Ouidah – Who do Voodoo like you do?

This post might distress animal lovers.  I’ll italicise sections you might want to skip if a graphic description of animal sacrifice would disturb you.

Photos and videos are here (there are a couple that might disturb animal lovers if you look too closely, and I’m not talking about the snake)

The Voodoo festival at Ouidah, Benin was something we highlighted fairly early on in our travel planning as a unique event that we would like to see.  We had only a vague idea of what happens there but it just sounded intriguing.  It slotted in nicely with our planned itinerary although there was some shuffling to make sure we landed in Benin at the right time.  We arrived in Ghana three days earlier than our mammoth spreadsheet dictated which pleased our sense of planning and order.  Right on cue we arrived in Ouidah a couple of days before the festival was due to start.  Arriving in a bush taxi we were beset by taxi drivers offering to drive us to our hotel, once they collectively worked out where it was.  We agreed a price and went to walk over to the car only to find our drivers standing beside a couple of moto-taxi scooters.  We had broken our scooter virginity in Togo but now we had two big packs with us.  We prevaricated initially but were talked into it when the drivers just hoisted our large packs in between their handlebars to demonstrate how secure it was.  Luckily with us on the back as well they couldn’t get much above running pace anyway, but turning a corner on a road made of sand with that kind of weight on board was a tense experience.

In the meantime we had some Voodoo warm-up activities.  Voodoo, despite the negative connotations associated with it, is much like other organised religions, a superstition revolving around statues, appeasing the gods and warding off evil spirits.  Unlike other major religions Voodoo has not modernised and put a nice face on their beliefs.  It is still raw and for that reason comes across as more earthy than other religions.  I would argue it has done a lot less damage in Africa than the catholic church with its stance on condoms.  The pope recently visited Benin. He seems to be a fan of Voodoo having visited the home of Voodoo in Ouidah as well as Cuba with all their related Afro-Cuban religion.  The locals have no problem with people being Christian as well as using Voodoo.  They are seen as separate but not incompatible beliefs.  I think the catholic church is desperate to hang in to anyone who is a believer so probably indulge Voodoo practices on the sly.  70% of the country have Voodoo or Animist beliefs so they can’t ostracise all those people without loosing a large part of their flock (on a side-note apparently in Papua New Guinea the church faithful are called swine instead of a flock, pigs been much more important than sheep over there).

Our first taste of Ouidah Voodoo was the python temple.  This was not nearly as scary as it sounds. There is a walled-off compound you pay to enter, then the guide brings out a relatively small python and wraps it around your neck.  Sarah was our guinea pig, although luckily not guinea pig sized, and very bravely stood with the python exploring up and down her body while I captured it on camera..  I politely refused to have one around my neck now that it had woken up.  I’m quite happy to stroke a snake (no euphemism intended) but don’t feel the need to put my head in the hangman’s noose.  Forty of the pythons live in a smaller room where they laze around during the day rather than writhing over each other as in the movies.  To be fair it was blisteringly hot, as hot and humid as we had experienced on the trip so far.  The snakes liven up at night when they are let loose in the compound to hunt.  The pythons are worshipped as a god but we didn’t get too much detail on this as our guide only spoke French.  In Togo the Chief’s son at Koutammakou mocked this saying in disbelieving tones “In Benin they have a temple where they worship snakes, and they don’t even eat them!”

Ouidah sadly also has a strong history in the slave trade.  Much like the Cape Coast in Ghana Europeans traded with the local kingdom here for slaves, usually Africans from other tribes captured by the Dahomey empire in war.  To supply more and more slaves the Dahomey empire simply had more and more wars with their neighbours to capture people.  This trade lasted for 400 years.  We went for a stroll one late afternoon down to a memorial for the slaves and were quickly pounced on by three young local men who wanted to act as tourist guides.  A much better deal than simply being mugged. They took us around a few of the statues that have been erected in commemoration to the dead slaves and those that returned.  Then they asked if we wanted to see a Voodoo ceremony that was starting now.  Why not?

