The following is excerpted from Nan Dòmi: An Initiate’s Journey into Haitian Vodou, published by City Lights.

Aunt Tansia advised me to be resolute in everything I did, so as to be in control of my entry into Nan Dòmi—into the dream state. To dream is to see, she kept repeating. A dreamer is a medium, a witness to the unknown. Therefore, as a precondition he must distinguish the state of dreams from the state of the lwa.

“These are neighboring states,” she explained to me.

“What are the signs of each, then? How do I recognize them?”

“The dreamer enters into the unknown world. The lwa comes out of the unknown world and visits the known world through a medium (his chwal). The dreamer, in the course of his journeys, meets some entities and carries on dialogues with them. Or he might meet other dreamers in the form of energy. He can go back and forth quickly between the known and the unknown worlds, which always gives him the impression of being outside of time. The dreamer communicates beyond sound, while the lwa speaks the language of humans.”

Aunt Tansia explained that one can call upon a lwa directly by means of prescribed ritual acts such as the benediction of twa gout dlo, songs addressed to the lwa in which one requests its presence; or with the sounds of drums, tchatcha (maracas) and the like. On the other hand, one enters into a dream at a sign. The lwa comes by means of an injunction.

I was not satisfied. What troubled me most was that my body was being occupied and I was losing all control over it. I didn’t like that.

She advised me to let my body manage itself, because “the body has information that cannot be discerned through logic.”

I needed several lessons from Aunt Tansia in order to understand what she wanted to teach me. My confidence in her did not prevent a heaviness of spirit. I trusted her, but the weight still pushed down on me. I still clung to ways of thinking that hindered my progress.

“Certain things I experience when I begin to dream terrify me. Sometimes I have trouble breathing.”

“All that is because of your obstinacy in dragging logical thoughts along with you.”

I explained to her that often I felt peze (a sensation of swelling in the limbs) caused by something stronger than I was. I was afraid. Sometimes, I told her, I would call for help, but no sound would come from my throat. I would see people pass by again and again without heeding me. She called this state Pase pa filyè Lesprit (passing through the Spirit).

Aunt Tansia ordered me to attach a kakòn-je-bourik (a kind of dried fruit) to my navel. She said that I would soon begin to hear new sounds. She brought us two kakòn, but I failed to do as instructed. As if she were aware of this, she would ask me from time to time if there was anything new. Each time I answered her: “I haven’t done it yet.” But one morning she arrived with a resolute air and greeted me with a nod of her head. For a moment I thought my negligence annoyed her. I knew I was not observing the rituals. I was too rational to bend to practices that in my view seemed banal.

“You are too full of yourself. As you are now you will never come to control the state of dreams. Sooner or later, if you don’t strive to free yourself of your reason, you will find yourself depressed.”

I asked her what I should do.

“Dance my child, dance. Only dance can create an emptiness inside of you.”

“I don’t know how to dance. I am afraid of dancing.”

“Because you are holding on too much to the known world. Let your body vibrate to the rhythms. Space is rhythmic. Time is rhythmic. Everything dances. The entire universe and everything it contains, the energies dance.”

I was convinced and I asked her to help me. “Teach me to dance, Aunt.”

“As for me, I can’t teach you. Besides, my role here is coming to an end very soon.” Hearing her speak like this made me very melancholy. It was her way of getting me used to the idea of her departure for the unknown world. As if to console me, she enveloped me in her long dress.

“You need a konèsè (expert teacher) to teach you to feel your body. Listen carefully to me—dance is not logical, even though it is a discipline. Dance is madness, but it is controlled madness. Only a teacher who is knowledgeable has the capacity to lead you to the madness that is dance.”

“Tell me, are there ‘expert teachers’? What does that mean?”

“The expert teacher is the one who can see the outer shell containing the energies. You, for example, are enclosed in turtle’s shell. It will take a lot of strength to break it.”

“I want to find this teacher.”

“Look for him.”

“But how will I recognize him?”

“He will appear to you rolling his body in a movement that will remind you of the snake in your dream.”

“Why so many mysteries?”

