Ceremonial mask dance, Benin (Shutterstock: see credit below)
Article Words : Mark Stratton | 31 December

Dark Secrets: Voodoo in Benin

In the tiny West African nation of Benin, Voodoo remains the state religion. Enter a world of python temples, haystack cults and oozing fetish shrines...

Barefoot, I stepped onto a putrefying mound of candle wax, palm oil and the feathers and blood of sacrificed goats and chickens. I was ready to converse with the spirit god Dankoli. In a shady woodland glade before the charred tree-stump fetish, adorned with jawbones, I hammered a wooden peg into the gooey shrine. After beseeching the god to grant my wish, I sealed our deal by anointing the shrine with blood-red palm oil and spitting out three mouthfuls of fiery homemade gin.

"If your wish comes true," reminded Pascal, the Voodoo attendant, "you must return to sacrifice two chickens to Dankoli."

I won't reveal what I wished for. Anyhow this was not my real inspiration for visiting Benin, a peaceful democratic West African minnow squeezed between Nigeria and Togo. My true motivation was The Viceroy of Ouidah, a lyrical novella by Bruce Chatwin. Written nearly 30 years ago, it tells of Dom Francisco de Silva, a 19th-century Brazilian migrant who became Benin's most notorious slave trader.

Chatwin's narrative of bloodthirsty African kings, slavery, and French and Portuguese ambitions, is enthralling. Yet what really captivated me were the tales of Voodoo, a practice that is still followed by over 60% of Beninese today and considered the state religion.

Voodoo dancers at an Egungun ceremony (Shutterstock)
Voodoo dancers at an Egungun ceremony (Shutterstock)

Behind closed doors

While Voodoo certainly isn't fiction here, witnessing it in action seems unlikely at first. In Cotonou, Benin's largest city, the tourist office told me to return in January, because I'd only see Voodoo at an annual festival in Ouidah offering choreographed ceremonies for Benin's trickle of largely French tourists. This is far from the truth. Beninese worship a pantheon of Voodoo deities and with a good guide and a few financial inducements, authentic ceremonies can be witnessed all year round.

With this knowledge I headed to Porto Novo, a lagoon-facing former French colonial city of 350,000 people, 40-minutes drive from busy Cotonou, and on the flat coastal plain of south Benin's Voodoo heartland.

An attractive city of spirits worshipped by the animist Goun people, Porto Novo's most visible ghosts are world-weary French houses with honey-coloured facades and peeling shutters, and I spent my first morning exploring its fine museums.

Kings are ten-a-penny in Benin although, as museum guide Mireille explained, Benin's monarchy endured a hiatus during French colonisation in the 1890s and its 30-year flirtation with Communism.

Porto Novo's ceremonial king no longer resides inside Honme's maze of red-earthen compounds. Nor does he take advantage of the royal bathhouse where two new queens were once prepared for the reigning monarch every 21 days, or the mysterious chambre noire where successive rulers consulted the spirits about their destiny. Its door was firmly shut.

Nearby, the hefty wooden doors of a curious-looking building shaped like an enormous haystack – the lodge of the god Zangbeto – were closed too.

Members of this secretive cult patrol Beninese streets after dark like unofficial police, dressing in haystack costumes and sporting sticks to beat unruly citizens. I walked around late every evening hoping to witness them, but I never did.

And then fate eventually smiled upon me. I met an English-speaking teacher called Yvette who took me to see a local Fa reader.

Supreme beings

In a cupboard-sized room, crammed with potions, the medium Casmin Fabiyi fingered his Fa beads (threads of eight wooden disks) like a rosary.

"The power of Mawa-Lissa (Voodoo's Supreme Being) sent Fa to earth as a medium to answer questions about the future," Yvette told me, also describing how the medium casts his beads into one of 256 positions that he then interprets as the word of his god.

Casmin was soon swirling his beads around, eyes glazed and mumbling repetitive invocations. It was spooky. Water, quartz and cowry shells were also heaped on the cast beads. Then Casmin rang a bell. "He's back," whispered Yvette.

My reading was not particularly flattering. A sort of 'must try harder' school report, potentially remedied by sleeping under a white sheet with a light left on. We ended by sipping cassava gin infused with herbs to remedy erectile dysfunction. I politely refused seconds.

Later that afternoon, Yvette and I travelled by zemidjan (motorbike-taxi) to Manikpe Tolapata temple, ten minutes outside Porto Novo. With Yvette's help and a cash donation I was finally able to attend an otherwise closed ceremony.

