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Trinidad and Tobago: The prevalence of voodoo practice; the societal attitude towards those who practice it; evidence of people being forced into voodooism (2003)

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 26 September 2003
Citation / Document Symbol TTO42034.E
Reference 2
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Trinidad and Tobago: The prevalence of voodoo practice; the societal attitude towards those who practice it; evidence of people being forced into voodooism (2003), 26 September 2003, TTO42034.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/403dd21d4.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

An Assistant Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University whose area of expertise is Afro-Caribbean religious traditions provided the following in 19 September 2003 correspondence. According to the Professor, "voodooism has been a term used by journalists and outsiders" and that in Trinidad and Tobago, the terms she would expect to find

would be either Vodou, which is a religion and/or set of practices that I would expect to be practiced by Haitian immigrants there. Otherwise, among the people of Trinidad/Tobago themselves, I would expect to find what is called "Shango" or "Orisha" Baptists or worshippers. Or, I would expect to find what is called "Obeah." These are all Afro-creole practices related, like cultural cousins, to Vodou.

The following was provided in a 23 September 2003 telephone interview with an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington whose expertise is in Caribbean and African religions. The Professor stated that voodoo is a general term used for the African-based religious practices followed by people in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, this practice would be known as Orisha and this belief is known to be very eclectic for it borrows from many other religions, including Hinduism and Catholicism. There is great difficulty in trying to determine how many people follow Orisha as many practice undercover; yet, the Professor believes that roughly 8 to 10 per cent of the population practice some form of this religion.

With regard to societal attitude, while the Professor noted that there has been an upsurge in the popularity of Orisha and other African-based religions, the more dominant religions such as the Christian-based Protestant faiths see them as devilish and demonic. Becoming a member of Orisha can follow three paths: 1) family relations, whereby family members encourage siblings, parents, etc., into joining, 2) trauma or crisis, when someone is in dire need of help they will seek out membership, 3) seeking assistance to everyday problems such as employment issues, relationships, etc. An aspect of the Orisha religion that is attractive to many is that priests offer consultations in order to assist people with their problems. In a typical consultation, the priest would provide a visitor with an amulet or charm that would, for example, bring them good luck. In this sense, even politicians have been known to visit Orisha priests for a consultation.

In terms of persons being forced into joining Orisha, the Professor stated that this was a matter of perception. Like any other religion, some followers try to spread the faith via proselytizing. One can perceive this to be pressure or forcing, while others may see it as being overenthusiastic. Within a family situation, if the head of a household were a follower, this person would create an atmosphere wherein others would feel a sense of obligation to join as well. The Professor stressed again that this is common in most religions.

An Assistant Professor from Emory University whose research and teaching focus on theologies and religious practices of the African diaspora provided the following information in a 24 September 2003 telephone interview. The Professor noted that the Orisha religion has become increasingly widespread in Trinidad and Tobago in recent years, to the extent that it has become institutionalized in some elements of mainstream society. Since 1989, when the spiritual head of the Yoruba religion in Nigeria, which is the foundation of the Orisha religion, was invited to visit Trinidad and Tobago by the President, the Orisha religion became more recognized. To attest to this popularity, the Professor mentioned that she had documented over 80 active Orisha shrines in Trinidad alone.

Nevertheless, the misconception that Orisha and other African-based religions foster only the anti-social use of magic or black magic and are therefore demonic religions is still pervasive on the islands. While the Professor pointed out that the use of mystical powers is a global phenomenon inherent in many other cultural traditions, the possibility that someone would fear the anti-social use of magic for not joining the religion is possible. This of course would depend on the person's worldview, their psychological makeup, and how much they believe in this type of power.

In a working paper entitled Reclaiming African Religions in Trinidad: The Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Faiths Today, published by the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean at York University, Dr. Frances Henry stated that since the early nineties the people of Trinidad and Tobago had become more aware of the Orisha religion; in Henry's words "less suspicious and more accepting" (June 2001). In addition, Henry stated that the Orisha movement has enjoyed increased legitimacy in political, public, media, and cultural circles (ibid.). For example, policy discussions surrounding Orisha's standing as a religion have been examined by the government (Henry June 2001).

Documentary sources also provide some background information about the prevalence of African-based religions in Trinidad and Tobago. Among the country's religious groups, the Trinidad and Tobago Urban Ministries Website listed that 10 per cent of the population follow the Obeah faith (n.d.). Please note that the Professor from Emory University mentioned that Obeah is a catchall idiom for all African-based religions in the Caribbean (24 Sept. 2003). According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2002, followers of African-based religions were limited and these worshippers may also practice other faiths (7 Oct. 2002).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

References

Assistant Professor, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. 24 September 2003. Telephone interview.

Assistant Professor, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. 19 September 2003. Correspondence.

Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Wilmington. 23 September 2003. Telephone interview.

Henry, Dr. Frances. June 2001. Reclaiming African Religions in Trinidad: The Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Faiths Today. Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, York University. [Accessed 19 Sept. 2003]

International Religious Freedom Report for 2002. 7 October 2002. "Trinidad and Tobago." United States Department of State. Washington, DC. [Accessed 18 Sept. 2003]

Trinidad & Tobago Urban Ministries. n.d. "About Trinidad & Tobago." [Accessed 18 Sept. 2003]

Additional Sources Consulted

Dialog

IRB databases

World News Connection/Dialog

Internet:

Adherents.com

Amnesty International

Country Reports 2002

Freedom House: Center For Religious Freedom

Human Rights Watch

Religioustolerance.org

Trinidad-Tobago.net

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Search engine:

Google

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at http://www.irb-cisr.gc.ca/en/. Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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