Arriving at night in Cotonou, the capital of Benin, and typical of West African cities, you are enveloped in a mist of dust and the smoke of cooking fires and burning rubbish, as the dawn breaks these flavours are joined by less savoury ones such as traffic fumes and sewage. The dust is courtesy of the Harmattan Wind that is progressively delivering the Sahara Desert and every bit of loose dirt in the Sahel region on its southern borders, to the rest of West Africa.
Hence, until the rainy season arrives it’s not a destination for asthma sufferers or cleanliness obsessed travellers. Within five minutes of leaving a hotel westerners usually manage to look grubbier than the average local; immaculately dressed women in a prismatic swathe of dresses and headgear will step from muddy hovels without a mark on them; men in either African or western suits can step out of clapped out taxis, which have been disgorging fumes and dispensing loose mechanical parts in equal measure, after an eight hour journey with three others in the back seat almost entirely crease and stain free.
Whilst I have yet to discover the secret to this ability I have come to suspect that, as for the women, it is in part due to changing clothes at least three times a day, which also goes towards explaining the ubiquity of the sight of women doing the washing. This dedication to personal presentation goes far beyond clothes: there are probably more hairdressers and barbers in Africa than any other service sector providers and the sight of mobile pedicurists, clicking their scissors to advertise their trade is a common one, more so for men, although women with head borne baskets of cosmetics provide a range of beauty therapies for the ladies. These trades-people are joined by men who combine the skills of cobblers and shoe shiners who clack their little wooden boxes of tools whilst patrolling the streets in order to advertise their services, upon securing a customer these boxes also serve as seats to work from.
Cotonou is much like other African cities in having a thriving, pavement based economy: from humble vendors with but one item to sell to great sprawling displays of luggage or kitchenware. Many move between the traffic at junctions selling just about anything that can be carried, in fact it would be perfectly feasible to do your weeks shopping without ever having left the car, which makes the USA’s obsession with drive thru services look quite modest. Each one of these dedicated and without doubt, hardworking sales people is aspiring to attain that next step up in the system which will one day lead to a market stall or, God and or the spirits willing, maybe even a shop.
Conservative politicians looking for inspiration for the “get on your bike and find a job instead of sitting on your fat arse claiming benefits” mentality will find fertile ground on the crumbling pavements of Africa. After all it takes more than a degree of optimism to sell an Iron Maiden T shirt on a continent where heavy metal is virtually unknown. However, I suspect that for every one that sips the sweet taste of success from the holy grail of shopkeeperdom another dies a lingering death in a grimy backstreet, unable to afford some vital medicine or enough food to keep them going. Indeed, inspiration and despair walk hand in hand on poverty-street but even those reduced to begging can appear reluctant to acknowledge the latter, at least to a foreigner such as me whose wealth is to them as Bill Gates is to ours – maybe this reluctance on the part of some to play the misery card when begging is part of the national character because the Beninois seem a particularly friendly lot on a continent that puts up some stiff competition in this game. It’s the kind of place where you can go around greeting all and sundry with the kind of relentless, cheery optimism that, back home, would soon have you placed under a strict regime of heavy medication, because that’s just not the kind of way we do things in Britain. Many has been the time that on one of the many narrow or irregular stretches of pavement someone has stood back to allow me to pass, offering a smile or bonjour.
The Christmas spirit had obviously not yet deserted Cotonou by the time I arrived in January: a loud hailer interminably bleeping jingle bells serenades the market; numerous signs wish everyone a merry Xmas and happy new year; several people sport Santa hats oblivious to the stifling heat and humidity, but red cloaked Santa images and synthetic white powder laden, plastic Christmas trees have never looked quite so incongruous in the sweltering tropical squalor where none of the hundreds of local languages have words for snow.
