A story of power, resilience and care and magic – we go back to the beginning of all consciousness to follow the genesis of voodou through dreams and underwater, in Spirits, in Haiti and in Mama Lola, famed Voodu Priestess of Brooklyn.
Mama Lola ResourcesMama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, by Karen McCarthy Brown (Author), Claudine Michel (Foreword), April 2011 https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520268104 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB0mUYpDeZg https://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/31/garden/where-the-spirits-feel-at-home.html https://mobiananthropologist.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/ethnography-review-mama-lola-brown-1991/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mama_Lola http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/voodoo/mamalola.htm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1oD5i-2oHY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB0mUYpDeZg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFUW0ALTMnY
NB: This episode was originally published Sept. 2018. We are going back and posting the essays we wrote for those first episodes now, Winter 2023, in an effort to make our work more accessible. The ideas in these episodes evolved into our two books: Missing Witches: Reclaiming True Histories of Feminist Knowledge and New Moon Magic: 13 Anti-Capitalist Tools For Resistance and Re-Enchantment.
You probably wouldn’t expect to hear the name Tori Spelling in this pod, but she might just be the reason some of you have heard of our next witch.
This is the story of how Marie Thérèse Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski - born in Haiti, pregnant at 14, former singer, sex worker and tobacco inspector, a woman who’s own face did not appear on the first edition of her biography - became the most famous Vodou priestess living in the United States today. This is a woman who was given her last rites TWICE and lived to tell: If you know her, you likely know her as Mama Lola.
Mama Lola’s biographer, Karen MCCarthy Brown describes her as: “a strong woman who provides the main financial and emotional support for a hard-pressed family. She is also a fighter, a survivor who has had a hard life but nevertheless shows little trace of bitterness from her suffering. She is a presence to be reckoned with, someone who commands the respect of others. But Lola is also a giver, a caring and empathetic person who takes pleasure in helping others. By necessity, she has become adept at balancing this desire to help others with the need to care for herself.”
If you are a woman, an empath, or especially if you are a witch, heck if you are a decent human, you know that this balance is not easily attained. Some go their whole lives without ever coming close to the kind of compassion and fierceness and awareness and yes, arrogance in the style of Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, that is required to balance Self and Other. Worse, some never consider that maybe the two (self and other) are one, going their whole lives without ever knowing what it means to truly Care.
Mama Lola was born in 1936 in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. Conceived at a (not altogether unfinished) time when Haiti was going back and forth, fighting for the power to define its national identity - legalizing and criminalizing and legalizing what were called in the law “superstitious practices”. There had been a longstanding prohibition of spells as a result of colonization, the catholic church, not to mention the near 20 year US military occupation of Haiti that ended in 1934... Stenio Vincent, Haiti’s president at that time, maintained a ban on some public ritual, but in 1935, affirmed the right to “popular dances”. And then Mama Lola was born.
Her mother, Philomise Macena, known as Philo, was also somewhat of a reluctant Manbo. Manbo - sometimes Mambo - is a term for a High Priestess in the Vodou religion. They are physical and spiritual healers. They give blessings, songs, prayers and advice, clear hexes, lead and perform rituals and ceremonies….One can study and train and go through a complex set of protocols to reach the status of Manbo, or one can become a Manbo, chosen via a dream dragged under water… a calling to serve the spirits that cannot be ignored.
Any woman who is called ...or calls herself mambo or curandera or yogini or ayurveda or bruja or sangoma OR WITCH is sure to have a personal history rich with complexity and depth. And the history of Voodou itself is infinitely more rich and deep! We’ve all come across the racist, outdated, western portrayals of Voodou as a dark and evil conjuring of bad spirits and sacrifice to the devil. Zombies. Bloodlust. Black... magic.
As Milos Rigaud says in his book, SECRETS OF VOODOO
Beyond Rigaud’s mention of Hollywood, these images, based on racism and control, demonizing the ancient ways, and painting them as blood-thirsty, sick and savage have infiltrated western culture in a very real and tangible way. One particularly troubling example comes from Mama Lola’s daughter, Maggie; A patient in the medical office where Maggie once worked, upon learning she was Haitian, refused to allow Maggie to touch her. The reasons the woman gave were: Vodou ...and AIDS. Reasons that are still used against Haitians today.
But when you brush away the dirt and cobwebs of religious, racist propaganda, the passion, wisdom and oneness of the universe is revealed.
