OTRWJ Benin – Part 2 – The Voodoo Festival



I’ve now had a day and a half of various voodoo experiences…a reenactment, a festival, a sacrifice. First: it is quite obvious that voodoo is a part of every day life for most Beninese. But many combine those practices with formalized religion. Like many places around the world, religious leaders have learned that accepting and blending local practices into their own is an easier path to conversion. Voodoo is animistic in that virtually every everything in nature…water, fire, animals…have some “god” power. Humans and spirits are intertwined. Blending beliefs with Christianity and Islam, they believe in one supreme god and in the afterlife. There are key colors: red (heat), black (night spirits, and white (light and life).  

But to an outsider it is a confusing jumble, complex and challenging to understand. Even asking the local guide for explanations results in either an answer that doesn’t quite make it through the language barrier or I’m told you have to be “initiated” into the religion. “Initiated” means go to a priestess for maybe 5 months to learn the practices. And each form of voodoo requires its own learning. I think people tend to adopt the voodoo followings of their parents. 

My local guide is a twin. As I mentioned previously, twins are extremely common in Benin. They are highly regarded and felt to be quite special. Again – more on this in a later post. But when I asked Assou how many voodoo practices he follows, he said 2: twin and protection. Why not more? “I’m a twin. I don’t need more.” 

I’m learning, slowly, to just go with what I see and accept the mysteries. An interesting note: apparently much of the voodoo practiced today in the Caribbean and Haiti has been passed down from Beninese slaves brought over several hundred years ago. 

Apparently I was lucky to meet King Agassa, the highest king of all voodoo in Benin, and his wife. He is clearly a respected leader of people evidence by photos on his “palace walls” of him greeting local politicians and the Benin president.  

This was the day before the festival which was marked by sacrifices, witnessed by the king, of a chicken, then a goat (both the most common sacrifices as they are cheap) and then a cow. (I couldn’t help joking to myself: what comes after the cow??!). While the practice may seem cruel, the skins are put to use and the blood and the meat consumed. Without getting too graphic with the photos, an animal’s throat is slit; some of the blood is spilled on some “sacred” thing and the rest is saved, the body pressed and squeezed to try to express as much blood as possible. The cow was the most work. It may have been sedated (It was a little hard to see), then it took about 6 men to tie its feet together and proceed with the sacrifice. 

We strolled around the king’s village. He has 4 wives, the first being the most important, but it’s said he spends most of his time with wife #4. 

The afternoon was a Gambada reenactment … a celebration of love and fertility. The most striking thing to me during this nearly 2 hour experience was the constant, LOUD, fast drumming by the men. After a while it is hypnotic and it is easy to see how a person could get caught up in it.  This celebration was a way for young people to meet…a sort of shrine is set up. (Don’t ask me about the cigarette. I don’t know)

The dancing was intense.  Half covered in talc (in old days it was something else), wearing bright skirts, the dancers danced feverishly, fast feet, twirling, to the rhythm of the drums. I noticed several times, although a male and female were not exactly dancing together, they were mirroring each other’s footsteps. Courtship?  

This was also my first experience with trances. Suddenly, a person bursts out from the crowd. They may drop to the ground and roll around or crawl; they may just stumble around (one man seemed to be feverishly scratching his head), or they may just run off. Sometimes others in the crowd seem to support them; sometimes helping them off to the village, sometimes holding them down. Once I saw an older woman shaking her finger seemingly in anger at a woman in a trance.  

Why the trances? Well, whatever is happening, I can understand how a “believer” getting caught up in the constant drumming and chanting and frenzy—everyone around you moving and swaying—would be moved to an extreme. We see similar behavior in other religions; we just don’t call them trances. 

The big day was the Voodoo Festival, held each year. In some ways it reminded me of other cultural festivals I’ve seen in my travels: families gathering, dressed often in their traditional finest. Music. Clapping. Chanting. Incredibly loud and colorful. Also crowds jammed together to see the action!  No social distancing here!!

A comment here about the Beninese. They are truly the most welcoming, friendly, and eager to smile. Even in an excited crowd, everyone jostling and straining to see, never once was I shoved or treated as if, as a white person, I didn’t belong. 

Maybe the most exciting demonstration at the festival was the dances by the Kotu Primarily young men, covered with a yellow palm oil “glop” twirl frenetically. The yellow represents power. This performance is a demonstration of bravery and invincibility that may involve appearing to swallow the knife (like flame swallowers) or stabbing oneself.

The zangbeto are guardians of the night! These  colorful raffia cone things are charged with maintaining law and order and insure safety and security, as they  twirl crazily around, sending children squealing and running. But here’s the weirdness: there is no person inside these things!!!! They twirl – or sometimes sit still just kinda shimmying for what seems forever, with their “guardians” minding them. I guess to keep them from crashing into people, because the zangbeto has no eyes (that we can see). At some point, they stop and the guardians tip the cone over and—there’s nothing there!! No one! The guardian pushes the raffia aside to look: nothing. A trick? Or voodoo????

One time, there was a tiny little zangbeto inside that shimmied on its own. Another, there was something that was put in a bowl with water which the guardian sprinkled over the crowd. 

The festival parade had different voodoo “sects” (similar concept to Baptist or Methodist Protestants) with their own music, chanting, costumes. 

Tomorrow: two very different experiences. Walking the path to the embarking point of slaves as they boarded the ships of slave traders, and an overnight in a stilt village built over a lake hundreds of years ago purposefully to avoid the slave traders. 

OTRWJ Benin - Part 2 - The Voodoo Festival originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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