There is no way I could ever do justice to what I saw in Allada and Ouidah, either in words or pictures. I’m overwhelmed by the idea of the effort it will take to even halfway decently convey its awesomeness, let alone the effort itself. So I encourage you to think of this as a shoddy CliffNotes version of events. If you want to really get a sense of it, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. (Or maybe it’s impossible to truly experience it as an outsider – I’ll touch on that in some later post.)
But for now, let’s get this show on the road…
We arrived in Allada at about noon on January 9 and I wasn’t quite sure where to go – I expected to just sort of run into the festivities. That’s exactly what happened. Right as I walked through the entryway of a building where a small crowd was milling around, the King of Allada and the chief Vodoun priest emerged from a private meeting with other important members of the community, and they began a procession to the festival ground. (I’m including a playlist of short clips at the end of this post so that you can see more of the pageantry and customs, which aren’t fully graspable from the pictures.)
The crowd got into lively formation behind, and they drummed, played horns, and sang all the way to the clearing near the sacred forest.
When we arrived, it seemed like half the town was already seated and waiting for the other half of town who were in the procession. Everyone was dressed in their finest wax outfits and adorned with their best bling, and everyone was doing the rounds to greet their friends and acquaintances. This was clearly the big red carpet event of the year.
While most of the non-Beninois stationed themselves directly underneath the noonday sun so they could get a clear shot of the performers, I had other ideas. I’ll go into it further in the subsequent post I keep promising, but for now suffice it to say that I plopped myself down in the coolest spot I could find, it was a very obstructed view, the resulting images and videos suck, and I’m fine with that.
The king and priest and their court sat down, too, and a succession of amazing dancers danced as also-amazing drummers drummed (some of which is in the videos below). Then, the MC invited everyone into the sacred forest for a Vodoun ceremony. I was a little nervous since I had been warned in Abomey about the ban on non Vodoun adepts going into the sacred forest, but I guess the same rules did not apply in Allada.
A subsection of the attendees made their way into the sacred forest, where the sounds of drumming had been coming for the past hour or so, and we crowded into a clearing with an altar against a tree. The picture below is of the alter after the ceremony, since it was so crowded during the ceremony that I could barely see a thing. (This turned out to be a good thing.)
A woman – I think it was the Queen of Allada but I’m not entirely sure – gave a very moving speech about the power of Vodoun. She said it is what gave people the strength to endure ocean crossings, slavery, and oppression; to maintain a unifying thread despite dispersal; and to return to their ancestral homeland still practicing their religion hundreds of years later. She said (in French), “This is our culture and our history and it is who Benin is. We have to do everything we can to preserve this cultural richness … so that Beninois never forget.” She noted that some people have tried to ban Vodoun in Benin, but this is out of a misconception of the religion, which is one of peace and tolerance above all.
That reminds me to note that I’ve been using the term Vodoun here – even though most Americans are more familiar with the term voodoo – for a few reasons. One, that’s how it’s referred to in Beninois French (though it’s also sometimes spelled Vodun). Two, when Vodoun crossed the ocean it mixed with other religious and cultural influences and became distinct in Haiti (where it is known as vodou), Cuba (where it is known as vodu and where Santeria is related – though I’m not sure exactly how), New Orleans (where it is known as voodoo), and the American South (where it is known as hoodoo). Three, voodoo is often imagined in the popular imagination as sticking pins in dolls to hurt people, and it’s really not about that at all. So I’m using the term Vodoun to differentiate.
Back to the forest… The woman finished her speech and then I heard some pitiful sounds of a couple animals struggling and bleating, and I thought, “Oh geez, here comes the sacrifice.” I steeled myself for the worst but thankfully I couldn’t see much and I didn’t hear anything else. At some point I craned my neck and saw someone daubing the blood coming out of a little goat’s neck onto various parts of the alter, and that’s when I decided to go explore other parts of the clearing.
On the way, I ran into an Israeli man whom I had met the day before in Abomey. He told me that he grew up as an Orthodox Jew and that this Vodoun ceremony halfway around the world reminded him of Jewish kashrut laws and of the animal sacrifices in the Bible. He concluded, “All religions are the same,” and I agreed, “Same beliefs, different details.” I had been thinking about that since watching the Spanish woman look for hope in the Vodoun priest near Abomey.
But I’m not one for religious conviction, and I’m definitely not one for animal sacrifice, so I turned in the other direction, and just a couple of feet away, the best thing I’ve ever seen was waiting. These dancers in raffia – known as Zangbeto – looked like psychedelic haystacks and were both spooky and delightful in equal measure. Check out the videos of their dance in the playlist.
This was my first taste of masqueraders, who go into trances and become possessed by the spirits of the dead who have come back to earth in order to communicate with or provide assistance to their living relatives.
After hanging out in the forest for a couple of hours I realized that the main event was still going on in the tents outside, so I went back to see what was happening there. More dancing, drumming, and speeches. And then, another really touching moment:
The man above in the white tunic is apparently a current or former U.S. Congressman. Unfortunately I didn’t catch his name (they kept referring to him as “Doctor”). He was the guest of honor at this second annual Vodoun festival because he had done a DNA test and traced his ancestry back to Benin, so he came to visit. The king of Allada gave him a personal benediction and told him, “You are Beninois; you are a son here. You were searching and looking until you found your homeland. We need to mark your arrival.”
I wished the Israeli guy was nearby so that I could tell him that from my own American Jewish perspective, this was the moment that was most resonant for me. This African American man was embraced in Benin the same way that American Jews are in Israel. We are both considered the diaspora coming home, we are welcomed as part of the family, and it’s a very beautiful thing to experience that sort of belonging.
I’m realizing that this is getting really long, so maybe I should end this post here and get to Ouidah in my next one. Yes, that’s what I’ll do, so please enjoy the videos below until I come back to you with the next installment of fascinating Benin…