When Mami Wata's Voodoosis (followers) filed in, predominately women in white robes, I was very excited. But, as my guidebook informed, Mami Wata is the mermaid-like goddess of water who 'offers happiness and fortune to those with courage to meet her at the seaside'. And despite my Hammer House of Horror expectations, not a drop of sacrificial blood was spilled, nor did any eye-bulging zombies grace the affair.

Instead, the main altar (bereft of human skulls) was a dribbling accumulation of wax and oil that reminded me of a cheesy table-decoration in an Italian restaurant. Still, it was an enjoyable, melodious, almost gospel affair. A harmonious female choir sang beautifully and gyrated before the head priest who sat with an ivory cane beneath an inflatable Santa Claus.

"Voodoo is about peace and prosperity"

The priest later explained, ignoring my question about sticking pins into effigies of your enemies (shame, I'd prepared a list!). However, my next destination, Chatwin's occult capital Ouidah, promised something a little more noire.

About 70km west from Porto Novo, Ouidah is the most atmospheric and elegantly crumbling small city. Every morning the irresistible aroma of freshly baked baguette drove me mad with hunger pangs and after a few days Voodoo was the last thing on my mind.

I wandered the city's caramel-coloured, sandy streets, noting sumptuous architectural landmarks such as the Portuguese Fort built in 1721 to administer slave transportations, and Afro-Brazilian mansions of emancipated slaves returning from the Americas.

I followed a fanfare cortege (jazz funeral) and visited a temple writhing with pythons dedicated to the snake god Dan. At dusk I settled into a bar near the Python Temple and watched clouds of fruit bats funnel from a mango tree like departing souls. Everywhere I went, I was accompanied by gawping children performing their jaunty little song: "Yovo (white man), yovo, ca va? Yovo, yovo, bonjour."

Village women paint voodoo symbols on the walls of their village (Shutterstock)
Village women paint voodoo symbols on the walls of their village (Shutterstock)

I'd thoroughly recommend the Route des Esclaves (The Slave Route). It traces the final 3.5km walk made by thousands of slaves from Ouidah to the Atlantic coast, many dispatched long after abolition by Dom Francisco de Souza.

Remi, a local guide, showed me the marketplace where slavers bartered 15 male Africans for one cannon. At The Tree of Forgetfulness, Remi explained how "slaves would circle nine times to magically forget everything, so they weren't sad in their new lives."

Approaching the coast, sea breezes rustled coconut groves while crabs gnashed their claws amid mangroves. Beneath an archway on the shoreline, designed to symbolise 'The Gates of No Return', I watched the pummelling Atlantic surf churn grey with sediment and contemplated the terrified thoughts of captured Africans being paddled out to waiting slave galleons bobbing on the horizon.

Many of them exported their Voodoo culture to colonies such as Brazil and Haiti, and the longer I spent in Ouidah, the more the still thriving undercurrent of spirit-worship began to reveal itself.

A trip to the market

Ouidah's market sells grotesque ritualistic accoutrements used in ceremonies. A musty odour reeks from dehydrated bits of crocodile snouts, hippos' feet, pigs' penises, whole chameleons, pangolins, and (look away pet-lovers) cat and dog heads.

Lit by pretty candlelight, the market by night is usually more palatable. Until one evening, while enjoying a fried fish and tomato-infused maize meal, a huge commotion occurred. Chasing a screaming, scattering crowd was a creature maybe 7m high, a masqueraded figure, totally black and oddly tubular.

Amid pandemonium, the lady serving my meal screamed, ducked under my table and grabbed my legs. I raised my camera but several men with panic-stricken expressions warned me not to. The figure disappeared into the night.

Goods for sale at West African fetish market (Shutterstock)
Goods for sale at West African fetish market (Shutterstock)

Later my hotel proprietor explained it to be Gounko, a Nigerian-Yoruba Voodoo figure that chased away evil spirits.

While we spoke, local television showed a wild-eyed man carrying a slaughtered goat's head in his mouth by its severed neck ligaments. As he paraded through a crowd, some people collapsed, shaking like fever-pitched evangelists on American TV. I sensed the Voodoo floodgates were opening. The next day I would witness something extraordinary.

Dark arts

In a local compound where ripening calabash fruits aped basketballs, Remi wangled me into a family ceremony of ancestor worship: Egungun.

This is one of Beninese Voodoo's most explosive events, where departed ancestral spirits take the form of humans in order to impart wisdom and justice to the living.

Frenzied drumming ushered the Egungun into the compound. Possessed by the dead, men wore flamboyant sequin-spangled capes adorned with animal and human motifs. Their faces were veiled by cowry shell screens. "If you see their eyes, you will die!" shouted Remi above the cacophony.

