Photos and Words by Christopher Mitchell
Fet Gede is a traditional vodou feast which celebrates the lwa (spirits) of death and fertility, typically held during either or both of the first two days in November. Though it shares calendar space and ideology with the Roman Catholic Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, Fet Gede can be more accurately said to derive from African traditions preserved largely unchanged through the centuries. Gonaïves, in northwestern Haiti, is one of the areas most closely associated with vodou practices, and Fet Gede. Here, Haitian photographer and LargeUp contributor Christopher Mitchell recalls documenting Fet Gede celebrations in Gonaïves in 2012.
Gonaïves is one of the areas in Haiti where vodou is most prominent, and Lakou Soukri is one of the three lakous, or temples, of vodou that they have in that region. It’s a very spiritual area.
I was invited to Gonaïves by a bunch of friends who are drummers in Chouk Bwa Libète, which is a rasin (roots) drum group. They used to be part of another band called Asakivle. The first night, I arrived in Gonaïves. A new hotel had just opened, and, it turns out, the owner is really into vodou and cool with the bands. The guys were drumming, women were dancing, and there was all kinds of food and festivities.
The second night, in Lakou Soukri, was in more of a remote area, out in the woods. It was more real. Once again, they played music, people danced, socialized. Some of the dancers would get possessed. The woman in the purple dress is one of the people who got possessed. She came up to me and said take my picture, and she would pose with everybody at the party and make sure I took a picture with them together. I think there were people who didn’t want to be photographed, but they obliged because it was her insisting.
In one of the pictures, you can see a bottle of klarin (Haitian moonshine made from sugar cane), with peppers in it— it’s hot as hell. People were drinking that, and rubbing it on their bodies. People can say what they want about possession being fake but I don’t know how someone can eat and drink those peppers and shove them up their nostrils under normal circumstances.
This is how, in one particular location, one particular group got down for Fet Gede, and that’s how I documented it. I had the privilege of hanging out with friends and they invited me out to a special occasion they knew I would enjoy. This definitely doesn’t represent all Haitians. Just because one area celebrates Fet Gede, that doesn’t represent how other regions, or even the whole town celebrates it. It’s not like how Santa Claus represents Christmas. Fet Gede is celebrated in Jacmel, Port-au-Prince — every region does it differently. The only other time I’ve been to a Fet Gede was in Grand Riviere, and it was in a cemetery, with people lighting candles and burning money.
I am always looking for a reason to document things like this. Vodou is widely held to be a primary source of strength that enabled the African slaves in Haiti to revolt, and eventually become the first Black republic in the world. At Fet Gede in Gonaïves, you get to see this really old practice still being relevant, and that’s a beautiful thing to be able to document.
See more of Christopher L. Mitchell’s Kreyol Chronicles here.