Benin has nearly 11 million people and around half live on less than a dollar a day, so it is among the world’s poorest countries. Unlike other West African countries, which export oil and cocoa, Benin's largest export is cotton. If the crop fails the results can be devastating. And cotton cultivation both leaches and takes over the land and makes life difficult for small landholders.
Benin used to be called Dahomey. The Dahomey Kingdom was known for its culture and traditions. Young boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers, and taught the kingdom's military customs until they were old enough to join the army. There was also an elite female soldier corps, formed from the king’s wives and dubbed the Dahomean Amazons by many Europeans. The kings of Dahomey worked with mainly Portuguese merchants to establish the slave trade from the end of the eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth century. As the trade lessened and the power of the kings weakened the French took over the area in 1892, later including included the land called French Dahomey within the larger French West Africa colonial region. Independence was granted in 1960 as the Republic of Dahomey.
I had to obtain an e- visa authorisation online. The form filling was a little trying- not all the links worked, but I mangaed it in the end. I got immediate authorisation. This was readily accepted at the border with Togo, though there were the usual interminable logbook entries to endure.
In Benin, I'm visiting:
Despite being located in a turbulent region, Benin is among Africa’s most stable democracies.
I felt perfectly safe travelling in the coastal areas. Far more caution is suggested on the northern borders, where there have been terrorist raids of late. At the time of my travel the FCO advises against all travel to the areas bordering Niger and Burkina Faso
Then it’s off to the airport. My ticket says I’m to be there by 1 pm, but I’m not allowed in for over half an hour until it’s under two hours before the flight and then I’m still not allowed to wait near the check in desks when I ask where the ASKY desk is. I’m yelled at and forced to sit well away. It’s not at all friendly. Niger next. Or not. After half an hour of no action I steel myself to creep back to the check in area. I notice the information desk is now open, so I ask the girl sitting there when to check in. ‘But your flight’s been cancelled,’ she says. ’ASKY aren’t working today’. And there’s no flight until Friday. And that only goes as far as Lomé.
Several messages with Gabriele and conversation about all my bad luck. I express regret that I didn’t buy any amulets at the fetish market and ask if it’s too late. ‘Buy 100’, he replies.
So, I’m now in a car heading back to Lomé where I’m assured there is a flight for Niamey at lunchtime tomorrow. I will have driven the width of Togo four times. At least I get to spend another night in that lovely boutique hotel. I’m even going to have the same meal.
I have a stomach upset the next morning.
But the flight goes.
I've been fascinated by the Voodoo around Ouidah, but it's also famous for The Route d’Esclaves (Slave Road) in Ouidah, shortly to be awarded UNESCO status, which tracks the whole sorry slave journey.
The Slave Road is a two and a half mile stretch that was the last piece of African soil slaves stepped on before being transported to the Caribbean or Brazil. The captives were shackled throughout, from arrival at the slave market to the Tree of Forgetfulness (where voodoo rituals were designed to ease the memory of their origins), to the House of No Light (where they were forced to live in darkness to keep them disorientated ), to the Tree of Return (more rituals so the soul would return to Africa ), to the Gate of No Return, where they were dispatched in pirogues to the ship. The route is also marked by statues relating to slavery and voodoo. Two thirds of the captives died during this process and were flung in a common grave. Fifty percent of those who survived to set sail, packed in like sardines, survived. The last ship to transport slaves left present day Benin for Brazil in 1885.
At that time the Benin area was known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. The area was named the "Slave Coast", because of this flourishing trade. The kings of Dahomey (who had a minimum of 41 wives, as it’s a sacred number), were very much involved in the slave trade, it thrived in the region of Dahomey for almost three hundred years, beginning in 1472 with a trade agreement with Portuguese merchants. most notably Francisco de Sousa (the slave market was outside his house,) who was appointed Viceroy of Ouidah (as recounted in the book by Bruce Chatwin), to aid him in his endeavours. The kings decided who should be enslaved and chose especially any prisoners from other tribes. Though court protocols, which demanded that a proportion of war captives from the kingdom's many battles be decapitated, decreased the number of enslaved people exported from the area.
At the peak of trading, in the 1780s, 102,000 people per decade were sent abroad from The Slave Coast. The British Britain Slave Trade Act in 1807, banning the trans-Atlantic slave trade was followed by other countries abolishing slavery. The numbers of slaves declined until 1885, when the last slave ship departed for Brazil in South America, which had yet to eradicate slavery. Benin’s capital is named Porto-Novo (Portuguese) meaning "New Port". It was originally developed as a port for the slave trade.
Modern day Togo and Benin are the joint homes of the Voodoo religion.
Voodoo is practised by about a fifth of the population, though rituals are enacted by many more, as back up to Islam and Christianity, and it is recognized as an official religion. The proper name is spelled Vodun (it means spirit in the Fon and Ewe languages), but it is also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) It is practised by the Fon people of Benin, and southern and central Togo (and areas of Ghana, and Nigeria.) West African voodoo is the main source of religions with similar names found in the Americas, especially in Haiti.
It is the height of Voodoo celebration time in Benin and Haiti, with the new year approaching. In addition, January 10 is the most important day on the Voodoo calendar, as it’s a Voodoo bank holiday inaugurated by Nice Phoresego, a president of Benin who was healed by Voodoo after being very ill when he first took up office. Voodoo is evident everywhere we travel, shrines and murals proliferate.. Red white and blue flags (air earth and fire) indicate that a priest is open for business. White flags on their own indicate a place where you may make a wish. Though you are expected to promise something (a goat or cow maybe) when the wish comes true and there will be big problems if you don’t pay your dues.
