Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. Dezember 2002

WEST AFRICA / HAITI : The Voodooic Bridge

Manuel Durand-Barthez (Toulouse)


Introduction:Voodoo as Deterritorialization

In 1938, the French ethnologist Michel Leiris met the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. This painter was deeply marked by the influence of African art, with which he had become acquainted quite artificially in the studios of European artists, Picasso among others. In fact, long before this indirect experience, he was naturally inclined to draw and paint according to an African inspiration, due to his godmother's devotion. She practiced the Santeria, an Afro-Cuban cult, akin to the Brasilian candomblé. He remembered the smell of the putrid flesh which filled her house after the purifying sacrifice of guinea fowls, the African-type utensils or statuettes which placed him under the protection of the Yoruba gods, Shango, master of the thunderbolt, and Jemoya, syncretically identified with the Virgin de la Merced. (Leiris 42-43.)

Back from Africa, Ernesto Che Guevara admitted that, despite some formal details showing a distant cultural approach, Lam's painting belonged to the ritual art of Black people and showed an authentic kinship between Cuba and Africa. (Leiris 53.)

Michel Leiris analyzed in particular one painting of Wifredo Lam called Eternal Present (1944), rearranged four years later under the title Beliar It shows two women, one representing the colonial crossbreeding of West and Tropics instead of the union of the races, a hybrid mulatto, disturbing, a beast with two mouths; the other, an African creature, armed with a big knife and thunder, with the scepter of Shango. This opposition may incidentally illustrate Frantz Fanon's topic of "Black skin and white masks".

Wifredo Lam introduces us to the problem of deterritorialization, which is a significant characteristic of Voodoo. As a result of conflicts or alliances, a territory can be enlarged or diminished, may also grow as a metastasis, through, for instance, exile, due to the slave trade or modern migrations. Contact is kept with gods who emanate from human minds and simultaneously exert a determining influence on human beings. These can, in their turn, phagocyte foreign gods, even enemy gods, whether victorious or defeated.

Transactions around Unique Gods

Such a phagocytosis may proceed in the syncretism as means of self-immunization against the enemy power, so that it allows the captive community to slip into a new way of life generating emancipation. In the Haitian case, the slaves did not invoke an avenging God: they trusted their own gods who infiltrated "deities" of the opposing camp. Deities, in this case, are Christian saints, substitutes of their Loas (spirits). Not the supreme God. According to testimonies collected by the French ethnologist Alfred Metraux, Haitians consider the Christian God as a Deus otiosus, whose shape remains indeterminate, who is too distant and thus cannot hear human prayers. For Haitian believers, the supreme Christian God is "a good-natured daddy, unable to get angry nor to frighten, with whom it will be easy to manage on the last day." (Metraux 72.)

In fact, such an attitude seems quite compatible with the Yoruba's behavior towards God the Creator "variously known as Olorun (`the owner of the sky') or Olodumare (roughly translated as `the Almighty'), among many other names. Unlike Shango, who has dozens of shrines erected to him, Olorun has not a single shrine; the Yoruba never make sacrifices to him, and he has no priests. [...] The Yoruba find the concept of an almighty God so overwhelming and remote that they cannot relate Olorun to their reality." (url Nat. Univ. Singapore.)

Set against such a "dry" and inhuman Almighty, African mythology, which we are considering here, admits the concept of a coupled and fertile deity. Two main traditions may be emphasized here: the Fon (Dahomey) and the Yoruba (Nigeria).

As far back as 1658, catechisms call the Christian God "Vodu" and Jesus "Lisa". Lisa is the male and white twin brother of Mawu, the black sister, whose name is mentioned in a letter written to the king of Denmark, in the Fon language, by Popo slaves living in the West Indies. Mawu and Lisa are then the constitutive parts of the entity called Voodoo. (Thornton 1998 89-90)

The Yoruba recognize a similar couple: Orishala (Obatala, Orisa-nla) and his wife Odudua. Their relation with Olorun is variously defined according to the legends: dependence or precedence. They reign upon minor gods. The Yoruba may have suggested to the Christian missionaries that Jesus was allied with such minor deities.

