Each medal has two sides and an invisible third. Interviewing Houngan Jean-Daniel Lafontant as a final work of Cecilia Lisa Eliceche for the course:

“Anthropology of food” dictated by Prof. Vilson de Caetano Junior in the Federal University of Bahia - UFBA. december2021

Cecilia: I am deeply thankful to prof. Caetano for welcoming me into his class, for his incredibly important book “Banquete Sagrado” and for inspiring me to interview my father Houngan Jean-Daniel Lafontant. I am thankful beyond words, from the depth of my heart and soul and in eternity to Papa Da for his teachings, love and friendship. Papa Da your words are everything and all. Ayibobo!

Jean-Daniel Lafontant: Ceci, I am writing to you from the US where I traveled to before Christmas, but after preparing for the Makaya baths and the upcoming “Gad” ceremony. All is in place at NRV for Makaya, but exceptionally, the rituals will happen on January 21st instead of December. But as always, the sacred ceremony and community offering of “Soup Joumou or Soup endependans” will take place in my absence early morning of January first. This is a good introduction for your subject, as you can start on the 1st day of the year. By the way, this month Soup Joumou (pumpkin soup) was recognized by UNESCO as an immaterial world patrimony. In Haiti, it is considered a sacred meal, consumed by the large majority of Lwa and people. It is the meal that symbolizes Ayiti’s independence. It is part of our spiritual egregor and has transcended Vodou. It is a “creole” recipe as it is a mixture of all cultures that has influenced the nation. Those who have the means consume it every Sunday morning. Sunday is in many Lakou the day of Milokan or all the Lwa of the Rada tradition. The yellow colour of Soup Joumou is that of Papa Loko, the supreme element of priesthood in the Asongwe tradition.


Papa Da, this is so wonderful! I hope I’ll be able to be with the whole NRV family soon. Can we continue with the foundation? How did you decide to found Na-Ri-VéH?

I was initiated as a Sèvitè / Houngan in the tradition of Lakou Djisou in 1997. And the Lwa of my maternal ancestors guided me to continue my learning in the environment of my ancestral paternal Lwa. Elegba Zanglyan opened the gates and Mèt M’Ogounou led me to the place where I was born, and where my father before me was born. The Lwa did the work, I was simply their hand. All was inspired… I was guided from the first vision, one I had in New-York in 1991. I planted the Poto-Mitan on December 17, 1997, and this is all it took. The rest is history as I simply worked every day, when I could, at healing people and serving the Lwa. The physical construction of the space started in 1999 when I finished erecting the Poto-Mitan and slowly building rock by rock, one day at a time. After each ceremony I would have a vision; sometimes I was guided by the Lwa to hang a piece or else. It is a continuous process, an intimate passionate love between the Lwa, the people and the spirit within. It is beyond passion and obsession… a divine dedication to the ancestors and Vodou.


How important was food in its establishment?

Food is what vivifies the Lwa and gives them and us the force and the energy to be. Food gives the strength and the protection to be. The power of silence, the verb, the Vèvè and Food is the beginning. My first act in December 1997 was a simple ceremony and food offering to all the Lwa, it was served in the hole dig to place the Poto-Mitan. Food is what made the Poto-Mitan alive. The blood, the energy of living being offered to the Lwa and my ancestors gave them life again, mystical power. Food and libation continuously enhance the vigor and the power of the Lwa.

Poto-Mitan in Na-Ri-Véh

Did it play any role in the construction of the temple and the rooms?

Each room belongs to a Lwa or a Nanchon (family, kingdom, or group) of Lwa. To become sacred and vivified a place or room must be served food and offerings. These offerings must be placed, buried, or hanging for the Lwa; if not consumed physically by this Lwa. Each sacred place in the Temple, whether it is inside or outside was served food, libation, verbs and Vèvè. And continuously, during each ceremony food is placed on the altar of the Lwa, in their sacred rooms or places. The Lakou in its entirety is constantly fed. Every vodouvi or person that enters the temple pours water, coffee and other libations in front of the Poto-Mitan. When food is made in the name of the Lwa, a plate is set in front of the Poto-Mitan as an offering to all the Lwa, except Marassa who is constantly served separately.

