My Benin-Togo-Ghana trip was so overwhelmingly fascinating and multifaceted; the only way to document it without losing my mind is to lay it out chronologically rather than thematically. So, we begin with Day 1 (the afternoon after leaving Cotonou): Abomey.
Actually, I started a few kilometers up the road, in Bohican, where I visited a series of underground bunkers that were constructed in the 16th century to hide Dahomean soldiers from their enemies. We climbed down to the bottom of one.
It was interesting, but not as interesting as this baobab intertwined with a ficus on the path back to the car. It is considered a sacred tree(s) by the locals.
To the right of the tree you’ll see a stone slab, which is part of an altar to the Vodoun divinity of prosperity, Dan. We saw the remains of sacrifices near the altar, and since baobabs can be hundreds of years old, I wondered how long this place had been a site of worship. (And to be honest, I think I asked, but I can no longer remember the answer.)
The next day, after staying in an adorable guesthouse on the outskirts of town, we drove into Abomey proper and met up with a full-day tour guide that the guesthouse booked for me. He showed me around the palaces of the kings of Dahomey, starting with the two (of King Ghézo and King Glélé) that house the museum.
Disclaimer: I took in hours upon hours of fact and fantasy during this tour – all of it in French. I surely misunderstood some of what I heard, and I have definitely forgotten a lot of it. So, I urge you to read up on Dahomey via other sources and don’t depend on my account to be strictly accurate. In any case, history and mythology blend seamlessly in the story of Dahomey, so the truth is already blurred.
The basics are: back in the day, a hunter named Agasu lusted after Princess Aligbonu in present-day Togo. He knew the king would never let him marry her, so he turned himself into a panther and raped her in a field instead. She gave birth to a son who was brave and strong due to his panther blood. He and his progeny were denied the throne, so they killed the king and fled to present-day Allada with a bunch of stolen royal paraphernalia. They created a new kingdom in Allada, and continued to fight over who should be the next king. At this point there were three sibling princes, and two were forced out of Allada. One went to the east and founded a kingdom in what is now Porto Novo. The other, Dogbagli, went with his sons to somewhere near Abomey, where they became the founders of the kingdom of Dahomey in the early 1600s.
The first king to have a palace in Abomey itself was Houegbadja, who ascended the throne in 1645.
Above, some of the thrones and scepters of the kings. In this room, the tour guide told the story of each king (and of the one queen who was not recognized as such because she was a woman). Some of the stories were cut and dry: such and such king was the son of such and such king before him. But some of the stories involved amazing folklore. For example, one king was a twin. In the Fon culture, twins are treasured and considered two parts of a whole. If one dies, the other carries a carved wooden figurine of their lost sibling around in their waistband for the rest of their life. Well, the twin king decided that he had had enough, so he went to his mother and gave her a figurine of himself. Then he walked into a forest, sat down, and disappeared into thin air.
Above, the burial tomb of one of the kings. (I believe this is the one whose 300 wives were buried alive in an adjoining tomb after he died, to keep him company. The tombs are connected by an underground tunnel.) I ducked into the space for a closer look and then was told I had to walk out backwards or risk incurring the king’s wrath. (I did not risk it.)
People leave the kings sacrifices in the hopes that they will grant their wishes. Hence, the animal bones, horns, and teeth lining the outer walls of the tombs.
The Dahomean kingdom was not the least violent in the world. They actively participated in the slave trade (which is how they ended up with European cannons, above), they started wars with other West African empires in addition to the defensive wars they fought with Europeans, and they had a certain gruesome je ne sais quoi that I found notable.
For example, the palaces of Abomey have many similarities – among them the presence of bas-relief decorations on the outer walls. (By the way, the walls are original but the roofs are not – they used to be made of straw.)
If you look a little more closely you will see that many of the reliefs illustrate creative ways to torture and degrade people.
If you are wondering about the one above, I can’t help you. I couldn’t tell from the French whether it is a cannonball he is sticking up his enemy’s butt or what.
The above is a fly swatter made from an enemy’s skull and the enemy’s horse’s mane. It was used in ceremonial dances.
We also saw a mannequin wearing an executioner’s outfit from the time. The guide told us that the executioner had to cut off the condemned’s head in one chop. If he didn’t? It would be his own head that would come off in the second chop.
Well. I don’t find brutality funny and I don’t want to make light of it. It’s just that some of the stories had an almost cartoonish violence to them, and I wasn’t sure where the truth ended and folklore began.
We drove around Abomey looking at the remains of the various palaces and then we joined up with a Spanish tour group and visited a Vodoun master named Ninguinnon Salanon in a village just outside of town. He showed us how he does various rituals and incantations – for health, for rain, for safe travels, for reversal of bad fortune. Below, he shows us the ritual to bring rain.
And below, he shows us a horn out of which you drink a special brew if you want to ensure you will remain alive for at least one more year. He promised us it works – but it costs a lot of money.
Then he asked if anyone wanted to ask him anything. One of the Spanish women said that her nephew was sick with an undiagnosable illness and she wanted to know whether it was in his head or real, and whether it was curable.
The Vodoun master said some words, shook a few cowry shells like dice, and threw them onto the mat. He said the shells showed that yes, he had something real, and that yes, it was curable. She choked up, and I was touched by the sight of a (probably) Catholic woman placing blind hope in an adept of a totally foreign religion because he told her what she desperately wanted to hear. Faith is strange and often scary, but also sometimes beautiful.
From the Vodoun master’s house we returned to Abomey and walked through the forest where the ancient king disappeared, just in time to watch the sun start its own descent. We were going to see the exact spot where he vanished, but it is now a shrine and was closed for seven days following an adepts-only Vodoun ceremony.
We continued on to one of the Vodoun temples, which is also for adepts only. I was only allowed to walk around the outside.
The big temple sits next to the sacred forest, in front of which are three other little shrines, each devoted to a specific divinity. I could peek but I was not allowed in any of them, and I was also told that if a non-adept walks into the sacred forest, he or she will never come out. Again, I wasn’t taking any risks, and I stayed far away from the treeline.
These little mounds in front of the shrines are used in ceremonies. I didn’t see any ceremonies in Abomey, but the next day I saw quite a few in Allada and Ouidah. So, onward to day 2…
But first, two PS’s:
If you go to Abomey – which you should – stay at Chez Sabine, where I did. It is a lovely place and Sabine is a wonderful host.
Also, meet the Queen of Dahomey. I did.
To get an audience with Queen Zognidi, you need to make an appointment and bring a donation. I arranged this all through the tour guide, who was awesome and who I would also recommend if you speak French and if you visit Abomey – WHICH YOU SHOULD.
The Queen gave me a personalized benediction, which I chose to believe in because like the Spanish woman, I desperately wanted to.
Queen Zognidi is the real deal – descended from the kings and queens of Dahomey on both sides. She is considered to be not only the current Queen of Dahomey but also the wife of King Ghézo, the spirit of King Ghézo incarnate, and the mother of King Glélé. She has this amazing regal dignity about her and is deeply involved in community projects that benefit women, children, and especially orphans. She asked me to say that she is looking for volunteers to help out with these projects for any length of time.
I took the Queen’s phone number and email – no biggie – and told her I would hook her up with anyone who expressed interest. So, get in touch – now is your chance to work with a queen!
To close this very long chapter:
Find someone who looks at you the way I look at the Queen of Dahomey.