June 15th, 2012
The little known nation of Benin is tiny by African standards, sat in the gulf of Guinea hemmed in by the might of Nigeria on its Eastern flank and Togo to the West, with the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping along its palm fringed beaches. This former French colony is rich in colonial history; home to the “Slave Coast” of Ouidah, and the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo.
Voodoo, or Vodun as it known locally, is an officially recognised religion, claiming 40% of the population as adherents.
Shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood, voodoo conjures up visions of James Bond Villains, dolls studded with pins and malevolent Gods. These visions are the creations of Hollywood movies. Vodun is about peoples ancestral past, their culture and their connection with the land. An ancient and complex belief system of worship and obligation that is increasing in popularity as an expression of African identity in the 21st Century.
During the week running up to the festival in Ouidah, in the intense tropical heat of this small coastal town the sense of occasion is palpable. In the small streets, alleyways, and in the shady courtyards, the town begins to come alive.
Nigerian ‘Egungun’ spirits shuffle through the narrow streets in intensely colourful dress, imparting wisdom in their inimitable high pitched ‘squeaky’ voices.
Speaking quickly, they confront passers-by who fall to their knees and with their head cocked to one side listen intently.
The ‘Egungun’ are believed to be possessed by spirits of dead ancestors placed upon earth to guide the living and must be treated with respect. The idea of the ‘spirit’ appears in many guises. The Nigerian Egungun are just one of many spirit incarnations. In other parts of West Africa it is manifested differently like that below.
There are also the Zangbeto, which consist of a swirling mass of straw.
Devout worshipers gather from across Benin, as well as Togo and Nigeria. Along with the odd curious traveler, they descend on the coastal town of Ouidah and surrounding villages to witness a week of intensely colourful celebration, frenetic whirling dancing and rhythmic performance.
The constant beat of drumming throughout the day and into the night draws people into the secluded courtyards of Voodoo priests to discover secret ceremonies in hidden shrines and temples.
The real ceremony begins with the beating of drums, then whistles are blown to summon the gods and fetishes are placed on the ground.
Animals play a major role as they are selected and sacrificed, the blood poured on the ground as offerings. It is an intense scene and a spectacle not often witnessed by outsiders.
By now a crowd has gathered. Heat and dust combine with the drums throbbing hypnotic call and, without warning, several worshipers fall into a state of trance; possessed, they throw themselves to the ground with complete abandonment, for they are the true believers.
They rise again, they dance – dancing deep into the night as their ancestors did before them, in a communion with the ancient spirit of Africa.
A series of other pictures from the week I spent in Ouidah can be seen in a slideshow below.