Can you speak a bit about the menu at Na-Ri-VéH? Is there a particular food for days? Or how is the menu decided?

Food in Vodou and at NRV is intimately related to the relationship between the Lwa, the fauna and the Flora of the Caribbean region and specific kingdoms of Africa. It is also the essence of our livelihood as Vodouvi. Each Lwa consume specific food; that includes specific animal parts, different herbs, spices, roots, grains, fruits, leaves and other commodities. The Lwa have their own desert, drinks, and liquor. Another important aspect is the presentation of the food, which is often linked to the colours of the Lwa, the plants and elements they use or favor, their persona, their specific mission, etc. For instance, some Lwa receive their food on a banana leaves instead of a Kwi (calabash) or in a metal plate instead of a regular or wooden dish. Some are vegetarian, others eat raw. Sometimes the food is combined. For instance, in the case of Marassa 2 or 3 different seeds or grains, or 2 or 3 different meats will be mixed… all that to highlight the singularity, the duality or trinity of Marassa-En (1), De (2) or Twa (3). The color of the food is significant, Ezili Freda eats white or pink fish, white rice, white bread, and her cakes are white and pink. These are her symbolic colours. Ezili Danto, who is a very dark woman eats rice and black beans and well roasted pork meat. Her food tends to be black. Ogou eats a red rooster, its symbolic animal and color (red)… Everything DanballaH is white, including the drink sirop d’Orgeat. By the way, DanballaH and AyidaH don’t drink alcoholic beverages.

The menu at NRV is conceived based on the day of the week, as each day belongs to a Lwa. For instance, Tchaka or Bouyon could be made on a day to celebrate Lwa Kouzen or Kouzin Zaka. A rooster can be cooked on Wednesday in tribute to Papa Ogou; Griyo and bannann peze can be made on Tuesdays or Saturdays as a tribute to Ezili Dantò. And the list goes on. Of course, if someone fancy a food, anything can be cooked at any time.

NRV’s yearly calendar of activities and menu is inspired by the traditional food of the Lwa. When possible, our cooking mirrors the principle of the sacred offerings. In Vodou, as much as possible, all that is used should be organic and preferably local. We try to use the menu daily. If it is not possible, as Vodouvi, we adapt to the reality of life.

Floradine, Emmanuella Clergé (chef at Na-Ri-VéH) and Ruth serving: Griyo (fried pork meat), bannann peze with Pikliz for a dance offering for “Haiti o Ayiti”

When you wake up the first thing you do is pour water libations next to the Poto Mitan, light a candle and knock on the doors of the Lwas. Can you talk about libations?

The offering to the Lwa is a reminder not only of their power and existence, but of living in unity with them. Part of it is also an offering to the ancestors. To remind us that we are our ancestors and that we carry within us not only their general memory, but also their living memory. As I believe that we carry within us not only the memory of the ancestors but their experience. I believe I am a recipient of what my fathers, my forefathers, my mothers and grandmothers lived in their own life, good and bad. By tapping into that memory, I know that I carry not only their experience but also their knowledge and their science. By pouring a libation, water on the floor, by pouring coffee as a sign of respect for the ancestors, it’s a constant reminder of who we are and how we should live in harmony with those invisible forces, those forces that are by far more in terms of existence than the visible, than the physical that we see. It is a way to revive ourselves and a way to pay tribute to all the energies and forces that are invisible or that we can’t see. It’s an exchange. So, to make offerings is to vivify these forces, and vivify us as human beings and elements of nature. This is the symbolism of offering.

Can you talk about breakfast?