AND SO IT IS THAT WE APPROACH this episode with the same ‘curious mixture of glory and dread.’ Here we are, learning the story of Mama Lola, and we find ourselves in the story of Voodou itself, and thus Ifa... Yoruba... KHEMet. It’s extremely vast ...and beautiful … powerful ...intimidating territory. So we went looking for the witches we needed to guide us on this journey of discovery.
To quote Queen Afua, from her sacred text, Sacred Woman:
By necessity, Sacred Woman training provides only a brief introduction to ancient Khamit, for indeed, the serious study of this civilization could take a lifetime. I offer it to you in hopes that you will be so fascinated by the truth of its teachings that you will be inspired to explore more deeply into our rich cultural treasures!
We couldn’t have put it better! Like Maria Sabina’s mushrooms, this book can only take you so far.
As McCarthy Brown writes in Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn:
Alourdes is a superb storyteller, but her stories as she tells them, do not lend themselves to reproduction in a written text. Each story has a theme - better, a refrain - with which she opens and to which she returns time and time again as the story is woven, never in a simple logical or chronological fashion. Each time the refrain is repeated, it signals a new attempt to tell the story. Each attempt seeks to capture the whole story. Yet none succeeds because the connections, the meanings, and the layers of possible interpretation are too dense to be caught in a single telling. THUS ALOURDES MOVES IN A SPIRAL FASHION over and over the same ground when telling an important ancestral story. Each pass over familiar turf creates redundancy, but it also brings out some additional nuance or detail. To listen, it is necessary to relax with the rhythm and to trust that it will eventually bring her around to fill in the gaps.
And in this way it seems her story must be told, in the same spiral fashion...We’ll keep coming back to McCarthy Brown’s book because it’s the most thorough biography of Mama Lola to date, drawing on her (at the time of the most recent edition) 36 year friendship with and study of the Manbo. But even McCarthy Brown reminds us in her afterword, that Mama Lola once said: I hate that book because I change and it doesn’t.
But Mama Lola also said: “I GOT PLENTY CONFIDENCE IN MYSELF. YOU WANT SOME TOO?” So with a ‘yes, please and thank you Mama Lola’ we present our humble opening of the gateway, and spiral back to the beginning of all consciousness ….The source of Voodou and its many siblings: IFA.
There has been an eternity of discussion on the birthplace of this great and sacred collection of knowledge. Perhaps the Yoruba of Nigeria are descended from a people who were living on the banks of the Nile in Egypt. Others claim the ancestors had traveled West from Ethiopia. We certainly aren’t the authority on the subject, but we do know that western culture has done it’s weird racist best to seperate, in our minds, the venerable Egypt from its rightful place in the continent of Africa, so we’re way more likely to know something about Khemet than we are about Ifa. Whether the two ‘religions’ (for lack of a better word) of Ifa and Khemet are sisters, or mother daughter, they definitely share the same blood - a blend of history, philosophy, medicine and folklore. And we’re looking for the Witches we’ve been missing, always trying to learn something new, and not fuck it up too much. So let’s leave the pharaohs in their tombs for now and just dive on in to the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and the dream dragged under water...
OUR FAVOURITE BOOK ON Ifa IS
ONA AGBANI: THE ANCIENT PATH BY IYALOSA APETEBII OLAOMI OSUNYEMI AKALATUNDE. She writes:
IFA HAS been in practice for some 20 thousand years. At the time of this writing in the western year 2002, according to its annual calendar the Anago (Yoruba) nation itself is 10,045 years old. tHose prehistoric civilizations that later merged and became the Anago were the first to practice this ancient way of life. As such, Ifa is the result of thousands of years of painstaking research and observation of nature and human’s relationship to it, as well as, human’s relationships with The Divine and other humans. The information gathered in this research is compiled in the sacred oral scripture of Ifa known as the ODU. AND in the DNA of each melanated person as part of the ‘genetic library’; the storehouse of information passed from parent to child. According to the primordial observations of our Ancestors, all things are a part of the Divine Whole. “All things” includes objects that most would consider inanimate. There is no spiritual line of demarcation between the so-called sacred and the so-called secular. Everything that is granted the power to exist is wholy, a part of the Divine Whole.
In her glossary which she refers to as “A Note about Bara or the use of Wordsound power in this book”, Akalatunde make a distinction between holy H O L Y, wholly W H O L L Y and her spelling W H O L Y, which is kind of a mix of the two former - part of the divine Whole. Part of the All. She says:
[...] Our ancestors Afrikanized elements of English so that we can retain the power of the spoken word, called “Bara” in the Yoruba language. I also take the liberty of spelling some words differently so that they will house the vibration that I am trying to create with them.
