravines and mountains. She told the surprised Haitians about the dispensary and the need to come immediately when they were sick or hurt. She told them about the school. And wherever she could she would wage a persistent Protestant war against the voodoo gods, Papa Legba (who is interlocutor between men and the gods), Maitresse Erzulie (of love) and Damballa Wedo (the good serpent of the sky), and against the houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses) who served them.

The gods impose a heavy economic drain on the sparse resources of their worshipers. The merchants of Port-au-Prince sell a good proportion of their expensive French perfume to black farmers who buy a bottle of Arpege or Chanel No. 5 for Maitresse Erzulie. One of Granny's converts paid a houngan $60 (about two years' cash income) for a can of something to bury in his garden to protect his crops and family.

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