Still considering the position of monotheism versus the animism, it may be interesting to observe in the Bori Hausa group (Northern Nigeria and Niger) an opposition between the white Moslem God (related to a society of men, villages, civilization, domestic and reasonable spirits) and black animist gods (associated with the bush, the uncleared lands, unknown spirits, uncontrolled, evil and mad deities) (Lombard 428). Moslems of the Bori Hausa group were deported together with animists and had to share with them a common destiny in the West Indies.

This comparison reflects a symmetric concept based on another socio-economic level: the Christian monotheistic God on one side, the polytheistic Voodoo on the other. The Christian God cannot be inserted into the Voodoo pantheon: only his saints can, because of their plurality, considered as avatars. According to Leslie Desmangles, it is clear that "the saints lose the personalities ascribed to them by Christian hagiology and acquire those of Dahomean deities." (Desmangles 15.)

Beyond the truism of the difference between two Weltanschauungen, we should analyze its progression towards syncretism, first of all with the symbol of the cross.

The Christian cross may represent an intersection between love and death, sacrifice and torture, giving and taking back. Its connotation is obviously pathetic.

Yet, "the cross is the most important symbol in Vodun. It represents the crossroads of human destiny as represented by Legba, it is the symbol of the avenue of communication between the profane world of men and the sacred world of the Loas." (Desmangles 15.)

The Voodoo cross is the intersection between the four cardinal points and the crossroads of the terrestrial world (horizontal axis) and of La Ville aux Camps, an underground mythic land (vertical axis). Legba is the Saint Peter of the sacred shore of the Land of Ifé, towards which the faithful travel when the spirits, the Loas, ride them while they are in a trance. La Ville aux Camps, Ifé, Africa...

The capital and religious center of South-Western Nigeria, Ifé, is one of the principal cities, which emerged at the end of the first Millenium at this latitude. The Haitian devotees travel spiritually to Ifé. The voodooic representation of the African motherland is La Ville-aux-Camps, the above-mentioned mythic land situated under the poto mitan of the hounfort (temple), the central pillar and deep in the Earth.

Historians have studied the different phases of conversion to Christianity on the African continent at the beginning of the slave trade. Naturally missionaries had the first contact with kings and chiefs. Financial transactions were facilitated by a kind of diplomatic maneuver, which finally showed that the colonist's religion was incontestably better but nevertheless not so far from the aboriginal.

The Catholic clergy accepted assimilations, especially in the Congo, between God and Nzambi Mpungu (alias Nzambe Kana or Olorun), on one hand, between Christian saints and territorial deities, on the other. This acceptance is mutual, even if, of course, in quite a different mental context which we shall develop later. But in some other cases, the clergy refuses revelations made known to non-Catholic aboriginal diviners, such as possession, even if it presents a Christian aspect. For example, a woman possessed by Saint Anthony in the Congo was burned alive in 1706 (Thornton 1998 88).


Crossing, Converting

The rapid development of the slave trade generates later quasi automatic conversions on board the ships. The Dutch operate very quickly and sometimes neglect to convert the embarked people. The Spanish and the Portuguese still follow instructions from Rome. This competition stimulates their zeal. They use mainly African middlemen who know the aboriginal cosmology well (Thornton 1988 270) and can interpret the Christian discourse in a parallel sense (cf. supra catechisms of 1658). That makes the conversions quicker on board, and facilitates assimilation. This word "assimilation" is indeed a unilateral concept, or may be bilateral, conveying a different meaning on each side: a dominating maneuver, on the one hand, a self-immunizing absorption, on the other. But, of course, the work is less thorough than on the African continent. It is more or less considered as an administrative immigration formality.

So, for colonists with a Latin mentality, slavery is a business coupled with a religious ideology for circumstantial political reasons, whereas for the Dutch (who are indeed not in the camp of Rome), it is mainly an economic activity.

We now approach the phase of the forced settlement of a mixed population in the West Indies. In 1727, writes Metraux, (20), the king of Dahomey "emptied" the territory of Ouidah (called Juda in travel accounts). He sold about ten thousand slaves per year. Later on, that number was doubled, and six to eight thousand of these slaves were set apart for the French West Indies (Roland 270). In Saint-Domingue, in 1789, 40,000 Mulattos lived alongside 30,000 Whites (Metraux 33). According to P.I.R. James, cited by Frantz Thébaud (122), in the same period on the same island, 452,000 Black slaves lived on 8512 plantations.