Hopefully our reading will house that same vibration that AKALATUNDE seeks with her words when she writes:
IFA IS KNOWN SIMPLY AS “YORUBA” HERE IN THE WEST. IFA AND ITS SPIRITUAL SIBLINGS FROM NEIGHBOURING CULTURES HAVE MANY BI-CULTURAL OFFSPRING AS A RESULT OF the MAAFA (a KiSwahili term meaning ‘great disaster’; used to denote the rape of Afrika and the resulting slavery and colonization). Some of the more well-known and often mis-represented progeny are: Santeria, Lukumi, Voodoo, Obeah, Hoodoo, Conjure , Root-working, and to a much lesser degree, Black Church. THese offspring represent the mixture of Afrikan culture with Native American culture with elements of Eurocentric Christianity thrown in. Our enslaved ancestors used these spiritual systems to protect themselves and their families during captivity THEREFORE hoodoo, voodoo, root-working and any other practice that contained African spiritual elements were deemed wicked and Evil by the slave masters.
Akalatunde goes on later in the book to explain the presence of Eurocentric Christian Elements - these being particularly visible in Santeria where Catholic Saints with relatable traits were used as substitutes for Orishas to allow for a more public worship. She writes:
With the Maafa in which millions of Afrikans were captured and placed in captivity, our ties to our villages were severed and the priests and priestesses were thrust together. THis catastrophe forced them to merge all of their wisdom into one common practice. Maafa marked the beginning of Ifa in its current western state. This form is known as Orisa Worship, Santeria “worship of the saints”, Sango Baptiste, Lukumi, Macumba and a myriad of other names. [...] many of the practices also added Native American elements that were introduced to the practitioners on these shores. THese new practices were also forced to include Euro-Christian elements which allowed the Ancestors to camouflage their practices and thereby survive in an environment created to destroy them.
And so it went that Maafa exported Ifa across the world in the most terrible way. Through the bodies and spirits of the slave-trade.
Ifa had always been passed down via practice, D.N.A. and ODU, the oral tradition, but with Maafa the necessity of an oral tradition became especially important. Because of this, many words have a variety of spellings and pronunciations. Spirits go by many names. Mixed up and redistributed, the words and names may be different, but the concepts are largely the same and in fact have much in common with the Western contemporary notions of Paganism and Witchcraft that they no doubt influenced, or more likely, begat --- herbalism, meditation, earth and sky based spiritual systems, offerings, gratitude, manifestation and dreams. But Ifa and especially Vodou have their faith woven into a complex and deeply public, personal, whole life relationship with LWa. The LWA must be paid. LWA, also known by many other names including "les mystères" and "the invisibles" are spirit realm representatives of the One: Olodumare, Bondye… the sum total of all consciousness… Some speculate that it was an ancient, foreign misunderstanding of this notion of Oneness that led to the monotheisms of what we know today as Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Lwa can be understood as kind of akin to spirit guides from all cultures, Jinn in Islam for example, not Angels - the binaric opposition of good and evil doesn’t hold as much space here, so not angels, but ancestors - more like messengers, receiving and delivering messages to and from Bondye. Messages are sent from Humanity TO THE DIVINE, via service, prayer, offerings, dance, drums, and many multitude of other thoughts and actions. But again the LWA must be paid. A lot of the ritual of voodou takes the form of specific offerings to specific Lwa - they each have their own tastes. There is much CONTEMPORARY discussion of Orisha and LWA - they are not synonymous, they kind of are, they definitely aren't.... Again, the necessity of oral tradition after Maafa means there is no one set of rules, or spellings or names or terms or gods... As Nigerian Babalawo - High Priest in Ifa - Osunniyi Olajide Ifatunmo writes: People often ask me if there is a “complete” written copy of the Odu Ifa. However, within the Odu Ifa it explains that there is no babalawo who knows all of the Odu Ifa because the pages in the Odu Ifa are infinite. It is like asking is there a complete written copy of the science of the universe. No such book could ever be written.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t books about science or condense versions of the Odu Ifa.
