Since the coming of pepper to Africa from the Americas, this spice has ignited our senses. Aside from salt, it has become the most common spice in food, worldwide. Pepper has not only changed the taste of our food but it has been adopted in our religious services, particularly in our celebration of Gede, the season of ancestor celebrations. Although Gede is one of the oldest continuously celebrated religious events in Haiti, dating all the way back to Ginen, the West Coast of Africa, the use of pepper in Gede celebrations is somewhat recent. It is a practice that dates back to no earlier than 1498 when the native Caribbean peppers - the Scotch Bonnet Pepper (piman bouk) and the Bird Pepper (piman zwazo)- were taken back to the Kongo where they were quickly adopted in West African cuisine.
These two types of peppers are among the hottest peppers outside of those bred for hot pepper competitions. On the Scoville scale, both of these peppers generally score around 300,000. This means that these peppers have to be diluted to 1 part in 300,000 for most people to no longer be able to detect their presence in water. As peppers are native to warm regions of the Americas, people first tasted pepper about 12,000 years ago when the native Americans arrived in the region. There is archaeological evidence that the people living in what is now Mexico cultivated pepper as far back as 6000 years ago. Nontheless, it was not until the last 500 years that pepper spread to other regions of the world.
Although used in food, pepper does not stimulate taste buds. Rather, pepper contains a chemical called capsaicin that act on heat sensing nerve endings. This chemical stimulates the nerves to send a signal to the brain to inform it that the area exposed to the pepper is hot. The more capsaicin in a pepper, the hotter it feels. Capsaicin is able to stimulate heat receptors on our skins. This is why we feel the burn of pepper on our lips as well as on our cheeks and even in our eyes. High concentrations of it irritates the eyes, lungs, nose and skin which is the reason why it is used by police to control riots. People exposed to pepper can sweat as the brain is made to believe that the body is hot and attempts to lower body temperature. Capsaicin in pepper causes fluid to egress out of the body and for that reason pepper can induce an inflammatory reaction.
Pepper cannot only be used to deter humans but it has the same effect on all mammals. It fact it is thought that some plants developed capsaicin to deter mammals. These plants prefer to be eaten by birds, allowing the birds to spread their seeds in their droppings that serves the seeds as fertilizer. Humans, like other mammals, have teeth and our teeth damage the seeds preventing them from germinating after they are expelled from our bodies. It is because birds spread the seeds that one type of pepper is appropriately called bird pepper (piman zwazo).
As much as pepper stimulates heat sensors, it also has a secondary effect. It paralyzes nerves. For this reason in small amounts it is used as an anesthetic for joint paint and muscle aches. For this reason pepper is used in the making of a variety of pain relief ointments. The Native American males of Haiti used pepper to desensitize their organ and prevent premature orgasm.
The physiologic properties of pepper is the reason why Africans in Haiti adapted it in their religious practice. Its stimulation of heat led people in Haiti to see it as analogous to the sun. In the Kongo, the cycle of sunrise and sunset was used as an analogy for life and death. The people of the Kongo believed that the sun shines for us during the day and goes on to shine for the ancestors at night. We are the living and the ancestors are the dead. It was believed that the sun cycles between the living and the dead. Gede, the patron spirit of the living and the dead is symbolized by the path taken by the sun in its cycle between sunset and sunrise. That path is called Gran Chemen and Gede is the guardian of Gran Chemen, the sun´s path. As pepper stimulates the sensation of heat, it was adopted in Gede celebrations to symbolize the sun.
The analogy with the sun is symbolic. More concretely, the ancestors gave rise to us by mating. In some religious services in Haiti, some people rub pepper on their private parts to show the hot organ crucial in the circle of life. Often they sing that that organ is as hot as pepper: kon piman, kon piman.
Elsewhere in the Americas, Africans made similar analogies regarding pepper and the act of reproduction. For that reason there is a a pepper in Suriname named for a prostitute called Madame Jeanette. She was hot: kon piman, kon piman.