Brown, anthropologist and Professor of Anthropology of Religion at Drew University, describes the life, religion and healing practices of Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, also known as Alourdes or Moma Lola, a priestess of Voodou, who emigrated to the U.S. from Port-au-Prince in Haiti at the age of 24. What began as an ethnographic research project on immigrant Haitians, turned into a deep personal friendship between Moma Lola and Brown, and a privileged look at the practices and patients of a priestess, and at the socio-cultural lifeworlds of the Haitian community in Brooklyn and in Haiti between 1978 and 1986.

The book presents an intimate description of an alternative healing tradition through a number of perspectives. Brown alternates between a personal, an analytical, and a descriptive narrative of Moma Lola’s own history and her encounters with patients. In some chapters, Brown fictionally reconstructs the patient’s stories, so that the book is part traditional ethnography, and part fiction.


Voodou emerged on slave plantations of 18th century Haiti as a blend of
an older African pluralistic spirit worship, with the saints and other elements of Catholicism of the French planter class. According to Brown, Voodou combines " . . . the skills of a medical doctor, a psychotherapist, a social worker, and a priest." (p.5) The book offers an education in a religious tradition that is often negatively stereotyped and misunderstood in the U.S.

Although the book is long, most of the chapters can be excerpted. Excerpts from the stories of Mama Lola and her patients could be paired with selected Haitian artworks in Karen McCarthy Brown’s Tracing the Spirit: Ethnographic Essays on Haitian Art ( Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995). The latter was published in conjunction with a tour of Masterworks in Haitian Art from the collection of the Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa, which holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Haitian Art in the U.S. Moma Lola’s richly told stories, and the visual images in Tracing the Spirit offer students a variety of engaging first-person narratives with which to consider aspects of Haitian culture and the history of its religious practices, non-traditional healing, and other cross cultural issues.


Univ. of California Press

Place Published

Berkeley & Los Angeles



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