I don’t know exactly what I expected from a voodoo priest, but this slight, elderly man with twinkling eyes, was definitely not it. Barefoot, dressed from head to toe in embroidered white robes and with a necklace of brightly coloured beads, he looked more like a kindly grandfather than a commander of dark magic. At the entrance to a small, dark room, we removed our shoes and put away our cameras. Inside, we knew, lay the alter at which the priest and his ancestors before him, dating back hundreds of years, worshipped and gave sacrifices to the appease the Gods of Voodoo. With trepidation, we followed him inside.
Thanks to Hollywood, ‘Voodoo’ for most people conjures up macabre images of dolls stuck with pins, sacrificial killings and demonic possession, but whilst, like most religions, it certainly has it’s dark and gruesome bits, there is a lot more to it than that. Voodoo (or ‘Vodun’ as it is known here) is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating more than 10,000 years ago with the Fon people of Togo and Benin (Vodun means spirit in the local Fon and Ewe languages). Today, it is still the main religion in both these countries (where it is followed by about 60% of the population). We had not seen any Vodun in Togo, having crossed this tiny sliver of a country quite quickly and having spent the majority of our time by the beach of it’s sleepily capital Lomé trying to source new tyres (which we eventually managed). In Benin therefore, I was determined to try and learn about this complex and fascinating religion.
Coco beach in Togo, not a bad place to stay whilst we searched for new tyres
From the moment we entered Benin it was clear we were in a country quite unlike any other in West Africa. The strength of culture and tradition is palpable, it hangs in the air, giving the impression that at any moment something bizarre and magical may happen. It is without a doubt the most colourful country in Africa. Almost without exception, men, women and children dress from head to toe in traditional African wax print; the bolder and more colourful the print the better. As we stood in line, waiting to get our passports stamped a minibus raced past us, balanced on it’s roof were around 20 women, with painted faces and bare breasts, somehow managing to cling onto the bus for dear life, whilst simultaneously singing and playing an assortment of traditional instruments. A lady in a white frilly dress and matching bonnet hurried past us, followed by two tiny girls in matching outfits, members of the ‘Aladura’ or ‘white garment’ church. A few moments later we saw a completely naked man, who was inexplicably carrying a banana. He walked up to the barrier marking the official border between Togo and Benin and stepped casually over it. Nobody batted a eyelid, or enquired where he and his banana were going, much less asked to see his passport or visa. I couldn’t work out whether he was deeply troubled, or had in fact just come up with an ingenious way to evade immigration controls. Welcome to Benin!!!
Our first stop in Benin (and where you find us at the beginning of this piece) was the ancient city of Abomey, centre of the once mighty Dahomey kingdom. With our guide, Marc, who is himself a member of two Vodun covens, we had come to visit a ‘Vodun village’ around 10k outside of the city. The village is thought to have existed since at least the early 17th century, when the kings of the Dahomey would visit it’s shrines before important battles, to ask the God’s to give their warriors the power of invisibility. The priest we had come to meet lived in a small ochre coloured compound in the centre of the village. If it wasn’t for the painted picture on the outside wall of a young women kneeling before a Vodun deity, it would have been indistinguishable from the other houses in the village. As we entered Marc pointed out a small round wooden figure stationed just in front of the door, it looked a little bit like a dalek, except that in place of the usual plunger / kitchen whisks, it had an enormous, erect phalus. Marc explained that it was there to bring protection to the household and its inhabitants.
After initial introductions, the priest led into the small, dark room which held the Vodun ‘alter,’ or ‘shrine.’ As our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we could make out around 20 figures or ‘deities’ of all different shapes and sizes, most were covered in layers of candle wax, palm oil and something that looked a lot like blood. Many had a human shape, one clearly represented a pregnant woman, but others bore no resemblance to humans at all, such as the pot filled with holes, and a figure of 8 made from clay. On the wall there was a large mirror, covered with a cloth. The priest explained this was used when the God’s were being called upon to perform a task for someone abroad.
With Marc translating, the Priest explained that there are more than 50 Vodun deities, who represent different phenomena and who can be called upon to perform different tasks. For example, Sakkara is the God of illness and healing and earth, Azaka rules over agriculture and Erzuli is the God of love. The divine creator is Mawu, a mother figure, Legba is her masculine counterpart (usually represented by a large phallus), Legba is the guardian of the door to the spirits and so must be invoked in order to reach the other God’s. Every deity has a fetish; a physical object such as a statue which is inhabited by it’s spirit. These fetish objects are combined together in ‘shrines’ which are then used to call forth specific deities and their associated powers. Since an essential part of calling forth the deities is giving them an offering, the shrines are organised according to what the deities like to eat and drink. The priest explained that some deities eat only meat, some eat only beans, some eat chicken, beans and maize, but no red meat. Then there are the drinks, some drink alcohol, water and sugary drinks, others are tee total, then there are the ones who don’t drink sugary drinks or water and only like alcohol. I couldn’t help thinking it sounded a lot like trying to organise a dinner party in London circa 2019!