Of ifa’s connection to voodu, Karen McCarthy Brown writes: It can be argued that Haitian Vodou is closer to its African roots than most other forms of New World African religion. Vodou’s closer ties to its African origins are primarily a result of Haiti’s virtual isolation from the rest of the world for nearly a century following its successful slave revolution (1791-1804)
Haiti has a truly remarkable history of survival, Magick and resistance. Legend has it that it was the Orisha Ogun who planted the idea of a revolt into the heads of Haitian slaves and Maroons - a term for Africans who had escaped from slavery, mixed with indigenous peoples, and formed independent settlements. And it was Ogun AKA Papa Ogou who helped them to victory in the Haitian Revolution of 1804.
If you want a Primer on the Orishas, check out SEVEN AFRICAN POWERS: THE ORISHAS by MONIQUE JOINER SIEDLAK. It’s a great, quick jumping off point for study. She says: Collectively, these seven Orishas symbolize a force that offers guidance and strength during all our troubles and hardships. She writes of Ogun as “having the status of a protective father figure, Ogun is the Orisha of tools and weapons [...] Ogun gives strength and protection to individuals with a conflict to battle.”
This conflict is a power and identity struggle that dates back to 1492 when Columbus and crew arrived on Ayiti original land, mountain land and renamed it Hispaniola. And having brought no women on their ships, took the women of Haiti by force. And finding no gold, turned to agriculture and human trafficking.
This pushing pulling, toil and trouble, of oppression and rebellion continues forward through the layers of space and time back to the Haiti of 1936 and the birth of Mama Lola... a baby girl born Alourdes, with all of the wit and fire of her people’s history in her blood.
She comes from a line of Healers, Manbos and Houngan, and most have stories of trying to ignore the call. But when LWA or Orisha make contact, attention MUST be paid. They manifest in visions, coincidences, but most likely and profoundly, through Dreams and even...possession.
Her grandfather and grandmother, Philo’s mother and father, were legendarily magical. Grandpa was prone to drunken rage and specialized in revenge magic. He only spoke to the spirits when he wanted something. The story goes that when he died suddenly in the street, Sina, Mama Lola’s grandmother said: “It is better this way. I know the spirits want me. Before I always said No. Now everything has changed. Now I will serve the spirits. They will take care of me. I do not need a man.”
This may have been a prophecy for the generations of women to come in her family line...
Philo’s gift of healing at first showed itself exclusively through dreams. Solutions came to her, appearing in her head as spirit messages. But the vocation of Healer, a job that for her could only be successfully performed upon receipt of a message in a dream that may or may not come, didn’t exactly make for financial stability. Over time Philo honed her craft, eventually becoming knowledgeable enough that she no longer had to wait for dream-state instructions before counselling a client. She makes a name for herself as a Manbo, at one point even counseling future President Francois Duvalier. But her generosity kept her from attaining wealth. Giving money away, paying others’ overdue rent and feeding their children were common practices for Philo. Mama Lola’s daughter Maggie says:
“Work with the spirit run in my family - my grandmother, my mother. People coming in here to see my mother all hour of the day and night. She never too tired to see people. Just like my grandmother, always helping people….they don’t ever have no money they just giving...always giving.”
Mama Lola claims that her mother NEVER spoke of her father, until one day, walking, a friend of Philo pointed to a man and told Alourdes, “That’s your daddy.” The child had never seen the man before in her life. When she questioned her mother, Philo told her that her father hadn’t given one penny, not one penny toward her upbringing. Mama Lola claims that the man didn’t admit that he was her father until shortly after she won a small lottery. But his was also a family of Hougen so perhaps by DNA, if not upbringing, Mama Lola had magic on both sides of her family tree.
At seven years old, Mama Lola had one of the most defining experiences of her life. Which is funny because she doesn’t remember it AT ALL.
One day she was badly bitten by the neighbour’s dog. That night, leg carefully bandaged by her mother, Alourdes woke in a panic. Her head was spinning. Something was dreadfully wrong. She had to move. She got out of bed and walked and walked and walked. The frantic need to escape was the last thing Mama Lola remembered about the incident. She went missing... in every sense. Trying to diffuse Philo’s desperate fears, a friend joked: Perhaps the spirits have taken Alourdes below the water. Maybe they want to make her a Manbo!”
