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Benin: A new adventure!
Why Benin? As those of you who have followed along on previous journeys know, there often isn’t a clear cut reason. About a year ago, somewhere, I read an article or saw a documentary; I knew nothing about West Africa’s history or culture. One thing led to another. My curiosity continued to be piqued. Now, here I am!
The Republic of Benin, previously Dahomey (not to be confused with the Kingdom of Dahomey, today’s Nigeria), was a French colony from roughly 1900 to 1960 when it declared independence. A small country about the size of Pennsylvania, it is often lumped together with Ghana and Togo, also previously French colonies. All lie off of the Gulf of Guinea (Picture where we think our hurricanes originate!) on what is/was called the slave coast. These countries, and notably Benin, are where the Portuguese slave traders first arrived in the 1600s. Slave ships, also from England and France, continued to arrive until the early 1800s, when Britain attempted to ban international slave trading. This history of how the slave trade worked and the French attempt at colonization will be part of this journey. I love the learning curve before and during so many of these trips! Stretches my brain!
The other unique thing that fascinates me about Benin is voodoo. It is a recognized religion here and while statistics aren’t very good, it is clearly practiced by a majority of the population. I THINK (we’ll see!) voodoo in Benin is not all the negative pins-stuck-in-dolls stuff of Hollywood depiction. But it definitely is a HUGE part of this very tribal culture. Voodoo does not simply coexist with Christianity and Islam here; most people actually practice both voodoo and a formal religion. The first picture of this blog offers protection. It was shown by our guide and he carries it with him in a small pouch. Initially I thought it was a cigar butt. What’s it made of? He said he doesn’t know. He said something like you have to learn about and “join” that particular voodoo and then you’d know. He just carries it.
Benin has many many “tribes,” about 50 languages and a ton of kings. There seems to be one for every village and tribe. This is not unlike what I saw in the Omo valley in Ethiopia and in Papua, New Guinea!
Like so much of Africa, the Chinese are a very very strong presence here. As I saw in Uganda and Ethiopia, they build the buildings, the roads. They effectively transform the culture and even interpret the history. The best example is the giant bronze statue on the waterfront in Cotonue, not the capital but the government and financial center nonetheless. This is a statue in tribute to the Amazon women of Dahomey (the tribe, not the republic or the kingdom). More on these women later in the trip, but essentially they were a group of trained, violent, all-female warriors who were so ferocious the Brits named them “Amazons” after the women in Greek mythology. There are various “histories”, but these warriors served the Dahomey kings for several hundred years, first as elephant fighters, then, to supplement the declining male population due to the slave trade, the women warriors conquered and captured slaves for trading from neighboring tribes and also helped to fight the French during the late 1800s. Today, it seems the Beninese seem to ascribe attributes of power and strength to the Amazons and regard them as symbols of the importance of women to the culture.
So, they decide to build a giant statue of an Amazon warrior. But who designs it? A Chinese designer. Who molds and builds it? A Chinese firm. And just like the tribute I saw in Uzbekistan to the Uzbeks’ fortitude after a destructive earthquake—a giant statue designed and built by the Russians which ended up having Russian instead of Uzbek features—this statue doesn’t really look quite “African.” The features are a bit off—an African as imagined by a Chinese designer.
In the interest of modernization, the Chinese have displaced many people to build roads. This beachfront community, where fisherman still pull up their boats on the sand and people gather at sunset at the fish market, was literally divided in half by a new four-lane road.
Cotonou has beautiful street art. One large mural depicts scenes from Benin’s history, various tribes, and wildlife.
This mural painting is an excellent depiction —-and also an analogy of the situation—-of Cotonou today. The modern skyscrapers silhouetted against the sun setting over the beachfront villages
The people and their clothes are as colorful as the murals!
The timing of this trip coincides with the annual voodoo festival. An important part of the history of this culture, the practice was strongly discouraged in the 70s and 80s by then President Kerekou. In the last 30 years, there has been an effort to revive the beliefs. Some voodoo is practiced as a part of daily life; some is re-enacted as a way to remember the traditions.
The first voodoo experience we had was a shenga reenactment. This involves the god of thunder and lightning and represents justice. Traditionally, this was how wrong doings were adjudicated and punishments meted out. As you see in the photos, it involves sacrificing a chicken, blowing up a human skull (just gunpowder and smoke today!), and spreading the chicken blood around.
Simultaneously, there is much dancing, drumming and chanting. Obviously the skull part can’t be done today. However, it is real and supposedly left over from “the old days.”
As I write this, I have just had an amazing day that included a private audience (and a selfie) with King Agassa, the top top king of all voodoo. There are, as I’m learning, MANY different voodoo kings. But Agassa is a huge deal. The day (and the next blog) also included a sacrifice of another chicken, a goat and a cow. I also learned about how twins are more common in Benin than anywhere in the world, and how they are revered.
This voodoo stuff is very confusing. Maybe because it is inherently inexplicably and mysterious; maybe a language/translation barrier; maybe I’ll understand better as the trip goes along.
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