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. It tracks the whole sorry slave journey.
The Slave Road is a two and a half mile stretch, which 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, (Just in case Islam or Christianity don't work), 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.
The Vodun religion centres around the ‘Vodun’ - spirits and other elements of divine essence which govern the Earth. They range from major deities to spirits inhabiting individual rivers, trees, and rocks etc. And people or groups of people. It also incorporates ancestor worship and the belief that the dead are still amongst us. There’s also ana thatched philosophy that often revolves around staying calm in the face of stress So it’s not dissimilar from many other religions, although the specifics of course are different. .
Patterns of Vodun worship follow various dialects, spirits, practices, songs, and rituals. There are stories and legends associated with various gods. The divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is an elder woman, usually a mother, who is gentle and forgiving. She is the supreme god and her children (usually seven) have various divine attributes and responsibilities. Legba, the youngest son is often represented with a phallus.
Each family of spirits has its own female priesthood, sometimes hereditary, moving from mother to blood daughter. Everything is considered to contain the power of the divine. So herbal medicines are important and apparently mundane objects incorporated into rituals. Fetishes (from the Portuguese for wood) are Vodun talismans, objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts inhabited by spirits. Sometimes they are used in shrines to call forth specific Vodun and their associated powers.
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. He was 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. 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 (fetishes) have just discernible human features, covered with wax, powder and sundry other offerings; there are often traces of blood.. 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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