Benin: Ouidah for the Vodoun Festival

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After I posted about the Fête du Vodoun yesterday I realized that I never actually explained what it is. A national holiday held every January 10 in Benin since the 1990s, it is a day for Beninois to celebrate – and to share with the outside world – the Vodoun religion practiced by a large percentage of the country (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 20-60%).

According to this informative 2012 article from the New York Times (that still rings true to my experience in 2019),

Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, this ancient belief system still has millions of adherents along West Africa’s former Slave Coast, from Ghana to the Yoruba-speaking parts of Nigeria, but especially in Benin. A succession of dictatorships suppressed vodun after independence, but in 1996 Benin’s democratic government officially decreed vodun a religion, and ever since, thousands have openly practiced it.

The Fête du Vodoun is, in effect, a show of pride in practices, beliefs, and a culture that endured despite endless attempts to wipe it out. Though festivities take place all over the country, the apex is in Ouidah, which is considered the heart and soul of Vodoun. It is around Ouidah that Vodoun first developed hundreds of years ago.

I arrived there on the evening of January 9 after reluctantly leaving the Allada festival far earlier than I wanted to. Immediately after checking in to a lovely BnB just outside town, the proprietor told me that there would be a ceremony in the sacred forest that night at 8pm. It was for locals and not tourists, but we would be allowed in for a small fee. I was also told that the next day’s activities would start at 7am when the Vodoun priest would lead a procession to the beach where the main festival would be held. The turnaround time did not sound great to me, but I signed on for all of it because I was in “yes to everything” mode.

So six guests at the BnB (an American man, two German women, a Dutch couple, and I) crammed into a taxi, clown-car style, and headed to the forest. When we got there we realized that it was ALL tourists and not one local person except for the people actually doing the ceremony. In fact, when the guy outside the entry welcomed us, he explained that the evening’s activities had been created expressly for foreigners, to introduce us to Vodoun in a way that we wouldn’t see the next day. Ah well.

The first thing we did upon entering the sacred forest was to ceremonially wash our hands in a way that yet again reminded me of Jewish traditions (see yesterday’s post). Next, we headed to a clearing where a group of men were drumming. The announcer told us that we would be participating in a purification ceremony, after which we could make a wish at the sacred tree. He reiterated several times that the wish should be a positive one as this was an uplifting ceremony.

The first step was to take our shoes off and stand still as a man splashed water over our heads and necks, sort of like a baptism. Then we sat in a semi-circle and watched a fire dancer. It was all very peaceful and indeed uplifting. And then things took a turn…

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One man held a squawking chicken by the legs and started swinging it around another man like the fire dancer had been doing with his balls of fire. The chicken was moving so fast that it couldn’t make any more sound. My heart went out to that poor chicken and I was very relieved when the swinging stopped. But then our interpreter explained that the chicken was going to make the rounds to each one of us, absorbing all of our bad energy into its own body before being sacrificed in order to discharge all the negativity.

The man went around the circle person by person and, holding the chicken by the legs, he waved it up and down our bodies while saying an incantation, and then he touched the forehead of the chicken (which had returned to fearfully squawking) to each of our own foreheads. This was not pleasant. In the photo below, what looks like that woman’s hair is actually part chicken. Don’t think my germaphobic self wasn’t distractedly wondering what kinds of weird avian diseases could be transmitted to humans this way.

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Once the chicken had taken in everyone’s bad energy, the man leading the ceremony kneeled on a mat with an altar on it and did a few rituals involving prayers, gin, candles, and rolling cowrie shells. IMG_5463

Then he grabbed the chicken, at which point I gritted my teeth and hoped that it would be a quick and painless death like the sacrifice the day before had seemed to be. The chicken squawked maniacally, and I closed my eyes just as the man’s hands got into snapping position. The bird went quiet, I heard an actual snapping sound, and then the squawking started up again, even more frantically then before. Then I heard another snap, followed by more squawking, and another snap, and another. It felt like this happened four or five times before the bird finally died. I was heartsick and horrified by this chicken’s suffering, and I started thinking about how pointless life must be if it is so disposable. So much for an uplifting ceremony. I felt like all the negative energy had gone directly from the dead bird into my soul. Suffice it to say, there are parts of Vodoun I am not so keen on.

I tried giving myself a philosophical pep talk about cultural relativism and my role as an observer and not a judge, but it didn’t help much. By the time it was my turn to make my wish at the sacred tree (after another round of ceremonial hand washing), I was a little deflated. As per instructions, I walked up to the tree, laid my hands on the palm-oil covered cloth surrounding the bark, made my wish silently, and hoped that my insufficiently positive energy wouldn’t screw it up.

Now let’s fast forward to the next morning at the Vodoun priest’s house. When we arrived, we were allowed to peek in on an audience that the king and Vodoun priest were having with a bunch of important men.

