Manbo — A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
The World - a network magazine show
Directed by Gail Pellett; Produced by Gail Pellett & Karen Brown
Writers: Karen Brown and Gail Pellett
Aired on: NBC     Date: (Spring, 1980)

Maggie and Lola

This short documentary about Lola, a Haitian immigrant in Brooklyn, tells the story of immigration — its usual low-paying jobs — but in the case of immigrants from Haiti it means coping with racial and language prejudices while also  being associated with the much maligned and grossly misunderstood religion, vodou.  Given this discrimination, it’s understandable that many Haitians claim they do not believe in or practice vodou.   Lola is proud of her religion.  She may clean houses during the day in Manhattan, but at night she returns to her role as healer and spiritual leader in her Brooklyn home.  This doc offers a glimpse of a voodou practioner and the rich cultural life of an immigrant family and community that remains largely a mystery to  other New Yorkers.

We travel by subway from Lola’s  house-cleaning job in Manhattan back to her matrilineal family in Brooklyn where she transforms into a manbo, a vodou priestess.    We see her altars and witness her healing sessions with “clients” and practitioners.  They complain of job problems, heart-aches, difficulties with children.  Lola does a card reading and with another practitioner, a sacred bath.

Lola lives with her daughter, Maggie, who works in a fast-food restaurant and is raising two children. Two of Lola’s young sons also live with them.   Just as Lola received her spiritual training from her mother, Maggie is also a vodou initiate, a priestess in training and helps her mother prepare for ceremonies — birthday parties for the spirits in their Brooklyn basement.

“When I came to New York as a young woman, I didn’t think I needed the spirits anymore ,” Lola says.  “But I was wrong. The spirits have helped me a lot here.”  Lola describes the difficulties of earning a living, struggling with English, making her way in the city.  “Yes, I needed those spirits to survive my life.   The spirits protect me.   That’s why I serve the spirits.”

A spiritual bath

Maggie and Lola describe the lies that are told about vodou, the religion which has sustained them.  “So many lies,” repeats Maggie.  The spirits are familiar characters to their vodou family.  They have very human traits each one is usually symbolized by a Catholic saint in this syncretic religion.  Lola’s altars embrace a wide range of symbols, Jesus on a cross beside a candle with a skull and cross bones, beside foods that the spirits like — popcorn and coffee.

Veve at Lola’s ceremony; photo by Karen Brown

We watch as  Lola and Maggie prepare for a ceremony or party for the spirits.  They decorate their house much like you would prepare for a birthday party.  The dining table is spread with cakes and cookies, grapes and watermelon, candles and objects that they believe the saint enjoys.  Streamers are strung across the ceiling.  Lola anoints the space with her asson — her sacred beaded rattle.   On her lineoleum floor she draws a veve — a symbol for the saint who is being celebrated and called upon here.  It’s all a far cry from a hounfor or vodou temple in Haiti on a dirt floor with its sacred pole at the center around which veves are usually drawn and the ceremony with its dancing and possession take place.

In a final sequence of images we see Lola being possessed by various spirits.  Cousin Zaka – the saint of agriculture, Papa Ghede – who protects children and the sick and hangs out in the cemetery, or Ogoun, the most powerful of all.  The spirits dispense advice through Lola who they are “riding.”  Part devotion and faith, part healing and guidance, part theater and entertainment, it’s all integrated at this party.   A chicken will be sacrificed and cooked and everyone will share in the food.  Yes, a good party.

Lola possessed by Papa Ghede; photo by Karen Brown

Lola possessed by Papa Ghede; photo by Karen Brown

 

 

 

 

Breaking News

In 1991, Karen Brown, a distinguished scholar of the sociology of religion and particularly vodou published her path-breaking book about Lola Champagne called: Mama Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. It was path-breaking because Karen crossed the boundary of "insider/outsider" anthropology, by revealing her own relationship to Lola. Karen referred to it as an "ethnographic, spiritual biography." That book continues to be required reading across many disciplines: women's studies, comparative religion, African religion, Haitian studies, Caribbean studies, and anthropology. In 2011 the third edition (by University of California Press) includes a masterful preface by Caribbean scholar, Claudine Michel.

Largely through the success of the book, Lola has been invited to speak from California to Benin. She was also hired as a consultant to work on the UCLA Fowler Art Museum "Sacred Arts of Haiti" show in 1999 which traveled to the Museum of Natural History in New York. Lola consecrated the altars for both venues. Her own practice has broadened as she has been invited to the west coast, Montreal, Miami and New Orleans regularly to initiate new practitioners to the religion and often takes initiates to Haiti for ceremonies there. Maggie continues to assist her mother while working as a health aide. Maggie's daughter, Marcia, continues with the spiritual life of her mother, grand-mother and great-grandmother.

