On the West African coast, exploring the rituals of vodun, Benin’s ancient religion…
WE were driving through the back alleys of Ouidah, a sultry former slave port in the West African nation of Benin, when we spotted him: a figure in robes and leather gloves. His face was hidden by a burlap hood studded with beads and cowrie shells. A teenage boy carrying a wooden stick was leading him past peach-colored houses shaded by coconut palms and mango trees.
My driver and guide, Ulrich Vitale Ahotondji, slowed so we could get a better look. “Don’t get out,” he warned, but I was already leaping out of the car with my camera. The figure cowered against a wall, and began babbling in an eerie metallic voice. The teenage protector raised his stick and I retreated back to the car.
The man was a revenant, Ulrich told me — an important figure in the indigenous, animist religion known as vodun. Also called Egunguns in the local Fon language, these hooded men, whose identities remain a secret even to their neighbors, are believed to be intermediaries between the living and the dead and often parade through villages, summoning the spirits of departed ancestors. Touching a revenant during a trance, it is believed, can be fatal, and even Ulrich, a Roman Catholic, was unwilling to put that belief to the test. When we came upon a plaza where a dozen revenants were dancing, Ulrich sped away. “I won’t give you the chance to get out this time,” he told me.
Ulrich, the photographer Jason Florio and I had driven that morning to Ouidah from Cotonou, Benin’s ramshackle seat of government 30 miles down the coast, to explore the rituals of vodun. 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.
For visitors, the resurgence of vodun offers a chance to catch a rare glimpse of an indigenous culture’s spiritual practices. In recent years, a steady flow of Western tourists have traveled the vodun route in Benin and Togo, visiting temples and fetish markets, and occasionally gaining entry to ceremonies presided over by priests who lead adherents in singing, dancing and animal sacrifices. Like Jason and me, these tourists base themselves in Cotonou, or stay in a handful of beach resorts along the Gulf of Guinea, and eat at restaurants serving both local cuisine like spiced fish with manioc, or Western fare. Like us, they travel with guides who help them find their way to ceremonies, and serve as interpreters.
There are historical markers along the coast, like the Door of No Return in Ouidah, a beachfront memorial identifying the point of departure for slaves bound for Brazil and the West Indies. In the 17th and 18th centuries, West African rituals fused with Catholicism and metamorphosed into Haitian voodoo, Cuban Santería and Brazilian Candomblé; returning slaves in the 18th century then transported this syncretic form of vodun back to Ouidah and other African coast settlements.
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. “Le vodun is Africa. It is the faith of our ancestors,” I was told by Dagbo Hounon Houna II, the spiritual chief of vodun in Benin, where 20 percent of the population, or a million people, practice pure vodun and another 40 percent embrace a form that incorporates Christian iconography. A retired civil servant in his 50s, he received me in a rondavel, a circular hut, inside a compound on the outskirts of Ouidah.
Wearing a white floppy hat, purple-and-white-striped gown, checkered scarf and a lanyard of cowrie shells, the chief accepted from me the requisite gift of spirits — in this case, a bottle of Royal Stork gin — which took its place at his feet beside an elephant skull and gourds, and offered me palm wine. “We suffered persecution at the hands of missionaries,” he said in French, as I choked down the 100-proof liquid. Now, Christian and vodun believers have reached a détente, he said, though he was miffed by the “deplorable” snub he had received from Pope Benedict XVI during a recent visit to Ouidah. He invited me to return the following Saturday, to witness a ceremony that few Westerners, he assured me, had ever seen.
After my visit, I traveled with Ulrich and Jason to Ganvie, a village on Lake Nokoué, a brackish estuary north of Cotonou. We hired a motorboat and, accompanied by a guide, Gilbert, puttered past pirogues and wooden fishing traps. Here, as elsewhere on our journey, we encountered a handful of Western tourists, including a young French couple who were just debarking, and who gushed about “the unspoiled African experience” of travel through Benin, and a group of Americans. “Eighty percent of Ganvie’s people practice vodun,” our guide told us, as we threaded our way through a floating market. Women in canoes paddled through water hyacinths, their boats piled with bananas and other produce.
Ganvie consists almost entirely of thatched-roof huts on stilts. We passed the “island of sacrifice,” a patch of marsh grass where goats and chickens are sacrificed to deities, and alighted at the home of Alako Hain Abumaja Tand, one of Ganvie’s chief vodun priests.