There are stories about the voodoo LWA Lasyrenn. That she will pull people down under the water, anba dlo (if you speak french you might understand this as: en bas de l’eau. Literally under water), and force you live there with her, connecting you through the water to all knowledge...all life. McCarthy Brown describes:
The stories have a common pattern. A person, usually a woman, disappears for a time - three days, three months, three years. When she returns, she is a changed person [...] She has gained sacred knowledge[...] Living below the water where spirits instructed her in the arts of diagnosis and healing. [...] i once met a rural priestess [...] When I asked her who had initiated her, she responded that no one had. Her instruction, she said simply, had come anba dlo.
At seven years old, Alourdes disappeared for three days. And there are many other bits of evidence that suggest maybe Mama Lola gained her true title of Manbo anba dlo during those three days. She was found, unharmed, by the water.
Her first job at age sixteen was as a singer in Haiti’s Troupe Folklorique and not much is made of this time except that her singing career was well paid and ended when she got married. We do know that it was popular at the time for tourists visiting Haiti to want to see a “Voodoo Dance” so this was perhaps another prophetic time in her life. Drawing her slowly to her past and to her future.
Spiral forward and Mama Lola is living on her own with two children in Port-Au-Prince. She looks for work, eventually gaining employment through the government run tobacco industry. She said:
“Let me tell you something. When you go to the office and ask for job , that man, the inspector, the one in the head office - if he say ‘Yes I’m going to give you the job’ you have to sleep with him first! You say no, you don’t have no job! Sometimes they make love to you and you still don’t have no job. Sometime when i think back i get angry. But that’s life! I can’t help it! tHat’s life!”
When she loses her job as a tobacco inspector, she’s forced to sell sex more directly and frequently. Though she’s quick to make a distinction between her role as a ‘Marie-jacques’, or like, escort, and a “bouzen” or street prostitute. She goes on ‘dates’ with men - dinner, dancing, and then sex. Interestingly she would approach payment in the same way she would later as a Manbo: she gives what she can, and accepts what is given in return. Back then there was no other way for her to buy food, or pay her rent or her children’s school fees.
Sex work is not the defining money-maker in her life, certainly, and we might have glossed over it of not for Mama Lola’s own words to Karen McCarthy Brown: “You got to put that in the book. Because it’s the truth. Right? Women got to do all kinda thing. Right? I do that to feed my children. I’m not ashamed.”
Of course, women having to sell their bodies is nothing new. One woman McCarthy Brown met in Haiti joked that she was going to market to sell her land. When asked, ‘what land?’ the woman hooted and grabbed her crotch, laughing, “I can sell my land anywhere!”
But the power and resilience of Haitian women is also notorious ? as old as time. Perpetua Chery writes in her essay “Feminist” is a Dirty Word in Haiti:
on April 3, 1986, shortly after the end of the Duvalier regime, more than 30,000 women from diverse backgrounds took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to demand to be included in Haiti’s return to democracy. The 1986 march, organized by more than a dozen grassroots groups, called attention to sexual and gender-based violence, women’s financial exclusion, lack of access to health and education, among other issues. For many women who participated in this march, including my mother, it was the first time they felt socially empowered. Despite a few critics, the event was well-received and marked the renewal of Haiti’s women’s movement; eventually contributing to the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights, Haiti’s participation in the 1995 Beijing Conference, and the ratification of the Belem do Para Convention.
When Alourdes was in her 20s, with 2 children in Port-au-Prince, life was hard. She had become pregnant for the third time, not by a client, but by a dear and trusted friend and lover. He deserted her when he found out she was carrying his child. She says she and her children went to bed hungry on more days than she’d like to remember. This third child, a son, William, was born with meningitis. Mama Lola took him to the hospital and was given a prescription for drugs she COULDN’T AFFORD TO BUY. The lights turned off from non-payment, she sat in the dark, cradling her sick child in her arms...weeping.
So when she asked her brother, living in New York, for money, and he instead gave her the option to join him, she packed her bags and arrived in Brooklyn in 1962 with stars in her eyes. Before she left she told her mother, “I’m going to that city!! Lotta stars! Beautiful! Oh boy! I don’t think I’m gonna need no spirit in New York.” She laughs, “And I was wrong!”
Even her first attempt to apply for a Visa was greeted by the American embassy official with a sneer. “How do I know you’re not going there to work as a prostitute? How do I know if this man is your pimp and not your brother?’ So maybe this un-welcome should have tipped Mama Lola off to what was to come.
She leaves her three children in the care of her mother Philo and arrives in Brooklyn in 1962.
By December of 1963, she is dying.
