Some people may enquire about why I was visiting Benin anyway. Although I like to travel the world, surely Benin is a little off the beaten track, even for me?! Well, yes and no. I have always liked Ghana, as I consider it to be “Africa-lite” in the sense that you can enjoy African culture but still have enough mod cons to feel like home (almost), and Benin is close enough and easy enough to get to from Ghana that it would be folly to miss the chance to check out the so-called birthplace of Voodoo!
Over 40% of the Benin population actively practice Voodoo, and it is actually the country’s official religion. But Voodoo is more than a belief system, it is a complete way of life, including culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music, and medicine. The Voodoo spiritual world consists of “Mahou”, the supreme being, and about 100 divinities – or Voodoos – who represent different phenomena, such as war, illness, healing, earth, storms, justice, and water. Voodoo priests ask these gods to intervene on behalf of ordinary people but local adherents stress that they have nothing to do with sorcery or black magic – and people here do not stick needles into dolls to cause misfortune to their enemies, as you may regularly see in Hollywood films.
Official tour guides will tell you that Voodoo ceremonies only take place at certain parts of the year – January, mostly – and that you should travel to Benin to coincide with these occurrences. However, the intrepid traveller will no doubt be able find some kind of authentic Voodoo experience during their time in the country, especially in more rural areas. I stayed in the deep south of Benin, visiting the cities of Cotonou and Porto Novo only, but I was still able to witness some ceremonies that spooked me out. As with a lot of other countries in this part of Africa (including Ghana), it seems that local people take offence to photography and I was given a good talking to for trying to capture some shots. Still, what I saw with my own eyes will give me great memories to live with – and in many ways it reminded me of my good times in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, with all the buffalo slaughter and funeral processions there.
One of the things that interests me most about Voodoo is the design of the costumes and make up used for the ceremonial rituals. During one of the few ceremonies that I was fortunate enough to witness at first hand, I noticed a Voodoo priest use herbs to cure sick citizens (rather than to poison enemies). The priest also then asked for a chicken, which was sacrificed to the divinity. Then for some reason, alcohol was poured onto the floor. While I thought this was a waste of good beer, I was actually told that this happens when your wish has been granted.
People in Benin seek help on a variety of issues, such as to be cured of diseases, finding a job, or to have a child, and the art of Voodoo helps them achieve this, through ceremonies similar to what I saw.
My trip to Benin was actually a great way to learn about the world and to examine the culture of others. Whereas in the UK, I had grown up believing Voodoo to be a negative thing, where people stuck pins in dolls to kill each other, I now understand some key elements of this ‘religion’, and while some of its art and craft may look a little dark and spooky to the untrained eye, Voodoo is simply the way the people of Benin survive and maximise their defence against daily struggle.