The priest excused himself to change into his ceremonial costume — a green robe with a cap that resembled a bishop’s miter — then led us to a hut. Colorful murals on the facade — a Hindu-like deity with a monkey’s tail; winged angels at the Annunciation — testified to vodun’s absorption of other faiths.
Ulrich negotiated a fee — 10,000 C.F.A., or $20 — and the priest led us inside the temple, first spitting three mouthfuls of gin through the threshold. “It chases away the evil spirits,” he explained. He sat beneath portraits of a crucified Jesus, served us glasses of manioc liquor, and, while two associates played the drums, placed his palms atop my head and muttered a lengthy incantation to the patron deity of Ganvie.
The next day, we returned to Ouidah and its main attraction, the Temple of Pythons, in the sleepy main square across the plaza from the soaring Basilica. An Italian couple and a couple from Nigeria joined us on a tour conducted by the vodun priest, a young man who led us to the temple, 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.”
That night we stayed in a hotel reached by an unpaved road that wound past coconut palm plantations and fishermen singing as they hauled nets out of the sea. Casa del Papa consists of a dozen bungalows spread along a nearly deserted palm-lined beach; an outdoor restaurant serves excellent fish.
We returned to Dagbo Hounon’s house the next morning, and followed his Mazda down a red-earth road to the Saturday ceremony. The temple was a sprawling compound; paintings of vodun divinities — including the patron god of the area, Thron — covered the walls. Several hundred followers surrounded Dagbo Hounon, clad in a black-and-white robe, as he entered the temple, and laid an offering of alcohol at Thron’s altar. He addressed the crowd: “These white people are coming to take part in this, they come to see you, so welcome them.” His comment evoked some tittering, and many warm smiles.
Then, the ceremony began: women and children lined up, splashing their faces with brown water from a porcelain bowl, eating cola-nut slivers from the blade of a machete proffered by a priest, then lowered their foreheads to be anointed with a gooey clear substance. “Only initiates know what it is,” I was informed. One courtyard over, a young man brought out half a dozen goats sprinkled with talcum powder. Worshipers placed bills in a bowl; each offering prompted an explosion of joyous singing from a women’s chorus.
Meanwhile, frenzied worshipers had gathered around the sacrifice pit. A man, his chest glistening with sweat, banged on a drum, while other acolytes lifted up a terrified white goat, then brought it down hard. The priest came forward with a machete, and, as the crowd pressed forward, sliced its throat. Blood gushed onto the ground and dribbled into the pit. Then it was the chickens’ turn, their throats slit with a razor, their blood sprinkled over the hole. The sacrifice ended with the priest dancing around the courtyard, and six followers, who brandished their blood-smeared machetes.
We had, I realized, witnessed a side of vodun far different from the cosmeticized version on display at the Temple of Pythons. I left the compound awed by the display of devotion, but shaken by its brutality.
IF YOU GO
In Cotonou, the seaside Benin Marina Hotel (Boulevard de la Marina; 229-21-30-01-00; benin-marina.com) is a former Sheraton Hotel with 250 comfortable rooms, tennis courts and a restaurant that serves Beninois dishes and decent pizza. Rooms start at 111 euros, about $150 at $1.27 to the euro, a night. For the best Beninois cuisine in the capital, try Maquis Chez Amy, a hole in the wall that’s jammed at lunch (229-90-93-07-53), next to the Church of Notre Dame. Ask for the fish of the day with the spicy sauce and a side order of atieké (cassava), or foufou (banana). Lunch, without wine, costs about 5,000 C.F.A., or $10 at 486 C.F.A. to the dollar.
In Ouidah, we stayed at the Casa Del Papa (229-95-95-39 -04; casadelpapa.com), a comfortable beach resort with 60 rooms, including bungalows and lakeside rooms from 52,000 C.F.A. a night for two. The restaurant is excellent, with a fish dinner for two about 20,000 C.F.A.
At the lakefront near Ganvie you’ll find motorboats and guides. A three- to-four hour trip to Ganvie and back is 30,000 C.F.A.
Travel agencies in Cotonou, including one at the Benin Marina Hotel, can arrange visits to Ganvie, Ouidah’s Temple of the Pythons and other vodun sites. Or try contacting Dagbo Hounon Houna II, the supreme spiritual chief of vodun in Benin, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by cellphone (229-97-25-83-93). Bring a gift of gin and a small amount of cash.