For many, breakfast is light. It often starts with a biter infusion of various leaves. It is after followed by a cup of coffee, often too sweet, with bread or cassava. But as we start the day, most need the sugar rush. Some in the peasantry will boil roots like yam and sweet potatoes, or bread fruit, cassava fruit, plantain with leaves or vegetable. The most fortunate, will use a spicy and salty herring sauce to top it. In the crowded cities, breakfast when possible is taken on the street and consist of fried patty with egg and veggie, fried egg sandwich, spaghetti and hot dog… the healthy get a boiled egg with a banana, a piece of bread and sometime a slice of avocado. But often, once rushes out and only get a cup of coffee or a shot of clairin / kleren to bite the dust and wait for a midday chen janbe (street meal of rice a bean, a piece of chicken or stew). Peanuts are eaten before lunch to kill hunger and give energy. Often it is replaced by Manba (peanut butter), a great source of protein. It is said that during the war of independence the indigenous fighters would spend days without eating. They fed on a powdered call Chanmchanm (a combination of crushed peanuts, corn, sugar and salt). This is to date, one of our kids favorite delicacy; but one must be careful as if you swallow too much you may choke.

At NRV we start the day with an herbal tea with salt. Could you say what herbs go in the tea?

The day starts and ends with infusion. The morning infusion is most often bitter, with a touch of salt. It helps cleanse the system and protects against sickness, poison… It also regulates the digestive system. The night infusion is sweet or bitter-sweet. The leaves are diverse, but often you will find: Assossi, Yawve, Twa Zòm Fò, Dèyè Do, Gwo Ten, Eucalyptus, Lalwa… A previous symptom would often determine what morning infusion to prepare. Don’t forget that barks, roots, flowers, and some animal parts (example shark fins and bones) are used in kleren concoction or other. We used them also in infusion.

Could you speak about salt? The salt in relation to the tea and then the production of salt in Haiti?

Salt is the spice of life; it gives energy, enhances brain waves and activates the cells. It also gives potency to many remedies. Salt is produced in many parts of Haiti, but its highest salinity is found in the coastal Artibonite region. It helps us with the preservation of fish and meat. Salt is also added to many libation drinks. Particularly for the Lwa of the sea like: Agwe, Lasirèn, Labalèn. Even Ogou Balendjo (Warrior Captain of a boat) drinks his rum with a pinch of salt. This is a good remedy for sore throat. Salt also chases bad spirit and negative energies and is used propitiously to kill bad omen. It is with incense a purifying element. It is also poured in fire to vivify a Gad or a Pwen (Protectors and guard heated by fire for magical and mystical reasons). We also pour salt in the fire of our pens and feray. 

After the tea we normally drink coffee and/or hot chocolate with Kasav or bread with Mamba.

LOL. I am personally a huge fan of kasav, coffee, Manba and hot chocolate. I get most of my protein from Manba, I prefer it with salt and a taint of hot pepper. Some prefer it with sugar. In the morning, I will get Kasav and Manba with a large cup of Haitian dark, strong black coffee. And with no sugar. In the evening, I would fancy a cup of hot 100% Haitian Cocoa, name Chokola, from the Greater North or the Grande-Anse region. I’ll take it with half a spoon of brown sugar with a slightly toasted piece of good bread and salted butter. I am salivating… It is unfortunate that good bread is now scarce in Haiti. Bakers are worried about profit and no longer produce quality bread. That niche market has disappeared.

Could you speak about coffee, what kind do you like? What kinds are available?

I prefer coffee from the Grande-Anse region, specifically from Beaumont. I tasted the Haitian Blue produced in the Nord-Ouest region, and it was excellent. However, it is now only for export and hard to find locally. When my providers are unavailable, it has been the case for the year 2021, because of a blockage of the road leading to that region, I consume coffee commercially produced by Geo Wiener family called Café Selecto. It is 100% Arabica; I hope 100% Haitian Arabica as it is said to be the best in the world. I guarantee one thing, if it is from Beaumont, it is 100% organic and the best in the world. In terms of blends, Arabica is endemic to Ayiti and certified among the best in the world. There is also Typica in some parts of Haiti. But more research will give you access to broader information.