Huge posters celebrating the recent papal visit illustrate an intriguing circle of transatlantic, religious cross-fertilisation. Benin, once a major supplier of slaves for Brazil and the Caribbean, exported Voodoo where it eventually appropriated aspects of Christianity and was brought back to Africa by the slaves’ descendents in the latter part of the 19th century, where meanwhile, Christian missionaries had been tagging on facets of Voodoo to their own teachings in an effort to make it more palatable to the natives, who themselves had incorporated some catholic practices in order to diminish persecution by Europeans. One example of this process is the celebration of the snake spirit Damballah Wedo on March 17th, the same day as St Patrick, known for expelling snakes from Ireland. Thus many of the current Christian population happily endorse Voodoo as part of their spiritual life, much to the Pope’s consternation I imagine. Voodoo does not prohibit the practice of other religions and would seem to be a trait typical of regional, traditional beliefs. Equally, even many Muslims seem to be content to troop out of the mosque to participate in traditional ceremonies and given that Voodoo has its’ gods it would seem to go against one of the implacable demands of Islam that there is but one God – but I’ll let the imams argue that one out. Further North, where a form of fetish worship with similarities to voodoo predominates, a local catholic school for the slightly more privileged children still had to accept that their teachings would have to co-exist with traditional ones. I guess the Catholic Church is prepared to play the long game with the issue and gradually chip away the resolve as each new generation of children is lured away from their parents’ traditions, equally enticed by Facebook, violent computer games and internet porn that our culture has devoured so compulsively.
Voodoo has become a flagship for Benin’s culture as it is a word which resonates well beyond its modest borders. It will come as no surprise that the popular notions of zombies and dolls pierced with pins have nothing to do with the religion itself, being products of Christian propaganda and over active literary imaginations, so by opening up the religion to westerners a more realistic view can be taken. Directly harmful “magic” is limited, although Voodoo has no clear moral code such as those in the Abrahamic faiths and spells of protection could induce harm or death on those who attack anyone so protected. Claims for the origins of Voodoo going as far back as 10 000 years are obviously speculative but it is undoubtedly ancient. The lack of a creation myth would seem to indicate that it has evolved into being; certainly it contains elements from various cultures in the region. With 41 different cults, each revering a different deity under the supreme God Mawu, much variation in practice exists and the absence of a big book to argue over supports plurality over sectarianism. The religion became officially recognised in 1996 after suppression by the Marxist government in the 70’s and 80’s and January 10th became the national holiday of Voodoo Day. Strictly speaking the term Voodoo applies to their cousins’ beliefs on the other side of the Atlantic, in Benin and neighbouring Togo it had always been known as Vodun or Vodou but the higher profile of Haitian Voodoo, albeit often misunderstood has led to a general acceptance of its spelling, despite it being regarded as derogatory by some (I reluctantly use the common spelling for convenience). The word itself equates to spirit and adherents believe that objects and places can contain spirits, as well as people and animals. In addition they make no distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds, thus spirits and ancestors are part of everyday life. People are part of nature rather than seeking dominion over it, leading to the concept of a form of environmental stewardship, albeit one often compromised by the demands of poverty.
Digging deeper into the secretive world of the Voodoo hierarchy a darker side does reveal itself. As you are not born into the faith initiation ceremonies are a prerequisite for full acceptance and along with other ceremonies which followers may regard as vital, demand money that many cannot afford. In a country where half the population earn less than £1 a day ceremonial costs sometimes amounting to £200 mean children are offered or even taken in lieu of payment to convents where they are kept for months and sometimes years, banned from any interaction with the parents. The other option commonly used to cover debts is to sell children into bonded labour, a practice often tantamount to slavery and riddled with abuse. Estimates suggest that 40 000 young a year, in a population of 9 million are affected. Debts incurred to Voodoo then preclude the opportunity to pay for the costs of education, further disadvantaging children. The genuine fear of retribution from the spirits keeps parents wedded to the system.
The festival in the coastal town of Ouidah on the national holiday has become the focus for the presentation of the religion and although most of the Voodoo festival’s audience are Beninois there is a definite sense behind it of legitimising the religion beyond its borders. The Pope was obliged to greet the Voodoo royalty, the Dagbo Hounon and his female counterpart Nagbo Hounon, in exactly the same way he would of any other religion. Often it will be pointed out that Voodoo is a proper religion as much as Christianity or Islam for instance.
