Benin: At The Murky Heart Of Africa’s Most Infamous Religion
By Erin Moores
For the uninitiated, a Beninese night is difficult to get through in one restful length of slumber. Africans stay up late. The in-house family noise and the clamor of street life continue until well past midnight. Then the African day begins, literally, with the rooster’s crow. Even during those few nighttime hours when most finally sleep, there is invariably something to pierce the night— the sounds of dogs, cows, goats; the thunder of the wet season’s torrential rains on corrugated roofs. Further into the darkness are other sounds: the rising voices of singing, the pounding of the distant funeral drums. Further still: the howling that announces that the voodoo god Leu is setting out upon the night to capture the uninitiated in his path; the tinkling of the bells on the clothing of the revenants, the spirits of the dead who return to walk the earth. The sounds thrown into the night by sorcerers; earthly life mixed with whispers of the witchcraft of bedtime stories. In Benin, for the uninitiated, the night can be long.
Not long has passed since I arrived here, a small vertical slice of a country on the West African coast wedged between its even slimmer and equally obscure neighbor to the west, Togo, and the chaotic, bloated powerhouse of Nigeria to the east. Benin is not a frequent destination for backpacking, free-for-alling travelers. There are no stunning monuments in Benin, no natural wonders of the world or incredible wildlife experiences, no castles or perfect beaches or succulent local cuisine. Benin is featureless, dusty; its treasures intangible and swimming in murky, ancient water.
But there is a treasure to be found here—and it lies in the country’s claim as the worldwide seat of a little, misunderstood religion we know as voodoo. When the British explorer and diplomat Sir Richard Burton visited the Beninese town of Abomey in 1863, it was the centre of the once-great Dahomey kingdom: the cradle of voodoo. Over the course of a two-month stay in Abomey, Burton witnessed, and later recounted in great detail, the Dahomeans’ infamous “Annual Customs.” A multi-day event jammed with elaborate ceremony and extensive human sacrifice, the “Customs” were a fearful legend amongst the Europeans who frequented Dahomey. Burton, for example, saw rows of prisoners transformed overnight into nothing but piles of gleaming, proud skulls.
Today Dahomey is part of the Republic of Benin, and the Annual Customs have been abandoned of course. Abomey is now more low-key, sticking to the sacrifice of goats, cows, and other barnyard animals during traditional ceremonies. But the town is still is a centre of traditional voodoo religion in Benin and is the home of the current king, Béhanzin, a cultural leader who continues his royal line’s ancient heritage into a world of cell phones and computers.
It is in or near Abomey that one can catch a voodoo ceremony or festival. On a black night I head out to one with Séwêdo Gansè, a twenty-five-year old Beninese student whose name means “The Lord who speaks” in Benin’s most prevalent indigenous language, Fon. Séwêdo identifies himself as Catholic (Catholicism being Benin’s most practiced religion) but harbors a strong belief in the reality of voodoo. His family hails from Abomey, where his father is a dah, or type of chief of a large, voodoo-practicing family. While Séwêdo now rarely speaks to his father, prays to God and Jesus Christ, and has withdrawn from any participation in voodoo, the traditional religion of Benin is still very real to him.
“Don’t touch anything or anyone,” he says as we head down a dark dirt path on his motorcycle. “I’ll tell you what to do.”
We arrive to an empty circle on the outskirts of the town, at the end of a sandy, unlit path. Maybe a hundred watchers are crowded around the circle, lit by fluorescent lights, in the middle of which the dancing has already begun. Costumed people are in trance, inhabited by the lwa, voodoo’s pantheon of spirits. And the drums are pounding. The night descends quickly into something straight out of a National Geographic documentary. The dancers whirl, almost naked and sweaty and covered in dust, doing things that in the morning they will not remember and not be able to do, as mere mortals. A goat is sacrificed; its body fought over by the entranced dancers, thrown into the air and almost ripped in two. A speech is made, and at the end two men jump from the audience, suddenly overcome by spirits, and the watchers rip their clothes from them and dress them so they're ready to join the dance.