“Because everything is a mystery. You are a mystery surrounded by mysteries.”

“Will this teacher be available to me?”

“He will, because breaking open your shell will be a challenge for him. It will be enough to encourage patience and cunning on his part so as to end with the complete gushing forth of your energy.”

“Will it take time?”

“Why do you speak of time? Don’t cling to time. Live in the kounye a-la-a (the present moment).”

She left that day, leaving me with another problem:

From that day forward, Aunt Tansia began a new phase of instruction. She taught me how to do the woule vant (belly dance) in two directions. The dance consisted of rolling my stomach from my pelvis up, then doing the same thing in the opposite direction. She advised me to perform this movement until I felt a sensation similar to an orgasm. Her plan was to lead me to become aware of the belly dance in my womb.

“The womb,” she said, “contains all our frustrations, our fears, our complexes, and the like.”

She suggested that I practice that exercise often, which would bring me relief and allow me to rid myself of fear. I agreed to exercise seriously.

“When you go shopping, for example, do the woule vant. It doesn’t matter where, or at what time, do your belly dance.”

One day I finally succeeded in experiencing the sensation she spoke about. I was in Pétion-Ville at a pharmacy. I had given my prescription to the clerk. As I waited for my medicine, I began the belly dance, and suddenly I heard a whirring in my ears. Concentrating, I realized that it was a noise like that made by the waves of the sea. The more I concentrated, the more I became aware that the noise was coming from my womb. There was a strange sensation in my navel. I felt a trembling at the level of my Fallopian tubes. I reacted by shaking my buttocks. The pharmacy delivery boy, who had just walked in, looked at me, wide-eyed.

“Do you have a fever with the shakes?” he asked me, anxiously.

“No, I am fine. I’m not ill,” I answered him calmly.

“Excuse me. Just now I thought I saw your body shake.”

“I am dancing.”

As if he understood, he burst out in laughter. I was observing myself as I danced. The dance released a certain suppleness in my movements. I set off experiencing the euphoria of my new dance. I was happy! On the way home, I composed a poem addressed to Aunt Tansia:


Ô Tansia!

I owe

My new birth to you

I want

To always love you

Only a mother

Has the patience

To give birth:

You did not lie

When you told me:

“Dance is the most

Beautiful ritual

That foments harmony

Between the body and the Spirit,

Dance is

One of the most beautiful languages.


Aunt Tansia loved to dance the Yanvalou. But she said she preferred the Kongo.

“A dance can make one laugh, cry, change a human being, many things. For dance is sacred,” she would say.

Six months later, when I saw Aunt Tansia again, I told her about the experience in the pharmacy.

“Keep it up,” she said. “You are going to be able to become conscious of another dimension through your movements.”

“You are right, tante. Dance has led me to another dimension.”

“Dance is a passport that permits you to take long journeys into the unknown.”

“I am going to enroll in a dance school. I have discovered that I love dance.”

“You must also enroll in space, in the world of mysteries. It is only through dancing that your allié will come to you. Your dance will attract him. He will see you and he will show himself to you. Then you will confront him with movements of the head, hands, hips, stomach, whatever you wish. I guarantee you will conquer him. Because, intoxicated by your movements, he will submit, stretched out at your feet. He will be your gad* (protector) and your counselor.”

“Does he have a set role? If he does, what prevents him from doing his work right now, helping me to find my balance?”

“Nothing or nobody. He only needs your consent.”

“But I agree that he should come to help me.”

“It isn’t enough to tell him so, one must be truly disposed to have him come.”

“I am, on condition that he executes all my commands.”

“He is not a slave but a protector guide who will take you wherever you wish, ‘san li pa eskize konesans a ou.’”

“What does ‘eskize konesans’ mean?”

“There are people who from birth have been chosen to fulfill the role of chwal. As they grow older, the pact is buried in their subconscious. But the Spirit will continue to dance on its chwal even when the chwal is not conscious of what is happening. That is called, ‘eskize konesans chwal la.’ It manifests itself whenever conditions are right. The Spirit se filyè (communicating spirit) acts unexpectedly. However, it can mount its chwal after having asked its permission beforehand. In that case, one says: ‘San li pa eskize-konesans-chwal-la.’”