John Thornton insists on the triple origin of the religious feelings (1998 91) reported by a Jesuit missionary in Saint-Domingue (beginning of the 18th century). He writes about animist Congolese, who were actually converted to Christianity, even if they did not apprehend the faith clearly; Senegalese, who were Moslems, and the Ardas (from Arada or Allada, a Dahomean city, capital of a kingdom that played a major part in the evolution of Voodoo), who were animists and practiced the cult of the Snake. The Ardas have a common language: Fon. So, there is a monotheistic (rather recent and artificial) Christian community, another (more specifically characterized because better settled and more ancient) monotheistic group: the Moslems, and finally: an animistic majority. In the French territory of Saint-Domingue, they are ruled by the Code Noir (Black Code, promulgated on the 10th of March 1685), article 2 of which prescribes baptism. (Thebaud 128.)


Cosmological Reengineering

Migration generated the congruence of different tendencies in the cults: cult of Death (Congo and Ibo), ritual possession by deities (Fon), monotheism of Olorun associated with the polytheism of Orisha (deified heroes or kings) among the Yoruba group. In that composite frame, the Dahomean religious architecture plays a major part in what we might dare to call its "reengineering". "Thus, writes Pierre Roland, Haitian Voodoo is the product of an intense integration, under the influence of Dahomean ideas, of the religious concepts brought to America by Bantus (Congolese and Angolans) and Sudanese of the Manding groups (Bambara, Diola, Soninke), as well as of Achanti, Ewe, Haoussa and Peuhls (of the Kamitic race), Ouoloffs, Fons and Yoruba." (Roland 28.)

We should nevertheless be clear about what Thornton (1998 88) calls a kind of "convergence of concepts and beliefs": the language of Voodoo, its structure, its own dynamics, fully modified the sense and meaning of the Catholic material which the hounfort (Voodoo temple) absorbed as in an immunization process. With Willy Apollon (183), Laënnec Hurbon (68), Leslie Desmangles (15) and Pierre Roland (29) we do not recognize a properly "ecumenical" acceptance of syncretism applied to the couple Voodoo / Catholicism. As Apollon emphasizes, the slaves "took possession of objects, held a symbolic land and a ritual," and adapted them, so that they could "be reorganized, reused as tools for other purposes." (Apollon 183.)

Of course, religion (Latin: religare) is a way of binding over again. Actually, the whole African population, compelled into a barbarous exile, lost its social structure. On the continent, the main bond was lineage, descent. Migration broke the lineage through dispersion.

In the colony, the religious coherence was diminished. The Bantus could just keep the animistic aspect of their rites, whereas Fons and Yorubas held on to the mythology. Animism and mythology are "upper layers" of the religious stratum, which subsists after the dissolution of the different local communal bonds. They present a kind of universal feature, which may transcend the loss of the lineage. In Africa, each lineage had its own voodooic exteriorization or nomination called "Toxwio" - founder ancestor (Aguessy, cit. by Hurbon 164-165) associated with the aura of Ayizan. Ayizan is identified with the foster Earth; this deity may have emerged in Alladah, and is also influential in Abomey and Ouiddah. Toxwio represents, in a way, the essential condition of the institutional recognition of a lineage. The random dispersal of the exiled population disrupted this bond. Toxwio kept in the background.

Nevertheless, Voodoo has survived through the upper layer of animism and mythology. The voodooic melting pot was the basis of a revival. On the continent, the fact of mastering an enemy power was more or less identified with a will for preservation or distancing. The Dahomean state was rather structured and stable. Gods were its protectors. They had generally a benevolent, even placid attitude. But the population transfer to the Caribbean overthrew such a scheme. The previous behavior was indeed not adapted to the new oppressive situation.