Books

20 Responses to “Manbo — A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn”

  1. giovanni says:

    Bonsuar a la societe..i ‘ interésting about voodoo..how i can lean more about this religion?

  2. k srlene barret says:

    I would l Ike to g et spritual help as soon as possible for my fam Iily

  3. Leslie says:

    I want to know if you do love spells.
    Thank you

  4. Mally says:

    How can I find a practicing voodoo priestess in Brooklyn NY. Thank you

  5. lisa says:

    I would like to be initiated.

  6. Gail Pellett says:

    Dear Lisa,
    Thank you for visiting this page. Mama Lola is now retired, but I will forward your note to her and her family. Best, Gail Pellett

  7. Martine says:

    Hi
    I’m of Haitian descent and also looking for Voodoo priestess in the NYC area.
    Thanks

  8. alichia says:

    I so really need to talk to a voodoo priestess because me and my family need prayer and help. Anyone with information that would help us would so be appreciated

  9. angela says:

    I really need to talk to a voodoo priestess asap .anyone with information the would help me thanks

  10. Lizette Byrd says:

    I need some help with my marriage. Someone is trying hard to destroy my marriage. Can you help please

  11. dee says:

    How can I get a reading I live in nyc thanks

  12. Gail Pellett says:

    I am sorry, but this webpage about Mama Lola is not a service website. She has retired and I cannot forward your requests.

  13. Monica says:

    Hi Ms Pellett, I am contacting you because there’s a website that is currently open that says Mama Lola is the High Priestess/ Spell Caster that performs her own work and promoting her books, biography and services to anyone who needs them. Since your article says she’s retired, how can that be? Everything appears to be in order down to the photos, books,videos, contact information, emails and phone number where the office can be reached. How could this be if she’s retired? I don’t want to be taken advantage of and that’s why I’m asking you for your help. I would rather know if there are other Priestess of high respect for their legitimate true work that you can recommend if indeed the website is fraudulent. Thank You.

  14. Gail Pellett says:

    Dear Monica, thank you for taking the time to comment on this site. I do not know about the website you mention, but Mama Lola’s daughter and granddaughter do continue in her fine legacy. I do not believe it is a fraudulent site.

  15. Willem Holzer says:

    Hi Gail,

    My name is Willem. I am reaching out on behalf of a friend who would like to speak with Mama Lola or her daughters about the importance of voodou. She is trying to get more in touch with her roots and thought that speaking with them about Voodou might help her. Thank you for your time and any help you might be able to provide.

    All the best

  16. Gail Pellett says:

    Hi Willem, thank you for contacting me through my archival website. I have forwarded your message to Mama Lola’s granddaughter. She will contact you if appropriate. In the meantime, there are wonderful books to check out: Mama Lola by Karen Brown, or books by Elizabeth McAllister. There are also documentary films by Karen Kramer about Brooklyn based voodou priestesses other than Mama Lola. I have not been keeping up with the scholarship in the field, but I’m sure it is quite rich. On my site, there are some very short videos that I made back in the late 70s with a number of Haitian artists who are voodouists or draw from that vibrant tradition. There is also a 20 min.video about Ra-Ra — an Easter week celebration with plenty of voodou elements. Of course, one of the earliest western filmmakers about voodou was Maya Daren. Good luck in this fascinating journey! Gail

  17. janice says:

    Hi is there someone else to speak too since she’s retired..I love in Brooklyn ny And I went to New Orleans Last year To visit the voodoo Palace..Since I’m some what of a gifted person my self I would like to share what I’ve experienced there..Thank You

  18. Gail Pellett says:

    Thank you for visiting my archival website. I get requests like yours every day and cannot answer them all or satisfy your interest or concerns since Mama Lola’s family have not responded to my forwarded emails. I am sorry that I cannot help your search. Good luck in your quest. Gail

  19. Wes McKenzie says:

    I was born in Haiti and came here at a very young age. My family used to practice voodoo but they stopped so many years ago. I’m interested in learning the religion. Any referral to any Brooklyn place as a start? thank you for your help.

  20. Gail Pellett says:

    Hi Wes, Thanks for taking time to comment on my archival website. I cannot suggest much other than perhaps looking at some of the thread below in terms of suggestions for research and contacts. You could go to any botannical store in Flatbush and ask for references. They might know. I cannot give out other names and contacts on my website. Good luck!

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