Gyrating on the Hips of ‘Gede’ – by Manbo Dòwòti Désir

As we approach the tradition of Gede in Haiti, we reprint this article by Manbo Dòwòti Desir which originally appeared in the Haitian Times in 2013.

Dowoti Desir

Attend almost any Vodou ceremony and it is invariably interrupted by the Lwas of the Nasyon Gede.

The month of November however puts us all in a Gede “state of mind” when these particular Lwa or spiritual intermediaries, mounting their chwal (“horse” or possessee) are depicted as raucous and not infrequently ill-mannered beings.

 Gede- Nimbo, Loray, Zandò Gran Brigit, Samdi, Lakwa, are perceived as lewd, rude, perverse, and alternatively hilarious. They (male and female) are ancestral figures often sporting top hats: morning coats, walking sticks or grand dresses. The Gede, the old royals of Dahomey cum jesters with renewed authority in Ayiti, are the social rebels who affect licentious vakabònsmalelve.

With each fling of the hard gyrating hips of these epicene ancestral Lwa of liberation, space is reconfigured.

Defiant, libidinous flâneurs, the Gede are the eternal occupants of urban and metropolitan latitudes. Their white faces, a marker of their sacred state, are wrapped in dark glasses missing one lens. One eye is directed outwardly towards light, the present and future; and the other, behind the lens conversely towards the past but more specifically, the darker realm of the unknown.

They are the deceased among us. They are the repository of knowledge we obtain in our lives.

Pressing their hands against their loins, cigars lit, they slyly and defiantly cast aspersion on any subject both persons and thematic categories they wish: sex..politics..religion…priests…presidents and prostitutes. The more taboo and inappropriate, the louder and more loquacious their unsolicited editorials mirror our own impulses. But this is only and the most apparent reading of these envisib or mystè.

As the drums strike, we observe the movements of their hips. The intense interactions, wild abandon and lascivious free association with each other. We are shocked but amused. As they demand money from the congregation or sosyete, sliding phallic shaped canes between convulsing thighs, their exaggerated dance movements parade those of the Igbo, Yoruba, the Mahi and Ewe people. Their dances are from the Congo, Angola, Guinea and Senegal. In the future they will hail from the Americas: the Samba-, Bachatá-, Rumba-, and Krump-ing their way into the peristyle. Their sartorial wear is by choice a the formal garb of the Edwardian morning suit.

When we understand the contradiction between presentation and formation this caricature of politest and savoir faire, assumes complex resonance. We eventually realize another interpretation of their presence is required.

Avèk zozo-yo rèd e bouboun-yo bien chofe, the Gedes are the well-traveled beings versed in the most intimate details of the terrains they have entered, having crossed the roads of life and of death in the cycle of global wonderings. In solitarily pairings they emulate the motions of coupling: male and female certainly but when gathered in orgyeous bands they spill obscenities from pursed and pouting lips, simulating copulation mano á mano,femme sur femme. Copulation, derived from the Lain word “copula,” means something that connects or links together — and what they link together can be nothing short of spectacular.

These Lwa are the defiant, liberated beings who make the willful decision to synthesize disparate elements; connecting together seemingly incongruous objects and relationships — vacillating in spaces known and unknown and until successfully traversed (were) deemed forbidden. The characteristically salacious movements they engage are intended to birth innovation and new paradigms for living in the world.

When you see them in the days ahead, listen carefully, for the Gede even have their own elocutionary style. They speak in a uniquely high nasal intonation, accompanied by a kind of lisping. In a deliberate switching of consonants — they speak a “pidgin Haïtian,” if you will.

This juxtaposition of textures, demand aural agility and linguistic flexibility. Listen carefully, because it is then that we realize their songs and verbose ramblings are an attempt to negotiate difference in a world that encourages pathologies of ambivalence — a game of Double Dutch of the imagination, spirit, politics and culture that has rarely serviced the Haïtian person. The use of a morning suit in the heat of Léogane or Kinshasa or Salvodor do Bahia comes to question. The garment takes on added meaning and we ask ourselves, who is dictating the rules of game… of etiquette and our right to existence? Are those rules meant to benefit, stifle, or kill us?

The role of the Nasyon Gede, en effect, is to metaphorically and metaphysically decolonize the colony in the Americas. To liberate us the living — to ensure the survival of its children — pitit l’Afrik Ginen, we Africans in the Americas. Like the conductors of the modern British Underground (trains) who advise us to “Mind the Gap” — so too the Gede, warn us to mind the gaps in our thinking, our actions, desires, longings, lusting, apathy and inability to differentiate what we need from want we want.

They however, also mind and close “The Gap,” that is the massive physical abyss forcefully traveled by Africans across the Atlantic. The Gap is a topographic, visual, aural, epistemological and an ontological phenomena.

Ultimately, this nation of Lwa teach their adepts the value of investigation; the need to challenge the authority of the metropoles; to experimentation; and to appreciate the struggle that comes with resolve.

Within us they raise our innate capacity for recognizing our vulnerabilities as human beings.

We should respect and fear death, but more importantly we must struggle fearlessly but with a sense of humor to live life fully. Lastly, as the Protector of Children, the product of our couplings, we learn what and whom is worth fighting for, sheltering, and transmitting the power of our word. The Gede are the most sophisticated and urbane among us (living and dead) because they build the brigades of change that lead to sustainable existence, continued knowledge and cultural production and sageness… the dead know everything.

As our ancestors the Gede are instantiated in a place that facilitates encounters of rich possibility, of numerous bifurcations, multiple interpretation, vistas pou nou ka wè ke dèyè mon-la, ginyen mon.

Kwa kwaze kwa!

The Asosyasyon and Sosyete Klè Èrèz hosted a Gèdè party in Brooklyn in 2012. The colors Purple and Black associated with death are the colors of the Nayson Gèdè. Photos courtesy of Manbo Dowoti Désir

Dowoti Désir is a  Manbo Asogwe in Haïtian Vodou, a human rights activist and a scholar of the public, contemporary, and sacred arts of the African Diaspora. For more information on her work visit

The views expressed in this Op-Ed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Haitian Times.

This article was originally printed on November 1st, 2013.

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