I've flown in from Abidjan in Cote D'ivoire. We visit the Akodessawa Fetish Market in Lomé before venturing along the coast of Togo, to see the Voodoo villages. Chinese markets are nothing on this. Just about every African animal in Africa is here dried or mummified: leopard skins, a lion’s head and paws, snakes bones and skin, baboons, lizards, bats, assorted birds, chameleon, hedgehogs and so on. My fetish guide, Mark, explains it all and then takes me to the priest, in a shrine, where I’m offered amulets to protect me while I’m travelling: for love, for business, for good health. It’s not a hard sell. I think Mark can tell by my face that I’m not up for making a purchase. The priest on duty here looks to be about nine and requests ‘un cadeaux’ as soon as the guide leaves us alone.
We’re hugging Lake Togo, which narrows to a sandy river estuary and a small harbour with a line of graceful beautifully painted pirogues. Noah says that they don’t fish on Tuesdays as that’s fish breeding day and the process shouldn’t be watched. And we’re almost at the Benin border (53 kilometres away) before we turn off, though Voodoo villages are interspersed with churches along the road, where the Portuguese bargained over the land. Voodoo temples and churches frequently face each other. There are numerous symbolic murals and the villages are guarded by leghbeh - specially decorated shrines; the statues or mounds inside have just discernible human features covered with wax, powder and sundry other offerings; there are often traces of blood. The objects are called fetishes (from the Portuguese for wood). Dead people are represented by mud mounds along village walls, with shells for features. A wooden peg is added for males. Each village also has numerous shrines (often one per house) in specially dedicated annexes. Calabash gourds abound. They are considered to be lucky, so are repaired if they break. Brides often keep one for each year of their marriage, hung in the bedroom.
The main object of interest, at our first visit, is the Voodoo hospital, presided over by priestesses. Wearing a white headscarf indicates that you are a priestess and know how to communicate properly with the shrine. You tell the priestess you have a problem, no details, and give them an object associated with you, for example hair or clothing. They take this and the nature of the illness will be revealed in a dream. The ladies then go out into the bush and search for the correct remedies. A ritual may also be necessary.
The whole village is participating in a thanksgiving Voodoo ceremony at the next stop. A cute little goat is tethered to a post outside the ceremonial arena with some fetishes alongside. I don’t realise for some time why it’s there. There is dancing to the rhythm of the drums - and several participants appear to fall into a trance becoming stiff and glassy eyed. This is a good omen.
Then the goat and a chicken are slaughtered. In deference to my sensibilities - thankfully - this takes place in a side room. The carcasses are then borne around the dance floor around the neck of those in a trance. At times they suck the blood and carry them in their teeth instead. The blood is also daubed on the sacred drums, which are only used for these ceremonies. Eventually the bodies are borne away to the kitchen. It’s possibly the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen.
I'm forced to join in with the dancing. apparently it's rude not to....everyone claps
Back along the coast to Benin. Lomé is right on the border with Ghana, so I’ve travelled the width of the country three times in 24 hours. Our first village in Benin has a shrine dedicated to twins. Twins are considered to be one person and very important. You never say a twin is dead – they are away visiting or carrying out some errand. They are remembered by placing identical dolls on display. The scarification marks on the face are the key identification feature here. In this house, one mother has triplets, even more significant.
Then I’m quickly watching a New Year ceremony. Here, anyone who has transgressed is identified by the mask, who knows without having to be told. It’s called a mask dance, but the raffia streamer covered shrouds are big enough to envelop the whole body. I say big enough. There is purportedly no one inside the masks. There are four of them entering at different times, whirling like Sufi dervishes to the drumbeats whilst a group of villagers dance in a circle alongside. I wish I could move like that.
The masks are sprinkled with powders and fed alcohol, and each has a separate denouement, where it is tipped over to reveal nothing underneath initially. At subsequent reveals, statues with moving parts, generally phallic, a low table laid with food and a heap of metallic raffia which grows into a tall wiggling tower - another fertility symbol under different masks. Noah insists it’s all mystic and that just the priests (only males allowed to be initiated) are privy to the secrets of how this is done. I expect David Copperfield would work it out. Again, it’s astonishing and fortunately I’m not singled out by the dancers.
I’m still with guide Noah and driver Kofi, who have driven me from Togo. Lunch at a beach restaurant at Grand Popo. The Portuguese named the town this, because it means big backside and refers to the local women. There’s another area called Petit Popo.
To Ouidah, the centre of Voodoo. First, the python temple where 50 (thankfully small) royal pythons reside, entwined together in a heap inside a concrete shrine. Unlike in most parts of the world, snakes in Benin are revered, particularly the Royal pythons. They even eat and sleep in people homes. They are believed to be ancestors of the local people, whose facial scarification reflects snake bite marks. (Incidentally, Noah tells me that scarification began to prevent kidnapping of babies a bit like cattle branding and it’s not solely for tribal identity purposes.) It’s thought to be lucky if you touch the pythons. Their skin is dry and warm.
Another village ceremony in Ouidah is a cross between fortune telling for the year ahead and a pantomime. The costumes are lavish and sequinned and there is much spinning and cavorting, whilst the villagers are threatened with a beating from wooden brooms. The figures engage in mock battles and sometimes end up prostrate on the ground. They are corralled by young men with sticks. The women and children watch in a group in front of the houses, scrambling through the windows to evade the whistling wood. The final figure to emerge brings blessings and lays his long hairy brush on people’s heads. He tells me (my translator says) that I’m going to have an excellent year. Everything I hope for will come true and I will find a husband. The brush is tickly.
Next, the Slave Coast at Ouidah.
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