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Another Problem with Cholera: It Disrupts Voodoo Burial Traditions Edwidge Danticat on the Haitian Cholera Outbreak

The cholera outbreak in Haiti has made it dangerous for survivors to honor the dead with traditional ritual baths.

The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has a beautiful piece in this week's New Yorker about cholera's effect on Haitian voodoo burial traditions:

It is believed by some that the souls of the newly dead slip into rivers and streams and remain there, under the water, for a year and a day. Then, lured by ritual prayer and song, the souls emerge from the water and the spirits are reborn.

The year-and-a-day commemoration is seen, in families that believe in it and practice it, as a tremendous obligation, an honorable duty, in part because it assures a transcendental continuity of the kind that has kept us Haitians, no matter where we live, linked to our ancestors for generations.


Almost 3,500 Haitians have been lost to cholera. Danticat explains the further significance:

With the contagion of cholera comes a stigma that follows one even in death. People cannot touch a loved one who has died of cholera. No ritual bath is possible.


In the emerging lore and reality of cholera, water, this fragile veil between life and death for so many Haitians, has become a feared poison. Even as the election stalemate lingers, the rice farmers in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley—the country’s breadbasket—are refusing to step into the bacteria-infected waters of their paddies, setting the stage for potential food shortages and more possible death ahead, this time from hunger. In the precarious dance for survival, in which we long to honor the dead while still harboring the fear of joining them, will our rivers and streams even be trusted to shelter and then return souls?


Cholera is a bacterial infection that spreads when human waste contaminates water. When caught in time it can be treated with antibiotics and rehydration therapies. Groups like SOIL are continuing their work in Haiti expanding the number of ecological and sustainable public toilets. And a cholera vaccine is going to be introduced in April. New Scientist reports that while 10 million Haitians are at risk, only about 400,000 doses of the vaccine will be ready by April, and a million by late 2011.

Photo (cc) Wikimedia Commons

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