Twelve million slaves were dragged off over a 400 year period via the port of Ouidah and it is said that only their bodies departed and their souls remained behind, so for the people, Voodoo and slavery are inextricably linked, ancestral spirits being an integral part of the system. The town also has a number of sacred sites and would seem to be the only realistic location for the festival. One such site is the Python Temple which sits opposite the Catholic church (itself being built on land donated by a local Voodoo follower, it is a prime example of Voodoo’s acceptance of other religions) but these days it seems to function as much as a tourist draw as a religious venue where you can get your photo taken enveloped by one of its many scaly residents. This commodification of religion could be seen as a disincentive to those in search of the mythical, “authentic African experience” but with white faces at the festival being counted only in tens rather than hundreds it is a process in its infancy. Benin, without the tourist havens such as those found in, say Gambia or Senegal is hardly overrun with foreigners. Maybe Benin could take some cues from Mali’s promotion of its musical culture and the Festival in the Desert, where Europeans have been in abundance until the recent coup and the Tuareg rebellion created a gap in the West African festival market.
Several traditional ceremonies take place in and around Ouidah in the days leading up to the festival, but as with the festival itself events are characterised by the African approach to what on other continents would be referred to as organisation, but here there is a more organic approach, whereby a lot of stuff will definitely happen, in some form or another, at some points and in some locations, very little of which can be stated with any precision even by local inhabitants. A printed programme of events, including the three days preceding the festival arrived in a limited number on the penultimate evening and whilst not being an entire work of fiction really served no practical purpose. Hence paying a guide is a wise investment but not always a guarantee, as all kinds of people can take advantage of the influx of tourists to earn some much needed money. Frustrated tourists could be seen rushing around with a “guide” making enquiries on his mobile, arriving at a location to find an event which finished three hours ago or not on until tomorrow, possibly. Paying for an official guide can be regarded by some travellers who see themselves above the lowly tourist as a cop out; in this case such people will see little and learn nothing.
With all this in mind I was concerned that the evening’s ceremony in a nearby village which my guide had arranged for me to see might also be a bit of a show. I needn’t have worried for it was very much the real deal, for a start I only had to fork out about $5 for some offerings of a bottle of gin (alcohol is essential in most ceremonies) and some kola nuts, most of which was sprayed over the fetish shrine in asking the spirits permission for the presence of a stranger, so no one was going to be partying it up big style at my expense. Please note that a fetish in this sense is an object housing the spirit of a being, creature or ancestor and no leather or painful piercings are involved, it is derived from the attempts of early Portuguese travellers in the region to describe what they encountered, an experience beyond their Christian terminology. When I say that it took place in the village temple you should not have any images of ornate grandeur that other religions may require, I have come across cow sheds of greater opulence in Britain. A central chamber houses the modest mound like shapes of the fetish shrines over which offerings are poured; this has an antechamber with two openings where I sit for the initial proceedings with a dozen or so locals and female adepts in front of the priest. Surrounding this structure entirely was another building which allowed the shrine to be perambulated about freely and provided a space for other villagers. Alas I forgot to ask afterwards why we all had to have a bunch of leaves waved in our faces but waving stuff about seems a prerequisite for all religions so I doubt it represented anything too significant such as offering up my soul for eternal torment. In the outer, surrounding space drummers played a series of rhythms, each signifying a different portion of the ceremony, the women chant in time and offerings are made. If you are used to the formalised ritual of English churches the ceremony, as with other events I have witnessed in Africa, seems rather chaotic – people come and go, kids crowd around the door or at our feet. Surprisingly no mobile phone conversations went on, probably a rare coincidence as even church weddings are serenaded by ring tones, although their owners at least have the courtesy to go outside for the conversation.