Beyond my taste, coffee is ingrained in the history of Haiti and has been the crop of wealth of Haiti for centuries until its massive production in Brazil and elsewhere. At the eve of the 19th century and until 1803 there was a massive transfer of the coffee expert production from Haiti to Cuba. Many French slave master and many Maroons who had develop expertise in the production of the black gold moved to Cuba. That second brain drain after the first exodus to New Orleans would take away productive experts from the field. It would however develop important cultural bonds, transfer of knowledge and development to Cuba. These prominent maroon communities would find freedom in an explosive Cuban economy. Coffee has created its own ecosystem in Haiti. Its tradition is still very strong and is directly linked to the Makaya, the Gede, and the Petwo rites. We celebrate our ancestors everyday by pouring coffee 3 times on the soil before drinking it. Every Monday in front of the altar of Baron Lakwa we place a cup of coffee. Our native ancestors use coffee as a remedy, and we are the keepers of that tradition.

How is chocolate made?

Cocoa produce in Haiti is also considered one of the best in the world. Both Cocoa and coffee are part of the production eco-system as the coffee needs the shadow of Cocoa and citrus trees to grow and evolve. Most of the Cocoa trees are also found in high altitude where coffee grows and benefits from the same organic environment. The production is primarily artisanal, and the bulk of it is used for export. But, in recent years a couple of Haitian who studied abroad have created small scale refineries which are quite promising.


Could you speak more about Kassav?

Kasav is a direct heritage from our native ancestors. It is a root called Cassava known in Ayiti as Manyòk. Both words are Taìno. There are two varieties of Manyòk, one bitter and one sweet. Kasav is made with the bitter one and it is poisonous. The process is quite intricate as it requires expert extraction of the toxic substance before drying the grated powder of the Manyòk. The dried grated powder of the cassava is mixed with other ingredients such as coconut powder, salt, sugar, sesame and others, depending on the region and the taste of the consumers. It is precisely baked on a metal plate. The size of a cassava varies; its rayon may vary from 4 inches to 48 inches, and further. Once baked to perfection it becomes crisp or chewy. Kasav or Cassava bread can last for months and the Manyòk roots and the cassava contains the rare curative B17 Vitamins. It was the favorite meal of the maroons and is consumed today by the entire population. Sailors particularly consume it because it can last for months.

You mentioned briefly bread and bakers. Could you speak more about the bread? Who makes it? Is it made by the ladies that sell it in the street? Is it industrial?

Most bread is made in artisanal bakeries that use wood. However, metropolitan cities have some modern installations that make bread in “large” scale and use propane and in some instances electricity (generator). It is a very lucrative business. The resellers (primarily women) market and sell the bread for a good margin. It has a high turn over and some retailers make two purchases a day. In Vodou, a bread in the shape of a snake can be prepared and set on the altar during a ceremony in honor of DanballaH and AyidaH. The Gede often have a piece of bread or Kasav in the kwi that contains their food. Bread and cassava play the same role, but are consumed by one Lwa or another based on their preference. Because Kasav is perceived as the bread of the poor and the peasantry, Ezili Freda who is a “prima donna” will consume bread and not Kasav. However, Kouzen or Kouzin Zaka who are agriculturalists would favor kasav over bread.

Every night at Na-Ri-VéH Mathieu Dominique serves everyone Kleren / Clairin he makes. Can you say more about Kleren. What is it? What are the different kinds Mathieu makes: vetiver, ginger, pineapple, spicy….

The Tranpe or Gwòg (Kleren mix with roots, lianas, barks, herbs, plants, bones…) are recipes of Na-Ri-VéH. They are remedies as each have their own properties. Many consumes them for their manhood, others to cleanse their body, some for the high… the list goes on as each tranpe has its secret. Before drinking everyone would do a libation for the Lwa and spirit. The Vodouvi believes that kleren will heat up the earth beneath our feet and the Lwa themselves. Each plant has its virtues. Each tranpe has its benefits and secrets. The one who mixes it follows instructions and knows the proportions; but the true virtues are secret. Each medal has two sides and an invisible third.

Mathieu Dominique and Kleren case

Could you speak about the beautiful box where the Klerin glass bottles are kept?

