Benin and Togo: The Birthplace of Voodoo
The Benin voodoo ceremony includes killing a goat and a procession
By Ron Mitchell
Pythons, preserved skulls and Voodoo ceremonies drew 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 met Apollo, a man with a family history in Benin. Apollo offered insider knowledge, travel-savvy, and multilingual skills.
We hired 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 took us from Ghana, through Togo, to Benin. We missed the annual Voodoo festival held each January 10th, in Ouidah, Benin, but hoped to attend a genuine ceremony.
Challenging travel in the French-speaking countries of Togo and Benin
We squeezed into a Lorry (van) and sweltered 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 marketplaces, offering a range of goods from fresh fruit to plastic ukuleles. We maneuvered around the mayhem, appreciating Apollo, who skillfully guided us through passport checkpoints and customs.
In Togo, public transportation transforms from buses 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 turned to scooters once we crossed into Benin. Sitting on the backs of scooters, we had to trust the riding skills of strangers, who negotiated gravel, dirt, and rut-filled roads.
The breeze soothed our sweat-soaked bodies. We stopped only at makeshift “gas stations” which consist of roadside stands with plastic bottles full of gas.
Starting to feel like Voodoo
We stopped in Lome, Togo, and visited 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, sat on display and emitted the stench of rotting flesh.
A fetish priest, “Voodoonou,” explained 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 said. “Good spirit is stronger than bad.”
A short jaunt through Togo brought us outside the city of Possotome, Benin, next to Lake Aheme. We passed a live Voodoo ceremony near a small, mud hut village. Apollo received permission from the elders to take photos, but we were not invited to partake in the ritual.
This ceremony initiated because a villager had had something stolen. After the ceremony, every resident was 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.
Throne of Skulls
We headed on to the city of Abomey and visited 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 ran into a friend who invited us to attend a family Voodoo Ceremony.
Pythons Rule in Voodoo
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 departed for the Voodoo ceremony.
Three of us squeezed onto one scooter, en route to the sacred grounds. Crowds gathered around the House of Python in the darkness. About 800 people attended this common practice, in which a family hires a Voodoonou once every seven years to perform a good fortune ritual.
Apollo translated and explained 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 Voodoo 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 any more photos,” Apollo whispered.
The family sat in a circle, drinking special alcohol. When the drums stopped, so did the dancing line. Greetings began, where people kneel, clap, and kiss the dust in front of colorfully dressed chiefs, priest, and priestesses.
The drums resumed, and a man pulled a young, white goat by a rope. The goat screamed like a young kid and leaned 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 pounded faster and a priest hoisted the goat above his head, tapping the House of Python. Then he bent and touched the goat to the ground.
He repeated this process several times afterward, he sliced the goat’s throat – difficult to watch, but I ignored the drums vibrating that lump in my throat, and tried to maintain an open mind in order to appreciate this fascinating witness.
Bowl of Goat’s Blood
He handed a bowl of the goat’s blood to a family member, who dipped his thumb into it and then tapped the top of his knee. He dips again, and douses his lips, before passing the bowl to others who repeat the gesture.
Afterward, a Voodooshi held the goat high, and led a dancing line, circling the entire complex. Women and children followed her. The goat rids any remaining bad spirit from the grounds.
She then placed the goat onto a pile of leaves. A woman knelt down and planted her face in the dust next to the goat.
Drums beat louder, while another woman danced in the middle of a circle, stamping her feet and pulling her shoulders backward, waving her palms parallel to the ground. She grabbed the goat and flipped him under her arm, allowing his legs to dangle in the air.
The Voodoonou watched 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 walked 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 by visiting the grounds and listening to stories from descendants.
Apollo explained 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 jumped into a dug-out canoe and pushed 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 lay 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.
Ron Mitchell is a freelancer with publications in Arizona Highways, Heartlands, Columbia, and Goworldtravel.com, and the Arizona Republic Newspaper.