There was no concrete entity to protect, as the lineage bonds were broken. But despite its fragility, the cement constituted by a common animism and/or mythology, existed and was prominent. So, writes Maya Deren, "the traditional defensive, protective attitude could not suffice where there was no longer anything organized or solid to defend. It was a moment of specific and urgent need: the need for action. In the new world there arose a new nation of Loa, the Loa of the Caribbean: the Petro nation." (61) Petro, whose name recalls a Portuguese term for baptized people in Central Africa is a "friendly evil" who may act as a devil: if he is not controlled, he can hoodoo people and bind them in secret societies, the principles of which are condemned by the Voodoo hierarchy. So, the influence of Petro is beneficent if he is mastered. He can act as an assailant if he is controlled. That is paradoxically why he should be broken, "Brisé". His hands are tied by the priest (the houngan) during the ceremony, when Petro rides a believer. (Mars 16.) Ritual binding is rather common in Ancient Greece towards deities such as Ares, god of War. Statuettes and Defixiones look paralyzed by bindings (Faraone 193). Such a phenomenon is also apparent with bound statues in Egypt and the Near East. (ibid. 172 sqq.) When Petro is mastered by the houngan, he complains, as Price Mars reports (cit. by Louis Mars 15). After having shouted and tried to struggle, Petro whines miserably. So mastered, he can be an efficient auxiliary. If his power is unbridled, he can act dangerously in a secret society, in a sense, which may work against the common interest.

The plantation is not an appropriate place for the development of a maquis. The voodooic cement which helped the action of freedom fighters, matured among the maroons. They converged in the famous ceremony of Bois Caïman (near Le Cap Français, today: Cap Haïtien, Northern Haiti), in the night of the 14th of August 1791, when the leader Boukman presided over the Voodoo ritual, which induced the insurrection of the 22nd of August. Of course, Michel Laguerre is right when he writes: "Revolutionary leaders successfully used Voodoo to make Haiti the first black republic in the New World and the second nation to achieve independence in the western hemisphere and to make the Haitian Revolution the first social revolution in the Third World." (70.) But what we should like to emphasize here is an apparent difference between a monotheistic conception of the avenger God, the almighty unique deity, towards whom everyone is submissive and grateful and even: indebted, on one hand, and yet paradoxically able to master, through possession, a god who will give the necessary energy to survive and overcome the adversity. Here, there is no debt, no fault, but a constant relationship with a recognized superhuman sphere, complementary to the terrestrial contingency.


Voodoo and Society

Of course, there may be a kind of contract between both parties. During the initiation, the believer adopts (and is adopted by) a mèt tèt, a headmaster, to whom he is beholden. The contract can also be materially, even financially conceived or put in a concrete form. The case is rather seldom, but it nevertheless exists. The Loa may be bought. That transaction is guaranteed by the noble lineage of the personage who detains and sells the Loa. In the kingdom of Abomey, the chief of the cultural community had a prominent genealogy, which allowed him to sell a Loa. In modern Benin, a businessman, Sossa Guédéhoungué, had to rebuild his own genealogy in order to find a divine legitimacy: he traced back his family to an ancient marine deity named Adantoxu, so that he could get a "license" allowing him to sell Loas. (Tall 202.) In Haiti, the lwa achté (bought Loas), paid to a houngan, may be more efficient than the family tutelary Loas. But, very costly, they are also very hard to please: misfortune and illness can sweep down on the family if they are not correctly honored. If they were bought from a sorcerer, they can become evil. (Metraux 72.)

Beyond that anecdotal practice, we should just remember the transactional aspect of the relationship. We should emphasize the social contract, even the bargain (and this is not disparaging), struck with the Loas. Voodoo is not disconnected from the trivial world, because of its complex overlapping with the mystical sphere. We should put in parallel a double structure: the hierarchical scale of priesthood and the different levels of man in the world.

The descending scale of the priesthood is: 1) Divino (or Papaloua), the soothsayer - 2) Boko, the herb doctor - 3) Sèvitè Ghédé, specially concerned with the transition from life to death, the "ex-carnation" - 4) Houngan, in charge of initiations.

On this scheme may be superposed a symmetric one : 1) supervision of the world of Man - 2) apprehension of Nature (the bush) - 3) invocation of Death - 4) relationship of the faithful with Loas.

"In this perspective," writes Pierre Roland, "in which the social is the reflection of the mystical, we can say that the four priesthoods correspond to the four compartments of the world, which are completely different" (34), and Legba unifies them.

