Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Real Voodoo Experience (near Ouidah, Benin)

The truck driver said that it was only half a kilometre down this rough dirt track. Distance was often a vague concept in this part of Africa and I could only hope that he was accurate. It was only nine in the morning and already a searing day. As we walked, debate was strong on whether this one of our more stupid ideas or a trip highlight.

In the main city of Ouidah, this small village came strongly recommended as a good place to see an authentic voodoo ceremony. Most people questioned thought it a strange request and looked at us oddly, but the story seemed to check out fairly consistently.

After an hour of walking (well beyond the estimated half kilometre), shirts drenched in sweat and legs caked in dust, we ventured apprehensively into the village and asked for the village elder. We gave him some eggs and vegetables as gifts bought at the local market in nearby Ouidah and were invited to stay and view the ceremony. Disappointingly, there was to be absolutely no photography (something to do with the spirits) but the welcome was overwhelmingly friendly. Though being the only westerners, it seemed the chief’s blessing made the entire village open and friendly.

The mere mention of voodoo back home conjured up images of the occult, black magic, juju men, pins being stuck into dolls and human and animal sacrifice. I guess there were small elements of some of these aspects, but voodoo appeared far deeper and more spiritual. The Ouidah markets were full of fetishes for sale including animal foetuses and skeletons of local wild animals. The sight of crocodile or monkey skulls glaring back was upsetting but remains an active ingredient into the population’s life.

Locally, they called it vodoun, being an official religion of Benin and Togo. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of the population follow some variant of vodoun. With the slave trade, this religion migrated to Haiti, Cuba, other Caribbean islands and parts of USA and Brazil. Somehow, it was renamed to voodoo during the migration.

Directed to some elegantly woven straw mats, we sat spellbound as offerings of food, chickens and blood to appease the spirits were made. These spirits governed the villager’s life, providing sustenance, good weather, protection and well-being. The vodoun ceremonies appeared to serve multiple purposes from celebrating the birth of a child, a wedding, significant dates, successful crops and to ward off bad omens.

After the offerings, the women started to dance to the rhythmic beating of drums. Slowly first, dust sprayed from the rapid-fire steps and swaying of the bodies, the dance growing ever more energetic and vibrant. The dance culminated with the women shaking uncontrollably, consumed by the spirits. Arms flailing helplessly, they lost control of their bodies before being guided into a spiritual hut.

Several women went through this same experience as the sun sank lower in the sky. Thanking the chief before returning to Ouidah, priests had prepared some potions for us (for a modest fee!), their benefits hidden by a deep-throated French explanation. We paid him and departed, somewhat alarmed at the thoughts of what could be inside these wrapped leaves.

We never rubbed the strange ashen offering into our skins nor kept the tiny objects, but left uplifted and bewildered by this complex spiritual experience.

There was almost no conversation on the road back to Ouidah, both lost in our own worlds having lived a day in a completely different world.

In respect, no photos were taken that day.
Photo Sources: 1,2


Lifecruiser said...

What an interesting experience! So, what did you do with the potion....?

I have something more unusual in my Sunday post too - and more is to come.

I hope I make you curious.... *giggles*

Mark H said...

@lifecruiser: I forgot to add the bit about the potion. I did rub it onto my skin for a couple of days as instructed. I managed to avoid illness and stayed really healthy for my whole trip. It is more than most westerners manage in west Africa where a dose of the runs is almost a given. Mind you, I stayed very cautious with what I ate and only drank bottled water (and beer). I should add that into my post.

eunice said...

What a mind boggling experience! Africa remains a mystery to me up till now. I think if I were to go Africa, I would join a reputable travel agency and follow a guided tour!

Since photography is not allowed during the ritual, have you ever thought of filming the process secretly?

Mark H said...

@eunice: We were there as guests and the chief asked for no photos. So the camera stayed away all day - it would have been very wrong. I can still recall the festival like it happened yesterday.

Anonymous said...

What a weird souding experience. Must have been spooky with no other tourists around.

GMG said...

Hi Matt! Interesting post! It brings me back Chatwin's story of the «Viceroy of Ouidah» and the Portuguese ancestor to the character... ;))
Meanwhile, Blogtrotter has a Rhapsody in Blue post!! Not many words, just the rhapsody! Enjoy!

Mark H said...

@anonymous: a little strange I s'pose

@gmg: Ouidah tragically was the centre of the slave trade, which is how voodoo got "transported" around the world.

Admin said...

good information at least to know the style of said place. thanks


Theodora said...

A fascinating experience. And, kudos for not taking pictures. So many people would have.

Mark H said...

@theodora: Thank you and wlecome to Travel Wonders. Once we put the cameras away there was no temptation - we were guests and it would have been insulting to behave any other way.

lorna - the roamantics said...

this may make me seem crazy, but this just makes me want to go all the more! great story :)

Mark H said...

@lorna: Not crazy at all - just interested in the world.

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