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In the courtyard of the compound, meanwhile, different Vodoun sects were grouped together, singing, preparing their accoutrements, and generally waiting for the Vodoun priest to kick things off. Apparently there is no set time; the Vodoun priest takes his orders from the divinities and they guide him in the moment. Back to that New York Times article:

Vodun practitioners worship a pantheon of gods and lesser deities that inhabit objects ranging from stones to waterfalls. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors dwell among them, and they employ talismans, or “fetishes” like dried animal parts, for spiritual and physical rejuvenation as well as for protection against spells cast by malevolent sorcerers.

When the procession finally started, its first stop before the beach was the altar of one of the divinities, where a brief ritual happened before everyone moved on. Things to note in the pictures below: the king is being carried in a throne covered with the blue canopy. I had seen a 200 or 300 year-old one that looked just like it at the museum in Abomey.

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Also, the man holding the bell is dressed like a woman. He was part of a group of adepts who were all dressed in this way, with exaggerated poufy skirts and big earrings and necklaces. According to the amateur guide I asked, they are disciples of a specific divinity and when they go into a trance because the divinity has possessed them, they wear the woman’s outfit. IMG_5568

At this point the crowd was enormous, with everyone following the king’s throne through the streets of town.

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The second stop was in the Temple of the Python (which is where I took the photo with the snake wrapped around my neck the next day). Here’s what the New York Times article has to say about the temple (it’s really much better at giving the facts than I am):

The temple [is] a concrete building with a clay roof. Five steps led down to a pit where at least a hundred serpents lay in tangled piles. The handler picked up a five-foot-long python and proffered it to me. I was nervous as it tightened itself around my neck, yet the serpent was surprisingly docile, and the priest assured me I’d be fine. … Vodun adherents regard pythons as manifestations of the serpent god Dangbe. “We let them out of the temple at night, so they can wander through the town,” the priest said. “They eat chickens, mice, and then they return.”

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From there, everyone got in cars or on motorbikes to head to the beach, where the festival was a much more massive affair than I had anticipated. Arrayed around a central bandstand and sandy area were three long canopies with hundreds of chairs underneath, providing a (very small) respite from the 95 degree heat. Behind the bandstand, the Door of No Return – a huge stone arch memorializing the millions who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas – stood sentinel to the proceedings.

I once again had a very obstructed view, and I once again preferred that to getting heat stroke and/or taking up more than my fair share of space as a non-Vodoun practitioner. I missed most of what happened on stage, but it didn’t matter. That seemed to be reserved for more exhibition-style performances of 5 or 10 minutes each, while in every corner of the arena (all of which I could see fairly well), impromptu dances, trances, drumming, dancing, strutting, promenades, and ceremonies were going on at the same time – and they were much more fascinating.

The women below were blowing whistles and noisemakers while one woman pretended to film the crowd with a cardboard camera.

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This woman, meanwhile, circled the crowds while thrusting her hips so that her fake penis moved up and down accordingly.IMG_5629

Interestingly, while there were tons of men dressed as women, she was the only woman I saw dressed as a man (though there was a man dressed like a woman but with a giant penis hat on his head, which you will see in the videos at the bottom of the post).

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In the photo below, a man dressed like a woman carries what looks like a pair of wings or horns. He moves his shoulders back and forth so that the wings/horns make almost a swatting motion. I saw this over and over again, and was told that this basically shoos the evil spirits away. (You can see the motion in one of the videos below.)

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At a certain point, I decided to walk onto the beach behind the tents and was surprised to see that there were all manner of ceremonies and merriment happening there, too.

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I caught the very tail end of a ceremony in which the king went down to the water with a contingent dressed all in white to do some sort of ritual in the water. It reminded me of images of Gullah women dressed in all-white and standing on the beach in the film, “Daughters of the Dust.” The Gullah were brought to the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry as slaves from West Africa, and they retained a lot of their African traditions. I was thinking about this – and about the other striking similarities between what I saw in Benin and what I saw in Cuba at the Callejon de Hamel, and what I know about Mardi Gras in New Orleans – as I walked back into the festival area and up to the Door of No Return. The official part of the festival was ending, and crowds of people followed the king as he walked away from the beach and passed through the Door of No Return on his way back to town. To belie the hopelessness and finality of the monument’s name in that way felt like such a powerful and poignant symbol of the resilience of the human spirit in general, and of the West African people and diaspora in particular. IMG_5692

….Annnnddd that’s a wrap for tonight. I have again decided to cut things shorter than planned, because they are getting far longer than planned. 🙂 I’ll tell you all about the Revenant – my favorite part of the Vodoun festival, Benin, my trip, and possibly all of my life – in a future installment. (Until then, videos from the non-Revenant portion of the festival are in the playlist below.)

3 thoughts on “Benin: Ouidah for the Vodoun Festival

  1. You are AMAZING, Ruth! Not just for your brave and open spirit, but also for your gift for sharing your experiences in a way that is so vivid and relatable that I feel as if I was there with you, wincing at each “crack” of the chicken. (Just observe and don’t judge. Easier said than done.) Each of your posts makes my world bigger and much more interesting. Je te remercie infiniment.

      • That’s so sweet. But seriously! Vodoun is at the very bottom of the list of things that interest me, and yet I read every word of your post. So yeah … I’d say you have a gift for storytelling. 🙂

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