Finally the dancers all disappear from the circle, only to return with a giant cauldron full of red-hot coals. They run back and forth, wildly, all over the place, inside the circle and out. People are leaping out of their way, and in their wake they leave a trail of fiery coals. It is one second later that the dancers arrive, three of them, and I see nothing but the gaping mouth of the cauldron and its burning, glowing contents as it is flung towards us. I turn away and shield my face, sure that blistering coals will rain down on my bare skin, but when I look back I see that the dancers have stopped inches from throwing the cauldron’s contents. Several onlookers have jumped forward, now speaking in rapid Fon and gesturing wildly to the dancers, who have not thrown the coals but are tense, ready, brandishing them threateningly. Several terrifying seconds pass. The dancers slump, turn, and go the other way.
We stand instantly, Séwêdo’s hand firmly on my arm. He pushes me straight out through the crowd into the opening behind it, where somebody has, inexplicably, brought his motorbike to him. “Come on,” he says, turning it and pushing it towards the path. He is angry. I am scared and covered in the dust.
Voodoo has undoubtedly become the most recognized African traditional religion, unfortunately for mostly negative reasons popularized by Hollywood movies full of voodoo dolls and dark spells. But most African religions, including voodoo, share the same conceptual basis, making voodoo’s particularly bad reputation a bit unfair. Ultimately, African religions are based in the idea that the world of spirits and the world of humans are not really two worlds at all, but one and the same. In voodoo, as in other African religions, the spirits are not even invisible, not even intangible – they are, in fact, often visible to the naked eye, and are a part of everyday life.
The word “voodoo” itself comes from vodun, a Fon word that is used to refer to spirits who can interact with humans and tell or influence their fate—in Benin, these could be a family’s ancestors and/or the particular deities associated with that family. As for gods, voodoo, as well as many other African religions, is ultimately monotheistic in that there is one supreme being who is often depicted as androgynous. His/her spawn, the deities, are called the lwa or loa. There are many lwa who complement each other as a family of spirits and create the voodoo “pantheon.” The lwa do not inhabit a separate spirit world that is untouchable to humans, but are rather present everywhere, at all times, in both living and inanimate objects. As such they can easily, with the help of a vodounon (a human voodoo leader with the expertise to organize and direct ceremonies), enter a human body and communicate through that person. There are good lwa, evil lwa, those that are malicious or dangerous, those that are gentle. Each is known to show him or herself to humans in specific ways: a human, if inhabited by a certain lwa’s spirit, might begin to move like a snake or throw him or herself into the nearest body of water. All the lwa are open to negotiation and all can be solicited for luck, knowledge, wealth, revenge—whatever that particular lwa represents.
African rites, ceremonies, and religions begin to make sense once we understand the basic worldview that precipitates these religions: a worldview that treats “in the flesh” humans and spirits as if they live in the same world. In a world where “the dead are not dead,” as Séwêdo tells me, it becomes extremely important for proper rites to exist in order to continue to honor and respect someone whose physical body has expired. Where a spirit can affect your health and well-being just as easily as your neighbor can, it becomes important to solicit protection from the right gods or ancestors, to know where and how to counteract harmful forces using the right procedures, the right magic.
In a place where one can only truly die when he or she has been forgotten by the living, human communication with gods and spirits becomes possible, even common. Stay long enough in Benin, for example, and you’ll see those spirits yourself. It won’t take that long—the revenants are a common fixture on the streets of villages and cities alike. Revenant means “coming back” in French—in Benin, this is a dead person that comes back to walk the streets, often collecting money or scaring children as he or she goes. You’ll never know who it is—the revenants are completely covered from head to toe in embroidered robes, mask, hood, gloves, and boots. The first time I saw them, I, of course, assumed they were just people dressed up in costume, perhaps imitating the role of the revenants. My western background and worldview prevented me from understanding that these were the real revenants. At least, according to the Beninese.
Séwêdo was quick to set me straight. He looked at me blankly and asked, “You…thought they were costumes?”
“You don’t mean those were the real revenants?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, shocked at my ignorance. “What else would they be?”
I shrugged, unable to believe I had seen the true walking dead. “People in costume who just want to get money?”
Séwêdo shook his head this time. “We don’t say that.”
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