The individual has to find a constant balance between these levels. He periodically loses it and must call the Loas to recover it. He may sometimes be more receptive and find a Loa more or less adapted to his social position and/or his physical condition

The regression of the individual in the trance is not degenerative. It is a regression towards the myth, a moment where the myth becomes reality, when both - human and mystical - worlds coincide. Loas personify social types ("a peasant, a heavy drinker, one who walks with a limp or such idiosyncrasies" [Goldberg 92]), directly connected with the trivial sphere. The myth is physically lived by the believer who then temporarily recovers his balance after the trance. The regression is also the trip of return, return to Africa (Hurbon 148), return to Ifé, to La Ville aux Camps, the underground island.

In the Voodoo context, there is no dichotomy between both worlds: Ifé and ours. The Loas allow these to communicate. These spirits live in La Ville aux Camps. The faithful can reach it through the intercession of Legba, the "crossroads" spirit of the human destiny.

We find this absence of dichotomy in the social / mystical frame, in the "vévés". The prayers transit through the Vévé language. A vévé is a drawing made on the ground with corn flour mixed with palm oil. It is poured by the houngan (priest) and dispersed afterwards. The code of the vévés is very strict. Every vévé has a universal and precise meaning. It is in no way a writing in the acceptance of the religions of the Book. According to Willy Apollon, writing about Voodoo would be a betrayal. In some way, writing is fixing and/or maneuvering. Associating History with Voodoo makes it anecdotal.

The vévé is apparently ephemeral but continuous through its reiteration in different places. The language of the vévé escapes fixation. We are not in the sphere of the Verb: Voodoo is a space for voices. It escapes the marks and the milestones of History. The Haitian people's roots are diffuse in Western and Central Africa ; they are not an elected people.


Voodoo and Politics

On each side of the Ocean, men have taken over Voodoo in order to integrate it in the orb of power. The ancient kingdom of Danxomé (approximately the actual Benin) had been built on a dynamic relationship between royal and popular Voodoos. The Abomean dynasty conquered different territories through the robbery, the pacification and the regulation of their Voodoos. These deities are particularly influential in modern southern Benin. When the Marxist President Mathieu Kérékou took power on the 26th of October 1972, he neutralized the Voodoo community of the South, being himself a man of the North. (Kadia Tall 199.) Little by little, he had to give up the requirements of the "anti-witchcraft" ordinance of 1976: the deficiencies of hospital care implied the rehabilitation of the herb doctors belonging to the Voodoo community, and during a period of drought the President consented to call Daagbo Hunon, a supreme chief of the Voodoo cult. Until 1989, Kérékou, the man of the North, had to manage with the southern Voodoo which appeared as a counter-power. His successor, Nicephore Soglo, organized the first International Festival of Voodoo arts and cultures at Ouidah in 1992.

The collusion of religion and power is a truism. Founder of "noirisme", a Black Haitian nationalist movement, the "medieval" dictator François Duvalier assured himself of the Voodoo's support in order to react against "the humiliation of the U.S. occupation (1915-1934) and the cultural bovarysme (ambivalence) of the pro-Western mulatto elite." (Laguerre 103.) The ceremony of Bois Caïman and the rebellion of 1791 were naturally invoked to impulse a new spirit into the modern Haitian republic, against the Church, against the mulattos. Duvalier wrote: "All our effort from independence to this day consisted of a systematic repression of our African heritage. [...] Our goal now is to recognize and accept our racial background." (38; cit. by Laguerre 103.)

Duvalier's attitude towards the Concordat of 1860 was very firm. During the political campaigns of 1950 and especially 1957, the houngans were incited to collaborate. Some of them studied at the Institute of Ethnology, which was marked by the "noirist" influence. Some houngans were Tonton macoutes (Volunteers of the National Security - VSN), for instance, the highest authority of the District Artibonite, in order to neutralize the influence of its bishop. Some higher officials had their own Voodoo oratories in popular suburbs. Voodoo temples were considered as propaganda centers arranged in a well thought-out network, invested by cooperative and even matrimonial relations. But the Duvaliers (father and son) were clever enough not to promote a national Voodoo Church. They just invested that entity from inside, for example, in local councils or in rural development projects. Censorship and police repression were relayed by a large number of houngans who were killed after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. His father had been incorporated into the pantheon of Voodoo and had played a prominent part in the national Masonic Lodge.

