The Life of a Manbo in Haiti

This post is also available in: Kreyol

(This post was originally written in Kreyòl)

I decided to be a woman devoted to serving Ginen because inside a temple, I discovered a dimension of myself that I never knew existed.

Discovering as a little girl that your life will be different from your friends’ is a daunting thing, but nothing can prepare you for actually living through it. I grew up with a mother who fought hard to change my destiny. She put me in Catholic schools, enrolled me in choir, and volunteered me to do readings in church. She did all of this in a desperate attempt to create an environment that could prevent me from making a choice she dreaded. What was my destiny? My destiny was a heritage passed down from my grandmother, a  gift that the spirit that protects our family bestowed on a woman of our family every generation. My destiny was for me to be anointed a vodou priestess, a manbo.

It did not take long for me to understand why my mother sought to protect me from this. Neighbors who knew me as a little girl never hesitated to inform my family that because I chose Vodou, I would not amount to anything. When I discovered that the very thing people were badmouthing was the source of the strength that would allow me to help so many people, I confidently chose to stand true to who and what I am. I have made it clear to everyone that I did not choose Ginen [1] , Ginen chose me. I decided to be a woman devoted to serving Ginen because inside a temple, I discovered a dimension of myself that I never knew existed. These  very things that allowed my family to understand the weight of my decision and support me are the same things that made many friends turn their backs on me, and spread false rumors that I chose to serve the devil.

It is as if society has its own dictionary with its own definition of manbo. I am an educated woman. I have a high school diploma and college degree, but that does not stop family members of a man I may be involved with from asking him: “why have you openly chosen a manbo?” or “where do you think you are going with that manbo?” My fellow Haitians have taken such a sacred title that stems from our own heritage, and turned it into an insult used to belittle children of this land. According to these people, a manbo is a woman who dresses in dirty rags every day and who knows nothing.

The assumptions about me as a manbo go from one extreme to another. Some men wish to date me upon discovering that I am a manbo because they believe that dating a manbo will improve their luck, and bring them money and power. When they do not run away in fear of me being a sorceress, they seek to exploit me.

Being in the workplace is also very difficult. My colleagues and bosses could not be overtly mean to me, or tell me that they did not want me around. However, what they really thought of  me was reflected in their tasteless jokes. They would say things like: “don’t go near Sophia’s desk so her dark spirits don’t kill you” or “don’t make Sophia angry, or else she’ll put a spell on you.” In their eyes, all I was good for was to do harm. That is what has pushed me to work for myself.

The discrimination is everywhere. I recall a time in 2013, a landlord who initially agreed to rent me a house changed his mind upon seeing me dressed in an African gown. He told me that he would not rent his house to Satan. People are often shocked to find out I am a manbo upon seeing that I know how to read and write, when I was younger this used to offend me greatly. Nowadays, these stories make me laugh.

Why must people devalue Vodou simply because they do not practice it? In an ideal world, before lumping everything in the same basket, people would seek to know more because Vodou is part of their roots. It would be wonderful to see people avoid giving in to the negative images that destroy our culture, and keep us from advancing.

Ginen does not require its child to be perfect, it only asks that she remain honest with herself.

Ginen does not require its child to be perfect, it only asks that she remain honest with herself. Above all, a manbo is a guide. She is a servant of Ginen. In every situation, she must have strength to stand firm like a poto mitan [2]  (or pillar), and to share love and wisdom to everyone around her like the spirit of the middle pillar. She is the messenger of the Ginen who is there to gather everyone, and support those who are weak. She is an ambassador of her country’s culture and heritage. She is not an evildoer casting dark spells every day to cause harm and serve her own interests. When she is not performing her spiritual duties, a manbo is a woman like any other woman. This means that she feels the same emotions that everyone else does, from joy to sorrow.


1 “Ginen: Literally “Guinea”; principle that supports and directs every Godou teaching. It is also a state. In order to have the right to enter into it, the initiate must transform his being.” (p. 273)

2 “Poto Mitan: middle pillar, principal axis in the center of the Vodou peristyle, symbolizing the encounter of two worlds: the spiritual world and the material physical one.” (p. 277)

Definitions rom: Nan Dòmi: An Initiate’s Journey into Haitian Vodou by Mimerose P. Beaubrun


Photo credit: timoza


Sophia Fecu

Sophiphie se on mambo-makout, on eritaj ke Grann li kite pou li ak on bitasyon nan vil Leyogan. Li ap dirije Biznis li ki rele BTS (Bossou Technical Services) kel fonde depi 4 lane ki ofri sevis entretyen nan jeneratris.

1 Comment
  1. More than a year after you wrote this, I’m reading it. Perhaps the time is coming when Ginen will call to all to come home to truth and life. I’m afraid that I have not the privilege but at least I can hear and see what I can.

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