The box was painted by Riccardo Jeannot and his dad. It was made by Boss Napo for my Badigan (right hand person) Guyto at the time. Guyto use to sell cigarettes, clairin, tranpe and other things in the streets in front of the temple. I designed the box for him and made it quite heavy to discourage its moving around. This brings back such good memories. Guyto passed many years ago, but his memory is vivid at NRV. 😊


I would love to talk about the food for the Lwa. And specifically ask you if there are different procedures that must be done for food that is meant for the Lwa. Do you have to perform certain moves, rituals, songs, drawings etc.. that will make the food “edible” for the Lwa.

Food for the Lwa must not contain chemicals, cubes, garlic… Generally, it is cooked in wood charcoal or wood. No gas or electric oven… The woman that cooks the food of certain Lwa can’t have their period. Often the cook is an older female. Some Lwa prefer their food cooked by a male and so on. Everything is ritualistic when it comes to feeding and serving the Lwa. The food must be washed and clean in a certain way. It should be presented to the Lwa and blessed before cooking. The specific parts retained for the Lwa are separated, often a song for the Lwa is sang while cleaning or cooking. Once cooked, the food is presented in a very specific way; first presented to the four elements and cardinal point. After it is presented in front of the Poto-Mitan with a candle. Last, a Vèvè is traced where the food is going to be arranged.

Does the word enchantment mean anything to you in this context?

Yes. Because that is one of the most magical parts of a ritual or ceremony.

November was the Fet Ghede at NaRiVeh and you told me it was fantastic. Let’s talk about Fet Ghede 2021. What happened to the food made for Gede?

They ate it and shared part of it with the community. They had goat, smoked herring and fish. It was really goooood! Emmanuella is a divine cook. I have in my 25 years running NRV never found such cook.

We need to do a special interview with Emmanuella Clerge!!!!! Papa Da, do the Gede eat everything?

Most often yes. Gede and Kouzen are the most gluttonous Lwa. Hahaha!

If there is something left, what is done with the remains?

What is left is buried by following specific rituals. For some Lwa, the bones of the meat eaten can not be thrown away, crushed, or discarded. In that case, someone collects all the bones they are left aside for a set period; generally, 3 or 7days. Depending on the Lwa the bones are discarded, buried, hung or used as a talisman… All is performed by following specific rituals.

Fèt Gede at Na-Ri-VéH 2021 with Manbo Selès (Francoise Celestin / Foufoune) in front of the altar dressed for the occasion


Finally, I wanted to ask you about the herbs that are in packets hanging from the ceiling at Na-Ri-VéH. These are herbs that you mentioned you use for initiations and other ceremonies. You mentioned that you can find these herbs in the market but the ones hanging have been gathered in a particular place, at a particular time, in a particular way. In western modern science a plant is given a name and said to have fixed immutable properties. However, in the High Science of Vodou a plant that carries the same name can have completely different properties and powers according to its context and the way it is handled. Could you speak more about this?

Herbs, plants, roots, barks, flowers, animal plants, rocks, trees and everything in life and nature has an energy that differs based on elements of the universe. Everything is sacred, every organism has its secret. A flower does not have the same properties at 6:00AM, at noon, at 6:00 PM or at midnight. East of a river, a plant will cure, west of the river it will destroy and vice-versa. We ought to listen to nature at all times; we have to talk, negotiate and make deal with everything that surrounds us all the time. A rock picked up from the ground can’t be moved randomly to serve a purpose. An animal must accept the sacrifice of being offered to a Lwa and a community if the animal refuses we will set them free. We can’t impose our rules on anything in this earth. We must talk, listen, observe, and make deals with every leaf, being or energy as they are one with us. My greatest loss in that fire was the long hours I spent negotiating with the plants before bringing them to NRV. These plants are crucial for medicine, initiation, cooking, concocting and everything in our everyday life. For me it was the greatest loss. But it has given me the opportunity and the immense privilege to go back, be with nature and do it again. May you be there with me.

In Vodou we are one with everything. We acknowledge that everything that is, is a parcel of the divine and of the divine within us. A plant is only curative by free will, yet its higher purpose is to help even if destroyed. In Vodou spirituality it is the same of us. When we realize that everything in us is an emanation of the divine, we realize that we are one and indivisible with every parcel of the earth. Then, we will see the power of our magic, the power of nature, the power of the Lwa…