May 23, 2017

Inside West Africa's vanishing voodoo rituals

Anisha Shah
Anisha Shah, Contributor
Business Insider
May 15, 2017

West Africa is fast gaining recognition for its wildly beautiful barren beaches, hypnotic African beats, vibrant fashions and strong cultures, which have reshaped the face of mankind.

Yet, Voodoo remains the world's most secretive and misunderstood religion, veiled in mystery. Predating many religions by tens of thousands of years, Voodoo is a way of life in its country of origin, Benin.

Battle of Benin

I've arrived in the tiny nation to unearth the final frontier of unexplored Africa and to expose the Battle of Benin, a turf war threatening to banish the religion to history books. For the intrepid and inquisitive traveller, an extraordinary realm of ancient rituals, trances and fetishes awaits discovery. And it doesn't take long to become immersed in this otherworld.

In a scene straight out of Star Wars, Benin is deep in the throes of a deadly conflict between good vs evil - Voodoo vs Witchcraft.
Voodoo Vs. Witchcraft

Voodoo may conjure images of scrawny witches, pins-in-dolls, and steaming cauldrons, but as I quickly learn, that's not entirely myth - it's an extreme offshoot of the peaceful spirit religion that is Voodoo.

"Many witches live in this town," I'm told matter-of-factly by my guide Paul Akakpo, as we bump along red sandy dust-tracks of coastal Ouidah. "They practice in a closed secret sect so they are unidentifiable. Some admit, on their deathbed, the murders they've caused," continues Mr Akakpo. His uncle, the late Voodoo Pope Sossa Guedehoungue, famously met Pope John Paul II and was key in initiating annual National Voodoo Day (10th January) in Benin.
Centuries-endured slave trade outpost

Ouidah, voodoo capital and nucleus of a centuries-endured slave trade, bears the sobering UNESCO-backed 3-mile 'Route des Esclaves' or Slave Route. Lined by museums, monuments and shrines, the solemn stretch opens to the 'Gate of No Return' on a wide windswept Atlantic shore.

Feral, untamed and bordered by lofty palms, this is the desolate and dreamy coastline bequeathed much of West Africa. Dotted only by tiny fishing villages and coconut-sellers, the beguiling beauty belies a chilling history.

These West African shores were the final footsteps of millions of shackled slaves forced to depart their homeland forever, boarding gigantic slave ships. They were exported to the New World, as the Americas are known here, defining today's cultural constitution of the American continents and Caribbean. Voodoo still thrives across Haiti, Brazil and New Orleans.

"Witches are abundant in Benin but they cast only evil spells and kill people, which is the antithesis to voodoo's healing and helping. Sorcery is Benin's biggest war," explains Mr Akakpo.
Voodoo's identity crisis

Voodoo has a major image problem. This growing malpractice by witches is driving genuine worshippers underground. Even witches "cloak themselves in Christianity at Church by day," warns Mr Akakpo. Nearly half of Benin's population practices voodoo officially, and two-thirds unofficially. As Voodoo draws on nature, philosophy, spirituality, and tolerance of all faiths, the closet devotees are a growing norm. If the trend continues, this primordial religion could be vulnerable in its birthplace.

Early European invaders to Benin implanted today's global stereotype. Whilst enforcing Christianity, they demonized Voodoo by spreading tales of black magic and sorcery. Today's thriving witchcraft makes matters worse. Voodoo wrongly endures the hangover.

Voodoo priests protect people from the evil eye, as prevention and cure, using inherited knowledge of nature. As village doctors, they're often the first point of contact, presiding over rituals at shrines and temples. These are as abundant in Benin as cafes in France, the former colonial guardian bestowing the French language. At the heart of Voodoo are rituals and sacrifice, as I soon find out.
1. Voodoo priests and fetishes
Voodoo oracle reading

Sitting on a cold hard floor deep within a village, a tiny corner window illuminates Benin's most renowned Voodoo priest. He is performing an oracle reading - mine. He holds strings of cowry shells, water in a glass and miniature statuettes to the light to determine my fate. Calmly, he communicates with Voodoo divinities, who transmit ancestral spirit messages to the living. My guide translates.

