Benin and Togo: The Birthplace of Voodoo
By Ron Mitchell
Pythons, preserved skulls and Voodoo ceremonies draw us from Ghana to Benin, the birthplace of Voodoo. These fetish origins of worship predate many religions by 10,000 years, and keep a link of ancestry alive in West Africa.
While exploring the Cape Coast area of Ghana, we meet Apollo, a man with family history in Benin. Apollo offers insider knowledge, travel savvy and multilingual skills.
We hire his guide services for about $50 US daily, ($24,000 CFA) and decide to utilize public transport – probably the best and most inexpensive way to experience a culture.
Our travels take us from Ghana, through Togo, to Benin. We will miss the annual Voodoo festival held each January 10th, in Ouidah, Benin, but hope to attend a genuine ceremony.
Challenging travel in the French speaking counties of Togo and Benin
We squeeze into a Lorry (van) and swelter in the heat while waiting for the vehicle to fill with sixteen people. The friendly folks of Ghana ask curious questions, such as “Where do the black people live in the U.S.? Did Michael Jackson turn his skin white? Is wrestling real?”
The dusty borders between Ghana, Togo, and Benin also serve as market places, offering a range of goods from fresh fruit to plastic ukuleles. We maneuver around the mayhem, appreciating Apollo, who skillfully guides us through passport checkpoints and customs.
In Togo, public transportation transforms from busses and Lorries to taxis. The economy size vehicles will not leave until seven passengers fill it. We pay an extra 500 CFA (1.00 US) to sit with only 3 in the backseat.
The taxis turn to scooters once we cross into Benin. Sitting on the backs of scooters, we must trust the riding skills of strangers, who negotiate gravel, dirt and rut-filled roads.
- The breeze soothes our sweat-soaked bodies. We stop only at makeshift “gas stations” which consist of roadside stands with plastic bottles full of gas.
Starting to feel like Voodoo
We stop in Lome, Togo, and visit the fetish market, “Marche’ des Feticheurs,” which offers supplies for Voodoo ceremonies. Unblessed heads of monkeys, dogs, elephants, antelopes, goats and gorillas, you name it, sit on display and emit the stench of rotting flesh.
A fetish priest, “Voodoonou,” explains that the animals died natural deaths prior to being preserved. Each animal is used for a specific ceremony, such as ground elephant bone to cure elephantiasis. No object possesses power, until blessed by a Voodoonou.
“Most Voodoo is white magic, to summon the good spirit from our ancestors,” the Voodoonou says. “Good spirit is stronger than bad.”
A short jaunt through Togo brings us outside the city of Possotome, Benin, next to Lake Aheme. We pass a live Voodoo ceremony near a small, mud hut village. Apollo receives permission from the elders to take photos, but we are not invited to partake in the ritual.
This ceremony initiates because a villager had something stolen. After the ceremony, every resident is asked if they had stolen the object. If the thief admits to stealing, then he must return the object along with an additional gift. If the thief denies stealing, the belief is that the person will die.
We head on to the city of Abomey, and visit the “Musee Historique d’Abomey” where photos are not allowed. Other than the Throne of Skulls, most artifacts have been destroyed, or rest in a museum in France.
While visiting a fetish market, Apollo runs into a friend who invites us to attend a family Voodoo Ceremony.
Fetish followers, (about 50% of the population) practice animism as part of Voodoo, worshiping the Python. They believe that the snake will not bite, but if you kill one, even accidentally, you will die.
After a tasty meal of Kpete’, (goat blood sauce, boiled and fried goat, and a grit-like maize muffin) we depart for the Voodoo ceremony.
Three of us squeeze onto one scooter, en route to the sacred grounds. Crowds gather around the House of Python in the darkness. About 800 people attend this common practice, in which a family hires a Voodoonou once every seven years to perform a good fortune ritual.
Apollo translates and explains that each Voodoonou has a specialty. There also is a dark side. For instance, you could ask a Voodoonou, who specializes in death, to make somebody die. He will put you through some tasks to test your intent. The tasks include drinking a woman’s menstrual blood, and retrieving the heart of a dead person.
Begin the ceremony…
The drummers pound a rhythmic beat. Followers dance behind the Voodoonou, forming a line that slithers around the House of Python. Women join behind the female counterpart – a Voodooshi.
“Don’t take anymore photos,” Apollo whispers.
- The family sits in a circle, drinking special alcohol. When the drums stop, so does the dancing line. Greetings begin, where people kneel, clap, and kiss the dust in front of colorfully dressed chiefs, priests and priestesses.
The drums resume, and a man pulls a young, white goat by a rope. The goat screams like a young kid, and leans back onto his haunches.
He has been groomed for this moment with special care and diet. The goat is believed to be full of good spirit. (I’m not so sure the goat feels that way.) Goats aren’t pets…
The drums pound faster and a priest hoists the goat above his head, tapping the House of Python. Then he bends and touches the goat to the ground.
- He repeats this process several times. Afterwards, he slices the goat’s throat – difficult to watch, but I ignore the drums vibrating that lump in my throat, and try to maintain an open mind in order to appreciate this fascinating witness.
- He hands a bowl of the goat’s blood to a family member, who dips his thumb into it and then taps the top of his knee. He dips again, and douses his lips, before passing the bowl to others who repeat the gesture.
Afterwards, a Voodooshi holds the goat high, and leads a dancing line, circling the entire complex. Women and children follow her. The goat rids any remaining bad spirit from the grounds.
She then places the goat onto a pile of leaves. A woman kneels down and plants her face in the dust next to the goat.
Drums beat louder, while another woman dances in the middle of a circle, stamping her feet and pulling her shoulders backward, waving her palms parallel to the ground. She grabs the goat and flips him under her arm, allowing his legs to dangle in the air.
The Voodoonou watches carefully, as the movements of the goat’s legs determine whether or not the good spirit dominates. This ceremony is a success. We leave, three to a scooter, bouncing over treacherous terrain in the darkness…without headlights – the scariest part of the evening.
The Benin Slave Route
In the city of Ouidah, we walk the heart wrenching memorial, ‘Route Des Esclaves,” (Route of the Slaves). This road of horrendous history includes a monument to the tree of forgetfulness, where traders made captured humans walk around the tree several times, believing it would make them forget where they came from.
Then the people were chained to cots, in a building with little ventilation, to assimilate conditions on ships. The weak and sick were tossed into massive graves, sometimes still alive.
A grand arch on the beach memorializes the point of no return, where the captured were never seen from again. Reading about such history cannot compare to the emotional reaction induced from visiting the grounds and listening to stories from descendents.
Apollo explains that when African leaders traded their people for goods, such as 15 strong men or 21 well proportioned women for one cannon, they lost more than people, they lost history. The elders taught about their culture through stories.
- “The death of one elder is like the burning of a library,” Apollo says.
A welcome cool…
Sometimes public transportation translates into walking… in the hot African sun. Who knew about the striking taxi drivers? Trustworthy Apollo comes through again, finding a driver who brings us to the stilted village in Ganvie.
We jump into a dug-out canoe, and push across shallow Lake Nokove’ to the stilted-house village. About 30,000 folks live atop the lake, fishing for tilapia and tourists. The fresh, moist air soothes our souls.
This evening we lie in bed, under a mosquito net, while our wooden loft creaks with the wind. The occasional cry of a baby, some tribal language murmurs, and mellow drum beats in the distance flow with the cool breeze through the open shutters, serenading us into a sound slumber.
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