Then she began a song:


M ape mande sa ka resevwa-mwen?

Ala m sòti nan peyi nan Ginen,

Tou sele ak gwo lwa nan tèt an m la,

M ape mande sa ka resevwa-mwen?

Ala mpa moun isit, o!


I’m asking, who is going to take me in?

I’m coming out of the land of Ginen

Saddled with a great Loa inside my head,

I wonder, who can take me in?

I’m not anybody from around here, no!


The song was beautiful and appropriate. I understood what she was teaching me. I was amazed. Aunt Tansia arose and stood face to face with me; she smiled. Her eyes were shining.

“Look at me, look how I dance. Do you want to sing, and I, should I dance? Sing while you do a belly dance. Breathe from the stomach, bring your breath up to the throat and expel the notes forcefully.”

I began to sing timidly; “M ape mande sa ka resevwa-mwen. . . .”

But she cried out: “Sing with your guts! My allié is there and he wants to meet you. At least sing for him.”

I sang louder, louder. You could say that the sound that came out of my throat had no limits. All I wanted was to feel movement at the level of my womb and to see myself dancing with Aunt Tansia.

She had her arms raised, mimicking the form of a bowl or some other round object. She thrust out her chest, stood up straight on the heel of her right foot, and on the toes of her left foot. She began to gesture. A moment came when I no longer recognized her. Her eyes were big and beautiful like two jets of light. An instant later I glanced at myself and I saw myself. I had also changed. Suddenly I felt a cramp in my neck, but I only saw balls of light. Some of them came toward me. I eluded them. They asked me for my news. I told them that everything was going well for the moment but that my body had certain failings that led to illnesses. One of them suggested that I correct these defects. I said that I did not know the secret to be able to do so.

“A massage with oil of palma-kristi* (castor oil) and of papaya leaves heated in clairin (unrefined rum distilled from cane sugar) will help you.”

I thanked it.

“But where is Aunt Tansia?” I asked.

“Here,” a voice answered.

She had taken on the form of a ball of bright light. By her side was a smaller light, which was slightly pink. I sensed that she was smiling at me. Something in my body affirmed it. I responded with a smile to her smile.

She made a sign for me to look to my left. I looked and I saw a ball of light the color of indigo blue. I loved it immediately. I wanted to get a bit closer, the better to admire it. It leaped up right before my eyes. I drew back. It advanced, I drew back again, but all around I felt immense balls of light brush against me. Their contact burned me. Aunt Tansia approached and asked them to retreat. They obeyed. She took my hand and ordered me to stop dancing. But I didn’t want to stop.

“Why,” I asked her, “why should I stop dancing?”

“Because you are going to find yourself gonmen (trapped) then gobe (eaten)!” she cried.

I stopped reluctantly and let myself slide down to the ground. She stood me up, passed her hand over my face and made me drink a large glass of water. At the same moment, all the balls of light disappeared. I sat down right on the ground, regretting the end of my vision.

“It is absolutely necessary for you to develop your energy,” Aunt Tansia said.

“What should I do for that to happen?”

“You must try to maintain a relationship with the Zany of your family, with Djètò a (the ancestral soul).”

“I don’t understand what you mean to say.”

“The group of fields of energy that you have just seen constitutes your family. You followed me into the world of the lwa. You have communicated with the lwa of your family. You lacked vigilance, one moment more and you would have been trapped, because you are not balanced.”

I stood up and sat on the big above-ground root of the kénépier tree (which is located on the east side of the house). She followed and sat alongside me.

“I think it’s stupid that I am trapped, as you say. What have I done to displease them?”

“You love words too much. You only feel safe when you have explanations.”

We continued sitting on the root without saying a word. Suddenly, she began again: “Can words account for the living bond that joins you to the Zany of your family? Can words sound the depth of a Djètò or the intentions of the Djehoun* (Mystery of the Word)?”

I told her that the state I had found myself in just before had pleased me, but that now I was beginning to be afraid of it. She looked into my eyes and I was unable to sustain the force of her stare. I lowered my head.