After leaving the priest, we walked through the rest of the village. Just a few feet away, we came across two further shrines, one had fresh chicken blood smeared around the door frame which Marc informed us ensured protection from evil spirits. Around the village we saw numerous paintings of Vodun deities, my own personal favourite (pictured below) was a particularly fearsome looking deity who appears to steal men’s penises to wear as hats.
Our next stop was a Vodun church, shaped like a chameleon (the chameleon is sacred animal associated with wealth). Although unfinished it was none the less impressive. Next door was a coven where adepts (trainee Vodun’s) who are selected to become priests spend two years studying. Mark explained that priests will have many adepts, who will spend years helping them in a variety of ways, but only very few adepts will be chosen to become priests themselves. Although it was forbidden for outsiders to step inside coven, the reliefs on the outer walls and the ornate entrance way shaped like a cats mouth were well worth seeing.
After lunch, we visited the fetish market. The best way to explain it, is that the Vodun priest is like a doctor. People will go to him with a specific problem; difficulty conceiving, a family dispute, a bad harvest and the priest will make a diagnosis, e.g. a jealous person using black magic against them. The priest will then give them a remedy, e.g. he may perform a ceremony and give them a talisman to keep with them for protection. In this analogy the fetish market is like the pharmacy, it is where people fo to buy the items to be used in the ceremony, for sacrifice and to prepare the particular ointment, charm or talisman required. I had expected that a visit to the fetish market would be a little bit grim, but was wholly unprepared for what we encountered.
The first thing to hit you as you enter the market is the smell; the bodies of the animals are mostly dried but the scent of rotting flesh is still noticeable, albeit less than you might expect. The next thing to hit you is the scale. In front of the first stall I saw enormous baskets filled with the bodies of hundreds of tiny, beautiful multicoloured birds. I remember thinking ‘that’s a lot of dead birds’ before realising, as I looked around in horror, that there were 20 or 30 other stalls in the market, each with just as many baskets of dead birds. But it was not just birds, the market is filled with every kind of (dead) animal imaginable, there were trays filled with different species of bats, snakes and lizards, baskets of miscellaneous sculls, bones and dried skins, the gruesome, severed heads of monkeys, panthers, antelopes and dogs. In one corner I saw a pile of dead kittens. Marc cheerfully told us that all of the animals here were roadkill, but I was pretty sure I didn’t believe him. Most upsetting of all were the live animals, chameleons, snakes, hedgehogs, rats and barn owls, all crammed into tiny cages on top of one another. Marc explained that when someone is suspected of being possessed, the priest will cast a spell to banish the evil spirit into the body of the owl, which is then released. I somehow suspected that the other animals may not be quite so lucky.
After the fetish market, we visited the ancient underground houses of Agongointo-Zoungoudo, near Bohicon. These houses were once occupied by Dahomey warriors who had used them to lay in wait for their enemies as they tried to make their way through the forests. Fascinatingly, they were undiscovered until the late 1990’s when a Danish company tried to build a road through the area and one of their machines fell into the large hole left by one of the houses. Subsequently the area was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. We were by this point utterly exhausted, but when Marc asked us if we wanted to attend a Voodoo ceremony in Abomey that evening, there was no way we were going to refuse.
Probably because of my preconceptions about Voodoo being a ‘dark art’ I had expected it’s practice to be shrouded in secrecy. One of the biggest surprises for me, was that in Benin you see Vodun ‘collectives’ everywhere, they are easy to spot thanks to the reliefs or paintings of animals and Vodun deities on the outer walls (and also the large sign saying such and such ‘collective’). Marc told us that each collective or ‘coven’ holds four big ceremonies a year, each celebrating a different deity. Marc knew the priest at this particular collective and obtained his permission for us to attend.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the evening (I can think of few things more awkward than sitting through a ‘cultural show’ put on for my benefit) but I needn’t have worried. By the time we arrived at the coven, around 9.30pm the place was packed and it was immediately clear that we were the only tourists there. All of the seating was reserved for Vodun priests/ priestesses and adepts and so we squeezed in amongst the crowds of excited children standing around the sides. Marc explained to us that this particular ceremony was to celebrate Denzu the androgynous God/Godess of water and that the performers were mostly adepts. Marc seemed nervous and I got the impression he didn’t usually bring tourists to these ceremonies; in a hurried whisper he filled us in on various rules, clearly anxious that we would make a mistake and inadvertently cause great offence. He explained that the Voodoo priest may run past us, in this case we must quickly take off our shoes. If the priest stops in front of us we must offer him some money and may in return get sprayed with perfume. As Marc was talking, a set of double doors behind him opened and a precession of female Vodun adepts came out. The show had begun!
