Benin: Ouidah for the Revenant

IMG_5970

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.

Benin's Mysterious Voodoo Religion Is Celebrated In Its Annual FestivalIn 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.

IMG_5738

Continue reading

Oh, the places I have gone!

python temple

The trip I’ve just returned from, which took me through Benin, Togo and Ghana, was one of the best of my life thanks entirely to the Benin portion. I feel that my new life’s calling is to work for the Benin Tourism Board. People should be flooding into the country every January for the awe-inspiring Vodoun Festival and to visit Abomey, capital of the fascinating Dahomey kingdom. On the other hand, considering that I was horrified by the bad behavior I witnessed on the part of many tourists during my trip, maybe it’s not the best idea to encourage more to come.

I’ll fill in the details when I post photos and videos over the next few weeks. There is so much ground to cover, both literally and figuratively, that I’ll split things up into manageable pieces.

Continue reading

my new wanderlust wish list

23955458716_87b39bf3b3_z

Four years ago I made a list of the places near and far that I most wanted to visit. At the time, I was coming out of a long student debt-induced travel lull, so I didn’t expect to cross much off the list very quickly. But I did – I lived in Senegal and I traveled to Burkina Faso, Cuba, Mexico City, and Tanzania. 

That leaves a lot of places still on the list, hopefully for one day in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, other places have captured my imagination and taken precedence. Here is an update: 

Continue reading

my Senegal playlist

Before I left Senegal I gathered all the West and Central African songs that I had either heard for the first time and loved, or learned to love better, while in Dakar and I put them onto an itunes playlist. I just transferred them into a Spotify playlist so that I can share them with you:

If you are eagle-eyed / eagle-eared you will notice that one of these things is not like the others… I heard “Prayer in C” for the first (and second, and third, and fourth) time during a twelve-hour stint in the Casablanca airport and it grew on me so much that I googled the lyrics to identify it. When I got back to Dakar I downloaded it on itunes and continued to play it repeatedly, so that it is now inextricably linked with my time in Senegal even though the song is French.

Following my foray into French new wave, my next digging project is to find the best of Nigerian and Ghanian highlife music. Any ideas about what’s good, let me know!

It’s a small world after all

Before I leave Senegal I would like to point out that West Africa is a very small ex-patriot world. (For the purpose of this discussion, I am considering the Casablanca airport to be an extension of West Africa, because you fly through there or Abidjan to get almost anywhere else in the region. I’ve spent at least 24 hours in that airport over the course of 6 or 7 stops there this past year.)

Here are some of my most notable small world moments:

– Liberia is one of those places that, depending on which day of the week you travel from Dakar, requires a flight north to Casablanca before heading back south to Monrovia. I did that route last June, and on the first plane, I ran into a woman I had met a few weeks before. She was on her way to Niger. We shared a snack in the airport before going our separate ways.

– That wasn’t a huge coincidence. But, while deciding where to eat said snack, I saw another woman I was sure I recognized, and after she noticed me staring at her, we figured out that she had shown me around an apartment for rent in her house a few months before. She was on her way back to Dakar after a vacation in France.

– While in Liberia, I met up for drinks with one of only three friends I had made so far in Dakar. He was passing through Monrovia after being on assignment in the north part of the country and in Guinea; I was finishing up a project in the south and east part of the country. We had perhaps five hours in common in Monrovia, not the most conducive to seeing each other. But I insisted we make it work because it was such a fluke.

– On a different day in Monrovia, I was standing outside a government building when two Americans walked up, and – in a gesture of friendliness from one foreigner to another – introduced themselves to me before heading inside. I recognized one of them from a blog that I had discovered not a week before when I was Googling a tiny town in Liberia to get a better sense of what to expect. The man seemed quite embarrassed when I exclaimed, “I’ve seen your face before – on your wife’s blog!”

– Back to Dakar: In the restaurant where I regularly eat lunch and sometimes stay to work, I ran into the supervisor of several of my projects this year. He was eating dinner with his cousin, who was in town for a business trip. After exchanging a few words about what her job entails, we realized that she works very closely – as in side by side with – my former roommate in Los Angeles.

– I got off to a slow start, but little by little I met the journalists and filmmakers of Dakar. Eventually I noticed that every single one of the former New Yorkers was from the same neighborhood as me, Prospect Heights, or just over the neighborhood’s dividing line in Park Slope. One woman used to bartend at a place where I stopped in quite a bit, so it’s likely she’s served me drinks. Another guy used to live a mere three blocks from me. I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have passed on the street at least once. Perhaps some psychic wormhole connects a five-block radius in Brooklyn to Dakar.

– A few months ago, an English friend who is researching her PhD in Senegal introduced me to her new friend, another PhD candidate from UCLA. Los Angeles is a city of 4 million people defined by its sprawl. There are hundreds of neighborhoods, almost all of them with clearly defined borders and unique character. Because as an East Coaster I didn’t know how to tell good sprawl from bad sprawl when I first moved to LA, the neighborhood I chose to live in was the exception to this rule. It lacked any and all vibes and was mostly the place where two big freeways intersected. When I told people that I lived in West L.A., they didn’t even realize it was the name of a neighborhood and not just the way to say you live in the western half of the city. All this to preface the crazy coincidence that, as it turns out, the PhD candidate and I lived on the same street, albeit 15 years apart from each other. (I told her she really needs to move.)

As I’m writing this I am becoming aware of a distinct possibility: Perhaps it is not that the ex-patriot world is so small; perhaps it is instead that I am the Kevin Bacon of ex-patriots. (I already knew that I am the Kevin Bacon of celebrity interactions. I challenge you to try me.)

[Photo: Ludovic Mauduit]

The Gambia

The last destination on my 4-country shoot in December was The Gambia. After some discussion about whether to postpone due to the political situation, we decided that it should be safe to go during the (albeit tense) lull between the time when outgoing President Jammeh reneged on his promise to accept the election results and the time when West African nations launched hard-core diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Continue reading