“Before Christmas...I feel sick. My stomach, my chest. Oh boy! I can’t sit down. I can’t lay down. I can’t stand up. I can’t breathe also. I feel I’m going to die. I say “God please save me! Oh God what happen to me? tHen I think about my three children in Haiti...my mother...my family. THey bring me to Jewish Hospital in Prospect Avenue. I got fever of one hundred and six, and they put me in emergency room. I was so sick and I don’t get better.”
On January 8th, a priest arrives in her room to give Mama Lola her last rites. Diagnosed with an infection in her intestine, she is operated on, kept in hospital for a couple more weeks, then discharged. Or as she put it, “I feel alright, then they put me out.”
Mama Lola continues:
Kouzen (Creole for cousin) Zaka is a Haitian LWA. Bebe likely recognized him because his color is blue, especially blue denim (the outfit of a Haitian peasant). He is excellent to talk to in regards to herbs and herbal medicine. So when Mama Lola heard her sister-in-laws dream she knew what she had to do. She had to return to Haiti.
We’ve gotta stop and talk about Zombies for a minute here. Because white supremacist patriarchy creates and feeds fears that we gotta name and shame every time we see them... Witch, Zombie, Mummy. THese are the creatures that populate our nightmares. Through fright tales and horror movies, ancestors and their beliefs are turned to Monsters. To be feared, but not revered.
In her book Haitian Vodou, Manbo Chita Tann gives us a brief history of the Zombie. She writes: In the West African language called Kikongo, the word NSAMBI (en-sahm-bee) means “god” or “spirit”. [...] Haitians believe that in addition to the physical body, and the animate force that makes a living body different from a corpse, there is also a special spirit within a person: their eternal soul. [...] Members of the secret society are believed to know how to dislodge a person’s soul from his body. This [...] dislocation [...] renders that person barely living, incapable of anything other than basic function. THe term zombi has come to mean either the soul that has been stolen and enslaved (before or after physical death) or the living person whose soul has been stolen and enslaved in such a manner.
So it’s especially heinous that colonizers should enslave people, and then demonize even the word that came to denote a soul also stolen and enslaved.
We’re reminded of a drug, derived from seeds and essentially weaponized by Colombian criminals, known as the Devil’s Breath. The drug puts people into a zombie-like state - they lose both their memory and free will, blindly follow instructions to empty their bank accounts or give up the keys to their homes or cars. Waking up in a park 2 or 3 days later with no memory of what they had been led to do. So if you’re feeling cynical about Voodoo or Zombies, you might not be as safe as you think.
Because the capture of a soul doesn’t just happen through magic or voodoo or crime or even Maafa. A soul can be enslaved by any constant cutting down from the all too real world we live in. Or the person who had been so beat up and put down that they no longer have the strength or energy to care.
For the science minded among us, let’s cite the Atlantic, from an article titled: How Poverty changes the Brain:
“[The Brain’s] limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long term memory. When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.”
So Maybe we should be less afraid of being eaten alive by Walking Dead Zombies, and more afraid of what happens when a mind and a soul are enslaved.
But lucky for Mama Lola, or as Zaka, LWA and Bondye would have it - someone did care, many did, and Yvonne Constant paid Alourdes’ passage back to Haiti when it was her turn for Hands. Hands is a community based financial exchange - a good natured, well-intentioned cousin ? predecessor to the Pyramid scheme. If there are ten of you, and you each put in ten dollars a week, then each week, for ten weeks, someone gets $100. Except in Hands there is no pyramid. Just a circle … of protection and love.
When Alourdes arrives unannounced in Haiti, her mother sees her….and faints! Philo had also had a dream about her daughter returning, broken, from the United States. Within a few days of Mama Lola’s return, Philo had been possessed by Papa Ogou. This is not uncommon among Manbos, where the priestess becomes what’s known as a horse, and the LWA becomes the rider. Not dissimilar to the concept of the Zombie, but this time it is a temporary possession, not sinister, used only to deliver a message or instructions from the divine. This time the message was for Mama Lola. She said:
“Papa Ogou come in my mother’s head, and tell me I’m supposed see with card, you know...do spirit work...help people. That I don’t like!! I say Oh boy! How I’m going to do that? Because to help people you got to know a lotta thing. I say, ‘How I going to put all that in my head? My mother tell me, ‘don’t worry. You’ll manage.”
Mama Lola followed this instruction and still today uses an ordinary or extraordinary deck of playing cards as her primary tool for divination.