Voodoo is founded on pleasing the spirits of passed ancestors, to bless the living, merging the melodies of life and afterlife. His first two remarks leave me bewildered, striking a personal chord. Fortunately, he sees no evil spirits around me, swerving the need for a purification ceremony. These would involve being bathed naked in the sea or placing a concoction of white linen-clad herbs at a crossroads to divert evil.
Voodoo Animism fetish market

A darker experience emerges at the world's largest Voodoo Fetish market, considered a traditional pharmacy, in neighbouring Togo. Face-to-face with severed heads of monkeys, dogs, crocodiles, chameleons, and cobras rotting on wooden displays in searing 42C heat, the breeze is bittersweet. Each fetish is believed to cure a woe, from lacklustre libido to the darkest curse.

Behind-the-scenes, the Voodoo Fetish Priest, Thomas Zonnontin, communicates with Voodoo gods to heal visitors, by grinding animal skulls with herbs and rubbing into incisions made on their back. He gives me his business card. I politely decline the offer to 'perform in bed like a buffalo' settling instead for travel protection. For locals, these are go-to remedies.
2. Trances and dances with the dead
Egungun funeral trance

Voodoo's most volatile dance is the Egungun funeral rites trance, in which spirits of the dead possess the living.

My guide gets a tip-off. Musicians are pounding drums, whipping a secret sect of fully-cloaked statuesque Yoruba dancers into frenzy. A hundred-strong crowd of locals fills a dusty village compound, many peering from behind trees. Top-to-toe shrouded dancers twirl and whirl like dervishes in flame red, emerald green and sapphire blue velvet shrouds. The faces of this cult of initiates are veiled in a smokescreen of cowry shells. Being touched by them is the ultimate curse.

As Capoeira-style music impassions, one dancer slips into a frenzied trance. "He is possessed and not aware of his actions now," exclaims Mr Akakpo above the wild din. Guised by the spirit of the dead, the entranced dancer chases crowds; a mass exodus ensues like a sandstorm into the dusty distance.

That's when the hulking giant flits attentions towards me, the obvious outsider. He flies over, grabbing the stick of our 'security guard,' threatening to strike us. Mr Akakpo bows, throwing cash his way, influencing his retreat. His mask represents a Voodoo God and his cape bears the name of the departed. As pandemonium progresses, feverish dancers cut themselves to bleed using metal, and can whip the public. Before this, I'm handheld to safety to reclaim heart from my mouth.

Voodoo rituals are ongoing in Benin. Travellers can readily encounter religious ceremonies, "We want to show visitors our ancient spirit religion, so they can understand it and shatter false stigmas."
'Night hunter magic festival'

The following day, we're told about an impromptu festival of the Zangbeto Night Hunters. This closed secret sect maintains community safety by arresting outsiders and burying them alive inside their iconic conical-thatched hut, where they're enshrined as Voodoo divinities. This festival is rare.

In front of a mysterious Voodoo Temple of Cults, life-sized thatched-huts twirl into view. It is a surreal suspend-your-disbelief sight. Moving mounds of thatched straw twirl incessantly in hypnotic motion to crazed beats, whipping impassioned crowds to fever pitch.

The Voodoo priest sprinkles magic powder on a hut, before revealing the interior. A small chicken clucks inside. Of everything I witness, this invisible act is most incredulous. I grab a series of candid photographs before we must leave.
3. Rituals and temples
Dankoli sacrifice shrine

Animal sacrifice is central to appeasing spirits and Voodoo gods.

The most powerful shrine in Benin is Dankoli fetish shrine. Here, I participate in a voodoo ceremony, where animal sacrifice is standard exchange for personal favors from the spirits. Inconspicuous white flags mark the rural outdoor spot. On closer inspection, the revered shrine is a piled-high mecca of putrefying blood, guts and feathers. The gut-wrenching odor saturates the surrounds.

I walk across ground coated in sludgy tar-like remains to take instruction from the Voodoo fetish priest: hammer a wooden peg into the mound and pour red palm oil. The next step defies my instinct, as I sheepishly swig a mouthful of Akbateshie, home-brewed gin, which tastes like fire, and spray it across the shrine. A female onlooker giggles at my pathetic dribble. Opting out, I watch the priest sacrifice two chickens, whose blood is poured over the shrine, whilst reciting prayers and blessings.

And then our car breaks down. So I spend an extra couple of hours ensconced in the broiling stench, wondering what happened to the blessings.
Unveiling voodoo in Benin

To understand West Africa is to truly understand Africa. Voodoo is a deeply-rooted yet severely misunderstood religion, and the chance to explore it feels a true travel privilege. As a pivotal platform of history, culture, and natural beauty, unique in the world, travellers who appreciate the continent are invited to unearth Benin and t last slice of authentic and unexplored Africa.

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