OTRWJ Benin – Part 5 – Tribal Drums for Final Days


Tribal drums for my final days

The trip is  nearing its end as we begin to head back south. While there are still special ceremonies to share, I must say this has been a fascinating group to travel with. As I said previously, this is a photographic tour with only 6 people, with itineraries and logistics different from a pure cultural tour. If you’d like to know more about photo tours, contact me. The group included one other American, two Brits, one New Zealander and one Aussie. The stories and travel experiences were as educational and wide ranging as the trip itself!!  One person has traveled to 170 countries! Several have been or have plans for South Sudan, Chad, Angola, Cameroon. I learned about music from Senegal and a northern UK sound called Northern Soul (check out Spotify!). I learned about Botswana’s treatment of the San and the over population of elephants in Chobe. Dinner conversations included sharing our respective national experiences/policies on health care, immigration, climate change and race relations.

These final ceremonies have been some of the most intense!  A special treat, a first for even our guide, was to celebrate the healing power of the earth. Wearing elaborate strands of colorful beads, to say the dancers were acrobatic is an understatement.

There was a portion of the ceremony where a woman, knelt on the crowd, chanted a solo and then lay prostrate as if worshipping the earth.

Then one of the dancers danced holding a live chicken which he then held in his mouth. Not for the squeamish: he bit off its head and ran off with it in his mouth. I saw a lot of sacrificing of chickens, but this was the most extreme.

Of all the voodoo ceremonies I was fortunate to see, this was the most colorful, beautiful, intense and moving.

I’ve mentioned Dahomey throughout this blog. Today it is a village (Abomey), but once Dahomey was the name of this country and also the name of a powerful tribe of warriors who captured neighboring tribes to sell to European slavers. In the late 1800s they were also a strong force in trying to fight French colonization. Their female warriors, the Amazons, a vicious and brutal tribe, are described in a recent movie, Warrior Queen. It’s not exactly accurate but it does tell the basic history. The Amazon reputation was that the red walls of the palace attribute their color to the blood of captives beheaded by the Amazons. In actuality, all the soil in Benin is a rusty red color as my shoes and clothes can attest.

There were 12 Dahomey kings from 1600 to 1900 when the French abolished the power of the Kingdom. The Royal Palaces of the kings (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are a unique reminder of this kingdom. The bas relief work, which is highly regarded in the art world, are estimated to weigh 500 pounds each and represent battle scenes and symbols of the kingdom

Egungun! Traditionally these “characters” represent ancestors and honor the dead. As they swirl and twirl and sometimes rush into the crowd, loudly making threatening noises, children scream and go running, as to be touched by a Egungun means you’ll die.  

Egungun traditionally come out at night (kinda like our bogeyman), but today can be found suddenly on a side street or at a celebration. There is a voodoo group for the Egungun, but it seems that many today regard them with wry humor.

The costumes can be quite elaborate and colorful.

I’ve mentioned a couple times about the importance of twins in Benin. For an inexplicable reason, the rate of twin births in Benin is twice that of the world average, making it the highest rate in the world! One article I read said in one tribe the rate is 1 in 20 births are twins! It is considered quite special to have twins in the family and they are regarded as quite powerful and important. But because of the high rate of infant mortality, many die quite young. When they die, a tiny wooden doll or statue is carved to represent the twin. This doll holds the spirit of the dead child. They are then considered immortal and the dolls are treated as living children.

The mother carries these with her, treating them like children, dressing and feeding them. If only one twin dies, the remaining twin carries his or her sibling.

It was not unusual to find women with twin dolls, sometimes multiple twins, tucked in their dress.

We did witness a twin ceremony. Our local guide, himself a twin, participated. He describes it as, for him, something like we would consider receiving a blessing. It is a ceremony held when twins are born or die, I think. Again, it was all pretty vague and hard to understand. Like many ceremonies, it involves a sacrificed chicken, fermented palm oil and kaolin powder.

This has been an amazing experience. As always, I’m reminded that just as the world is so big, the world is so small. I am grateful that I am able, in all ways, to make this trip. I am more grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given that are totally inaccessible to others. I also realize how living on this planet is such a fragile thing. That each person and each culture strives to find the beliefs and values that can support their spiritual needs. Spiritual fulfillment can come in many forms, but there are basic tenants that do seem to be common across them all.

I will leave you with a few “food” pictures (Benin food for tourists is not exciting: French fries and stringy tough chicken for lunch and dinner), and some interesting signs or roadside amusements, and other random oddities.

Dyed chicks — why?

Cheap beer! These are the prices for beverages. 600 equals about 90 cents.

Yams – they’re ginormous!

Festival food

Sampling fermented palm oil

Me at the Ganvie fish market (where the women laughed at my inability to quickly scale a live fish).

Random oddities

Thank you for reading my blog and being part of the journey. I hope you’ve found it fun, weird, interesting, and a bit scary…as did I!


OTRWJ Benin - Part 5 - Tribal Drums for Final Days originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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