We went through a doorway to a dirt-floored outdoor verandah with a tin roof, a small courtyard attached to a couple of small rooms made from grey-coloured bricks.  Assembled here were a group of young men with drums.  In the room were some old men and a group of women.  Ominously there was a goat tied to a pole.  Libations were poured of some local gin of which Sarah and I partook.  It was a decent drop.  Then the drumming began in fits and starts while they searched for the rhythm they wanted.  It was a complex beat which sounded random at times but settled on a rhythm which gave a trance-like air to the proceedings.

The goat was taken inside to have leaves stuffed in its mouth.  Two men then brought it out.  One of the men held its hind legs while the second man gripped its head with one hand, knife held in the other. Even though the small goat had its mouth clamped shut sounds like muffled screams still escaped.  The killing was totally botched.  The knife was nowhere near sharp enough, more like a steak knife that one equipped for the task of killing an animal.  The man sawed into the goats throat like you would cut a tough piece of steak.  The goat struggled as blood dripped out of its neck into a waiting bowl.  Soon it struggled less and was abandoned on the ground but it was obviously not dead.  It twitched a few more times, making movements as though it was running in its sleep.  The old woman who had manned the bowl wiped her bloody fingers on the goats fur.  Meanwhile a chicken had been killed and was placed under the front legs of the prostrate goat.  The man who had cut the goat’s throat wiped the blade clean on it as well.  One man tried to break the goats neck by twisting it around but this didn’t seem to kill it either. Eventually one of the old men sitting with the drummers got fed up with the ineptitude and signalled for the goat to be taken away and killed properly.  It was then tossed back out into the courtyard dust where the old woman picked it up by the head and draped it over her shoulders.  With her goat cape in place she led the procession of dancing women around the courtyard.  The blood from the goat had been poured into something near the drummers, presumably the fetish statue in whose honour the sacrifice had been made.  The drumming continued along with the chanting and dancing of the women.  It was an intense experience for Sarah and I, especially as it had been unexpected.  It was upsetting to see an animal suffering like that but as meat eaters it would be hypocritical to criticise the sacrifice itself.  Sarah might be more inclined to become vegetarian when we get back to Sydney.  I just think that if you’re going to kill an animal, at least do it properly to cause the least suffering possible.

The three lads giving the tour were pretty reasonable about the price so we wandered off back the hotel feeling like we had experienced as authentic a Voodoo ceremony as we were likely to see. Our hotel in Ouidah cost $12 a night and wasn’t terrible, although the bed was a bit short and we were located directly above the wood-fired outdoor kitchen.  Ear plugs, travel pillows and travel sheets make almost anywhere bearable.

After all that the Voodoo festival itself was a bit of a let-down.  It’s a nationwide celebration but we were down at the beach on the seaward side of the ‘point of no return’, a memorial for the slaves.  It was stinking hot in the shade but thankfully there were free plastic chairs to sit on under open air tarpaulins.  There was special VIP seating possibly for the president (we weren’t sure what he looked like at this stage) as well as Angelique Kidjo who gave speeches in three different languages to little response from the crowd.  We were seated by pure chance in the section that was holding Voodoo royalty, a lot of sharply dressed guys in white suits and snappy hats.  There was a huge speaker stack playing music and lots of little groups with drums which combined to form a mish-mash cacophony most of the time.  It was a long way from what we pictured, a small amateurish and slightly scary festival.  This was just dull most of the time.  Once the speeches had finished the day got more interesting as all the small voodoo groups informally started drumming and dancing in their own styles.  It was illuminating to me as it proved you can dance to drum and bass music.

It was here that I came as close I as have ever come to getting my pocket picked.  We had been warned by the hotel owner that there would be pickpockets around so all the important stuff was in my money belt.  Still, I didn’t want to have my wallet nicked on principle.  As we were walking through a stream of people behind one of the tents two guys behind me and to my right jostled me into a guy coming the other way.  I felt his hand reach into my left pocket so I twisted my left shoulder into him and jammed my own hand into my pocket.  He shuffled past and as I looked back he was busy slapping dust of himself with a bandana.  We later heard that a woman at our hotel had lost her camera to a pickpocket.

It was really too hot to stick around all afternoon so we beat a retreat to our hotel, had a shower and lay under the fan.  Voodoo did not win any converts with us but it felt a million miles away from Australia so the essence of travel beat strongly through it.

Photos and videos are here (there are a couple that might disturb animal lovers if you look too closely, and I’m not talking about the snake)

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