Their faces were covered in white powder and they wore the most incredible, elaborate costumes, built from layer upon layer of colourful glittering fabric. They wore pointed and beautifully embellished hats, long beaded necklaces, chunky silver bracelets covered their arms, at their sides they carried silver staffs. In time to the beat drums and shekeres, they swayed their hips and stamped their feet, their eyes shone with a fierce, otherworldly strength and they danced as if their body had been taken over. As if they had been possessed by a dark and animalistic spirit. When the male adepts arrived they brandished their staffs and charged at the children in the crowd who backed away, screaming in a mix of terror and excitement. It was without a doubt, one of the most amazing experiences I have had.
Besides Vodun, there are many other reasons to visit Abomey. The centre of the once mighty Dahomey kingdom – it is a city steeped in ancient Beninese history, it’s winding lanes, dotted with ancient palaces and temples. The main attraction is the two UNESCO listed Dahomian palaces, those of King Ghezo and Glele. Dating from the mid 19th century, they are mud walled, with intricate sculpted reliefs of lions, snakes, buffalo, clay pots, each being the symbol of one of the 11 kings. The museums are packed with fascinating and macabre artefacts including King Ghezo’s intricately carved throne, mounted on the skulls of four vanquished rival chiefs, the royal fly whisk (a human skull attached to a horses tail) sun parasols and smoking pipes owned by the kings, as well as numerous items; weapons, fabrics, delicate china tea sets, traded with colonial powers in return for slaves. There is also an exhibit dedicated to the Amazons, the legendary female warriors, who served as the kings personal bodyguards. Made up of volunteers, who were then sworn to a life of celibacy, the Amazons were said to be the most fearsome warriors in the Kingdom.
In the courtyard of King Ghezo’s palace is a temple, constructed with a cement made with gold and the blood of 41 slaves (41 is believed to be a magic number in Vodun). The temple is still in use and visitors are not permitted to enter, although the human sacrifice which often took place here ended in around the early 1900’s. Now animal bones lay propped against the temple’s outer walls. Most of those sacrificed by the kings of Dahomey were female war captives. The annual ‘watering of the graves’ a celebration to commemorate the deaths of the kings, would see between 50-300 people killed. It is said that the funeral ceremonies of King Kpengla, held over two years, involved sacrifice of some 1,500 persons. Perhaps most horrifying was the tomb of King Glele and temple of the Ahossis. In addition to his wives, each king had a harem numbering up to 4,000. The harem was made up of women obtained from war conquests, volunteers, as well as women ‘inherited’ from former kings. Additionally king could choose any women in the kingdom to join his harem, even if she happened to be someone else wife! When king Glele died in 1889, 200 of his harem volunteered to be buried with him. In the end 41 lucky ladies were chosen. They were buried in the temple of Ahossis, an underground tunnel connected the temple to the tomb of the king. The women were buried alive, after being given something to drink so that they would remain asleep until the time came to join the king in the next world.
From Abomey we headed South to Ouideh, a pretty and atmospheric city, with crumbling colonial buildings and wide, dusty streets. We didn’t explore the city for long, instead heading straight to the ‘route des peche,’ a 40km kilometre stretch of sandy coastal road connecting Ouideh to the outskirts of Contonou (sadly the route des peche will soon be gone as a new tarmac road is currently under construction). It was a beautiful drive, taking us through shady palm groves and past tiny fishing villages. The fishing technique used all along this coast was fascinating to watch, a huge drag net would be walked along the beach by around 20 men who would then pull it in by hand, singing in time with each mighty heave. We camped along the beach, at the home of Blacky (I should point out we did not give him this nickname and he insisted we call him it) a lovely Rastafarian guy, and his young family, who allowed us to pay whatever we felt and coked us the most delicious BBQ langoustines.
The final highlight of Benin, was visiting Ganvie Stilt village, sometimes called the Venice of Africa, it was created in 16th century to protest Tofinu people from Dahomey slave hunters (who were afraid of the water). Today around 24,000 people live in the village in ramshackle, teetering huts and there are schools, shops, churches and even a hospital. The inhabitants make their living almost exclusively from fishing. Instead of using nets or lines, they build natural traps for the fish out of reeds.
On the beach outside Conoutou we regrouped with Fabian and Jim (we had all gone our separate ways in Grand Bassam) but would be travelling Nigeria together. Jim, after talking about it for the past 3 months, had finally sold his car and was now the proud owner of a Tenere 650 motorbike. There was a general feeling of apprehension, we had all heard horror stories about Nigeria, but also of excitement for what was to come!