The Man with God in His Mouth

In tiny Miraflores Viejo, in Cuba's cane country, the religion of choice is vodou, and the high priest is Eugenio Sensio

Camino Largo fixes his gaze on the teenage girl, who's wearing a plaid sleeveless blouse and white pants, her hair in two neat braids. "Come here." She rises shyly and moves toward him. "Give me a light," he orders, handing her a disposable cigarette lighter. She obeys, then steps back toward her chair.

"Admira tu padrino." Admire your godfather. The girl stands hesitantly. The adults urge her toward him. "Thank you, godfather," she whispers.

"She needs to ask a question but doesn't know how," Camino Largo says. "She wants to know, 'What will my future be like?'" He purses his lips and makes three soft puffing sounds, "whoo-whoo-whoo," then inhales roughly through his mouth. "Much strength for you. You have a talent. Give me your hands." He produces a fist of white powder and empties it into the girl's open palms. On a cue from the adults, she rubs her palms together.

"You help with this," Camino Largo tells the girl's father. "Perfume her." The father takes a green plastic bottle of "Seven African Powers" perfume, pours the heavily scented liquid onto his hands and rubs it down the girl's arms and on each finger. The sweet smell is overpowering for several minutes. Then Camino Largo hands the girl an ancient, rusty revolver. "Tira," he demands. "Shoot." She lifts it to the ceiling and pops the trigger (which makes a dull clicking sound, but doesn't fire) once, twice.

"Now I'm finished," Camino Largo says. "You have to search. You have to search for the reason you were born."

Guttural sounds, "tik-tik-tik," come from his throat. His eyes roll back, he blows the whistle three times, and claps while singing a spare melody: "Alabanza" (praise), over and over. More than two hours later, after each visitor has spoken privately with Sensio, the group is ready to drive the three hours back to CamagYey. They have left a pile of Cuban pesos and a few American dollar bills in a wooden dish in front of the altar. Sensio says his disciples generally pay him what he asks for, usually a candle or money, "but never more than they have."

"Everyone in Cuba knows him," one of the men from CamagYey explains later. No doubt "everyone" is an exaggeration, though the man is sincere. "He doesn't perform miracles, but he guides you and helps you. He gives you more strength to face life."

His wife adds, "He gives you light, he opens the way before you so you can develop yourself."

Vodou (often spelled voodoo, occasionally vodun) is not an organized religion with a written doctrine or texts. Its name is derived from a word that means "spirits" in the Fn language of West Africa, and its earthly adherents have relationships with spirits as guides and teachers, and sometimes as controlling masters. In Haiti many people hardly know what vodou is; they simply call their religion sevis lwa, or service to the gods. Probably no other religion has been as maligned or misunderstood as vodou. It is not devil worship or witchcraft, although as with other religions, spiritual forces can be used for positive or negative purposes. In vodou all objects possess a spiritual energy, such as the notorious dolls, which usually are not used in the service of harm, but as positive motivators.

Vodou scholars have identified thousands of deities, each representing a spiritual principle or force. There are no more than a few dozen major gods, but each has many different manifestations, or caminos (ways)." Ezili, the goddess of sensuality, for example, is personified variously as a Virgin Mary figure, a perfect housewife, a promiscuous lover, even a dangerously possessive lover. Each god, according to tradition, has distinct preferences in food, colors, beverages, drum rhythms, animals, plants, and other physical things. Before the deities will descend to the Earth plane to communicate with and heal their devotees, each must be summoned in a ceremony that includes dancing and drumming, animal sacrifices, and offerings of food and drink. Many rituals and practices are secret, known only to those who have undergone ritual initiation.

Some vodou deities have similar counterparts among the Santeria orichas, and both religions are strongly imbued with Catholic imagery. But Santeria and vodou were born from divergent African cultures. "They represent different traditions," says prominent vodou scholar Donald Cosentino, a professor of folklore and mythology at UCLA. "Most people who practice Santeria would find vodou rather strange. Santeria is pretty purely Yoruba [a Nigerian ethnic group], and vodou is a melange of different tribal traditions. You can still trace a direct lineage between Cuba and Nigeria, but that's not really possible in Haiti."

In Haiti, in fact, the practice of vodou varies widely in urban and rural settings, experts say. Still more variations occur when it's brought to other countries. "Vodou is like a free practice; it's not institutionalized," says Aboudja, the Port-au-Prince priest. "It changes from one place to another, but the basis is common: Ceremonies are performed the same way -- prayers, dances, sacrifices, possession. It's like all cars are cars, but not the same model." Spirit possession, often described as an "ego exchange," in which the possessed remembers nothing afterward and may lose eyesight and bodily coordination, requires training and discipline.

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