Well. We have reached the point in my trip when it turns abruptly from the (mostly) life-affirmingwonders of Vodoun culture to the despair-inducing horrors of human trafficking. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, as many as 12.5 million people were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World between 1501 and 1866. Almost 2 million of those people embarked from the area around Ouidah called the Bight of Benin, and Ouidah itself was one of the busiest slave ports on the African continent. An estimated 12-13 percent of those who boarded the slave ships did not survive the Middle Passage. Continue reading →
Okay, time to wrap up the Vodoun festival, with my favorite part: the Revenant, also known as the Egungun. Several years ago, it was seeing the gorgeous (uncredited – sorry!) photo of Revenant masqueraders below that made me put the Vodoun festival at the very top of my bucket list, though at the time I didn’t know what they were called or anything about them, and I expected to see them throughout the festival.
In fact, they made only a few appearances, and only one of which I caught. On the evening of the 10th, a much smaller crowd of people than had been at the festival proper gathered in a dirt field in the center of Ouidah to watch the spectacle. From the moment I saw them I was transported with awe – although everything I had witnessed so far had been mind-blowing, these cultural masterpieces were what I had come for.
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%).
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.
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.)