“You are too inclined to obsession. That is why these energies could have trapped you and eaten you afterwards.”

She explained to me that when one sets out on the road to consciousness one must free oneself of all obsessions, whatever the cost.

“In order to rid oneself of obsession, it is necessary to have clear communication with Ginen-an. And in order to have that communication one must pass through filyè.”

She explained to me that some dreamers have been able to establish a line of communication with their lwa. These dreamers are storytellers. The fact that they can recount stories shows them the road to perfection, to liberty. She told me that the Ginen of the old order recounted stories—oral tales like Bouki ak Ti Malis.[1]

“However, with the new order, there are going to be new stories. They will originate through the leadership of the Mysteries and under the auspices of the Ginen. The storytellers of the new order will know how to manipulate their bond of communication with the Mistè. The goal of these storytellers is to transcend their own stories.”

“What bothers me,” I asked her, “is how do I develop this bond of communication with the mysteries?”

“By developing your personal power. Without that there are neither dreams nor Zany.”

“But how can I attain that? Tell me,” I insisted.

“Begin by traveling with your Ti Bonnanj. Let yourself go.”

“Let myself go where?”

“To Ginen,” she answered dryly.

“But where do I leave from to be sure that I am on the Ginen way?”

“Ginen is present everywhere. All you need is to want to go.”

I knew all that, but I had forgotten it. I was agitated. I wanted to know more. Aunt Tansia’s departure for the other world, the unknown world, was drawing near. The idea that she was going to leave me created a kind of impatience. I wanted to understand everything at once. My intellect took the upper hand: I felt caught in the trap of a myth. I asked Aunt Tansia to tell me how she had been able to remain faithful to her obligations, retain the rules and methods, and to teach me. She responded that she had to do nothing other than take advantage of what she found already accomplished: “The Ginen who preceded me did an immense amount of work. After many trials and under the efficacious direction of the Ginen, I was able to learn.”

She didn’t have time to finish. Suddenly I felt something grab me from behind, obliging me to stand up. Aunt Tansia ordered me to relax. I don’t know how I was able to do so, but I relaxed.

“Concentrate on your womb,” she advised.

I was aware of my belly, but all of a sudden I began to see lights: red, white, then indigo blue. From that moment forward, I felt light and strong at the same time. Someone I could not see was on my right. Its voice spoke to me: “I am going to show you something.”

I was held up under my left arm, and the two of us started to fly through the air. I was happy. We traveled for a long time. “Look down below!” The voice had me view a construction made from columns of light. It was beautiful, sublime, spectacular!

“It is the future civilization,” the Unknown one confided to me before disappearing.

I returned to my normal state an instant later. I wanted to recount my vision to Aunt Tansia. But she made a sign for me to be quiet and gave me water to drink. I understood what she wanted me to do. I drank and proceeded on to the Jete.

“I dreamed, Aunt.”

“Rather, you were sele (saddled).

“What do you mean?”

Yon Zany sot danse nan tèt a ou” (A Zany was just dancing in your head) she said.

“I saw things. How do you know that it was a Zany? I was conscious.”

“It spoke to me and made me see what you were seeing. The explanation is that ‘eskize konesans a ou.’ I was saddled just as you were by the same Zany.”

I did not understand this practice. But, the fact was that I was in the midst of living the experience. I asked, “How does one sense the approach of a Zany? I am completely confused. I thought I was dreaming.”

“Don’t concern yourself with this. One senses the arrival of a Zany in different ways. You may feel a vibration inside your head, a blow perhaps, on the back or the neck. It is a Zany knocking on your door to discuss with you the location of the place where your corporeal shell is to be found. That has no price, my child. Don’t haggle. Let it come in. For it has come no doubt to work or to bring an important message.”

I said no more, but I rejoiced in my inner being that Aunt Tansia was a great master.

She asked me, “If I come one day to knock on your door, will you open it to me?”

Aunt Tansia made Janbe into the other world in 1981, leaving me a weighty inheritance to carry and above all to manage.


[1] Allegorical figures in Haitian stories.