Karen McCarthy Brown describes the process of initiation and Mama Lola’s part in it. She writes:
By the 1970s, Mama Lola is a renowned Manbo, being called upon by people in need both in Haiti and in the U.S., or by her initiates when a case proved too tough to crack. The black mambo, dressed all in white, trekking across cursed fields and broken hearts with her pail of Florida water, limes, ashes, indigo, molasses...this is the Mama Lola that Karen McCarthy met and studied. The first edition of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn came out in 1991 and the book served to fuel Mama Lola’s already growing fame. Each edition after the first would feature her proud, beautiful, wise, do no harm but take no shit expression. Mama Lola accompanied McCarthy Brown on educational tours and fact-finding missions for years. She would continue to go back and forth to Haiti from time to time, from Brooklyn to Port-Au-Prince and around the world. Speaking. Helping. Building her reputation. Building her power. Her last trip to Haiti was in 2009.
A magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on the afternoon of January 12, 2010. More than half a million people were injured or killed, with millions more being displaced. One more disaster in a country that continues to suffer from centuries of political, economic, and social injustices and setbacks and inequalities. The earthquake was a disaster that would cause Mama Lola to claim she would never return to Haiti - her mother’s home, holy space and family altar destroyed... she said , “There is nothing left.”
In the new millenium Mama Lola took up practice at Voodoo Authentica, a voodou shop, museum and spiritual center in New Orleans, giving blessings and readings and performing other Manbo-ly duties with her daughter Maggie and god-daughter Brandi. A role the shop calls: Voodoo Ambassador. Brandi says, “Mama Lola just has this presence that says: I know who I am, and I am voodoo.[...] If you come to Mama Lola, you are a part of her.”
We reached out to the staff at Voodoo Authentica who told us that as of 2016, Mama Lola is officially retired. She is no longer performing any kind of spiritual work or readings, at least, not for the public, but the staff assured us that they are in frequent contact with Mama Lola, and that she is well, and living with her family.
We can’t leave New Orleans Voodoo without spiraling past one of its most famed practitioners: Marie Laveau. BOTH Risa AND I HAVE VISITED HER GRAVE IN SAINT LOUIS CEMETERY ON separate occasions. AND THERE IS ALWAYS EVIDENCE OF THE FAITHFUL WHO have passed by before, leaving offerings, as we did, of tobacco, marijuana, crosses and cards, flowers or coins. At some point, drawing Xs on her grave became the habit of those visitors seeking Marie Laveau’s help from beyond, but this damages the tomb and is discouraged by preservationists. In 2014, a restoration of her tomb was completed. A large fine is now in place for any visitor who attempts to write on the grave. You’ve been warned.
So let’s spiral this story backward one more time to 2007 at the doors of a sprawling California starlet mansion. And maybe as you enter you roll your eyes and wonder what Mama Lola is doing there. On this day, in this place, Alourdes might say to you, as she has said in the past: “I just do what I want. Nobody don’t tell me my business! What they mean? White people can’t have no spirit? Spirit for everybody!”
While it’s clear that Mama Lola’s relationship with Tori Spelling deserves no more than a footnote in her rich history, we can’t help but remark on the absurd balance that life and magic can produce. And it’s glorious to see Tori, the poster child for monied white privilege trusting and recognizing the power of the Haitian Manbo. And maybe we can admit to getting a bit of a post-modern thrill from watching Mama Lola pelt Tori with her special blend of herbs, oils and ice cold water. You can watch the video on YouTube.
But the best part of Mama Lola’s interaction with the star of Beverly Hills is the manner in which Alourdes replies to Tori’s complaints...: “It’s cold”, Tori shrieks. “It’s not cold” Mama Lola states back matter-of-factly and with authority, as if her speaking the words quite simply makes them true. The water is not cold. Tori stops complaining. Mama Lola’s words have changed reality.
Your words can change someone’s reality. We know this. And we all need help sometimes. We all need to care and be cared for. And we should all aspire to a Mama Lola level of balance between caring for ourselves, and caring for others.
So as we send you off to praise your ancestors and ruminate on the notion of care in your own healing journey, we ask Elegba, safe keeper of Ashe, ruler of doorways, standing at the crossroads of Human and Divine, to bless us, and you, as we offer up a splash of Florida Water and a quote from Mama Lola one last time : “I help all the people. Big people, small people, poor people, I’m there to help anybody...anybody… And all the people I help become my friend. My family... Papa Legba, open the gate!