As soon as I saw the cute, kid goat tied up on entering the temple I knew its demise was inevitable and sure enough, it was duly sacrificed, struggling for a minute as its throat was cut to drain the blood into a bowl, a portion of which was poured over the fetishes. A chicken was similarly dispatched and its blood used to glue handfuls of its feathers to pillars and patches of wall – apparently even the walls have eyes and must be placated, as was explained to me later. The goat carcass is then swung back and forth seven times through the antechamber opening before being flung on the eighth, each move representing a colour of the rainbow, in turn representing the totality of the population of the village requiring protection by the spirits. As the carcass hits the floor a great roar goes up from the assembled masses and the women commence a dance circling the central structure. The women aim to enter into a trance, whereupon the barriers between the visible and invisible worlds are broken for them. Although not on this occasion, the women can attain the kinds of states of spiritual ecstasy you might see at an evangelical service. You will be glad to hear that the goat is not wasted as only its blood is required and it will be eaten later. Some ceremonies do however require that an animal be buried alive, even occasionally something as large as a cow, which does raise some logistical issues that I’ll leave you to dwell upon should you so desire.
The somewhat challenging nature of Voodoo for animal lovers is put to the ultimate test at the fetish markets. These are the pharmacies of the voodoo world: after a consultation the priest will provide a prescription which is then purchased from the market. The stalls look a bit like the trophy collection of some psychotic, random animal hunter: great arrays of heads in varying states of decomposition, dogs, monkeys, cattle, birds and even most-definitely-endangered creatures such as leopards feature. The smell resembles a recently abandoned abattoir and considering that these items are often ground up and made into potions one can only assume that Voodoo has led to a major evolution in the hardiness of its followers’ digestive systems, any weak stomached individuals surely having been killed off years ago. Heads are not the only tasty morsels on display and the pick of the bunch would have to be a clutch of pig’s wombs, plump with foetuses and providing an edible nirvana for the swarms of flies enticed by the delightful odour.
The day of the festival itself was opened up with a ceremony at an entirely different time and location to that given in the programme and started with some offerings from the local Voodoo royalty at what looked like a neglected herbaceous feature outside a petrol station on the outskirts of town for which I can offer no explanation of significance. A parade back into town was motivated by a delightfully shambolic brass section with percussion backing, to which the many women danced with a smiling fervour. In an often very patriarchal land women do play a vital role in the religion and can be priests as well as men. Also when it comes to celebrating anything in Africa it always seems to be the women and often the older ones who are up there first busting moves and shaking their stuff to get the party started. After a couple of stops at shrines on the way to make some offerings we reach one of the festival sites in the town square. Seating is arranged in a square around a ‘performance’ area with one side reserved for dignitaries and we are treated to a day of wondrous chaos. Generally, several things will be happening at one time: different percussion and dance groups compete simultaneously with some moving about the space. An assortment of important personages turns up with a large retinue to make largely inaudible speeches over a ramshackle PA system with musicians seemingly oblivious to their efforts continuing their frenzied clattering. Representatives from Brazil and the USA were testimony to the international reach of the religion and what little of the American delegation’s speech in French that was comprehensible was a tribute to the unity of its’ communities, before they were whisked off in a fleet of blacked out 4×4’s to the beach where a parallel event was taking place. While the black American speaker looked the part, his white counterparts, whose role I never discovered, seemed entirely out of place in their black suits and dresses.
Some wildly athletic dancing provided some deservedly appreciated entertainment as performers picked up enough momentum spinning about the axis of their bodies’ length to be almost horizontal. What I had really been waiting for, the dance of the xangbetos, at least initially proved to be a disappointment as they were for the most part surrounded by photographers and cameramen. These beings are the guardians of the spirit world and look like conical roofs of thatched huts, who for non believers would be operated by a man inside. At times they almost seem to float around to the accompaniment of one of the most intense group of percussionists you will ever hear; certainly not giving the impression of being lifted from within and for anyone inside the heat must be oppressive. Later in the day I had been standing right by the pair of them for about 15 minutes and seen them move and pulsate in a fashion that must require someone inside, but with a great flourish the cap of the conical shape and two lower sections were removed to reveal an utterly empty space, then within an instant of these being replaced, it lifted and whirled with great gasps from all around. The second xangbeto was simply tipped over to show it was empty and a man beside me crossed himself in the face of such evident sorcery. I can only assume that their team of “operators” must distract people enough to slip someone in and out at the appropriate times but given that I was within a few feet of both of them throughout I can only say that it was a mightily impressive performance. Outside the realm of the festival the power of the xangbetos is unquestioned by many believers as they serve to remind people of the power of the spirits.