Some Egungun whirled like dervishes, green, silver and yellow capes creating spinning circles. Some simply scared the crowd. Two bulky 'monsters' galloped into the arena sending people scattering into a banana grove. Tempers rose. Stick-bearers tried to stop the Egunguns' robes inauspiciously touching the living. It was Chinese masquerade meets the 'running of the bulls' at Pamplona. Before long, Remi and I were pinned against a wall by a hulking Egungun. Averting my eyes, it brushed its horsehair flywhisk across my face. "White man,' growled a deep baritone voice, before moving on.

On a high, I headed north to Abomey the next day. After two days in a taxi with a driver called Filbert, the coastal plain subsided to a rippling landscape of green bush and ochre roads, studded by granite hills. Hornbills glided across the road with greater ease than the struggling taxis-brousse (bush taxis) bearing chassis-bending loads of people and cargo bound for Cotonou. We passed coachloads of white-robed Christians fresh from celebrating the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Dassa-Zoume. The syncretism of Beninese religious life ensured some would be worshipping animist deities later that day.

King Ghezo 

In halcyon times, Abomey was capital of the feared Dahomey Kingdom (Benin's former name). Generations of Dahomian Kings fought internecine wars, maintained female Amazon warriors with a penchant for decapitation, and sold slaves to the Europeans to equip themselves militarily. But a crushing defeat to the French in 1892 saw most Dahomian palaces razed and the empire destroyed. These days Abomey is a backwater with little pomp or grandeur.

I'd come to see two surviving Unesco-listed Dahomian palaces: the 19th-century mud-walled palaces of Kings Ghezo and Glele, both packed with wonderfully macabre artefacts.

King Ghezo's intricately carved throne rests upon four skulls of rival chiefs while beyond all taste (amid fine Portuguese silks and British cut-glass decanters) is a royal flywhisk assembled from a human cranium attached to a horsetail. Elsewhere, I learnt that Glele's harem once overflowed with 4,000 brides - remarkably his libido and heart held out for 31 years of rule. In the inner sanctum of the Djeho Temple, built by Glele for his father Ghezo, the mortar is forged from the blood of 41 slaves.

Nowadays it's possible to meet the King of Dahomey and keep your head. Meeting a Beninese king is a real highlight and not difficult to arrange: bring something to toast him and present a gratuity of about US$25-50.

Howling demons

I entered the now modest Abomey palace of King Benhanzin II, kowtowing at his feet so my forehead brushed the ground. His Dahomian lineage was restored in 1995 after Marxist government rule ended and although his powers are limited these days, he's a charming man.

Seated in a padded armchair, wearing a blue skullcap, white tunic and chequered sarong, his majesty recounted his royal predecessors back to 1620 and in the spirit of entente cordiale we discussed subjects as diverse as the Channel Tunnel and Concorde's demise. I asked him if he worshipped Voodoo? "Of course," he responded. "This is our divinity before Catholicism came along and our way to make our lives better." As he told me about Voodoo's living dead we consumed Johnny Walker whisky. Kowtowing proved a little harder on the way out.

After communing directly with the powerful Dankoli fetish, a further half-day's drive north at Savalou, Filbert and I returned south for my last day in Benin. Filbert knew of an important Voodoo ceremony occurring in Cotonou.

On a side street in Mgomilite district, crowds assembled by an abandoned petroleum tanker. I was fleetingly disappointed to discover it was going to be another a Mami Wata ceremony - but not for long. The white-robed women looked altogether more edgy, with kohl-etched eyes and tattoos. And, hurrah, Voodoo-dolls were tucked into their sarongs, each representing the number of deities they individually worshipped.

The harmonious singing commenced, as before, but altogether more frenetic. Suddenly an ageing lady, head lolling on her neck, pulled down her top and started beating her breasts. Soon, 20 other women were doing the same; a lot of flesh for a modest Englishman. In a trance, they laughed and howled as priests blessed a pot of water.

"The priests pray for bad spirits to fly away," said a neighbouring man, before a shriek rippled the now feverish crowd. Somebody had seen an evil vision, so a semi-naked Voodoosi came over, cast sanctified water over us and urged the sacrifice of a chicken to atone.

Once again I was being swept along by a society offering a magical snapshot of life and beliefs before European Christianity arrived. Benin is bathed in simplistic beauty yet possesses a thrilling, mystical underbelly. I'd fallen completely under her spell.


Main image: Ceremonial mask dance, Benin (Shutterstock)