We saw the take-over of Voodoo by the temporal power in Benin and in Haiti. That parasitism is just a link in a more general framework which we may divide into five levels: political (white power in the 18th century, bourgeoisie today); economic (search for profit, yesterday and today); social (the class war: slaves and then proletarians); psychological (rejection of the establishment by the slaves - present problem of exclusion or segregation); cultural (a canal used by the masses to express an identity which transcends the state of submission).


Voodoo and Tourism

Another kind of take-over of Voodoo by organized structures is tourism. Folklorizing the Voodoo practice among tourists is a way of weakening it and often generates a picture of charlatanism. Speaking about Voodoo today in Western circles frequently provokes either a smile of disparagement, or suspicion, primary attitudes, which are indeed reinforced by the tourist folklorization. If we wish to analyze the differences between a show and a real ceremony, we might emphasize two of them. First, the real ceremony includes interruptions of the rhythm due to the natural variations of the impulsion inherent to the relation with the Loa. A trance is of course beyond the control of the faithful; it is not an automatic and time-regulated operation, combined with a schedule, as is the case in a show. Second, the audience of the show is indeed quite artificial; even if a tourist may be invited on the stage, there is still a stage: a barrier. This argument needs no comment. There may be an "intellectual" and "aesthetically correct" variant of such a show, as the ritual M'Bwiti ceremony of Gabon presented in France during the Festival of Montpellier (25th & 27th of July 2002). The journalist Bouziane Daoudi (Libération-Paris) writes: "The luckiest of the possessed dancers may see Nzambe Kana, the Supreme Being." (29.) Such a remark illustrates another observation made by Alan Goldberg in his analysis of Voodoo shows: "For performers, definitions of the situation vary temporally in the course of the show. Because sacral paraphernalia and performance media are used, there is always the possibility that a valid possession will occcur." (Goldberg 491.) But this is still an allurement, even if accepted as such.

A sociological study of Voodoo on the Internet has been initiated (e.g. Stefania Capone); nevertheless, this rather recent phenomenon may not at present be viewed in proper perspective. But it should not be neglected either.


Conclusion: Beyond the Rhizome

There is a kind of plasticity of Voodoo. Its structure had already accepted important adaptations in the colonial time: federalization of different African specificities, agglutination of Christian codes, loss of the lineage. Rehabilitated by a Marxist power that had muzzled it a while in Benin, it is adapted to the new social criteria of the capitalistic environment. That evolution is obvious in Africa, in the West Indies, in Brazil and of course in North America. The proper origins of Voodoo are not determined, despite some prudent, even skeptical allusions to ancient Near-Eastern cults (Lombard 422), which may have been propagated by "contamination" in quite unknown circumstances. Future ramifications of Voodoo will not in all probability, meet huge obstacles, at least not so great as those that occurred during the period of the slave trade.

Voodoo is in itself alliance and conjunction. It cannot be reduced to one or to the multiple. It is not made of segments or units, but of dimensions, or rather, of moving directions. No beginning, no scheduled end, always a middle in which it grows and overflows: the poto mitan of the hounfort, the vertical pillar in the middle of the temple, the axis of Legba, the crossroads between here and Ifé, the horizontality of the social community, the depth of La Ville aux Camps.

Voodoo is a submerged reef, crossing the Ocean. Through that metaphor, we should like to suggest a rhizomatic structure of Voodoo; unlike the tree, the rhizome is fundamentally convergence and alliance, not filiation. (Deleuze 13, 31.)

But the metaphor of the rhizome is in itself an abrupt conclusion, which leaves unresolved some essential questions about syncretism.

We are nevertheless inclined to assert that syncretism was conceived (or lived) by deported people as a Trojan horse in the citadel of Christianity.

Through the Voodoo, marooning and syncretism seem to have performed a crucial part in the modern Afro-American movement. A future research might be to analyze the evolution of the perception of that phenomenon in contemporary Brazil, the West Indies and North America. In particular, can we find a process of slow necrosis of the Christian components and of the historical preeminence of the Haitian marooning? Are they not just two dimensions, possibly related, of the voodooic rhizome?.

© Manuel Durand-Barthez (Toulouse)

TRANSINST       Inhalt / Table of Contents / Contenu: No.14


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For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Manuel Durand-Barthez (Toulouse): WEST AFRICA / HAITI: The Voodooic Bridge. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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