Other creatures wandering around were the revenants, spirits of a family’s ancestors. Ok, so it’s a bloke in a big suit fashioned from hundreds of shiny squares decorated with cowrie shells but their bulky, appearance is certainly somewhat menacing. Given the screaming terror I witnessed from a number of children running from one in the town of Abomey their appearance is taken seriously. This was reinforced later that evening when going for a walk in the dusty backstreets of the poorer part of the town. Walking into a large open area, as the early evening gloom added an aura of uncertainty I witnessed dozens of young men and teenagers running from the same revenant wielding a huge whip like stick in a most threatening manner. A number of times it would retreat and be goaded on by the men only to beat a hasty retreat as it advanced thrashing its stick. Inevitably I and a man I was talking to were cornered by it but thankfully I only had to placate it with a few coins, but given that the rest of the group were hardly laughing and taking it all as a big joke you could hardly doubt the seriousness of the occasion. Whether anyone would have received a serious thrashing I could only guess but only a few brave souls risked challenging it.
In the parched and even dustier North of Togo I witnessed a more down to earth aspect of traditional beliefs that focuses on fetish worship. The village guide Jacques, after taking me around other sights in the area asked if I wanted to stay for a family ceremony that was to take place. As with any event in this part of the world it had to start with a bowl of the local brew, sorghum beer. The taste is manageable but it looks like grey brown dish water, still fermenting with ominous whitish plumes bubbling up from the depths. As with Voodoo, permission must be sought from the spirits for a stranger’s presence so at first water was splashed as an offering to the vast fetish outside the family’s traditional earthen home. This 3m high mud cone contains the spirit of a former, highly respected father, whose power as a leader and healer is reflected in the impressive size of the fetish. Its top is capped with feathers of earlier offerings of poultry and as with the many others, of diminishing size representing women and children, its sides are stained with streaks of older liquid offerings and each has a small hole at belly button height which is said to allow the spirit to breathe. Next some of the beer is given up to it before the family gathers around a dead tree, against which a dozen or more large branches are rested – each one representing a different ancestor. These can be seen elsewhere in the region and without appreciating their significance they seem simply to be a bundle of firewood that someone has left to be picked up later – God help the poor soul who kindly decides to tidy them up. I am allowed to sit at a discrete distance as the wiry-framed elder of the family firmly holds a chirping young hen and appears to be conversing with the ancestors, occasionally waving the bird about in front of the branches. Drawing a crudely honed knife from its goat hide sheath he cuts its’ throat and the bird’s wings flap frantically for a few seconds as its blood pours over the branches. Its lifeless body is taken by a younger man to offer its blood to the large fetish. All throughout the younger, bare breasted mothers sit at a distance whilst their near naked, dusty, swollen-bellied children ignore the proceedings, one far more interested in hurling stones ineffectually at chickens. As with Voodoo there rarely seemed the need for the kind of respectful silence we would expect: people would exchange a few words or maybe walk off for a minute. But, this was a serious affair; there had been an illness and problems in the family, which discretion demanded I ask no more of. In such cases the spirits need to be consulted even if modern medical treatment is the ultimate path to follow.
My unprompted modest financial gift as a thank you for such an insight into family life was greeted with profuse and humble thanks. I was left very much with the sense that the religion of these calmly dignified people should be treated with the quiet respect it deserves and not as a freak show for a phalanx of goggle eyed, camera wielding tourists. To them, such goings on are as mundane as Sunday morning worship and a nice cup of tea during Songs of Praise. However, I myself have to accept that I may also have become part of that process whereby tourist money corrupts the very thing we would seek to save. The region’s poverty is probably the most effective bulwark against the ravages of tourism but to deny development to a people who are amongst the poorest of an already poor country can only be totally unacceptable. Even with its modest tourist presence the Voodoo celebrations in the South had already started to show the first few taints of the lure of money. This balancing act between culture and development is one that is occurring in communities across the world and to have been at the focal point of one such example has been a profoundly moving experience.